How do we restore meaning to equality and democracy?
Opinion: In these ethically aimless, market-enslaved times it is in the democratic advocacy of human rights that we find our best hope for the future
‘In the UK it is the affluent who enjoy realistic chances of success in theatre and many sports today, and even human rights NGO work is often available only to those with the resources to survive unpaid internships. True, all of this has not come to Ireland yet, but is it only a matter of time?’ Photograph: Gettty Images
In 1962, Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions identified the “paradigm shift” as the way progress is made in the sciences.
On Kuhn’s reading, new truths gradually encircle old orthodoxies until – finally surrounded – these are swept away to make space for fresh certainties about reality.
There is a similarity here to many analyses of our political problems today: democratic malfunction is temporary; financial and economic crises are bound to precipitate change; the drive for equality must inevitably return; and so on. But why should any of this happen?
Democracy is a product of a particular moment in each of our collective pasts, in Britain following the emergence of the labour and suffragette movements for example, and in Ireland after independence.
The conditions that drove democracy in the past no longer pertain. Justice and equality are not so much bypassed these days as hijacked the world over by the privileged to cover their tracks and assuage their guilt.
So in a growing number of capital cities we have buildings with social housing where the poor enter by separate doors.
In Britain – an extreme case admittedly – it is the affluent who enjoy realistic chances of success in theatre and many sports today, and even human rights NGO work is often available only to those with the resources to survive unpaid internships. In many places in the world, the wealthy have money, opportunity and (pseudo) justice on their side: why give any of this up?
Freedom is not handed down by the powerful; it is always seized from below. The levers of change available today are few.
Churches preachThe churches preach against the prevailing mood and recruit many good people still, but they are seen as pre-modern relics of a time when fear of eternal damnation truly mattered – and their antiquated hierarchies, invariable patriarchy and demonstrated failure to protect the vulnerable in their care have precipitated them into irrelevance. In many countries, civil society has become co-opted and effectively neutralised by the state. Another false saviour is localism, coming up with right answers by going small – all this does is create a protective bubble around a small bit of earthly space, ignoring the rest.
EqualityAs nation states are not going to disappear any time soon, this is the unit of government within which those desiring to restore meaning to equality and democracy need to work.
Progressive political leadership and new kinds of labour solidarity are both essential. Each must first break free of the shackles imposed by past (social democratic) victories to be able successfully to articulate a fresh vision of what it means to be a full human in today’s hectic, marketised world.
Unions need to recover a solidarity that transcends the interests of particular workers and then sell it in smart, persuasive ways. The politicians of the left need to be deft in their search for power and then strategic in how they use it. What matters is momentum: progress is not so much a destination as a direction of travel.
The weakness of those committed to privilege is their ostensible allegiance to equality: this is a hypocrisy that can be used against them. The language of class war no longer works; nor does the revolutionary certainty of the self-regarding Marxist. More unsettling because harder to reject is a vibrant politics of human rights, a movement led from the renovated left but speaking to the whole of society, committed not just to civil liberties but to social and economic rights as well.
Such a campaign would take all of the rights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seriously and set out a programme for their achievement, not only nationally, but regionally and globally as well.
The language of human rights is itself partly compromised by power. And the potentially desiccating influence of lawyers is never far away. But the left has been too quick to follow Marx in writing off rights as inhumanely individualistic. There is much more to modern human rights than this: a chance to flourish is the promise human rights makes to each of us – regardless of our ethnicity, our gender, or how deep our pockets happen to be.
In these ethically aimless, market-enslaved times it is in the democratic advocacy of human rights that we find our best hope for the future.
Conor Gearty is professor of human rights law at the London School of Economics and director of its Institute of Public Affairs Series concluded