"UN International Nursery School, 1950." United Nations. Accessed October 23, 2018. http://www.un.org/en/sections/universal-declaration/index.html.
In The Last Utopia, professor of law and history Samuel Moyn offers fellow academics both an intellectual and political history of human rights. He complicates the origins of the concept, commonly conceived of as a postwar phenomenon with a confluence of ancient Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, and secular Enlightenment influences. Simultaneously, he traces its subsequent inscription in the popular consciousness as a universal ideal – a triumphalist, teleological narrative that characterized “human rights” as innate, obvious and inevitable. Ultimately, Moyn argues modern notions of inalienable, individual entitlements that transcend geography and affiliation only manifested in the 1970s.
Moyn deals in the definitions, itemizations, and changing contexts that shaped the invention of human rights. Drawing on both past and presents works in English, French, and German, he uncovers a palimpsest of constructed meaning. These close readings of published works yield a critical historiography that identifies flaws in the telling and retelling of international history. Therefore, The Last Utopia is neither a history of human rights nor an argument for what the concept entails. Rather, the book explores why the concept was invented and redefined over time, in tandem with well-known historical events and watershed moments. It serves as a genealogy, revealing the intentions and insecurities of western nation-states in the twentieth-century, situating human rights within a broader international scheme.
Indeed, one vital issue with Moyn’s work is his reluctance to explicitly articulate “human rights” for the purpose of his study. One might take the definition as self-evident – anything that presents itself as such in the texts. Yet, Moyn is quick to undermine this framework, claiming “when 'human rights' entered the English language in the 1940s, it was unceremoniously, even accidentally" (44). In turn, he dismisses early formations of human rights as rhetorical veneer to advance the interests of Cold War nation-states. Moyn, therefore, risks implying “true” human rights (or, rather, that which mirrors our modern conception) constitutes the prioritization of a moral code over partisan political agendas, the rise of international law over national sovereignty. This more familiar permutation can be traced back to the 1970s rather than the 1940s, he argues. In this way, Moyn risks propagating another teleology – restricted to a particular definition of human rights – rather than the epistemic exploration he claims to engage.
Further, Moyn only differentiates human rights from humanitarianism in the epilogue and endnotes. The first mention of humanitarianism appears in relation to genocide and other “crimes against humanity” –
“The amazingly belated integration of genocide consciousness as a human rights concern is
only one dimension of a far larger shift: the slow amalgamation of humanitarian concern for
suffering with human rights as both a utopian idea and practical movement. Humanitarianism,
with its origins in Christian pity and Enlightenment sympathy through its high era of imperialist
entanglement in the nineteenth century, had developed in historical independence of rights talk
… It is simply mistaken to conceive of these as human rights organizations, as they were almost
never understood that way by their participants" (220-1).
Moyn not only accentuates this narrative with teleological assumptions (“amazingly belated,” “slow”), but takes for granted how historical actors conceived of their mission. Where is his evidence and what is his rationale? How can he parse rhetoric from intent, and how is it embodied in the differentiation between “humanitarianism” and “human rights?” On pages 243 and 244 (endnote 17), Moyn disputes historian Lynn Hunt’s argument that secular humanitarianism was the foundation for universalism and the “rights of man.” He points to its religious origins, its indifference towards individual rights, and advancement of imperialism. This issue returns to the earlier point – “human rights” has not always meant the same thing, so one cannot necessarily argue it was almost nonexistent prior to the 1970s or incompatible with previous forms of “humanitarianism.” As Moyn concedes, “at least until very recently, the history of humanitarianism is best understood as a separate topic from the history of human rights” (243-4) (emphasis mine).
Indeed, Moyn subsequently refers readers to a 2006 article, “Empathy in History, Empathizing with Humanity,” wherein he more explicitly mulls over ideas of humanity, human dignity, humanitarianism and human rights (and the emotional and psychological rationales underpinning themes of sentimentality and morality). But without reviewing this text, one would be left unclear as to the author’s rationale for distinguishing these concepts. Moyn might even do well to at least briefly consider the concept of “crimes against humanity”* (never once mentioned, even when discussing the Nuremberg trials) as a foil for “human rights.” If “human rights” constitute a list of entitlements – how one can live and what one can do, according to a universal moral code – then “crimes against humanity” must imply a list of prohibitions – how one cannot live and what one cannot do, according to a universal moral code. Still, on page 259 (endnote 52), he echoes his original stance – “it is anachronistic … to conflate humanitarianism and human rights, which reflects contemporary assumptions.” And therein lies the rub; why does Moyn indulge modern notions of “human rights” while seeking connections and definitions of the past?
Moyn even goes so far as to argue that movements for decolonization were not part of a larger struggle for human rights. Anticolonialism, which he conflates with decolonization in the index (329), reproduced Euro/Americentric frameworks by prioritizing “collective sovereignty, not individual prerogative, and the supremacy of the nation-state, rather than its subordination to global law" (116-7). Activists catered to international politics and rhetoric on the “right of self-determination.” Ex-colonies sought nationhood to accommodate for the presence of imperial powers and participate on an international stage. Moral or legal arguments for subaltern humanity on an individual basis were sublimated for purpose of forming a collective identity.
Yet, Moyn finds that figures such as Malcolm X “flirted with human rights – but in the sense of collective liberation from imperial subordination" (104-5). Petitioning on behalf of Black Americans, he internalized (or, perhaps, appropriated) this increasingly globalized Euro/Americentric rhetoric, arguing “our plight clearly involves the violation of our human rights" (104-5). Moyn attributes this stance to an “association of African-American subordination with imperialism" (104-5). To that end, he also argues that “decolonization and the civil rights movement ended formal empire and racism, [and] the language of human rights provided a potent antitotalitarian weapon for the first time" (217). But how does this interpretation fit with his other assertion that anticolonialism was not a human rights affair? One might note Moyn also conflates colonialism and empire in his endnotes (328).
Though riddled with jargon and unwieldy run-on sentences, Moyn’s work presents readers with an organized structure and argument – mapping the contexts and contested conceptions of human rights of the past century. Still, one cannot help but find themselves mired in Moyn’s dizzyingly convoluted proclamations, for example – “Intellectually, the theoretical and doctrinal energy harnessed to the project of finding a vision of human rights adequate to global immiseration graphically illustrates the sheer distance from the landmark of their antitotalitarian invention that human rights have had to travel" (224-5). Despite issues with clarity, and implicit assumptions about the definition of key words, The Last Utopia helps disrupt traditional notions of “human rights” to reveal their evolution as a guiding rationale for foreign policy, as well as the formation and rise of present-day non-governmental organizations.
* This term is referenced in the article adaption of the book in The Nation.