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Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?
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The South Atlantic Quarterly 103.2/3 (2004) 297-310

Jacques Rancière

As we know, the question raised by my title took on a new cogency during the last ten years of the twentieth century. The Rights of Man or Human Rights had just been rejuvenated in the seventies and eighties by the dissident movements in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—a rejuvenation that was all the more significant as the "formalism" of those rights had been one of the first targets of the young Marx, so that the collapse of the Soviet Empire could appear as their revenge. After this collapse, they would appear as the charter of the irresistible movement leading to a peaceful posthistorical world where global democracy would match the global market of liberal economy.

As is well known, things did not exactly go that way. In the following years, the new landscape of humanity, freed from utopian totalitarianism, became the stage of new outbursts of ethnic conflicts and slaughters, religious fundamentalisms, or racial and xenophobic movements. The territory of "posthistorical" and peaceful humanity proved to be the territory of new figures of the Inhuman. And the Rights of Man turned out to be the rights of the rightless, of the populations hunted out of their homes and land and threatened by ethnic slaughter. They appeared more and more as the rights of the victims, the rights of those who were unable to enact any rights or even any claim in their name, so that eventually their rights had to be upheld by others, at the cost of shattering the edifice of International Rights, in the name of a new right to "humanitarian interference"—which ultimately boiled down to the right to invasion.

A new suspicion thus arose: What lies behind this strange shift from Man to Humanity and from Humanity to the Humanitarian? The actual subject of these Rights of Man became Human Rights. Is there not a bias in the statement of such rights? It was obviously impossible to revive the Marxist critique. But another form of suspicion could be revived: the suspicion that the "man" of the Rights of Man was a mere abstraction because the only real rights were the rights of citizens, the rights attached to a national community as such.

That polemical statement had first been made by Edmund Burke against the French Revolution. And it had been revived in a significant way by Hannah Arendt. The Origins of Totalitarianism included a chapter devoted to the "Perplexities of the Rights of Man." In that chapter, Arendt equated the "abstractedness" of "Men's Rights" with the concrete situation of those populations of refugees that had flown all over Europe after the First World War. These populations have been deprived of their rights by the very fact that they were only "men," that they had no national community to ensure those rights. Arendt found there the "body" fitting the abstractedness of the rights and she stated the paradox as follows: the Rights of Man are the rights of those who are only human beings, who have no more property left than the property of being human. Put another way, they are the rights of those who have no rights, the mere derision of right.

The equation itself was made possible by Arendt's view of the political sphere as a specific sphere, separated from the realm of necessity. Abstract life meant "deprived life." It meant "private life," a life entrapped in its "idiocy," as opposed to the life of public action, speech, and appearance. This critique of "abstract" rights actually was a critique of democracy. It rested on the assumption that modern democracy had been wasted from the very beginning by the "pity" of the revolutionaries for the poor people, by the confusion of two freedoms: political freedom, opposed to domination, and social freedom, opposed to necessity. In her view, the Rights of Man were not an ideal fantasy of revolutionary dreamers, as Burke had put it. They were the paradoxical rights of the private, poor, unpoliticized individual.

This analysis, articulated more than fifty years ago, seems tailor-made, fifty years later, to fit the new "perplexities" of the...

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