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The Curious Case of Human Rights in a Capitalist World

2015/2/27 — 23:39

Human rights is a magic term. Something that signifies cosmopolitanism and the optimistic belief that when history progresses, it goes one direction - upward - and only changes for the better. A feel-good idea peoples of the world inherited from the French Revolution. After the atrocities of the wars in the first half of twentieth century the world eventually recognized a lengthy set of fundamental human rights and enshrined them in a document titled The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations exactly 37 years before I was born, at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris. Sure enough, human rights violations would never be stopped by a piece of flimsy paper, but it was a start - except it probably was not.

A few days ago I came across an article on the Apple Daily, a popular newspaper in Hong Kong in the democratic camp. The title of the article reads: Backward Gay Rights Policies Hinders Absorption of Talents - Openly-gay Goldman Sachs Senior Executive Criticizes Hong Kong for Lagging Behind its Neighbours [on legalizing gay rights]. Basically it was about how failing to recognize gay rights in our legal system (a motion was put forward in Legco back in 2012 but did not go through) , we are disadvantaged in our battle with neighbouring cities for financial elites. The article reads and I translate and quote: "There are already active public discussions in Taiwan on legalizing gay marriage. While Taiwan is targeting the 'gay marriage market' in Asia, Hong Kong is still struggling to pass an anti-discrimination law." Here comes the best part - the article also explains why gay workers can be even better than their straight counterparts, for they usually have less burden on their shoulders (no children) and thus have more disposable income in their pockets and are more productive in their work. To put that in perspective: the homosexual community is a gold mine.

The article justifies the cause by emphasizing on how immensely productive gay people can be, and how they, being individuals freed from familial responsibilities, can devote much of their time to working their arses off, climbing the corporate ladder, and spending every dime they earn. Sounds vaguely familiar? Did Adam Smith say that freeing individuals and their economic autonomy can be beneficial to the common good of us all (though Smith was speaking against the background of a 18th century feudal Europe), and did modern-day neoliberals add that unrestrained egotism is the way, the truth, and the life to a harmonized, flourishing economy and that, eventually, even the lowest of the low in the economic hierarchy can have enough trickled down onto their dinner tables, and lead a reasonably decent life.


So, even the rhetorics in use in the discussion of human rights is capitalist, but my point is that it should not come as a surprise. Human Rights is a recent invention, one that curiously complements the proliferation of capitalism to every remote corner of the world. Paperwork like the Universal Declaration makes Human Rights seems inborn, and as it is inborn, it takes no economic or social conditions for these rights to be bestowed on an individual. A starving, malnourished child in Sierra Leone or Somali or Mongolia or China has human rights, so has Bill Gates, or Li Ka Shing, except the latter two never have to invoke those rights, as they are well-protected by their wealth. For the poor, those rights mean nothing unless they materialize; for the rich, those rights are simply moral. The modern moral is, to realise your value in the capitalist society, you should put yourself into the ever-running machine of capitalist production and consumption. And of course we will never be really equal in our rights, because if we do, the capitalist economy would not even exist in the first place. But it certainly does not hurt for all peoples to have equal rights on paper, as a missionary statement.

Human rights is also the new poster boy for militarism - "humanitarian intervention" is an even more contemporaneous invention than human rights itself, but they are apples fallen from the same tree. In the heyday of (explicit) imperialism peoples of the colonies had to fight against the notion of "freedom" (i.e. white men freeing the coloured people from the yokes of backwardness), now they often find themselves fighting against "human rights", "good governance", and "development". Granted, these are not by nature bad things. However, when the power structure of the world is what it presently is, these are nothing but replacements for "civilizing the coloured" and "spreading the Christian gospel (through the barrel of a gun)" in the old days. So, when Saddam Hussein slaughtered the Iraqi and the Kurds, the almighty West came to the peoples' rescue under the comfortable umbrella of human rights. But as facts have proven, human rights is simply another name for crude oil (OK that is an over-simplification of the matter - they were not there for cheap oil. They were there for an even larger monopoly in the oil market and better price-setting capability - but that is another story).


Articulating the matter from the perspective of resistance - let's say the campaign of valuing the rights of a human being to get married to whoever he or she wants at his or her economic contribution is successful, what harm does it do? The case of the San Papiers in France may be able to shed some light. San Papiers literally means "without papers", in France it is what its half a million illegal immigrants are collectively known for. To legalize themselves, they usually stake their claims in the fact that they are mobile labour in a global neoliberal economy, filling jobs that ordinary French citizens would refrain from, for example, janitors in public toilets, dish washers in the back alley of a fancy restaurant - by doing so they are capable of contributing to the economy of France, and thus they deserve some legal status. While this may work for their cause, it risks to weaken that of other groups trying to seek the same rights in the country, especially those that cannot prove how they can be productive in a capitalist economy. And, as a matter of fact, women as well - domestic work which is traditionally done by female members of a family is never considered economic activity, so the economy is hopelessly gendered, as the male members who go out to work are the breadwinners who are considered to be the more worthy members of the society. As Immanuel Wallerstein puts it: "Whereas in other systems men and women did specified (but normally equal) tasks, under historical capitalism the adult male wage-earner was classified as the 'breadwinner', and the adult female home-worker as the 'housewife...thus was sexism institutionalized."

The article got me thinking - the (gay) financial elites can one day choose wherever he or she wants to settle in - probably for the more liberal environment. They can do that because they are educated and their skills are desirable in the global neoliberal economy. How do refugees and asylum seekers justify their claims, if they do not possess the skills we want, and therefore not the "elites" that we are bending over backwards to absorb? Do they then not deserve their human rights? How about the domestic maids who are bound by exploitative contracts and even more exploitative laws in Hong Kong? To push it further - what does it mean to the housewives who work 24-7 tending to the needs of a family without being recognized as worthy members of the society? How about the disabled who are not fit to work at all? I am fully supportive of legalizing gay marriage, I simply refuse to do it to moralize the economic contribution of the elites amongst them.