Moyn, S. (2018), Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World

By Oskari Mantere.

When historians became interested in the history of human rights in the 1990s and early 2000s, they traced their history either to ancient philosophies, the Christian natural law, the Age of Enlightenment, or the horrors of the gas chambers. It was the revisionist argument that modern human rights had their origins in the 1970s, which made Samuel Moyn one of the most influential historians of human rights. Granted, Kenneth Cmiel had already written about the importance of the 1970s as early as the late 1990s. However, it was Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010) that proved to be a game changer in the field. In it, Moyn argued that despite the similarity in vocabulary, the practical difference between older rights of man and novel human rights were so drastic that they did not constitute the same conception. Similarly, despite high-minded rhetoric during and after the Second World War, human rights were only marginally part of the most important struggles until the late 1970s. At the 1970s juncture, human rights became, as the title of the book suggests, ‘the last utopia.’ When all other political and ideological visions withered away, human rights provided an apolitical and a moralistic way to articulate political claims in the fatalistic world of the Cold War.

Moyn’s Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World takes off where The Last Utopia ended. The Last Utopia had, in Moyn’s view, called it quits too early. The 1970s is of crucial importance to our current condition. But even more interesting and influential is the time period that came after it. Especially, Moyn is interested in the shared historical proximity and connection of human rights and neoliberalism.

Not Enough is a study of the intellectual history termed in the 19th century as the “social question” – and what we might call “social distribution”. Moyn argues that understanding the debates concerning social distribution is more crucial than merely chronicling rights. He identifies two distinct conceptions of social distribution that have been present in the modern period: sufficiency and equality. Crudely put, sufficiency is concerned with how far “from having nothing” an individual is, whereas equality is concerned with “how far individuals are from one another.” Certainly, these two ideals are not incompatible, but it is important to keep in mind that they can be.

In a neoliberal age, sufficiency has become our governing norm, whilst equality has been exiled to the fringes of acceptable discourse. By conducting an intellectual history of rights and social distribution, Moyn hopes to bring back grand visions of equality. The first chapter of the book investigates the longer history of the visions of distribution and sees the revolutionary Jacobin state as the first attempt to establish the welfare state. The second and third chapters focus on the circumstances surrounding the Second World War and investigates the ideas present in the origins of welfare states. The fourth chapter focuses on the importance of decolonisation on our imaginations of global justice.

Photo by Oskari Mantere.

Before decolonisation, there had never been any serious and widespread consideration of distributive justice beyond the political unit – be that polis, state, or empire. Now this idea entered the global stage thanks to the New International Economic Order (NIEO). In the fifth and sixth chapters, Moyn discusses how the debate in development economics and philosophy shifted from NIEO’s egalitarian view to one that pays more heed to the sufficient provision.

In the final chapter, Moyn discusses the relationship between human rights and neoliberalism. Unlike many Marxists who see human rights as a smokescreen to hyper-capitalism, Moyn’s take is more historically sensitive. The fact that human rights has historical proximity and share ethical individualism with neoliberalism does not mean that human rights are logically or necessarily compatible with neoliberalism. Anyone who claims that human rights law and activists are complicit to the neoliberal predicament has the complexity of real history against them. When human rights activism rose in different locations around the globe, they had their own reasons for it. For example, in Eastern Europe, human rights were a way to articulate “non-political” criticism of communist repression; meanwhile, in Western Europe and the U.S., it was a moralist way to overcome the fatalism. Furthermore, when neoliberal political projects had their heyday in the U.S. and U.K., they scarcely justified themselves by human rights. As Moyn concludes, the real culprits of neoliberalism are neoliberals.

The reason why human rights activists are so powerless against neoliberal aims is that human rights answer to a different set of questions. Human rights can provide a good bulwark against some of the most horrifying atrocities. When it comes to the questions of social justice or distribution, they are more easily reconceptualised in the spirit of sufficiency rather than that of equality.

This does not excuse human rights activists; failure to reinvent oneself in a necessary manner is a failure, nonetheless. Fight for basic goods, sufficiency, and political and civil rights is necessary. But it is not enough.

Not Enough is a tour de force in the field of modern intellectual history. As such, it does not and cannot provide us with political philosophy of what to do. But it can provide us with ideas and arguments. And they are highly detailed and illuminating. The book excels in almost every meter, but it is the way that Moyn manages to capture the ambience of different times and moral schemes that is most remarkable.

In some sections, Moyn’s diagnosis seems almost too harsh. For instance, when discussing economists Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq, Moyn treats their turn towards basic needs antagonistically – albeit fairly. Further, his normative aim of vindicating equality is hostile toward – or at least suspicious of – much of the development economics that (like human rights) do not change the system but make it more humane. Even if one does not agree with everything Moyn has to offer normatively, there is no denying that Moyn is one of the most clear-eyed historians of human rights.

Reviewed work: Moyn, S. (2018), Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, Cambridge, Massachusetts; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

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