Post-Marxism and the Politics of Human Rights

Stream: Panel 29 - Human Rights & Democracy: Human Rights and the Politics of Emancipation: Rules and Unruly Subjects
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 11.30 am – 1.00 pm
Speaker(s): Daniel McLoughlin

Recent histories of human rights have shown that the turn to the politics of human rights occurred as a placeholder for utopian energies at the end of history, coinciding with a retreat of the organised left, the abandonment of the theme of revolution, and the pluralisation of political struggles. Post-Marxist theorists have responded to the hegemony of human rights with critiques that point to their complicity in humanitarian state violence and their failure to adequately address the structural problems that underlie human rights violations. Yet a great number of theorists have also argued that, despite these problems, human rights continue to offer important tools for democratic political struggle. In this paper I interrogate this argument through the work of two theorists who argue for the radical democratic potentials of rights politics: Claude Lefort, who was one of the first post-Marxist theorists to make an argument for a democratic politics of rights claiming in late 1970s, and Jacques Ranciere, who makes a similar argument in a 2004 essay. I argue, however, that while Ranciere is often taken to be the contemporary standard bearer for the politics of human rights, he is positive about the politics of the “rights of man,” while being hesitant about the political potentials of “human rights,” due to fundamental political transformations that have occurred since Lefort’s time. I use this little noticed aspect of Ranciere’s argument to reflect on the political meaning of human rights today.