This post is part of a symposium on Ayça Çubukçu’s book For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). All contributions to the symposium can be found here.
Much as its liberal cosmopolitan advocates might wish otherwise, “human rights” are a floating signifier. Small libraries have been built on the effort to give “human rights” settled and permanent philosophical and legal meaning, as well as cultural and historical grounding in a variety of genealogies of moral progress, but all are doomed to fail. Human rights can always be defined and interpreted and understood in a different way. Indeed, this is part of their attraction and the key to their ubiquity. The barriers to entry in terms of using human rights discourse are effectively zero. Everyone and anyone can claim “human rights,” the only bulwark against such conceptual and discursive promiscuity is the formal legal enactments that seek to concretize the signifier. But these are tiny islands of the signified beset on all sides by the ocean of shifting meanings. Human rights are tokens within the great game, perhaps the only normative game there is, about what freedom, justice, and meaning look like in human social affairs.
What follows from this is simple: When human beings claim the moral high ground in terms of human rights, they are in reality simply making a set of claims that can be counterposed to other sets of claims. Amnesty International recently asked eleven prominent activists about “the essence of human rights.” Their answers included “love and education,” “sustainability,” “the things that make you feel human,” “basic values,” “equality, justice, freedom of association, freedom from suppression,” “housing and sanitation.” In one case, human rights were: “justice, freedom and a way of living together in the same world. It is a fight not just for people, but for nature, mountains and rivers.” These are all desirable and important things that would improve the lives of many people (while potentially adversely affecting the lives of others). But these answers demonstrate that human rights are, in the end, all the good things of which we can think. As long as we stay in the realm of concepts or vicarious protest or formal law these distinctions matter less because either little of practical significance turns on them or in terms of legal cases much of what activists consider to be human rights is not justiciable. Once we get into the politics of what we might call practical solidarity, however, the fact that human rights mean different things to different people starts to matter a whole lot more.
In For the Love of Humanity, Ayça Çubukçu starts by pointing out the paradox that “the war on Iraq, as well as its occupation, were at once opposed and proposed in the name of universal human rights” (9). In Çubukçu’s account of the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI)—part ethnography, part an expert meshing together of high social theory with strategic dilemmas and empirical observation—we discover just how difficult the issues are for a protest movement that sought to pronounce on the justice and legality of the United States-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. As she puts it:
Who were we? And who were we to constitute such a tribunal on Iraq? Would we act critically in the face of international law or endorse its pretensions? Could the tribunal become grassroots in character? And what would this tribunal look like, what language would it speak? (2).
One answer is obvious: Organization! Appoint people to speak for the tribunal, imbue them with representative power to make executive decisions on behalf of the whole, or vote for those decisions. Let the executive (perhaps staffed by those familiar with law and human rights and with English-speaking political activism) choose the kind of strategy that will work best to achieve—what? That is a key question—what was the World Tribunal on Iraq for? We’ll return to that.
What’s the problem with creating executive power? The fear that you have ceded control of “your” movement (our movement becomes your movement). This tension was much in evidence as those used to speaking in the language of human rights and international law from a place of authority inevitably, ineluctably, wanted to influence deliberations in a more potentially productive direction. What Çubukçu describes as “a decentralised non-hierarchical network of transcontinental cooperation” risked becoming the very thing it was opposed to, a sovereign (or at least a holder of sovereign power) (4). This is illustrated in a wonderful chapter titled “Can the network speak?” where Çubukçu shows how “excruciating” this kind of transnational cooperation can be (114). Here we see “the thorny geography of cosmopolitics” in detail (5). Çubukçu is sceptical about Michael Hardt’s claims that networks resolve their myriad potential contradictions through a process of “alchemy” (115). In reality, this process induced “such intensity of emotion, including frustration and anger, that many participants would find the ultimate resolution in ‘unsubscribing’ themselves from the network” (115). How can a network resolve on a strategy, and then act in concert, if the process of choosing priorities and taking action doesn’t create either the conditions or mechanisms of collective responsibility? Without voting, without a sovereign, and where consensus is required to move forward, almost anyone has veto power. Does this matter? Only if the network is intended to actually influence wider political debates and action.
The network had, of course, a vanishingly small hope of swaying major powers like the United States and United Kingdom. Even were the network to speak with one voice, a voice ten million strong, any U.S. politician would simply ask “how many of these people vote in Ohio or Florida?” The fact that faced with the most powerful war machine ever assembled—the United States military—the WTI decided in the end that it couldn’t even speak or sign in its own name is a testament to the political weakness of network forms of action based around disparate interests and positions. Was the network a kind of performance of expressive politics, where taking part, saying something even if no-one but the already converted are listening, is what matters? Did the network persuade any non-sympathizers to change their view of the conflict?
If performance without discernible and tangible political impact is what matters—meeting some need of the performers perhaps to rage, to resist, to say “not in my name,” to assuage guilt by association, then the lack of structure and organization isn’t important at all. The queue of condemnation can lengthen because it has no practical political relevance. It becomes a form of witnessing of exactly the kind the old Amnesty International made its stock in trade. There is a need to do and say this (I certainly think there is, to not let acts of brutality pass without marking them), but it should not be confused with expectations that something like the WTI might actually change any facts in the world. The WTI might, of course, raise awareness for the next struggle, and the one after that, radicalizing a new generation of anti-war and anti-imperialist activists. But won’t they too, at some point, need to turn their network into a party, or an organized movement? How will they fare when it comes to making a difference in everyday politics? The yellow vests have, it is true, succeeded in getting concessions from the Macron government but here the cumbersome business of network democracy was dispensed with to be replaced by inchoate violence of the right and left that required only a time, a place, and a Hi-Viz jacket of the sort all French motorists are supposed to carry in their cars. No negotiation required.
Networked political action aspires to a new kind of politics, to be anti-systemic, to disrupt business as usual, but this form of politics isn’t very political. Isn’t the essence of politics the art of the possible, of compromise, of pragmatism? How might we make a difference? How can we be heard? To whom can we speak to exert influence? The downsides of this are obvious—complicity and contamination. The upside? It might just make a difference at the margins. We all know what happens when you work through the system: If you try to articulate your message through existing political parties, for example, you face their own often reactionary politics and calls to discipline your message in the service of victory and taking power. If you don’t, then you lack the kind of focus and application that might make the difference. You also—in a truly networked movement—lose the very sense of possibility that led to the formation and aspirations of the movement in the first place. As Çubukçu concludes: If you work through the sanctioned, pro-systemic discourse (i.e., of human rights and international law) you aren’t necessarily opposing “the law of empire” at all but are complicit in its enactment. The rule of law is a rallying cry for international human rights lawyers who supported invading Iraq as much as it was for those decrying invasion and occupation. If human rights are taken as the singular frame of international resistance to imperialism, then anti-war activists are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
These are core questions for what we might call “actually existing solidarity.” In solidarity movements based on shared interests we do not find these issues so perplexing. Workers of the world unite! You all have the same thing to gain, freedom from wage slavery. Your interests and priorities are shared, and your language of resistance—in this case that of socialism—is the same. Identity-based movements are similar; no one needs to ask why they are opposing oppression and discrimination or violence. They’re all in it together. In these cases, the selection of the spokesperson seems less important because they will (they should) bear the markers of identity and so will have credibility when they articulate a message of freedom and justice. Think Black Lives Matter. Ultimate credibility is reserved for those— African-Americans—who are at risk of police brutality and assassination. But we are beyond these forms of solidarity. When we look at progressive forces on “the left” today—the very forces that coalesced in the WTI—we see the intersection of identity, especially race, gender and sexuality, and class (along with nationality in the case of the Tribunal on Iraq). Çubukçu’s questions (who speaks? who are we?) become insistent, and fiendishly complex, requiring a permanent ongoing negotiation about priorities, action, and authority.
If this was not hard enough to achieve, now add in to the mix those who share neither class nor identity characteristics but who claim to share ideological and moral solidarity. They pursue a cause regardless of whether or not they are directly affected by it. In the U.S. case, these people might be characterized as “progressive activists” to use the language of a recent study. The trouble is, they are not representative either of the general population or of those in whose name they claim to speak. They tend to be strong supporters of “political correctness,” for example, at levels that are not reflected anywhere else in the wider U.S. population. Within a diverse movement, do progressive activists join to further the cause or adapt the cause’s priorities to those priorities and methods they consider superior? Can they be voiceless allies (and in this case what would being an ally mean if one of your major advantages as a rich, white ally—in the case made by ‘hidden tribes’—is precisely your money, voice, and connections)? This question goes for politics as a whole: How can one be progressive, deploy one’s advantages in a progressive cause, but not come to play a defining role in that cause, its priorities or speak in its name? This is the politics of redistribution of political and economic power.
Çubukçu shows us, and problematizes, the inner workings of a remarkably ambitious case of practical solidarity. Yes it was ineffectual in terms of any legal or political impact in the world, and an exemplar of how movement democracy through a decentralized network can make it very difficult to confront organized and violent power. But then the other options don’t look that much more promising either. What this shows us is that in an era where the very nature and idea of “progressive politics” is totally in flux, but where winning power must be the ultimate aim, who “we” are and who speaks for us are exceptionally challenging questions to ask. What does “class politics” mean in such a world, for example? Into this void have stepped right-wing populist demagogues. They have no qualms about claiming executive authority, enacting their view of leadership on the Führer Principle with as few restraints as they can get away with. Will the left decide it needs its own demagogues in order to challenge them?