JANUARY 24, 2020
IN THE MID-1980s, Rony Brauman, who, at the time, was the president of the leading humanitarian organization Médecins sans Frontières, established a new human rights group called Liberté sans Frontières. For the inaugural colloquium, Brauman invited a number of speakers, among them Peter Bauer, a recently retired professor from the London School of Economics. Bauer was an odd choice given that he was a staunch defender of European colonialism; he had once responded to a student pamphlet that accused the British of taking “the rubber from Malaya, the tea from India, [and] raw materials from all over the world,” by arguing that actually “the British took the rubber to Malaya and the tea to India.” Far from the West causing Third World poverty, Bauer maintained that “contacts with the West” had been the primary agents of the colonies’ material progress.
Bauer hammered on this point at the colloquium, claiming that indigenous Amazonians were among the poorest people in the world precisely because they enjoyed the fewest “external contacts.” Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore, he continued, showed proof of the economic benefits such contacts brought. “Whatever one thinks of colonialism it can’t be held responsible for Third World poverty,” he argued.
In her illuminating new book, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, Jessica Whyte recounts this story only to ask why Brauman, a leading humanitarian activist, invited Bauer — whom the Economist had described as being as hostile to foreign aid as Friedrich Hayek had been to socialism — to deliver a talk during the opening event for a new human rights organization. Her response is multifaceted, but, as she traces the parallel histories of neoliberalism and human rights, it becomes clear that the two projects are not necessarily antithetical, and actually have more in common than one might think.
Indeed, Liberté sans Frontières went on to play a central role in delegitimizing Third World accounts of economic exploitation. The organization incessantly challenged the accusations that Europe’s opulence was based on colonial plunder and that the world economic system made the rich richer and the poor poorer. And while it may have been more outspoken in its critique of Third Worldism than more prominent rights groups, it was in no way an outlier. Whyte reveals that in the eyes of organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for instance, the major culprit for the woes of postcolonial states was neither Europe nor the international economic order but rather corrupt and ruthless Third World dictators who violated the rights of their populations as they undermined the development of a free economy. This approach coincides neatly with neoliberal thought.
Whyte contends that we cannot understand why human rights and neoliberalism flourished together if we view neoliberalism as an exclusively economic doctrine that favors privatization, deregulation, and unfettered free markets over public institutions and government. Although she strives to distinguish herself from thinkers like Wendy Brown and Michel Foucault, she ends up following their footsteps by emphasizing the moral dimension of neoliberal thought: the idea that a competitive market was not “simply a more efficient means of distributing resources; it was the basic institution of a moral and ‘civilised’ society, and a necessary support for individual rights.”
She exposes how neoliberal ideas informed the intense struggle over the meaning of “human rights,” and chronicles how Western rights groups and neoliberals ultimately adopted a similar interpretation, one that emphasizes individual freedoms at the expense of collective and economic rights. This interpretation was, moreover, in direct opposition to many newly independent postcolonial leaders.
Whyte describes, for instance, how just prior to the adoption of the two 1966 human rights covenants — the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, coined the term “neo-colonialism” to refer to a series of mechanisms that perpetuate colonial patterns of exploitation in the wake of formal independence. Nkrumah “argued that the achievement of formal sovereignty had neither freed former colonies from the unequal economic relations of the colonial period nor given them political control over their own territories,” thus preventing these states from securing the basic rights of their inhabitants. A “state in the grip of neo-colonialism,” he wrote, “is not master of its own destiny.”
Nkrumah thought that only when postcolonial states fully controlled their natural resources would they be able to invest in the population’s well-being. In the meantime, neo-colonial economic arrangements were denying African states the ability to provide adequate education and health care as well as other economic and social rights to their populations, thus revealing how these economic arrangements were welded in a Gordian knot with international politics. Any attempt to understand one without the other provided a distorted picture of reality.
Such combining of the economy with the political, however, was anathema to neoliberal thought. In 1927, exactly three decades before Ghana’s new leader led his country to independence, Hayek’s mentor, economist Ludwig von Mises, had already argued that colonialism took advantage of the superior weaponry of the “white race” to subjugate, rob, and enslave weaker peoples. But Mises was careful to distinguish colonial oppression from the economic goals of a competitive market, noting that Britain was different since its form of colonialism pursued “grand commercial objectives.” Similarly, the British economist Lionel Robbins separated the benign economic sphere from the merciless political one, writing in the 1930s that “[n]ot capitalism, but the anarchic political organization of the world is the root disease of our civilization.”
These thinkers set the tone for many neoliberal economists who have since defined colonial imperialism as a phenomenon of politics, not capitalism, while casting the market as a realm of mutually beneficial, free, peaceful exchange. In this view, it is the political realm that engenders violence and coercion, not the economic sphere. Yet, during the period of decolonization neoliberals also understood that they needed to introduce moral justifications for the ongoing economic exploitation of former colonies. Realizing that human rights were rapidly becoming the new lingua franca of global moral speak, Whyte suggests that they, like Nkrumah, began mobilizing rights talk — except that neoliberals deployed it as a weapon against states who tried to gain control over their country’s natural resources as well as a shield from any kind of criticism directed toward their vision of a capitalist market.
Their relation to the state was complicated, but was not really different from the one espoused by their liberal predecessors. Neoliberal thinkers understood that states are necessary to enforce labor discipline and to protect corporate interests, embracing states that served as handmaidens to competitive markets. If, however, a state undermined the separation of political sovereignty from economic ownership or became attuned to the demands of its people to nationalize resources, that state would inevitably be perceived as a foe. The solution was to set limits on the state’s exercise of sovereignty. As Friedrich Hayek, the author of The Road to Serfdom, put it, the “taming of the savage” must be followed by the “taming of the state.”
Shaping the state so that it advances a neoliberal economic model can, however, be a brutal undertaking, and the consequences are likely to generate considerable suffering for large segments of the population. Freed from any commitment to popular sovereignty and economic self-determination, the language of liberal human rights offered neoliberals a means to legitimize transformative interventions that would subject states to the dictates of international markets. This is why a conception of human rights, one very different from the notion of rights advanced by Nkrumah, was needed.
In Whyte’s historical analysis the free-market ideologues accordingly adopted a lexicon of rights that buttressed the neoliberal state, while simultaneously pathologizing mass politics as a threat to individual freedoms. In a nutshell, neoliberal economists realized that human rights could play a vital role in the dissemination of their ideology, providing, in Whyte’s words, “competitive markets with a moral and legal foundation.”
At about the same time that neoliberalism became hegemonic, human rights organizations began sprouting in the international arena. By the early 1970s, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists were already active in numerous countries around the globe, and Americas Watch (a precursor to Human Rights Watch) had just been established. According to Samuel Moyn, a professor of history at Yale and author of the best seller The Last Utopia, it was precisely during this period that human rights first achieved global prominence. That Western human rights organizations gained influence during the period of neoliberal entrenchment is, Whyte argues, not coincidental.
Although Whyte emphasizes the writings of leading neoliberal thinkers, a slightly more nuanced approach would have framed these developments as the reflection of a conjunctural moment, whereby the rise of neoliberalism and of human rights NGOs was itself part of numerous economic, social, and cultural shifts. Chile serves as a good example of this conjuncture, revealing how a combination of historical circumstances led neoliberal economics and a certain conception of human rights to merge.
Notwithstanding the bloody takeover, the extrajudicial executions, the disappearances and wholesale torture of thousands of dissidents, Hayek’s response to Pinochet’s 1973 coup was that “the world shall come to regard the recovery of Chile as one of the great economic miracles of our time.” Milton Friedman, a key figure in the Chicago School, later echoed this assessment, describing Chile as an economic and political “miracle.” The two Nobel Prize winners were not detached observers, having provided advice to Pinochet on how to privatize state services such as education, health care, and social security, and it was Friedman’s former students, the “Chicago Boys,” who occupied central positions within the authoritarian regime, ensuring that these ideas became policy.
What is arguably even more surprising is the reaction of human rights organizations to the bloody coup in Chile. Whyte acknowledges that Naomi Klein covered much of this ground in The Shock Doctrine, where she details how Amnesty International obscured the relationship between neoliberal “shock therapy” and political violence. Characterizing the Southern Cone as a “laboratory” for both neoliberalism and grassroots human rights activism, Klein argued that, in its commitment to impartiality, Amnesty occluded the reasons for the torture and killing, and thereby “helped the Chicago School ideology to escape from its first bloody laboratory virtually unscathed.” While Whyte concurs with Klein’s assessment, she has a slightly different point to make.
To do so, she shows how Samuel Moyn contested Klein’s claim that the human rights movement was complicit in the rise of neoliberalism; he argued that the “chronological coincidence of human rights and neoliberalism” is “unsubstantiated” and that the so-called “Chilean miracle” is just as much due to the country’s “left’s own failures.” Moyn’s comment, Whyte cogently observes, “raises the question of why, in the period of neoliberal ascendancy, international human rights organisations flourished, largely escaping the repression that was pursued so furiously against leftists, trade unionists, rural organizers and indigenous people in countries such as Chile.”
She points out that the CIA-trained National Intelligence Directorate had instructions to carry out the “total extermination of Marxism,” but in an effort to present Chile as a modern civilized nation, the junta did not disavow the language of human rights, and at the height of the repression allowed overseas human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists to enter the country, giving them extensive freedom of movement.
Whyte explains that in focusing their attention on state violence while upholding the market as a realm of freedom and voluntary cooperation, human rights NGOs strengthened the great neoliberal dichotomy between coercive politics and free and peaceful markets. Allende’s government had challenged the myth of the market as a realm of voluntary, non-coercive, and mutually beneficial relations, and the Chilean leader paid for it with his life. By contrast, the junta with the Chicago Boys’ aid sought to uphold this myth, while using the state both to enhance a neoliberal economic order and to decimate collective political resistance. Whyte acknowledges that in challenging the junta’s torturous means, human rights NGOs arguably helped restrain the worst of its violence, but they did so at the cost of abandoning the economy as a site of political contestation.
Whyte’s claim is not simply that the human rights NGOs dealt with political violence in isolation from the country’s economic transformations, as Klein had argued. Rather, she shows that the gap between Amnesty’s version of human rights and the version espoused by postcolonial leaders, like Nkrumah, was wide. Indeed, Amnesty International invoked human rights in a way that had little in common with Nkrumah’s program of economic self-determination, and the organization was even hostile to the violent anti-colonial struggles promoted by UN diplomats from postcolonial societies during the same period. The story of human rights and neoliberalism in Chile is not, as Whyte convincingly shows, simply a story of the massive human rights violations carried out in order to allow for market reforms, or of the new human rights NGOs that contested the junta’s violence. It is also the story of the institutionalization of a conservative and market-driven vision of neoliberal human rights, one that highlights individual rights while preserving the inequalities of capitalism by protecting the market from the intrusions of “the masses.”
Expanding Whyte’s analysis to the present moment (the book focuses on the years between 1947 and 1987) while thinking of the relation between neoliberalism and human rights as part of a historical conjuncture, it becomes manifest that many if not most human rights NGOs operating today have been shaped by this legacy. One of its expressions is that rights groups rarely represent “the masses” in any formal or informal capacity. Consider Human Rights Watch, whose longstanding executive director Kenneth Roth oversees an annual budget of over $75 million and a staff of roughly 400 people. In four years’ time, Roth will outstrip Robert Mugabe’s 30-year tenure in office; while Roth has dedicated most of his adult life struggling against social wrongs, he has never had to compete in elections to secure his post. Indeed, due to the corporate structure of his organization the only constituency to which he is accountable are Human Rights Watch’s board members and donors — those who benefit from neoliberal economic arrangements — rather than the people whose rights the NGO defends or, needless to say, the “masses.” Moreover, Human Rights Watch is not exceptional within the rights-world, and even though rights organizations across the globe say they are interested in what the “people want,” sovereignty of the people in any meaningful sense, wherein the people can control the decisions that affect their lives most, is not really on the agenda.
Undoubtedly, Human Rights Watch has shed light on some of the most horrendous state crimes carried out across the globe over the past several decades. Exposing egregious violations is not an easy task and is a particularly important endeavor in our post-truth era. However, truth-telling, in and of itself, is not a political strategy. Even if exposing violations is conceived of as a component of a broader political mobilization, the truths that NGOs like Human Rights Watch have been revealing are blinkered. Given that they interpret human rights in an extremely narrow way, one that aligns quite neatly with neoliberal thought, their strategy therefore fails to provide tools for those invested in introducing profound and truly transformative social change.
From the get-go, most Western human rights NGOs had been attuned to Cold War politics and refrained from advocating for economic and social rights for decades, inventing numerous reasons to justify this stance: from the claim that the right to education and health care were not basic human rights like freedom of speech and freedom from torture, to the assertion that economic and social rights lacked a precise definition, thus rendering them difficult to campaign for. It took close to a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ongoing campaigning of Third World activists for the leading human rights organizations to acknowledge that economic and social rights, such as the right to health care, education, and social security, were indeed human rights, rights that they should dedicate at least some of its resources to fight for. But even today, almost 20 years after their integration within Human Rights Watch’s agenda, the resources allocated to the protection of these rights is relatively small, and the way that the organization strives to secure them is deeply skewed by the neoliberal view that politics and markets are separate realms and that human rights work should avoid interference with the capitalist structure of competitive markets. Wittingly or not, organizations like Human Rights Watch have not only bolstered the neoliberal imagination, but have produced a specific arsenal of human rights that shapes social struggles in a way that weakens those who aim to advance a more egalitarian political horizon.
Several years ago, Roth tried to justify Human Rights Watch’s approach, claiming that the issues it deals with are determined by its “methodology,” and that the “essence of that methodology […] is not the ability to mobilize people in the streets, to engage in litigation, to press for broad national plans, or to provide technical assistance. Rather, the core of our methodology is our ability to investigate, expose, and shame.” The hallmark of human rights work, in his view, is uncovering discrimination, while the unequal arrangement of the local and international economy leading to discrimination are beyond the organization’s purview. Not unlike the neoliberal thinkers discussed in Whyte’s book, Human Rights Watch limits its activism to formal equality, adopting a form of inquiry that ignores and ultimately disavows the structural context, which effectively undercuts forms of collective struggle.
Returning to Rony Brauman and the creation of Liberté sans Frontières, toward the end of the book Whyte recounts how in a 2015 interview he understood things differently than he had in the mid-1980s. “I see myself and the small group that I brought together as a kind of symptom of the rise of neoliberalism […] We had the conviction that we were a kind of intellectual vanguard, but no,” he laughed, “we were just following the rising tendency.”
Whyte suggests that this assessment is, if anything, too modest: rather than being a symptom, the humanitarians who founded Liberté sans Frontières explicitly mobilized the language of human rights in order to contest the vision of substantive equality that defined the Third Worldist project. Brauman and his organization benefited from the neo-colonial economic arrangements and, she notes,
were not powerless companions of the rising neoliberals, but active, enthusiastic and influential fellow travellers. Their distinctive contribution was to pioneer a distinctly neoliberal human rights discourse, for which a competitive market order accompanied by a liberal institutional structure was truly the last utopia.
The destructive legacy that Whyte so eloquently describes suggests that the convergence between neoliberals and rights practitioners has defanged human rights from any truly emancipatory potential. Formal rights without the redistribution of wealth and the democratization of economic power, as we have learned not only from the ongoing struggles of postcolonial states but also from the growing inequality in the Global North, simply do not lead to justice. So if the objectives of a utopian imagination include equitable distribution of resources and actual sovereignty of the people, we urgently need a new vocabulary of resistance and novel methods of struggle.
Neve Gordon is a professor of human rights and international humanitarian law at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Israel’s Occupation(University of California Press, 2008), co-author of The Human Right to Dominate (Oxford University Press, 2015) and of Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire (University of California Press, forthcoming August 2020). His Twitter account is @nevegordon.