Capitalism and “respect for individual rights”

So Some Communists Do Naughty Things

Apologists for capitalism—I’m thinking of the authors of The Black Book of Communism—like to advertise the superior human rights records of capitalist countries over those of the “really existing” socialisms.1 The idea is that this says something bad about socialism (relative to capitalism, at least).

But the record by itself cannot do this. One must go on to specify the mechanism inherent within socialism which discourages concern for human rights, or fosters abuses. Only this could tell us that the poor moral performance of these countries has something to do with the character of their economic systems, and not some other, “incidental” factor(s). For, yes, these countries were, at least on someone’s definition, “socialist”; but they were other things as well: scarce in material resources, victims of the active hostility of major powers, and lacking in a long tradition of political liberalism. Above all, they bore the memory and habits of a history of political despotism long, long predating socialism.

In this way, every entity, including “communist countries,” is a tangle of various properties. Any observer can go about, hirdy-girdy, pointing these features out; this does not amount to a causal explanation of the entity’s behavior. It does not tell us, that is, just which of these properties is “at fault.”

In other words, saying that communists hurt people is not to say that “communism” hurts people—any more than that some cooks or Methodists hurt people shows that “cookery” or “Methodism” is the culprit.

An Open Question

Strictly speaking, an economic system is one thing, and a political system, another. There is no reason why deprivatizing control of production should magically generate a benign politics. In theory capitalism and socialism are each compatible with a whole range of political colorations—from despotism to a very direct democracy. These characters are determined, in the end, by the will and ability of citizens to work for them, and to resist their opposites. They don’t flow automatically from some socialist or capitalist “essence.”

A Twist On the Argument: Individual Rights and the Development of Capitalism

But if communism is not predisposed to disregard rights, then perhaps capitalism is predisposed to respect them. Indeed, the English Civil Wars marked the beginning of talk of and care for what we might call “individual rights,” as well as a fair starting point for the emergence of capitalist production. Certainly, capitalism and the conceptual architecture of rights spread apace throughout Western Europe and North America, the former probably the vehicle for the latter.

So there is clearly a correlation, and perhaps even a natural enough “fit,” between the two. But this cannot substitute for an argument showing that capitalism needed the concept of individual rights, or that rights could never have developed in the absence of capitalism. But let us assume this (generously) for the sake of argument.

If capitalism somehow “selected for” or otherwise caused the development of concern for rights, it would be poor logic to conclude much in capitalism’s favor from this fact alone. For if capitalism needs rights, it hardly follows that rights need capitalism. It doesn’t even follow that capitalism is the system most effective at meeting or securing the things people have a right to. It is quite possible that concern for rights cannot be fully met under the very capitalism that created it—even that it can be met only some type of socialism.

Capitalism and Rights: Intimately Connected, But Not In A Way Pro-Capitalists Should Like To Admit

But things may be worse for capitalism still. Consider first all the examples of “good” things that are nonetheless indices of very “bad” ones: A father’s tenderness toward his children may spring from the death of their mother–perhaps it would never have developed otherwise. Lauding the newfound tenderness does not oblige us to celebrate its tragic cause. Second, consider those items that gain all of their value from being stopgaps against, or remedies for, otherwise “bad” ones: One might treasure a favorite bar as a “haven” away from loneliness and meaningless toil; more concretely, one is glad to have a strong metal door when it is all that separates her from a violent and uncertain outside. We can celebrate security doors and havens, sure enough. And certainly, havens and security measures would not have developed apart from those threats we need haven and security against. But those threats are not made good simply for causing their remedies.

To complete the analogy: It is difficult for we contemporary persons, trained to “naturally” see human labor as a commodity, like bricks or tea, to appreciate how alien this notion appeared at the dawn of capitalist social relations. This was compounded by a related idea: Under capitalism, there is a domain of human activity over which the State does not exercise very direct power—what Hegel called “civil society.” This domain includes family life, the arts, and work. It is the place where the most fundamental human desires and aspirations are dispatched and, hopefully, fulfilled. At the same time, where the dictates of the State leave off, the dictates of capital accumulation take over. This is the fundamental organizing principle of civil society to the extent that no activity or interest is permitted which does not facilitate (or at least permit) the imperative of capitalist growth. Human needs and aspirations are subordinate to this overarching imperative. (If humans stopped needing and aspiring to things, or needed things contrary to the interests of capital, capital would still need to expand itself—lest the whole system, civil society in tow, collapse into crisis.)

The new idea that human persons, as bearers of labor power, are fundamentally mere means to an end outside themselves, versus (in Kant’s terms) “ends-unto-themselves,” further blurred the line between people and objects; the threat to human dignity was evident. A philosophical justification was required, and the concept of rights provided it: The most fundamental rights—the “inalienable” ones of which our Constitution speaks—carve off an area of human activity into which the mandates of capital accumulation may not encroach.

(That there should be rights was not merely a conclusion from theoretical principles. They were inspired by the more egregious acts of violence and dislocation attending the birth of capitalism—which came, in Marx’s words, “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” It wasn’t a smooth and pretty process, for example, to separate self-sufficient peasants from the lands on which they long lived and farmed, and implore them to work in someone else’s factory, built on the site.)


Rights provide checks against the nasty consequences of capitalism. They correct what results when an organizing principle is made of of the view that humans are chiefly valuable for what can be got out of them. Rights are premised on the expectation that the system in its “natural” state ever-threatens to produce these. It is precisely because capitalism will not generate these protections on its own that they must be stuck on from outside.

In this way, capitalism enhances rights to just the extent that cancer “enhances” chemotherapy. The connection is real, but scores no “moral points” for the pro-capitalist.

* * *


1 I’m using the terms “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably here.


(1) It is far from clear that capitalism has a better human rights record than “actual socialism” anyhow. For example, millions of deaths from the AIDS epidemic in South Africa—where maybe a quarter of the population is infected—are directly attributable to capitalist competition: In 1997 the South African government passed a law permitting compulsory licensing of the AIDS cocktail produced by American pharmaceutical companies. (Compulsory licensing is a legal, commonly used practice allowing local companies to produce medications under patent by a foreign company. It is “compulsory” because the patent-holder does not have to consent, but they must be compensated with a licensing fee.) The law also allowed South Africa to purchase the drugs second-hand from countries who have already obtained them from the patent-holder at a lower-than-market cost.

These measures were the only way to make the pricey cocktail available to poor “third-worlders.” 39 pharmaceutical companies sued South Africa via TRIPS to force a repeal of the law. Then-VP Al Gore (yeah, fuck ‘im), pressured by the pharm lobby, threatened international sanctions if they didn’t comply. Eventually, world outcry forced Gore and the pharmaceuticals to renege, but not until a four-year holdup in the courts. (This speaks nothing of the deaths that came before 1997 all over Africa due to the high prices.)

In any case, there is a French-language Black Book of Capitalism in which the authors, using a methodology parallel to that of their “…Communism” counterparts, gauge the deaths of capitalism (due to imperial conquest, counter-socialist-revolutionary war, colonial repression, etc.) at 157 million—60 million more than those alleged by the authors of “….Communism.” (Again, nothing important follows from this comparison, but if it did….)

(2) Nor is it clear that “really existing socialist” countries, however they performed, were socialist. ‘A’ socialism requires a more-or-less socialist world: If we define socialism by the presence of socialist property relations, then a “socialist” country enmeshed in an international network of capitalist property relations in a sense still “has” capitalist property relations, thus is capitalist. These relations are “theirs” to the extent they must negotiate with them and are internally affected by them.

(3) Rights themselves are a specious concept. There is, frankly, no good theory yet adduced grounding the existence of “natural” rights. We can write laws that say you may not kill somebody, but this does not reflect any “right not to be killed” predating and standing apart from this. But this just furthers our point: If we like “rights,” we can artificially graft them onto socialism just as well as they were, in fact, artificially grafted onto capitalism. And while we’re at it, we are free to graft some rights that capitalism hasn’t seen fit to generate—like, as in Cuba, a right to a home, and the arts.


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