Human Rights and Neoliberalism

By Nils GilmanMay 8, 2018

Human Rights and Neoliberalism

Not Enough by Samuel Moyn

THIS MARVELOUS BOOK is a history of one of the hardest things to explain: why something did not happen. Histories of non-events are inherently difficult to write because of the methodological commitment of historians to stick close to documentary sources, and things that don’t happen rarely leave an obvious documentary trail. In this case, the non-event that Samuel Moyn describes in his new book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, is the institutionalization of a political ethic of material egalitarianism.

The book takes the form of an intervention into two huge historical debates, the first about the history of neoliberalism and the second about the history of human rights, a field whose current contours Moyn helped to define with his 2010 book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. The puzzle he seeks to explain is: How is it that the era of neoliberalism, commonly said to have begun in the mid-to-late 1970s, coincides almost perfectly with the triumphant rise of a discourse of human rights? In other words, how can it be that an era whose ethical self-conception was rooted in a transnational movement to prevent abuses such as torture, disenfranchisement, and political imprisonment has also been an era in which national and global economies were remade in ways that have allowed wealthy capital owners to capture the large majority of economic productivity gains, creating in-country inequalities not seen since the late 19th century?

To answer this question, Moyn begins by revisiting the scene of what he deems a historiographical crime — namely, the claim that the 1940s were the great era of human rights, centered on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Before The Last Utopia, historians had often declared the UDHR to be the opening salvo of the modern human rights era, the great declaration of transnational hopes for a more just postwar world that would unfold over the coming decades — a cornerstone of “A New Deal for the World.” [1] The central project of The Last Utopia was to debunk this claim, marking the 1970s rather than the 1940s as the great moment for the flowering of human rights. Moyn’s case turned on the ideological collapse of socialism: the new dream of human rights backfilled the failed dream of socialism in the wake of the “global 1968.” Refusing a “whig interpretation” of the history of human rights as one of triumphant growth, Moyn’s genealogical approach offered a more melancholic view, seeing human rights as a kind of moral consolation prize.

Several puzzles and problems emerged out of this interpretation, however, as the heated and field-defining debate over The Last Utopia revealed. The first concerned the status of the 1940s human rights moment. Moyn had more or less dismissed that moment as a dead letter, further scoffing at claims that attempted to site the origins of human rights discourses even earlier, in the eras of the French and American revolutions. Yes, there had been a discourse of rights during the 1940s, Moyn conceded, but this had been vague and broad, enumerating a grab bag of different forms of rights, including collective rights as well as individual rights, economic and social rights as well as political rights, positive rights (“to” things) as well as negative rights (“from” things). The word “equal” appears numerous times in the UDHR, but except for the phase “equal pay for equal work,” there is no reference to economic equality or indeed to distributional questions at all. Rather, the equality referred to in the document concerns formal relations with the state (e.g., “before the law,” “access to the ballot,” et cetera), not equality with respect to one’s fellow citizens, much less mankind as a whole.

Regardless of the details of the enumerated rights, Moyn argued that, as a practical matter, the UDHR was an intellectual and ideological failure, largely ignored by policymakers and academics alike. By contrast, when human rights in the 1970s experienced its political “breakthrough” (the title of a 2013 volume Moyn co-edited with Jan Eckel), it did so with a far more narrowly focused conception that turned almost exclusively on individual political rights to be free from certain kinds of largely physical abuses at the hands of the state. The truncated version of human rights that stormed the global moral imaginary in the 1970s and 1980s succeeded in part because, by limiting its critique to political sins of the state, it became a useful tool in moral arguments about the superiority of Western liberal capitalism over the East’s form of dictatorial socialism.

The second historiographic puzzle Moyn confronts in Not Enough emerged in part out of the enormous growth of interest in the historical rise of neoliberalism and inequality in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, on the one hand, and the publication of Thomas Piketty’s work on the historical patterns of in-country inequality over the last two centuries, on the other. [2] Rooted in an enormously detailed data-set on the evolution of income and wealth distribution in nearly a dozen industrialized countries, the field-redefining work of Piketty and his collaborators in and around the London and Paris Schools of Economics has revealed that the middle third of the 20th century was an exceptional period in the history of economic distribution, as wealth and income inequalities narrowed dramatically across all the states of the North Atlantic industrial core. The inequality that had grown throughout the 19th century (and down to 1929, in the case of the United States) was enormously compressed by the dual factors of wealth destruction in wartime and the redistributionist policies imposed by postwar welfare states. Starting in the 1970s, however, income and wealth distribution began to reassert itself in all countries and, despite national differences and a whole series of business cycles, has inexorably proceeded now for nearly half a century. By a variety of measures, today’s in-country inequality levels approach those that characterized the heyday of classic 19th-century liberalism. Among academics, the reasons for this transformation are often explained under the rubric of “neoliberalism.”

Not Enough inserts itself into these questions by shifting its gaze back from the 1970s to the 1940s, and asking a rather peculiar, negative, and fiendishly difficult to answer question: why, in that great postwar moment of national solidarity and debt to the war-fighting working classes, as national welfare states were vastly expanded, did an ethos of equality not get permanently institutionalized in any country, much less at a transnational level? Here Moyn introduces the key distinction on which his book rests, a contrast between two different ethical principles that apply across a series of different domains, both economic and political: an ethos of equality versus an ethos of sufficiency. An ethos of equality asserts that a just moral order depends on everybody more or less having the same amount of the “good things in life,” including material goods but also things like dignity and political power. By contrast, an ethos of sufficiency is unconcerned with relative endowments, instead making sure that every individual meets some minimal threshold with respect to the goods in question.

Moyn argues that both the discourse of human rights and justifications for the development of welfare states in the 1940s were blurry on this distinction. While there were certainly some who stumped for egalitarianism (the British socialist politician and intellectual Harold Laski makes a couple of quietly heroic cameos in the book), Moyn argues that part of the motive for metropolitan-building welfare states was precisely to avoid directly confronting the sufficiency-versus-equality conundrum by raising the minimum floor of social provisioning to a level where the differences between the worst and best off would be, if not irrelevant, then at least politically neutralized. The failure to establish egalitarianism as the foundational ethic of the welfare state at the moment of its creation, however, left the door open for the vengeful return of inequality starting in the 1970s. And by then, the now-truncated conception of human rights was simply not enough to hold back the revanchism of financialized and globalized capitalism that would engulf the last quarter of the 20th century.


Of course, it’s not fair to blame people in the 1940s for failing to foresee what would happen 30 years later. But the point is that the conception of human rights was fundamentally unhelpful not just for defending egalitarianism later on but even for justifying welfare states in the first place. The builders of postwar metropolitan welfare states were largely unconcerned with questions of human rights, justifying their positions on other bases, notably the balancing out of class power. By contrast, in the emerging postcolonial states, the social rights enumerated in the UDHR were often cited as the basis for building the sorts of modern (i.e., welfarist) states they yearned for but in most cases failed to actually achieve. In sum, the (largely collective and positive) social and economic rights enumerated in the UDHR — which would be ignored by the 1970s champions of individual and negative political rights — resonated with the welfare-state-building ambitions of the postwar period, but they were largely ancillary to them. Few of the builders of these welfare states made reference to human rights as a justification for the institutions they were creating.

As Moyn argues, this evasion is a crying shame, since the failure to formalize the egalitarian ethical foundations of the welfare state in the 1940s left the door open to the rise of inegalitarianism in the 1970s. Yes, minimum material standards would continue to be met in most places — public housing, primary and secondary education, basic health care, pensions, and so on — but these remained stuck at a low level even as wealth disparities were allowed to grow and the emergent rich began to use their wealth to acquire much nicer, private versions of these goods: expensive and thus exclusive private schools, expensive and thus exclusive private transportation networks, expensive and thus exclusive private health care systems, and so on. And as the wealthy opted out of the collective public institutions and into their bespoke private versions of them, what had once seemed “sufficient” increasingly has become “minimal” (at best).

To take one example: The quality of a public school education, as measured by the learning skills most people leave with, may not have gotten worse in absolute terms since the 1940s, but it hasn’t necessarily gotten better either — even as the wealthy have moved their children into private schools with much smaller class sizes, better equipment, and far more personalized attention from teachers. Given the importance of education for success in the knowledge economy, these disparities reinforce class distinctions, further amplifying inequality. This “adverse selection” dynamic is a political and moral catastrophe, and Moyn’s acute point is that human rights discourse as we have known it in its post-1970s form has literally nothing to say about the matter.

The rise of North Atlantic welfare states in the 1940s is thus the event that marginalizes the UDHR at the moment of its proclamation. For Moyn, the “rediscovery” of the UDHR in the 1970s is highly ironic, especially since those who embraced it, claiming that their own activities draw upon it, did so even as they ignored the baggy references to social and economic rights. (This is a not uncommon pattern among those who claim new “rights” to things in the present with reference to “original” texts; consider how contemporary American proponents of an individual right to carry military-style weapons like to cite the Second Amendment of the US Constitution but blithely ignore the part about a “well regulated Militia” and the original justification of the right as a way to avoid the evils of a standing army.) If Moyn in The Last Utopia dismissed the UDHR in the 1940s as a dead letter, in this new book he actually re-valorizes it for its commitment — however thin — to distributive justice, even as he continues to insist that this part of the UDHR was essentially ignored both at the time of its publication and by those who resuscitated it in the 1970s as a way to make claims for individual political liberties. In Moyn’s new reading, the UDHR is recast from a marginal irrelevance to a tragically misunderstood document.

Moyn’s book is primarily an intellectual history and spends little time on the technical details of the growth of inequality. These details may matter more than Moyn suggests for how we think about the relationship between neoliberalism and egalitarianism. For example, while Piketty et al. have documented the inexorable rise of in-country inequality, the work of Branko Milanović has emphasized the arguably just as important compression of between-country inequality that has also unfolded during the period of neoliberal ascendency since the 1970s. While the rich have everywhere gotten richer than their countrymen, globally there has been a kind of economic convergence, as the poorest countries have caught up to the rich ones. [3] In other words, a narrowing of transnational economic differences, which both American modernization theorists in the 1950s and proponents of the “New International Economic Order” (NIEO) in the 1970s had hoped for, has begun to happen after a fashion; however, it has taken place under the banner not of egalitarianism but rather of sufficiency — and with a growing inequality within countries all over the world.

Moyn largely ignores this story, focusing instead on the national welfare states that, as he says, have been “the sole political enterprises that, to date, have ever secured a modicum of distributional equality, in particular constraining the dominance of the wealthiest.” In a sense, Moyn is asking why the welfare state failed to provide a barrier against the reemergence of vast economic inequalities, also implicitly pleading for the possibility that contemporary welfare states might be resuscitated if not outright reinvented on the basis of an at last explicitly egalitarian basis. But is the national welfare state, with all its inevitable exclusions due to class, race, and gender hierarchies (which Moyn forthrightly acknowledges), really the only or even the best basis for an egalitarian politics for the 21st century?


In terms of the prospects for a global system of redistributionist egalitarianism, Moyn focuses on two towering figures in the history of development economics, the Nobel Prize–winning economist and godfather of Sweden’s legendary cradle-to-grave welfare state Gunnar Myrdal, and the World Bank economist and Pakistani finance minister Mahbub ul Haq. Myrdal emerges as a kind of hero, arguing in Rich Lands and Poor (1957) that what the postwar world needed was to move from a series of national welfare states to a “welfare world” that would take egalitarianism between nations as its basic starting point. As Moyn points out, however, Myrdal never managed to propose any institutional framework that would be capable of supporting such a vision. Ideas for such a framework that emanated from intellectuals and political leaders in what was coming to be called the Global South, notably the proposal to the United Nations in 1974 for a “New International Economic Order” (NIEO), ultimately went nowhere, foundering on a combination of internal divisions between the countries of the Global South and the hostility of many leaders in the Global North. Moyn spends two chapters describing the inter-state egalitarian hopes that were invested in the NIEO and how these failed not only for political reasons but also intellectually, as both conservatives and liberals in the West developed “a widespread feeling […] that postcolonial self-determination claims had gone too far and provided a mask for the internal domination of new postcolonial elites claiming international oppression.”

In the face of the evident failure of such a welfare world to emerge, Huq in these same years came to the conclusion (“cynically,” according to Moyn, but perhaps merely realistically) that global egalitarian ambitions were unachievable. Huq would become instrumental in pushing his boss Robert McNamara, installed as head of the World Bank after his tenure as Secretary of Defense during the US escalation of the Vietnam War, to reorient the Bank away from the infrastructure finance projects that had been the focus of its first 25 years, in favor of supporting “basic needs,” a term that became a watchword for much of the global development enterprise during the 1970s. As the term suggests, this was an overt embrace of an ethos of sufficiency over an ethos of equality, and Moyn marks this as a key moment in the turn away from the socialist hopes for egalitarianism that had animated the opening phase of the postcolonial era. By diverting attention away from questions of equality, it also resonated well with the neoliberal era that was about to explode across the global political economy in the closing decades of the 20th century. Whereas the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were actively hostile to projects of global redistribution, they could be persuaded that promoting Third World education, public health, and nutrition programs were nice-to-have foreign policy objectives.

At this point, basic needs development programs merged with the burgeoning human rights movement: both focused on claims-making on behalf of the individual against the state. Proponents of the NIEO had also used claims of a “right to development,” but this sense of right was radically different from the individual rights named by both basic needs proponents and the human rights movement: it described a collective right on the part of nations to equality. In other words, it was a form of claims-making by postcolonial states of the Global South against the rich states of the industrialized North. For proponents of basic needs and human rights, however, these sorts of collective claims ignored the political abuses and economic inequalities within the states of the Global South. By the late 1970s, as Moyn shows, it was routinely observed that basic needs were “a transparent rationale for bypassing the NIEO demands and locking in servicing the poor as the fundamental task in the global south, each country doing so on its own in informally dependent and unchanging relationship to its former colonial masters.” Both basic needs and human rights became popular in the Global North, Moyn argues, at least in part because they provided a way to neutralize a conversation about fundamentally redefining power relations between states, while at the same time allowing for criticism of and even intervention into former colonial states by the North. Haq himself would vacillate in the face of this criticism, conceding that basic needs had become diversionary, “a convenient excuse to the rich nations to postpone serious discussions on the reform of the present world order.”

For proponents of an emergent neoliberalism, of course, this political aspect of basic needs looked more like a feature than a bug. Moyn’s last chapter takes up the vexed question of the relationship between human rights and neoliberalism — the deregulated, financialized, globalized, and anti-welfare-statist form of capitalism that began to emerge in the 1970s, at the same moment as the human rights breakthrough. Moyn’s assessment is that while the proponents of human rights were themselves rarely sympathetic to neoliberalism, the principles of human rights and understandings of economic justice based on notions of sufficiency did nothing to prevent the rise of neoliberalism. “Having honed their vocation of stigmatizing dictatorship, champions of human rights were simply out of position to register the fateful economic developments that were in fact setting the terms of the future.” The methodological individualism of the modern human rights movement dovetailed with neoliberalism’s cognate commitment to “market-based solutions”: the human rights movement’s focus on individual rights and suspicion of the state as a source of political oppression was perfectly compatible with the market fundamentalists’ focus on the rights of property owners and suspicion of the state as a source of rent-seeking, inefficiency, and economic oppression.


Because the focus of their critique was state practices, human rights as they emerged and were championed in the 1980s were useless for defending collective forms of risk-sharing or for critiquing the exorbitant privileges of economically powerful private actors. Across Eastern Europe, as communism fell, the constitutions of the new democracies enshrined commitments to free speech and free association, even as previously nationalized industries were sold off to future oligarchs. These kleptocratic heists, Moyn drily notes, attracted no censure from human rights movements, for whom the only relevant evils were acts done by states, not to states. Likewise, the human rights movement had nothing to say about the devastating wave of structural adjustment programs that swept across the Global South in the 1980s and 1990s. In short, human rights, while not culpable for neoliberalism, have served, to paraphrase Rousseau, as “garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down […] [making] them love their slavery [by turning] them into what are called civilized people.” To use a different metaphor: Human rights served as the spoonful of moral sugar that made the bitter medicine of neoliberalism easier to swallow.

Moyn ends his book with the faint hope that perhaps the ethos of egalitarianism not only can but should be revived to address the galloping inequality that has been the fruit of neoliberalism and that lies at the root of the global flowering of populist nationalisms. To develop a better form of egalitarianism, however, one must begin from the recognition that all economies today are profoundly global in scope and connection. The key barrier to an effective redistributionist politics for the 21st century is the ability of capital to flee any state that takes redistribution seriously for a more capital-friendly jurisdiction. Shutting down tax havens and offshore banking would be a good first step, but without a set of global institutions, any egalitarian projects at the local level are likely either to reinforce inequalities at a global level (e.g., the Nordic countries, which are country clubs masquerading as sovereign states and rooted in exclusion of outsiders) or to be felled by the flight to friendlier climes of the very resources that need to be redistributed. Unfortunately, the weakness of the transnational “global governance networks” that Anne-Marie Slaughter has so ably described makes them clearly inadequate to the task. [4] In fact, in a globally integrated economy, only a global-scale regulatory entity has a serious chance to tame the power of global capital. In short, if the re-autarkization of national economies, as proposed by some nationalists and populists, is to be avoided, we may wish to revisit another largely forgotten intellectual episode from the protean postwar moment of the 1940s — namely, the idea of a world government. [5]

To propose the idea of a planetary-scale state, in a time of backlashes against globalization and surging populist nationalisms, may seem less a utopian delusion than a form of political madness. To date, as Moyn himself notes, “there has been no serious erosion of the assumption that states are on their own to fulfill the economic and social rights of their citizens. […] [I]n the neoliberal age, international law furnished no redistributive tools among states, and few activists or governments tried to build them.” But we live in a time of collapsing political limits, and many things that seemed impossible or inconceivable just a few years ago have been achieved or surpassed. Who is to say that the future may not belong to a world state? Indeed, as hard as it is to imagine how such a state might come into existence, it may be even harder to imagine how the world’s immense demographic, environmental, and political challenges can possibly be addressed without one.


Nils Gilman is Vice President of Programs at the Berggruen Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank headquartered in Los Angeles.


[1] The literature on the history of human rights is vast. For three widely cited books that place the origins of modern human rights in the 1940s rather than the 1970s, see James W. Nickel, Making Sense of Human Rights: Philosophical Reflections on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (University of California, 1987); Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Harvard, 2007); and Costas Douzinas, Human Rights and Empire: The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism (Routledge, 2007). In Inventing Human Rights (Norton, 2007), Lynn Hunt tried to craft an even deeper usable past, placing the origins of the contemporary human rights movement in the 18th-century French and American revolutions.

[2] See Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard, 2013). Key contributors to this school of research and thought include Emmanuel Saez, Anthony Atkinson, Facundo Alvaredo, Gabriel Zucman, and Stefanie Stantcheva.

[3] See Branko Milanović, Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality (Princeton, 2011).

[4] See Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton, 2004).

[5] On the failure of the idea of world government in the 1940s, see Thomas G. Weiss, “What Happened to the Idea of World Government?” International Studies Quarterly (2009) and Campbell Craig, “Why World Government Failed after World War II: A Historical Lesson for Contemporary Efforts,” in Luis Cabrera, ed., Global Governance, Global Government: Institutional Visions for an Evolving World System (SUNY, 2011). But also consider Alexander Wendt, “Why a World State is Inevitable,” European Journal of International Relations (2003).

LARB Contributor

Nils Gilman is Vice President of Programs at the Berggruen Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank headquartered in Los Angeles.


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