Human Rights/Human Capital: The History of the (Neoliberal) Subject of Rights.

Stream: Panel 52 - Political Theory: Histories and Concepts of Rights
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 4.00 pm – 5.30 pm


In “Self-Appreciation; or the Aspirations of Human Capital”, Michel Feher provides a trenchant critique of a left trapped in melancholy and nostalgia for the liberal-democratic welfare state. It is time, Feher argues, for the left to give up its attempt to challenge neoliberalism from without and instead inhabit, and struggle from within, the form of subjectivity it cultivates. Extending the insights of Michel Foucault, Feher argues the subject of neoliberalism is no longer the utility-maximising, self-interested subject of classical liberalism but is human capital, concerned with appreciating itself (as capital). I suggest Feher’s provocation allows us to rethink the terms of the recent debate over the historical and conceptual relationship between human rights and neoliberalism. Samuel Moyn has recently termed the human rights movement a “powerless companion” unable to hold back the tide of free market restructuring. In contrast, Feher – who is best known for his work on humanitarianism NGOs and his attempt to formulate a “non-governmental politics” – highlights the shared antipathy to the Keynesian welfare state and its modes of subjectivity that typified both the human rights movement and the ascendant neoliberals of the 1970s. In this paper, I argue that the human rights movement in fact exemplifies Feher’s call for a politics that would inhabit the subjectivity of neoliberalism. The cost of this strategy, I suggests, has been the abandonment of the struggle for economic equality, and of those who have ‘failed’ to appreciate their own human capital.


Jessica Whyte (Presenter), Western Sydney University
Jessica Whyte is Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Her research interests include theories of sovereignty and biopolitics, critiques of human rights and contemporary continental philosophy. Her work has been published in Law and Critique; Humanity; Theory and Event; and Contemporary Political Theory. She is currently working on two projects: a book on the historical and conceptual affinities between the politics of human rights and neoliberalism in the late twentieth century; and an Australian Research Council DECRA project “Inventing Collateral Damage: The Changing Moral Economy of War.”