With me or against us? The Economist mourns the passing of the rugged individual right

by Rhodri C. Williams

A common problem with minority rights is that their necessity is not always self-evident for the people in the majority, who, as we all know, get to call most of the shots in a democracy. This is most problematic in situations where minorities find themselves inconveniently present in countries that have staked a good deal of their credibility on not having minorities, such as newly consolidated and politically fragile post-colonial states or France. However, it may also raise issues when well-intentioned outsiders turn up and start loudly wondering what all the fuss is about.

Before I cast any aspersions on the Economist, I might as well clear my own conscience. Minority and indigenous rights are complex and contested terrain for minority and indigenous peoples, let alone suburban white Americans. Whatever insights living as an expat in the Swedish-speaking Åland archipelago of Finland may have given me, I am still only really in an intellectual position to assess the issue not an intuitive one. This can result in misunderstandings.

In the year since TN was born for instance, I have come to realize that (1) the tag ‘indigenous groups’ may not please a readership that may include some ‘groups’ that have spent the last thirty years struggling to be recognized as ‘peoples’, and that (2) the name of the blog will be received by some right-minded Australians as a hair less offensive than calling it ‘ApartHeid’ would be to South Africans. The point being that perhaps the first duty of the well-meaning outsider is to seek to attain more than a  superficial understanding of the situation they will inevitably influence through their statements.

Sadly, I’m not really so sure that the latest Economist take on group rights meets this test. The article in question, ‘Me myself and them‘ (May 14, 2011), generates a bit more heat than light in its discussion of this complicated topic and links its conclusions somewhat debatably to the fate of the Arab Spring. To paraphrase their argument:

1. “Egregious” deference to indigenous rights in Canada illustrate how exempting some groups from general rules of accountability waters down the principle of equal citizenship;

2.  Balancing individual and group rights is harder for everyone “in the age of identity politics, when arguments about culture and even religion have replaced older ones over economics and class”;

3. Even egalitarian countries like France turn a blind eye to oppressive practices carried out within immigrant communities;

4. Governments and courts charged with upholding “eternal principles” instead bend to a “climate of opinion” whipped up by human rights “wonks and campaigners”

5. Said wonks have elevated suspect “social and cultural rights -generally demanded by groups” to the level of “classic” individual rights by asserting their indivisibility from the latter;

7. The Arab Spring is a triumphant reassertion of the classic individual right and even human rights activists know it in their heart of hearts;

8. However, all could be lost if the dominant groups in Arab countries abuse democracy to impose tyrannies of the majority rather than fostering “genuine liberal democracies, with guarantees that members of minorities will be treated no better and no worse than anybody else”; and

9. Given how perilously off-message we in the global North still are, how can we expect the global South to avoid repeating our mistakes? E.g., “a dangerous line has been crossed, and a bad signal sent to other places, if, in the name of group rights, the principle of equality before the law is openly breached.”

I’m not really sure where to start with all this. First of all, I guess its pretty clear that I do not like being called a wonk, as fair as that label may be. But beyond that, I feel that issue could reasonably be taken with each link in the article’s chain of logic.

One entry point is that the article briefly quotes Will Kymlicka, a Canadian professor whose Multicultural Citizenship has become the touchstone for analyzing how minority rights can be compatible with liberal theory. It is probably fair to say that Mr. Kymlicka would have reservations regarding many of the central propositions in the article, which leaves one wondering why they bothered to interview him (its a bit like starting an article by trashing the theory of relativity and then quoting Albert Einstein saying “physics is complicated”).

On substance, however, the  best starting point might be to examine the notion of equality before the law. Here, the Economist misses the point that even if the majority has no intention of oppressing the minority, the minority will nevertheless always be outvoted.  Contemporary understandings of minority rights are therefore an extension of the liberal rationale for individual rights – just as some issues are so crucial to individuals’ autonomy that they must be placed outside the sphere of democratic decision-making, other issues may be central to the ability of a group to retain its identity, and therefore merit similar treatment.

From this pespective, the Economist’s assertion that groups tend to favor economic and cultural rights is curious. While protection of defensible cultural traditions (e.g. wearing a turban not female infanticide) is an important part of minority claims, most of the heavy lifting in this area tends to relate to political expression. Such political minority rights claims may involve either demands for guaranteed representation or vetoes in political organs otherwise dominated by majority members or an opt out in the form of territorial autonomy regimes allowing minorities to exercise a range of government competences in areas they have traditionally inhabited.

This is the point where the connection to the ongoing ‘Arab Spring’ becomes difficult to comprehend. Does the Economist truly think that activists have braved rubber bullets and worse simply for the abstract right to express their political opinions at some future point, if need be? Is it beyond the realm of the imaginable that some of the political issues the masses might rather like to comment on have a distributional element? And if so, is it not possible that the social and economic grievances that have fed this blooming of civil and political rights demands may not have played themselves out to some degree along ethnic and sectarian lines?

The interlocking nature of political demands, economic grievances and identity politics in the current ferment in the Middle East became fairly clear to me in the course of examining some of the underlying property issues nearly two months ago. And given that the Economist has in the past both ordained Turkey as the role-model for Muslim democracy in the region and noted the importance of Turkey’s efforts to accommodate the demands of its Kurdish minority in achieving this status, its hard to see much consistency in their current argumentation.

Maybe the strangest thing of all is the idea that if we (in the global North) don’t talk about groups demands, they will (in the global South) fade away. Most of the countries caught up in the Arab Spring (or waiting to be) have no tradition of democracy and have been the site of intense competition or even outright conflict between ethnic and sectarian groups. As a result, sectarian politics will inevitably influence the future governance structures of these countries. Confronting this fact squarely seems a more likely way to ensure that group identities do not run roughshod over individual rights than whistling past the graveyard.

It is also important to point out that identity politics are particularly persistent in the wake of conflict and atrocities that destroy the trust between groups. This is clear in Bosnia where ethnic polarization has nearly strangled ordinary politics sixteen years after the war ended. It is perhaps even more so in Lebanon, where I currently find myself, and where a government has yet to be formed months after the last election due to wrangling between the parties representing the country’s numerous confessional groups.

And, as pointed out in an incisive commentary in the Lebanese Daily Star, the same problem is nascent in the Middle East’s new flagship democracy, Iraq, where a US-backed ‘goverment of national unity’ recently broke a similar post-election impasse:

Ironically, Iraq’s unity framework has reproduced institutionalized sectarian consciousness. During their formation, many executive and ministerial positions were allocated based on informal sectarian obligations. This has carried irrevocable consequences, reflecting what is taking place in Lebanon. There, a fragmented society hosts a sectarian political structure, where the prime minister is a Sunni, the president a Maronite Christian, and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite. By deepening sectarian roots in Iraq, the U.S. has helped place Iraq squarely on the same unstable path as Lebanon.

The bottom line is that there is a recurring tendency in established liberal democratic states to see the introduction of civil and political rights as a silver bullet that will allow traumatized transitional states to be wafted away from the poisonous legacy of their past to a state of higher political consciousness virtually overnight. This was what everyone hoped for in the former Soviet bloc in 1989 and we know what happened then.

Grievances tied to group identity are some of the most powerful political forces in the world. Principled attempts to parse out what type of group demands may be defensible and reject those corrosive of individual freedoms and other core values may provide a means of channeling such demands  and dissipating their ability to destabilize fragile new governments. Ignoring them will not make them go away.

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6 responses to “With me or against us? The Economist mourns the passing of the rugged individual right

  1. Anders Linde

    Good an interesting food for thought about the complexities of the world that have not been fostered in the liberal democratic spirit of the western hemisphere. However, this other undomesticated part of the world which houses four fifths of the worlds inhabitants are to a large extent chronic victims of brutal forms of exploitation during colonial rule, and they persist even today among those who lack an understanding of what happened and is still happening in this part of our common world. In fact, the failure of the poor world to develop and become like us in the affluent world is the result of a complex mix of factors, some geographical, some historical and some political. The onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, supported by a rise in agricultural productivity, unleashed an explosive period of modern economic growth in the western world. This all happened in tandem with the west conquering and becoming slave masters of large swaths of the rest of the world. We all know what this came down to, the rich world virtually sucked the lifeblood out of their colonies and ballooned themselves with the nourishing riches of the conquered to swell as big and fat ticks. The imperial rule left the conquered nations and regions bereft of education, health care, indigenous political leadership and adequate physical infrastructure. Much of the bloodsucking of the weaker nations of the world continues today with the eager assistance of the financial arm wrenching policies enforced by the world money doctor, the International Monetary Fund. The main IMF prescription has been budgetary belt-tightening for patients much too poor to own belts. Countries ranging from Bolivia to Malawi to Afghanistan face challenges almost unknown in the rich world, challenges that are really harrowing to contemplate. IMF-led austerity has frequently resulted in riots, coups and the collapse of public services. When nations are economically dominant, it is easy for its members to assume that such dominance reflects a deeper superiority whether religious, racial, genetic, ethnic, cultural or institutional rather than and accident of timing or geography. There are ample reasons to doubt the veracity of the intelligence of the dominant political powers on the planet. Just think of the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted 240 to 184 this spring to defeat a resolution saying simply that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare. The big threat facing the human race is a potent mix of ignorance, greed and limited acceptance of the intricacies of social development as well as of the hard facts of geophysics, among the dominant agents of biopolitics in accordance with the well-known theories of sociologist Michel Foucault. This biopower is still evolving and mutating and exercised in many ways, through many institutions, including states, corporations, international organizations, and so on. It is not synonymous with the U.S. and its client states and allies, even though the U.S. may be situated near the top of the empire and may be the most visible symbol of biopower today. Most frightening is that the various entities exercising global biopower dances to the seducing tunes of the dark forces of the controlling elites of the financial, military and industrial juggernauts, but very sadly to a much lesser extent as active companions and supporters of fair and leveled economical prerequisites and as unbiased promoters of true democratic policies offered to all and every peoples and tribes irrespective of their beliefs and creeds on this blue planet of ours.

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