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Human Rights and the Ideology of Capitalist Globalization

A View from Slovenia

Sergej Flere is professor of sociology at the University of Maribor, Slovenia. He specializes in sociology of religion and ethnicity and has written widely on sociological questions, including an essay entitled “Explaining Ethnic Antagonism in Yugoslavia” (European Sociological Review, March 1991). He also served on the Council of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion.

Ideologies are a constant of human societies, though they have become more explicit in modern society. Since the eighteenth century, they have been increasingly distinguished from religious doctrines and popular religion. Ideologies make a claim to knowledge about society. This knowledge is, of course, biased and distorted in accordance with the interests of certain groups in society, with historical conditions and circumstances. Ideologies claim to be complete accounts of reality, but they are not. They can be critiqued. They rise and pass away, and are perpetuated with certain interests in mind. The “truth” of ideology is political. Therefore, in Marx’s words, ideology is a “false consciousness.”

But ideology is not simply a picture of an objective world. It also contains a call to action. Ideologies request an immediate commitment and action to achieve what is considered possible and necessary, and to counter other political orientations, movements, and truths. Ideologies are neither simple lies nor casual smokescreens. Rather, ideology has structural roots which the social sciences seek to uncover. This process can be said to have its origins in Francis Bacon’s discussion of idols in Novum Organum and was advanced most spectacularly by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century and (with numerous caveats) by Karl Mannheim in the twentieth century. Ideologies have causes and functions in society and in political life in particular.

Nor, of course, are the social sciences themselves immune to ideology. For example, the “death of class” thesis is clearly aligned with the dominant ideology. Another ideology-permeated notion in the social sciences is the idea of “rational choice,” not only postulating a homo oeconomicus idea of human nature, but also advancing this as the major explanatory concept of the functioning of society. Postmodernist ideas—with their nihilism, their heterogeneity, their contradictions—play a role in obfuscating the existing social reality. From this perspective, what can be said about the dominant ideology of the present?

The dominant ideology (the one legitimating the existing state of global domination) is complex and cannot be reduced to a single catch phrase. Ideas which deny the efficacy of any economic system outside the one enforced and promoted at present (“free trade” globalist capitalism) certainly do complement the human rights idea. So do the dominant group’s and ruling system’s ideas of the need for enemies of democracy and human rights.

Human Rights in the Dominant Ideology

Human rights are no mere fad, lacking content and history. They contain universal, all- embracing ideas with great allure. In political discourse and life, however, they seem to be flexible enough to be invoked in the most varied of situations. The concept of human rights is now used as a political tool in the legitimation of highly diverse political acts on the part of the ruling actors on national and world stages. Civilian targets in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, can be bombed; Iraqi children deprived of essential foods and medicines by embargo; murderous South American military figures can be arrested (like Pinochet) or alternatively supported with billions of dollars and advanced weaponry (as in Colombia); and all justified with human rights talk. In the contemporary dominant ideology, human rights are understood almost exclusively as classical political rights (free speech, assembly, universal suffrage, etc.), while rights of a social nature, such as the right to health and welfare or the right to work, are ever less stressed or stressed only in the spirit of lip service, as was the case at the aborted Seattle World Trade Organization meetings. Shifts in “universal” and “timeless” rights are particularly informative. For much of the Cold War, refugees from “communist tyranny” were given honorary treatment. Now that refugees come to the developed parts of the world in greater numbers, citizenship and residence take on much greater importance as a precondition for the enjoyment of supposedly universal human rights. The movement of masses from the underdeveloped countries of the Third World is curtailed, and by force. This, of course, is the way capitalism works. Human rights are limited to legal residents, to political rights, and they are abstracted from their social, economic, and cultural setting and context.

The present dominant ideology in the world is doubtless heir to the ideology of the “free world.” “Free world” served as the code phrase for underscoring the absence (or at least shortage) of individual political liberties in the communist world. Any anticommunist dictatorship belonged to the “free world,” as long as it entertained an anticommunist posture. The only criterion it needed to meet was to join the ranks of the struggle against “International Communism” (the code word to underline the supposedly expansionist, imperialistic intentions and objectives of the communists). The “free world” idea has exhausted its utility with the demolition of the USSR, along with the “free world’s” bloody baggage of Suhartos and Pinochets. The best way to examine the real outlines of the emerging new human rights model is to observe its operation in practice. I have had the opportunity to observe from up close an instructive instance: the privatization of social property in my homeland of Slovenia.

Slovenian Privatization

Slovenia borders Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia and in the last decade became, for the first time, an independent country. It has a population of about two million, in a fertile and often scenic, wooded, hilly, and mountainous territory of some eight thousand square miles, roughly comparable in size to Wales or New Hampshire. It had been the most economically advanced republic of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), just as previously it had been the least economically developed province of the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Slovenian per capita gross domestic product is about at the level of Portugal or the Czech Republic; i.e. it is, with the Czech Republic, the most prosperous and developed of all the previously “really existing socialist” states of central and eastern Europe.

In Slovenia, the end of the 1980s was marked by a call for the implementation and protection of human rights. The campaign spread from among the intellectuals throughout the entire population. The emancipation and transition process was heralded and spearheaded by a civic Committee for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (the Bavcar Committee). Sentiment for national independence was not marked by ethnic mythology, but by aspiration for the broadest possible actualization of human rights. A state organized around the idea of human rights implementation and protection was to be the culmination of the dream of an independent Slovenia. On December 23, 1990, the Slovenian Assembly solemnly declared that “pursuant to the fact that the SFRY no longer functions as a legal state and that human rights in it are grossly violated, the Republic of Slovenia (declares itself to be) an emancipated and independent state.”

What were the actual consequences of this declaration of independence and introduction of pluralist democracy? They were certainly numerous and radical. These changes were not without consequences outside Slovenia, particularly in the former SFRY lands. We will bypass this complicated issue and take a look at the way privatization was carried out in Slovenia and particularly at the banner under which this “denationalization” (restitution of public property to its former private owners) was carried out after “democratic changes” at the beginning of the nineties.

Capitalism was reimposed in Slovenia above all through the restitution of private property to former owners, as imposed by the Law on Denationalization adopted in 1991. The legislation was adopted with great speed, after the first democratic elections” in the Republic of Slovenia— although the issue had not been the subject of the elections. The legislation was prepared by a small number of people, without much public debate. There is no serious question but that the vast majority of the Slovene public at the time was opposed to restitution in kind, except that pertaining to arable land, i.e., which would be returned to peasants. The economic consequences of denationalization and privatization were kept out of the picture publicly presented. As the present Rector of the University of Ljubljana and the then- vice-president of the Slovenian government, puts it today: “Privatization was not at all an economic issue, but purely a political one. It was an issue of how to destroy socialism, i.e., communism, quickly.”

In the euphoria of political democratization, against the background of the bloody conflict taking place in the rest of the former Yugoslavia, a vast redistribution of wealth took place largely outside public notice and without popular consent. According to some estimates, in a small country of some two million inhabitants a total of twenty-five billion dollars was redistributed, primarily through restitution to private owners. This restitution was carried out mostly in kind. I am speaking here of property which had become publicly owned (setting aside the niceties of the former Yugoslav concept of self-management, which held that property was “socially owned” and had become “non-ownership”) by a wide array of legal instruments after the end of the Second World War. These 1991 restitutions reinstated not only mostly capitalist modes of ownership but even feudal ones: the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, is becoming the owner of considerable arable land and of huge forests. Part of the property taken by the post-Second World War Tito regime had been to the direct benefit of the actual peasant cultivators of the land. Even these measures were subject to restitution by the democratically elected regime in 1991. Those entitled to restitution were no more than sixty thousand people among two million. The arable land and forests were assessed at 20 percent of the total .

The beneficiaries of restitution were in no way entitled to it on the basis of their work, which may be considered a nearly universal ethical basis of ownership, nor was it taken into account that half a century of social effort had preserved property that would have surely been bankrupted or otherwise attenuated or eliminated under capitalist scenarios. How could this have been legitimized? A minor justification was found in the affirmation of the greater economic efficiency of private ownership, though this argument ceased to be used when economists began to question it seriously during the rapid economic contraction that marked the first five years of national independence. During the criticism of really existing socialism in the 1980s, the supposed economic efficiency of private property and inefficiency of public property were generally held as truisms. But the reality of the early 1990s ended that. The major justification, though, was thinly veiled. It purported to be a correction of injustices carried out by the former Communist regime. This was the official explanation contained in the draft Law on Denationalization, as well as in statements of the democratic political parties and groups (the Slovene Christian Democrats and the Democratic Opposition of Slovenia [DEMOS]).

These injustices were held to have arisen from the denial of private property as a sacrosanct and inalienable human right. It was implicitly considered that private ownership was the highest value among human rights and that it should therefore be restituted completely and in kind, regardless of any other considerations. A further analysis would uncover the efficacious action of a small lobby linked to the then-dominant “democratic” political parties. In the implementation of the denationalization, it became unclear whether and how to compensate the Roman Catholic Church as to a certain portion of forests (due to numerous changes of ownership and other rights during the recent centuries). The Roman Catholic Church in Slovenia, by way of its bodies (bishoprics, etc.), legitimized its entitlements by invoking its “human rights,” supposedly violated by the Slovenian state, and threatened to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This, in spite of the Catholic Church’s own hideous record and legacy concerning human liberty and freedom of conscience, the difficulty of finding the Church to be more entitled to human rights than a democratic government, and the Christian doctrine that extols charity. But if human rights talk is effective for purposes of property litigation, then with pious mien it shall be deployed.

Human rights have become a universal sacred canopy, potentially legitimizing any act convenient for the reproduction of the existing world distribution of power and wealth. These rights are always promoted by ruling groups in a narrow political sense, without taking into consideration economic and welfare rights, a deeper relationship between human rights and justice, and particularly without considering the social preconditions for the affirmation of human dignity by way of a legal instrument such as human rights. The individual with her human rights is set free. Free, that is, to compete on the labor, financial, and every other kind of environment organized as a market.

Human Dignity

The concept of human rights, and the national and international legal instruments that protect them, are not without potential for the improvement of the human condition. But human rights as a legal instrument are implemented and realized within certain finite, social, economic, and cultural circumstances that determine the conditions of their meaning for human dignity. Absent successful struggle to change those conditions for the better, human rights talk is but cruel mockery. Public property may lead to one distortion in the realization of human rights, primarily if it leads to bureaucratization and its evils. On the other hand, huge disparities and inequalities of a social nature in private property represent a fundamental limitation in the achievement and use of human rights (not to speak of human dignity). It may even represent a denial of the existence and use of human rights. Therefore, the idea of individual and collective human rights is a limited one at best. On inspection, it proves no better than any other ideological instrument, in spite of the rich international and domestic legal protection mechanisms it extends. The existing domestic and international instruments of legal protection of human rights may have little to offer to those thrown to the wolves in the arena of market exploitation, where full employment is becoming ever more rare and welfare protection measures are being dismantled. It is necessary to draw attention to double standards in the application and enforcement of human rights and to the fact that these double standards are not accidental, but part and parcel of ideological discourse.

We face this moment today in Slovenia, where the European Union objects, and therefore places obstacles in the way of our future entry, that sufficient inequality has not been achieved. And this outrageous proposition is justified by human rights talk. But we then have the opportunity to make clear to our fellow citizens the one-sided, false, ideological nature of this way of presenting the ultimate issues. The meaning of human rights as a concept in political discourse has passed from an emancipatory stage to one where it legitimates the existing global order and, at best, partly limits the use and abuse of political power.

2001, Volume 52, Issue 08 (January)
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