Friday, 13 March 2020

HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE NATION-STATE


No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as "inalienable" those human rights, which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves. Their situation has deteriorated just as stubbornly, until the internment camp—prior to the second World War the exception rather than the rule for the stateless—has become the routine solution for the problem of domicile of the "displaced persons."
Even the terminology applied to the stateless has deteriorated. The term "stateless" at least acknowledged the fact that these persons had lost the protection of their government and required international agreements for safeguarding their legal status. The post-war term "displaced persons" was invented during the war for the express purpose of liquidating statelessness once and for all by ignoring its existence. Nonrecognition of statelessness always means repatriation, i.e., deportation to a country of origin, which either refuses to recognize the prospective repatriate as a citizen, or, on the contrary, urgently wants him back for punishment. (H.Arendt, OT, p.279)

With enviable and characteristic perspicacity, in this striking passage from her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt encapsulates the main categories and the leading themes that surround the theory of the modern State and simultaneously identifies the frightening faultline that traverses the political reality of the State and threatens its very existence and that of its polity.
The “well-meaning idealists” who clamour for “inalienable human rights” make the appallingly astounding mistake of assuming or perhaps pretending that there exist in life “human rights” that are “inalienable”. In its crude and starry-eyed credulity, this belief amounts to the pretence that somewhere in the firmament of stars or in the blue vault of the sky there exist real and indestructible objects called “human rights” that no human force can “alienate” or remove, negate or even obliterate from the reality of human existence. Utter and contemptible folly! Where is it written, asks Arendt, echoing Schopenhauer - in what shoal of land or on what sea shore, in what deepest cave or highest mountain can I find such a “thing”, such a tangible reality as not just “human rights”, but also human rights that are – “inalienable”! Show me or anyone else where such a reality or object actually exists – or even simply why it should actually exist and how it could exist! (This is Schopenhauer’s contemptuous yet irresistible chastisement of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and even of Voltaire’s “enlightened” optimism, not to mention Leibniz’s Panglossian fantasies.) 

This utopian humanistic fantasy is enshrined, of course, in the American Constitution – “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”. But if they are “self-evident”, why then “hold” them to be so? No “truth” can ever be “self-evident”, because then its truthfulness would amount to empty tautology. (This is the gist of our work on what we have called “Nietzsche’s Invariance”.) That which is self-evident simply cannot be made explicit – because the act of rendering it explicit invariably evinces its lack of “self-evidence”. The American Preamble, of course, would be reprised in typical Gallic grandiloquence in the French Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man only three short years after the American Revolution.

In hard stone-cold reality the only “rights” that exist are those legal rights that can be enforced by a political entity called the State by means of the twin weapons of legal monopoly over the use of violence in a given delimited national territory and through the legitimate assertion of its authority over the citizenry or polity of humans living within those national boundaries or domain.

This, then, must be the task and end-goal of all realistic political action: - the erection of a State that can impose on its subjects or citizenry, its constituency or polity, the observance of legal rights that arise from the political will of that polity! The tragedy of all “displaced people” or “refugees” (economic or political) is not that their “human rights” have been denied or trampled upon – because no such abstract lunacy exists in reality -, but rather that they suffer the indignity of “state-lessness”. Not the presence or absence of chimeric “human rights”, then, but rather the protection of human beings by a “State” able, willing and ready to protect whatever legal rights it is able to enforce within or even without its domain or territory bounded by national borders – this is the crucial question that must be tackled by all of us who are concerned about the fate of human freedom and welfare. The problem is not that refugees or displaced people have their human rights denied – because these do not exist; the problem, the tragedy is that there exist human beings on Earth who are “state-less”. The crucial problem here, the crux of the biscuit, as it were, is the State – and to the theory of the State we must turn now.

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