Why are we in love with the rights of the individual?
In the Western mainstream discourse, individual and political rights are considered an absolute priority. The others – economic and social rights – are supposed to follow as countries develop.
As Jean Bricmont demonstrates this is not our history: the progress to greater individual and political rights depends upon improvements in the population’s wellbeing, both economic and social.
When Diane Ravitch was asked how to improve the education of children in poor parts of New York she replied: increase the per-capita income in their catchment areas. Yet the American government insists on making teachers solely accountable for the exam results in these schools. We see the same in this country, which is following the American pattern in public education, where it is all reduced to individual choice; for the few (the latter never mentioned, for the PR is that choices are equal).
And then think of Iraq: where the view was that you could transform that society by making it a democracy; as if the latter isn’t dependent upon the social fabric. I’m discussing the justifications for the war, and leaving aside, of course, the realpolitik that actually governed it.
Why should this be so? Why so much stress on political rights, and the single individual, when social policies could save more people, and make them free?
Here’s Mohamed Mahathir, former prime minister of Malaysia:
To kill 100,000 people because you suspect that the human rights of a few have been denied seems to be a contradiction. Yet the fanaticism of the champions of human rights have led to more people being deprived of their rights, and many of their lives, than the number saved… (Bricmont comments that Western diplomats walked out during this speech)
It is odd, to say the least. But what if we live in a society were political and individual rights are unimportant, because they no longer threaten the powerful: large corporations, the City, Big Pharma and the Pentagon…
In the 1960s political and individual rights were hot topics. The control the of the country depended on the former, while the latter still suffered many prohibitions – the moral code outlawed homosexuality and discriminated against women and ethnic minorities. But note, the authority of the powerful was entwined with these prejudices. Today that is no longer the case. The moral code has changed, and they pose no threat to the government and big business.
In part this is due to the success of the Civil Rights and other Leftist movements. But it is also due to the progress of State Capitalism, where the economic motive predominates to an ever-increasing extent. Before the growth of the great multi-nationals, and the financialisation of the economy, there was a tension across society between the need for money and its other values, inherited from its pre-modern past. We saw it in journalism, in the law, and in the professions generally. Over the last 30 years that tension has been resolved, and the older values have weakened, to be replaced to an ever greater extent by the profit motive, by naked greed – for wealth, economic growth and monopoly.
These are the values now; and they buttress the power and prestige of our rulers. The Chief Executive of General Motors does not depend on the American voter on election day; yet he, along with the other car companies, can decide transport policy in Washington. Politics is no longer, if it ever was, the force that rules our countries. So, therefore, it is not a threat, and can be encouraged and patronised. For it is curious that while we praise democracy the actual mainstream discourse on politics is quite dismissive – the economy must be left to the businessman, not the politician, who is almost universally seen as incompetent and self-seeking.
The real threat is social and economic: the redistribution of wealth, which will reduce the power of our leaders, and increase that of the populace… It must therefore be resisted. No, not quite. It must be treated as secondary, as unimportant, or as a threat to liberal society.