Author’s Roundtable: Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
Guest Writer: Zachary Poppel

Thursday, October 18, 2012

[On October 15, 2012 the Unit for Criticism held the Fall 2012 Author’s Roundtable . The Unit hosted Samuel Moyn to discuss his book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Below is one of three responses that were delivered on Monday, by Zachary Poppel, a graduate student affiliate in History.]

Response 1
Zachary Poppel (History)

My brief comments focus on the middle and end of Moyn's book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History and I hope to suggest some connections and questions.

The middle chapter of The Last Utopia is about decolonization, collective liberation, and to quote the title of chapter 3, "Why Anticolonialism Wasn't a Human Rights Movement." For now I'll just say my question for Moyn is rather simple: does he think history can repeat itself? As the title suggests the key claims of this chapter are that decolonization was a period that saw the "globalizing" of claims to nationalist liberation, not a globalizing of individual liberation (86). In this story human rights come after anti-colonial struggles —in Moyn's words, "human rights experienced [their] triumph as a widespread moral vernacular after decolonization not during it" (117). Furthermore, the chapter turns on the idea that in the wake of decolonization and national liberation, the idiom of human rights displaced rather than fulfilled anti-colonial promises (116). Collective liberation went into crisis around the globe, and in doing so set the stage for human rights (87). It's also suggested that decolonization and anti-colonial nationalism were periods, rigidly bounded in time, rather than processes that could very likely, or could already, be happening again. If we push back a bit against this periodization, as I think we should, and against the book's suggestion that empire and some forms of racialized oppression ended in the 1970s, we might see the current uneven horizon of humanity against empire that today is both retro and original (118; 217). Briefly, I will discuss the middle of The Last Utopia, and do so in light of what Moyn offers us at the end of the book regarding the approaching choice between two different futures for human rights.

Dates of Decolonization World Map
My reading of this middle chapter, and of the book overall, boils down to a set of questions about what the futures of anti-colonialism, of collectivity, and of decolonization might look like from Moyn's perspective. I suspect he may have some ideas about how another round of decolonization, or another attempt to rattle popular conceptions of state sovereignty, might do to reveal a lean and mean, bureaucratic-proof, properly historicized relationship with human rights. Indeed it's the choice that Moyn describes at the conclusion of The Last Utopia making urgent the query about the future of anti-colonialism and anti-neocolonialism. The coming choice described at the end of the book is between a future where human rights is either a method for a more successful restraint of potentially violent global affairs, or a future where human rights is expanded artificially to displace or neutralize necessary political struggles. This is defined as a choice between on the one hand a "minimalist" human rights--conscious of its contingency, resistant to liberalization--and on the other hand a "maximalist" human rights--addicted to its teleology, run by a professional class that prescribe, rather than just edit, blueprints for political life and political solutions (219).

Though he offers many qualifications, Moyn thinks a minimalist human rights is more fair. He writes that the minimalist choice can more "honestly confront its lack of answers and acknowledge that it must make room for the contest of genuinely political visions for the future" (226). For Moyn then, human rights emerged because the idea was not "genuinely political"; it was, as he says, "born in anti-politics" and it "survived [through] neutrality" (213). And those conditions do not justify the maximizing, the scaling up of human rights to the level of the "genuinely political," a level reserved for unrealized or heretofore uncharted modes of liberation.

I conclude with my larger question, how would this minimalist version of human rights engage another round of decolonization and collective liberation? How does another round of fighting for concessions and fair jurisdiction change the core language of human rights? Since the 1970s is a crucial part of this core, my last silly question is whether or not Moyn is expecting a reenacting of the 1970s any time soon?


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Lauren said...

These are really important questions, Zack. Thanks for asking them!

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