Human Rights and the Ideology of Capitalist Globalization: A View from Slovenia

By Flere, Sergej | Monthly Review, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and the Ideology of Capitalist Globalization: A View from Slovenia


Flere, Sergej, Monthly Review


Ideologies are a constant of human societies, though they have become more explicit in modern society. Since the eighteenth century, they have been increasingly distinguished from religious doctrines and popular religion. Ideologies make a claim to knowledge about society. This knowledge is, of course, biased and distorted in accordance with the interests of certain groups in society, with historical conditions and circumstances. Ideologies claim to be complete accounts of reality, but they are not. They can be critiqued. They rise and pass away, and are perpetuated with certain interests in mind. The "truth" of ideology is political. Therefore, in Marx's words, ideology is a "false consciousness."

But ideology is not simply a picture of an objective world. It also contains a call to action. Ideologies request an immediate commitment and action to achieve what is considered possible and necessary, and to counter other political orientations, movements, and truths. Ideologies are neither simple lies nor casual smokescreens. Rather, ideology has structural roots which the social sciences seek to uncover. This process can be said to have its origins in Francis Bacon's discussion of idols in Novum Organum and was advanced most spectacularly by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century and (with numerous caveats) by Karl Mannheim in the twentieth century. Ideologies have causes and functions in society and in political life in particular.

Nor, of course, are the social sciences themselves immune to ideology. For example, the "death of class" thesis is clearly aligned with the dominant ideology. Another ideology-permeated notion in the social sciences is the idea of "rational choice," not only postulating a homo oeconomicus idea of human nature, but also advancing this as the major explanatory concept of the functioning of society. Postmodernist ideas--with their nihilism, their heterogeneity, their contradictions--play a role in obfuscating the existing social reality. From this perspective, what can be said about the dominant ideology of the present?

The dominant ideology (the one legitimating the existing state of global domination) is complex and cannot be reduced to a single catch phrase. Ideas which deny the efficacy of any economic system outside the one enforced and promoted at present ("free trade" globalist capitalism) certainly do complement the human rights idea. So do the dominant group's and ruling system's ideas of the need for enemies of democracy and human rights.

Human Rights in the Dominant Ideology

Human rights are no mere fad, lacking content and history. They contain universal, all-embracing ideas with great allure. In political discourse and life, however, they seem to be flexible enough to be invoked in the most varied of situations. The concept of human rights is now used as a political tool in the legitimation of highly diverse political acts on the part of the ruling actors on national and world stages. Civilian targets in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, can be bombed; Iraqi children deprived of essential foods and medicines by embargo; murderous South American military figures can be arrested (like Pinochet) or alternatively supported with billions of dollars and advanced weaponry (as in Colombia); and all justified with human rights talk. In the contemporary dominant ideology, human rights are understood almost exclusively as classical political rights (free speech, assembly, universal suffrage, etc.), while rights of a social nature, such as the right to health and welfare or the right to work, are eve r less stressed or stressed only in the spirit of lip service, as was the case at the aborted Seattle World Trade Organization meetings. Shifts in "universal" and "timeless" rights are particularly informative. For much of the Cold War, refugees from "communist tyranny" were given honorary treatment. Now that refugees come to the developed parts of the world in greater numbers, citizenship and residence take on much greater importance as a precondition for the enjoyment of supposedly universal human rights. …

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