A ‘global human rights movement’ and the ‘southern’ middle class - a tale of two fetishes

V. Nagaraj
15 May 2014

I find the endless refrain on openGlobalRights regarding the burgeoning middle class in the ‘global south’ bordering on fetishization. While much has been said about how this has created new opportunities for human rights organisations, there is little critical reflection on how this middle class actually emerged in the first place, and its political character. Doesn’t it bear the imprint of a model of development that has brought huge economic inequalities, deep social divisions, and massive environmental crises? Even in Brazil, generally seen as most active amongst the ‘southern’ giants in attempting to address inequalities and promote mass welfare, social and ecological conflicts are exploding countrywide.

An uncritical view of the middle-class in the ‘global south’ reflects a lack of attention to questions of political economy and class, typical of the dominant ways of doing human rights. While this middle class is in many ways highly subsidised by the state, it is increasingly intolerant of any form of subsidies to the poor. How ‘global south’, politically speaking, is this middle class anyway?

In regions like South Asia there is a large (and growing) middle class that is ideologically nationalist for sure, but this is hardly the same thing. This class has shown itself to be remarkably capacious in accommodating neo-liberalisms and consumerism on the one hand, and feudalism and religious fundamentalisms on the other. It is a class thirsty for ‘world-class’ cities, demanding order, efficiency and a muscular state, and tired with the chaos of democracy. 

Hence paternalism and even authoritarianism - so long as it permits consumption - finds strong purchase with the emerging middle class.  And nor is this a recent phenomenon; decades ago the Latin American social scientist José Nun articulated the idea of the “middle-class military coup" to underline a key aspect of the region’s politics of conformity dictated by its militaries. 

Of course, this is a partial reading of the ‘southern’ middle class, but my objective is to problematize a discussion that takes a wholly simplistic view of it. What most commentators appear enamoured by is the economic status of this middle class. There is an assumption that the expanding basket of commodities consumed by those from this class will include human rights - or at least they could be convinced to do so. And indeed this is likely, but only if human rights is suitably packaged. But how will this impact human rights advocacy? 

There is a real danger that because what are more likely to be bought are ‘trade-related and market-friendly’ human rights, that is what will be sold. Catering to this new market for human rights, can, as I argued in a previous post, distort the ethics, politics and even optics of human rights work.

If the compulsive rush to win over the ‘southern’ middle class does not necessarily augur well for progressive human rights futures, nor does an uncritical understanding of a supposed ‘global human rights movement’. We must also interrogate the manner in which we deploy the ‘movement’ idea. 

Stephen Hopgood refers to the ‘Global Human Rights Movement’, but this is not something that simply exists out there, autonomous and with its own address. Rather it is the result of viewing or imagining actually existing transnational and local human rights expressions, actions and inter-connections as networked and webbed together.

Apart from the general incoherency of this web and the significant differences in power and motivations amongst the different actors in this network, there is the ‘human rights system’ itself, which looms large over it. There is an inherent tension between being wanting to be a ‘movement’ and the reality of human rights work being mired in an increasingly complex and ever-expanding matrix of global, regional and national human rights bureaucracies and mechanisms. This matrix shapes human rights practice, transnationally and locally, including ordering the different actors involved. 

The major global human rights organisations in particular are closely integrated into the international human rights bureaucracy. Their non-governmental persona understates how thoroughly incorporated they are into the inter-governmental system. At the same time, even national and local organisations are also increasingly expanding their investment and footprint in the national, regional and global human rights system.

The deeper this investment—in influencing the positions of international human rights bodies, building new standards and mechanisms or servicing existing ones—the greater the likelihood that organisations are shaped by them. It is questionable to what extent one could even speak of a ‘global human rights movement’ if it was not for the international human rights system itself that gives it shape and structure. 

I am not suggesting that there are no expressions of human rights practice outside of, or external to, human rights bureaucracies. But I am suggesting that such expressions are in danger of being rendered marginal by constructions of a ‘global human rights movement’.  This is particularly so because the power of the human rights system to politically circumscribe and determine those heavily invested in it is immense. 

Progressive human rights futures depend on the extent to which transnational and local practice can escape the grip of global and national human rights bureaucracies.  We need to go beyond imaginations of a ‘global human rights movement’ for there is a real danger that it will be held hostage to a narrative of progress that hinges on the continuous expansion of the human rights system.

Similarly, we need to ensure that winning ‘southern’ middle class patronage does not over-determine the agenda of building human rights ‘movements’. A failure to do so could leave human rights trapped in middle-class or high politics and stymie rather than enable emancipatory mass politics. 

At the same time, we must also interrogate the manner in which we deploy the ‘movement’ frame itself. As noted by one commentator, there is “frequent metaphoric and post-factual use of the term” coupled with the mushrooming of organisations and coalitions “whose very names sometimes usurp” the term ‘movement’. This threatens to empty ‘movement’ of its politically significant meanings.

There is a real danger of confusing the description with the described; movements need to be built rather than assumed. The futures of human rights will be decided not by the semantic depth of so-called movements, global or local, but by their actual political salience for those on the margins of power.

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