In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Human Rights and Social Movements
  • A. Belden Fields (bio)
Neil Stammers , Human Rights and Social Movements. (Pluto Press2009) 286 pages, ISBN 9780745329123

Neil Stammers begins this excellent book by calling into question four assumptions about human rights that he sees as prevalent in both "classical liberal" and "reductionist Marxist" accounts of human rights.1 Probably because the "reductionist Marxists" are usually hostile to the concept seeing it as a universalistic distraction from class exploitation, Stammers focuses his attention on the influence of classical liberals who accept the concept, but who, in his view, distort it. He uses the metaphor of a "Hall of Mirrors" to characterize these distortions.

The distorting assumptions are:

(1) human rights are the rights of "separated" individuals, allowing "freedom" to pursue self-interest; (2) collective rights are not "real" human rights; (3) civil and political rights are privileged over economic and social rights; and (4) human rights are intimately related to the rise of capitalism as an economic system2 [End Page 454]

There are two other related elements to the "Hall of Mirrors" distortion. First, the fetishism of legal and institutional domains that accepts the prevailing norms and institutions as fixed, if not inevitable; and second, the insistence on obscuring concrete historical and social practices that have sought, and sometimes brought about, significant changes in norms and social structures. The primary step in overcoming these distortions is to come up with an account of human agency. Stammers sees human rights as an historical evolution of contestations over power that involve both the "everyday world" of human action, and the institutional world.3 The boundaries between the two worlds are "fuzzy" in that they both have expressive and instrumental aspects. What we have in the "everyday world" is relatively unstructured, nonhierarchical, and more heavily expressive interactions. In the institutional world, we have higher levels of structure, hierarchy, and rational-legal interactions. Social movements operate in the everyday world, at least initially, but often the more successful they are the more they risk being drawn into the institutional world, which can have subversive consequences for their original emancipatory goals.

Stammers' analysis of social movement praxis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, the United States, France, and Haiti shows that the contestations over natural rights revolved around power, and were not limited merely to arguments over political power. For the Diggers in England, these debates were about access to land in order to survive and, of course, religion was a crucial issue in the invocation of natural rights. There were strong elements of economic and cultural concerns in the American Revolution, and not only about taxation without representation, but also about class and status distinctions, as well as slavery. In the French and Haitian (1791–1804) Revolutions, as in the American Revolution, there was a collective movement to shift the normative status from subjects without agency to citizens with such agency.

Stammers differentiates between two kinds of power, "power over" and "power to." The above revolutions represented collective modifications of political power from the first kind to the latter—but only for certain categories of people. Economics and culture—in the forms of control over wealth and property, gender relations, slavery, treatment of indigenous peoples—still sustained relationships of "power over." Moreover, the creation of the new post-monarchical states created power distinctions between citizens and noncitizens. The point is that all of these power relations were collective and embraced economic and social/ cultural, as well as political dimensions. Those contesting the power relationships before and after the revolutions used the legitimizing concept of "natural rights," the precursor to the more modern expression "human rights."

The distortions that constitute Stammers' "Hall of Mirrors" obfuscates this collective process of struggle for change in power relations across economic, social/cultural, and political domains. Even though the UN General Assembly's 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and numerous other human rights texts and international agreements accept this broader conception of human rights, liberal individualism has prevailed in the writings of Western political and legal theorists. These theorists not only stress [End Page 455] a completely individualist conception of human rights, but they also take a legalistic position...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 454-457
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.