Lockdown musings from a little hut overlooking a lake on a mountain where the EU and non-EU Balkans meet: North Macedonia and Greece. Albania is across the lake. I am geographically situating myself in Europe, but my message and its addressees cannot be but global.
In times when it is difficult to defend ‘human rights’, when we have deconstructed them to the level of rendering them meaningless; when we have exposed them as the “essentialist discourse” they are, usurped by “imperialist neoliberalism,” how are we to find, rediscover or invent a language that will adequately defend the right to a human life that’s worth living? How are we to defend or claim our right to freely move, to enjoy ourselves physically as well as socially, all the while demanding that sociality is embodied, material? How are we to formulate these rights beyond a discourse that has lost its sense, its credibility, and rightfully so?
Apart from having been unpacked as a set of historical contingencies usurping the status of universality, in the past century “human rights” have been frequently abused to justify imperial wars, and the ravaging of the so called “third world” by the self-proclaimed “first world.” Therefore, we must ask, what language do we have at our disposal when we demand the freedom – the right and the reality of – movement, and sovereignty over our bodies, the touch and closeness of our fellow human animals? How are we to defend “freedom” when it has lost meaning beyond the vocabulary of liberalism? Poststructuralism has exposed the myth of the “autonomous subject”— the illusion of free choice; and it has been stuck there ever since, in a state of a compulsive repetition and reaffirmation of the same realization all over again – the state of palilalia of a once controversial academia, based on the poststructuralist episteme, that turned mainstream.
“Anti-essentialism,” “discursive constructivism,” “identity politics,” “discourse,” “gender” (instead of sex) are now part of the mainstream. In the 90s and the beginning of noughts of the 21st century, we were still getting accustomed to the new terminology. When I enrolled in the PhD support program of the gender studies department at the Central European University in Budapest in 1997, I filled out a form for my student visa in which I had to state my “sex” rather than gender, only to study “gender” as a discursive construct there and learn that sex has always already been gender. Later on, I cooperated with the local OSI foundation on devising strategies for “gender mainstreaming.”
By now, not only gender but the entire poststructuralist episteme has been mainstreamed, arriving at a global consensus that nothing is universal, not even human rights. The autocrats that suppress minority rights use the “culturalist argument” in favor of their suspension of human rights for all, declaring the UN’s universal declaration of human rights irrelevant, “culturally specific” – “Western.” In October 2019, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah said that "Western standards of human rights do not apply to India," and that families possessed an “in-built framework of human rights”, adding that Indian values ensured the protection of women and children, and villages looked after the economically backward as “part of their dharma [duty].”
Universalism is dead, liberalism is dead and the notion of freedom is too loose and philosophically elusive to refer to it. It too is culturally specific. The autocrats have used the protracted crisis of values, the “anti-essentialist” turn and the cancelling of the possibility of “freedom” (even if merely legalistic) to announce the arrival of a national sovereignty that is based on cultural specificities that are unsusceptible to universal critique.
There is no such thing as “universality” – its very possibility is abolished by the realization that western postcolonial reason is nested everywhere, including the universal declaration of human rights. In the meantime, the poststructuralist progressives and self-proclaimed leftists have used the same episteme to liberate social minorities – “identities” – from the conservative norm. Apparently the structure is the same in both cases, whereas the ideological horizon – one of semantic figurations – is different in both cases. The utopia is therefore different and thus the historical directions (conservation or past vs. progression or future) are opposed, but their confrontation is not a proper contradiction, as the two ideological narratives remain structurally homologous. Let us note that those who opened up the question of liberalism and its pertinence, the leftwing poststructuralists, ended up as the “liberators” of “identities,” “subjectivities,” of individuals and individualism. We witness here the paradoxical outcome of a decades long history of contestation over the doctrines of liberalism.
There is no such thing as “universality” – its very possibility is abolished by the realization that western postcolonial reason is nested everywhere, including the universal declaration of human rights.
Now that all universals are dead, how are we to defend our universally shared desire to breath fresh air, be in the sun, refrain from practicing social or physical distancing, or protect our right to rally against the government? What language do we have at our disposal to pronounce these desires as relevant enough to be called rights? If these desires are universally shared, do we need a new epistemic possibility that will legitimize a new political language that speaks in terms of universality?
The dominant explanatory paradigm can no longer be cultural. The end of the domination of “cultural identity” as an explanatory framework that subsumes all values and all other explanatory models does not imply culture’s irrelevance but rather the end of its quasi teleological status in the given epistemic paradigm. If universality has been suspended or rendered completely meaningless by having been exposed as essentially Western, and if the affirmation of cultural particularity has exhausted its critical potential and has morphed into authoritarian, nationalist particularism and exceptionalism, perhaps a new foundation of universalism can be imagined, placed beyond the principle of culture. In the present era of the covid-19 pandemic, the universally shared everyday life or “lifestyle,” policy and politics of everyday life, relations between state and citizens, restrictions of the freedom of movement and shared economic and health concerns, allow for the possibility of imagining a completely new foundation of universality and, therefore, universalism.
A new universalism?
Can we imagine a universalism that would be beyond culture? By this question, I do not mean a universalism that is insensitive to culture, destructive of cultural particularities or historically static. Quite to the contrary, the question is this: can we imagine a set or system of universal values that will be culturally reconfigured, accommodating of gender, sexuality, class, and yet not be determined in the last instance by culture. One can infer the universally (globally or internationally) shared paradigm in these times of pandemic: economy is always political, states and society do not have to be alienated from one another. Yet again, states are not inherently innocent when it comes to the economic order and, therefore the functioning of capitalism, but rather, complicit or enabling; when societies are weak and individual liberties suppressed, autocracies tend to emerge.
In times when all ideological narratives fail in the face of a silly virus, when talking about identity related rights and other human rights feels like a luxury one cannot afford, when a new utopia cannot be fathomed, what remains is the universally shared experience of material and physical reality… The need to move, the need to be in physical contact with other living beings, the need to feel economically safe or simply – to have nourishment, health, and shelter, are all individual and collective needs universally shared, that ought to be universally demanded.
If these material needs of humanity, the animals and the planet become a priority that is universally endorsed, the deity of surplus value must be replaced by the primacy of use value. In order to be able to claim these universal rights, we need our freedom to act. Freedom is the prerequisite of any radical change. In this era of the deepest contradiction of global capitalism, a radical, international(ist) and, therefore, universal change is necessary.
That change will make sense only if it is liberating for the individual and collective agents of the masses that seek to introduce it. That change will aspire to making us feel more free (in the political-economic sense, if the ontological definition is too vague), less alienated from the state, other individuals and society: that change would be about liberty, if not liberalism.
 "Western standards of human rights do not apply to India, says Home Minister Amit Shah," Human Rights at Scroll.In (13 October 2019, available at https://scroll.in/latest/940344/western-standards-of-human-rights-do-not-apply-to-india-says-home-minister-amit-shah, accessed on 15 April 2020 (s.a.).