Does America have “a right to exist”?
a few observations about rights
Before anyone opposes the US nation-state’s actions, we should demand that they acknowledge the US’s right to exist, or they shall be labeled anti-American, shunned and sanctioned, perhaps even attacked. America has a right to exist just like you and me.
“Does America have a right to exist?”
This is a classically fallacious question, or a loaded question, where you’re required to answer based on false assumptions already smuggled into the premises of the question. Non-academics have another name for it: “a bullshit question.”
Anyone whose been around in the last 71 years knows that there is one country about which this question is put — the State of Israel, an example here, not my thesis.
“Rights,” about which I’ll say more below, is — in my view — a questionable concept from the outset. But let’s give the devil his due, and admit that it has had a great deal of positive political utility within the liberal capitalist epoch. Used in the most charitable way, liberal law has recognized the “rights” of persons from state and non-state coercion and violence — “negative” rights (no law regarding religion, e.g.); and “positive” rights (right to an education, health care, food and water, a place to live, etc.), which become an obligation of the state.
In neither the “negative” nor the “positive” case can we reasonably transfer these rights to, say, this lamp beside me. It doesn’t need a “right” in order to exist. It exists, and it exists well prior to and apart from any “right” rhetorically attached to said existence. We haven’t transferred rights to inanimate things yet . . . oh sorry, actually we have: corporate entities are now afforded “rights.”
So here we have a very convenient migration of “rights” from enfleshed human beings to an organizational form. Rights are promiscuous, and in that promiscuity, or mobility, we can begin to see that rights themselves are constructions and potentially dangerous ones. Note, for example, how the right of free association was repositioned to justify racial and gender discrimination in the same move that argued for something called “reverse discrimination.” A right is a legal construct, and as such, it is vulnerable to the idiocy of law — that fundamental incapacity of any law to grasp in advance the actual situations in which the law’s abstract absolutes are dented and dirtied.
We generally think of persons — “individuals” in the liberal legal neutralization of personhood — as bearing rights.
Even then, how does a “right” extend to a polity, like the US or Israel. These two nation-states are similar. Both are settler states who came into being by denying the rights of other peoples to exist. Both killed, displaced, and quarantined the survivors of these earlier peoples to make way for the settlers. Both denied the right of existence to others to secure positions from which to assert their own “right to exist”?
One can say that each person in the United States has a “right to exist,” and still deny that a nation-state, that is, a concept encompassing myriad bureaucratic and armed relations enforced by a legal monopoly on violence within designated geographic boundaries . . . has a “right to exist.”
In the case of Israel today, this is the loaded question, because there is no international law that asserts the right of existence for any nation-state. We had no problem dismantling Yugoslavia or transforming Libya into a stateless hellhole. On closer inspection, we see that “rights” in this context are not the primary concern in the first place, but a gambit, a way to throw sand in the public’s face and conceal disruptive truths.
How do “rights” and “existence” correspond?
I mean, everything exists . . . existence exists . . . what exists formally exists until it changes form and no longer exists. Does this mean that we can guarantee the stability of forms by asserting a right? Of course not.
Rights can only exist through the state as an entitlement for its citizens or residents. It is a legal notion, therefore one that presupposes a state and its laws to ensure the delivery of said “rights.” And most people accept, knowingly or not, the curtailment of rights necessary for the state to act as a state. The very existence of the liberal state per se, then, is predicated on the contradictory notion of universal rights that the state’s existence betrays as not universal at all.
Not even a person can have a “right to exist,” given that each of us has an expiration date. When we no longer formally exist. So if the “right” attaches to existence, then disappears with non-existence, how is it that a “right” to existence has any actual force? I can state my right to existence on my deathbed, but that grim carriage door is still gonna close with me inside. Where, then, has my right-to-exist gone? Why didn’t it prevent my non-existence?
Existence exists, rights or not, and what ceases to exist is not protected from non-existence by the rights that existence and non-existence per se never know, because existence is a flux of changing forms . . . that whole timey-spacey thing. Rights-talk, if you study it long enough, becomes a Gordian knot.
I’m not saying we should dispense with rights and rights-talk, given that our entire legal edifice as well as the infinitely manifold relations making up our now-destabilizing liberal order are constructed around this idea. I was a deconstructionist once — not the postmodern studies kind, but part of a crew that took houses apart by hand to reuse the materials. If one doesn’t want to squash the whole house with a track-hoe and haul it off in skip-cans, one has to disassemble the house one careful step at a time so the structure never collapses on the deconstruction workers in the process and the materials can be salvaged for re-use. We also called it un-building. (Think about it.)
It is true that neither Israel nor the United States — structures of power organized as nation-states — have “a right to exist.” But I’ll go further. Nothing and no one has a right to exist that is in any way meaningful. And apart from the state, there is no such thing as a “right.” None.
Most criticism of “rights-talk” is from conservatives, but there are a few of us who steer far further to port on political issues who are likewise critical of the highly problematic way in which rights-talk is deployed. From equalizing (the adjective) prohibitions against state violence and coercion, to equalizing state obligations to prevent non-state violence, we begin by asserting rights. They begin as another invention of modernity — “needs.” Eventually we turn “needs” into “rights,” and make desires into “needs” so they can be transformed into “rights.”
Shake the Jar
Now let’s move beyond the question of nation-states and corporations and the like having rights. The state is presupposed in “rights” themselves!
Let’s pick up that whole “rights” jar and shake the mess out of it, because my main target is not Israel or the US — here anyway — but “rights” themselves, and the cavalier manipulations of rights-talk. Our nation-state examples were just kind of dislocative kick to show how unstable this concept can be . . . and how dangerous in some instances.
One of my criticisms of rights and rights-talk is the pretension of universality.
What are the material substrates of a “right”?
What is the “right to a good education” in the US compared to, say, Cambodia or Honduras or Nigeria?
We’ve left the “right to existence” now, but as the Haitians say, “Beyond every mountain is a mountain.” Let’s discuss imperialism, shall we, which means discussing how “rights” are bound up with technology.
How do “rights” attach to technology? And why does it matter? This question is seldom asked, because we think of technology as somehow morally neutral — what Hornborg calls machine fetishism, the commonly accepted idea that technology itself doesn’t actually inhere with social relations. “My car can be used responsibly or dangerously, but that’s not the car’s fault,” ignores the social relations already congealed in the car — from the social relations of the extraction, processing, and transportation of materials, to the social relations (including the US Navy) necessary to ensure there is gasoline to run the car. We’ll come back to this momentarily.
Excursus: The Technological Basis of Rights
Why do “rights,” when asserted in the political sphere, always engender reasonable exceptions and objections? Perhaps the universalism of “rights,” in space and over time, is not actually a viable (universal) principle.
One example among many, and a highly revealing one, is the history of transsexualism/transgenderism. Some will now assert the right to “be oneself” as a transgendered person, and accompanying that right — if we grant a right to universal free health care, for example — is a right to sexual reassignment surgery for certain persons.
I’m not taking sides in the interminable debate between post-constructivists and radical feminists here, though the interminability of that debate is itself revealing of the limitations of the concept of “rights,” and how contradictory rights claims can be when interlocutors begin with incommensurable premises. This division into warring camps is as tragic as it is predictable, but that has to do with the primacy of conflict theory . . . a subject I may tackle elsewhere.
“Transgendered” evolved from “transsexual” (Ye Olde sex-gender dichotomy, reworked), “transsexual” from a medical diagnosis of “dysphoria,” “dysphoria” from a medical diagnosis of “sexual inversion.”
Surgical intervention was first deployed on behalf of the “intersexed” and promoted by the medical establishment. When self-identified “transsexuals” (who were sometimes anatomical males or females and sometimes the anatomically “intersexed”) first sought surgical “corrections,” they actually lobbied vigorously to have transsexualism declared a medical disorder, because surgery was only permitted to correct “nature’s errors.” The right of the intersexed or “transsexual” to this surgery were based on a diagnosis of “nature’s error”(which assumed things from the preexisting gender order like male and female brains that could be mismatched with male or female or sexually ambiguous bodies). Dysphoria was the diagnosis, which pathologized the phenomena, and the right attached to that pathology — a right to correction.
As transsexualism was incorporated into the broader and far less rigorous category of “transgendered” (this change based on postconstructivist ideas about gender — redefined) we saw those who identify as transgendered seeking to overturn the diagnosis of “dysphoria,” or medical disorder, because self-identified transsexuals no longer wanted to be seen as pathological (though the demand for a right to surgical intervention remained, now as a liberal “choice” — a choice-right).
The forms of existence change, and with those changes, a concept like rights changes, too. This may be advantageous to many at some point. Whereupon it reaches some formative watershed and becomes a new thing — one that might benefit many, but that could be construed to benefit the very few at the expense of the many. As you’ll see, I’m not using gender minorities to attack or defend any of the current positions, but as a long Segway into the phenomenon of a “right’s” technological-dependency — as one example of how contradictory rights-talk can be.
Transgendered identity, and its attendant “rights,” emerged from a demand that was originally dependent on its entry into medical discourse and medical technology. One could not demand or assert the “right” to sexual reassignment surgery in 1870. Universality is both a spatial and temporal concept.
Rights-talk accompanied every position in this convoluted genealogy, which may give rise to fresh controversies in the future, but for now it gives the lie to the universality of “rights.” Moreover, as in the case of education in the US or Honduras, where one system might mean by “right to a good education” the ability to go to school at all, in the other system, it implies a certain baseline of technology.
So gender rights and education rights, as two examples, are covertly dependent on technology . . . which never gets discussed in rights-talk. We can’t assert the right of every student in the US to have a computer in the classroom unless we co-sign (knowingly or not) the production and relations of production necessary to manufacture this particular technology. The right to a computer in a US classroom is married to the lack of labor “rights” in a mine in Congo or Peru or China. Universal?
“Rights” that require access to technologies may theoretically be separated from the conditions and relations of technological production, but in reality one person’s right is another person’s burden, even if those others are unseen at the point of use.
I advocate for respect for the basic humanity of everyone regardless of station in life or “identity,” in case anyone is wondering.
Case in Point
I am also a political advocate for single-payer national health care. Do I agree with single-payer advocates on the policy? Yes, for a lot of good reasons, including the archaic Aristotelian idea of the common good meaning that people as a whole can flourish (Aristotle limited his definition of human to particular humans, but I’m going with Homo sapiens generally.). Yes, because in the larger politico-economic scheme of things, it will substantially strengthen the working class against the ruling business class — a humane as well as a tactical political consideration.
Does a candidate for office like Senator Sanders argue that health care is a human right?
Yes. And it is intelligible — even if philosophically questionable — to a population that has been immersed in liberal society and liberal rights-talk for our whole lives. It has polemical value as shorthand. We want it for everyone, and we need a moral anchor to justify our position. “Rights” are all liberalism has left us. But what happens after we pass single-payer health care? Which I want. How far can care go?
We know we will exempt certain kinds of cosmetic surgery, e.g., but what about life-extending technology that does naught more than extend biological life even if a patient vegetates on a hospital bed for the rest of that life? Can we provide state-of-the-art medical technology to everyone in the world? Because that means all that material stuff that gets left out of rights-talk, like exploitation, violence, pollution, even war, are necessary to produce the technology we use today for a fraction of humanity.
If you want to know why right-wing propagandists can get away with the notion of “death boards” (imaginary panels of people who decide whether or not Grampa should have that life-extending technology based on some bureaucratic metric), it’s because they found the fissures in our rights-talk which we have so conveniently ignored, i.e., how supposedly universal rights respond to contingent technologies.
When Senator Sanders says “Broadband internet is a human right” (he did, recently), we can see that rights are neither natural nor God-given nor universal. A right is a legal political construct that could run away with us, because it is theoretically limitless, and yet a demand — via its unacknowledged and inevitable dependence on technology — made against a finite world. Contingent “needs” become rights as we move to universalize a putative entitlement to resources. (I think broadband for all [Americans!!!] — this is mostly a rural issue — is an effective political position, but its philosophical grounding is sickly.)
Any politics of resistance that makes its principle claims about “rights,” then, is vulnerable to the valid if opportunistic argument from the right that rights-talk begins with (technological) demands absent any specificity about particular claims and what they entail. When social democrats claim a right to medical care, for example, no standards or limitations are connected to this demand.
Liberal compartmentalization conceals the relations that already inhere in technologies.
Any demand for modern medical technology entails the extraction of copper and lithium, as just two examples. Not only does the “right” to this technology then presuppose acceptance of the environmental costs of mineral extraction, but the human costs as well. There was recently a coup d’etat in Bolivia that was driven in part by the demand for lithium, of which Bolivia has a good deal. The copper mines of Chile — the world’s biggest producer — are not only necessary for this technology, but the circumstances of its extraction, including unequal exchange between Chile or Bolivia vis-à-vis the United States or any other core nation. So our “right” to this technology carries with it a right to exploit global peripheries and deny many of the same rights to the peripheries and semi-peripheries.
There is a reason that the so-called ecological footprint of Haiti, which is nearly totally deforested, is 6.1 hectares per capita, and the United States, which retains substantial forestland and greenspace, has an EF of 8.22. (The global average is 2.8.) What is going on, of course, is that core nations import goods at advantageously unequal exchange rates, and export their social and ecological disorder back onto the periphery and semi-periphery. The US is number three. Luxembourg is number one, with 13.2 hectares per capita — a nation swimming in money, but hardly any natural resources.
One of our criticisms of capitalism generally is that it externalizes the non-monetary costs — human suffering, pollution, etc. What I’m saying here is that the assertion of “rights” is likewise accompanied by externalization, because these “rights” are asserted from within the technological-expansion paradigm of progress or development, whether capitalist or socialist, which inevitably arrive at watersheds wherein the externalities exceed the benefits . . . or more often, the benefits go to some few and the externalities to many others.
When we assert certain “rights,” we are asserting a “right” to commodities, and with that we co-sign the relations of commodity production. We also accept our own commodity dependence . . . and that is the challenge of any post-capitalist future — which cannot be “built,” but will nonetheless be navigated.
I am an active supporter of the Sanders presidential bid, for a host of reasons that I’ve detailed in other pieces. But there is a serpent hiding in the room with us called radical technological optimism, that imperial delusion of a technological Utopia. If you promise Utopia and fail to deliver, then what? Then there’s the elephant in the same room: imperialism. If we win, how do we simultaneously deliver on technologically-dependent promises and justify the violent and exploitative relations that make Americans happy while others suffer and die to deliver on our “rights”?