Human Rights and Radical Social Change: Liberalism, Marxism and Progressive Populism in Venezuela

By Tillman Clark
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 1/11 |

“Human rights” is a concept so deeply intertwined into the modern discourse that it seems almost impossible to question it or refer to any standard beyond it. The problematic nature of this issue is not so much that people have different conceptions of “human rights”--”right” is pretty straightforward in theory, considering the “right to free speech,” the “right to freedom of association,” the “right to property,” or the “right to a minimal means of subsistence”--but instead the way in which they mask particular interests and ideological motives when demanded or applied in real situations.

How and why the domination of the “human rights” discourse in reference to social ills or malfeasance came to where it is today is beyond the scope of this paper. But two more pressing sets of questions may be asked. Firstly, how does the dominant discourse of “human rights” function when put in practice and not just a theoretical or philosophical abstraction? In other words, what pragmatic function do claims of “ violations” or “adherence to human rights” hold? If human rights are linked to a specific institutional apparatus that is required for their “realization,” then what effect does the human rights discourse have on a society undergoing a substantial social and institutional transformation? Secondly, if the discourse of human rights cannot incorporate a theory of radical social change, what justification, if any, is there for abandoning it? If the horns of “human rights violations” are to be sounded every time a society attempts to move beyond the institutions connected to liberal human rights theory, can it be legitimate to ignore them? These two sets of questions are connected, but I intend to make a contribution to the second set before I elucidate the first. This paper will discuss these questions through a case study in one specific context: Venezuela in the period of 1999-2009.

The argument, briefly, is as follows: human rights institutions, groups, and actors promote their own form of discourse, and this discourse concurrently has the effect of eliminating from the conversation a certain element; from one perspective, limiting, a priori, the option for a possibly necessary radical social change and, from another perspective, excusing, in a round about way, violations of general human dignity. The resultant deadlock is the hallmark of progressive or radical today and can be identified in the discourse which has embroiled the “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela. Following Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, this project is intended to contribute towards an illumination of what Zizek has termed “the double blackmail,”1 where if one supports human rights, and interventions intended to support them, they are accused of supporting international imperialism, while if one rejects human rights, they are accused of excusing authoritarianism. This paper will make the argument that the political nature, ideology and theory of a radical, progressive movement is the determining factor in discussing human rights as applied to social change.

It may seem that this argument presents a reading in which human rights ideology is somehow false and does not apply to Venezuela or other countries because that are undergoing a certain type of revolutionary social change. While this interpretation is initially understandable, it would be a serious misreading of the argument. Many of the ideas about Venezuela put forth by the human rights discourse are not accurate while some are, and it will be a component of this paper to point them out. But the point is not to show that human rights are themselves “wrong,” but to show that the production of ideas about Venezuela and human rights, through their violation, adherence or interpretation, has important effects, and that the production of such effects plays a significant role in the impediment of social, institutional and structural change.

It is my intention here not to excuse human rights violations or accuse anyone of perpetrating them. It is my position that human rights, both in theory and practice, are positive conceptions but that there exists a possible future in which they can be transcended for something better, which is what makes the discussion of political ideology and projects that much more important. In order to move forward, we must face the deadlock, recognize its character and attempt to overcome it. It is here that I find the human rights discourse is its most limiting when it comes to social change. I agree entirely with Zizek when he states that his,

"problem with this new discourse on human rights [is] that it is part of a precisely concrete universality of a situation where certain questions are no longer permitted to be asked [...] This is the reason I am skeptical about so-called modern liberal politics. Did you notice how the very same people who are deep into this of human rights, the moment you propose a certain political measure which is a little bit utopian or radical, they use a kind of a totalitarian blackmail. They claim; ‘But didn't we learn the lesson [that] this necessarily ends up in a new form of totalitarianism?’ That is to say, the political message of the very people who go into this depoliticized poetry of human rights is to denounce every radical political measure as potentially totalitarian.2"

The claim of totalitarianism is not an empty one, but to say that all radical political projects will result as such is false. Human rights as it functions today, as a point of departure and the ultimate debate for the viability of political change, contributes to this falsity and needs to be unmasked and analyzed. Therefore, what is most important when discussing radical social change is the political ideology and project of any movement or state.

This paper is divided into three parts. The first part will identify liberal and marxist theories of human rights and show how their methodology and application create the conditions for the “double blackmail.” It will highlight the idea that the political nature of the subject of a human rights claim, whether claiming violation or defending against it, is the key point of analysis. The second part will introduce the situation in Venezuela, the political nature of the Venezuelan Chavista movement; its version of radical socialist/populist ideology and attempt at social change. Part three will consist an analysis of the debate between defenders of the Venezuelan project and its detractors and finally part four will focus on the conclusion that the liberal and marxist theories of human rights are in full swing in the Venezuelan human rights discourse and that the limitations of the Venezuelan project show that only with a more concerted effort to develop a modern and comprehensive political theory of social change can the effects of the “double blackmail” be overcome.

Liberal Human Rights Theory

The modern liberal conception of human rights is guided generally by two different viewpoints competing between human rights as needs-based morality and human rights as political commitment to individual liberty. Following Isaiah Berlin, in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, these can also be seen as “positive” and “negative” rights.3 The former is a contemporary theory and practice premised upon the interests and needs of an individual holder of rights and the necessity to protect them through “active,” or “positive,” intervention. The latter is based upon the moral agency and liberty of the individual as a holder of rights, or a “passive” recognition of the right to noninterference.

What both these theories seem to rely on is an external institution or agent that allows the rights to be “given” or “ensured” to the rights holder. Moreover, both rely heavily upon a theory of individualism. But it can be said that the contemporary human rights movement “lost” something from the past, classical liberal position on rights. As David Chandler puts it:

What was lost in the promulgation of human rights theory in the 1990s was the connection between rights and the subjects who can exercise those rights [...] This separation of rights from their subjects leads to the redefinition of both rights and subjects through the human rights discourse. In fact, the logical conclusion of human rights policy would be the end of politics as a sphere for the resolution of social questions of the distribution of goods and policy making.4

This is seen as the departure from the “negative rights” liberal viewpoint and a move towards the “positive rights” position. But was this ever the case? Was this connection ever “there” in the first place in order for it to be “lost”? The conception of rights in and of themselves seem to presuppose a relationship between a certain type of institution--one that can bestow or grant rights--and the subject and thus a certain apolitical morality and .

The “positive” conception holds that liberty of the individual is not a fundamental aspect of human rights but instead places a premium upon the needs that rights protect. The “negative” conception argues along the lines of the classical conception of liberal thought and references “natural rights.” These recognition of rights assign a certain type of moral agency to the individual and are based on a certain interpretation of human nature. What follows from this conception is a society that creates institutions that are arranged upon the assumption of an individualist conception of moral agency. As Seven B. Smith, speaking on Hegel’s critique of Liberalism, puts it:

In fact, to speak about rights is not to assert a simple proposition but is implicitly to make a complex set of interlocking claims that can be reduced to five parts: who shall enjoy which rights under what circumstances and for what purposes, and which kinds of restraints need to be imposed to make the enjoyment of those rights possible? An appeal to rights necessarily involves an appeal to the social and political institutions and institutions that make the protection of rights possible.5

What is problematic about this position is that assumes a monopoly on what human nature is and builds a society and its institutions around that conception.

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