- Human Rights
- Natural Rights
- De Benoist’s Thesis
- Hegel and the Western Sociality of Reason
- Greek Civic Freedom
- Rationalization, Common Humanity, Ius Inter Gentes
- Neo-Republicans: Natural Rights as Civic Rights
- Allied (Anglo) Scheme of History
- Deconstructing Civic Nationalism
- Seyla Benhabib
This essay examines Alain de Benoist’s book Beyond Human Rights, translated into English in 2011 by Arktos, originally published in French in 2004. This book is a powerful condemnation of the Western idea of natural rights, which it claims to be intrinsically associated with the idea that all humans across the world have human rights. It objects to the imposition of human rights obligations on an otherwise multicultural humanity. I argue that
- there is no intrinsic connection between natural rights and human rights,
- natural rights are best interpreted as civic rights grounded in a uniquely European political culture rather than in human nature,
- the problem with human rights is not their extension to the world but their foundation in cultural Marxist presuppositions intended to infuse Western civic rights with cosmopolitan-oriented immigrant rights.
De Benoist has a reputation as the most significant thinker in the French Nouvelle Droite. He is the author of 90 books, 2,000 articles, and 400 interviews. His web site provides readers with translations of his works in 25 European languages. He is the editor of three journals Nouvelle École (founded 1969), Éléments (1973), and Krisis (1988), the director of several publishing collections, including Éditions Copernic (1977-81), Éditions de Labyrinthe (since 1982), Éditions Pardès (1989-1993), and L’Âge d’Homme (since 2003). I am not familiar with this body of work. What follows is nothing more than a long review of Beyond Human Rights.
For Alain de Benoist the ideology of human rights is a singularly Western undertaking rooted in the Christian idea that each person is a possessor of a transcendent soul that can be in a direct relationship with God independently of any social identity. This idea was fully articulated in a secularized way during seventeenth century when Europeans came up with the notion that humans, by virtue of being human, have natural rights pre-existing any political order. De Benoist traces the history of this ideology until its completion in the Western-sponsored UN Declaration of Human Rights. The basic message of this Declaration is that humans across the world have an equal moral status by virtue of being human, and that they possess the same fundamental rights, and that at the root of these rights is the idea that all individuals should be able to live with dignity, and that a dignified life requires a right to life, freedom from coercion, and cultural self-determination.
De Benoist demonstrates that no one has yet come up with a universally agreed definition of what it means to be human, to have dignity, or to be free. No one has come up either with a consistent set of human rights since some rights are about the individual and others about the rights of groups to self-determination. Each effort has presupposed a social, political, and historical context, with different individuals from different backgrounds offering different definitions. Humans have always existed within a wide variety of societies with different norms, customs, and political orders, and this inescapable fact about our embedded existence makes it impossible to come up with rights that are really universal.
De Benoist holds the West responsible for the illusion that we could come up with a set of principles having universal validity. It all started in earnest when Westerners came up with the notion that individuals were naturally in possession of rights to life, liberty and happiness, and that it was the obligation of political society to recognize these rights as being more fundamental than any other social customs or beliefs, since they predated any society, but were intrinsic to the very nature of man. De Benoist rejects this mythological being with natural rights, and argues instead that this idea came out of a particular culture, the West, at a particular time, the seventeenth century, with roots in Christianity.
But de Benoist leaves unanswered some crucial questions: why did Europeans came to think in terms of natural rights? He goes back to Christianity and traces some medieval antecedents that eventually found expression in the modern theory of natural rights, but for someone who is attacking this theory for its ahistorical and presocial claims, one would expect a deeper reflection on how could such an idea claiming universality come to dominate a particular culture at a particular time? Could it not be that the concept of natural rights, despite being framed in terms of the rights of man, was actually rooted in a particular culture, and should therefore be seen as a concept about the civic rights of European citizens? The myth of the solitary individual with rights in the state of nature is indeed a myth. What makes de Benoist’s analysis all the more confusing is that he actually relies on “neo-Republican” critics to counter the theory of natural rights seemingly unaware that these critics sought to formulate a more accurate conception of modern rights by contextualizing these rights as civic rights afforded by a particular political order, and by emphasizing the duties of citizens to their society rather than merely emphasizing freedom from the state. Rule of law, constitutional government, religious tolerance, freedom of expression, etc., are not natural attributes but rights of citizen members of a particular state.
De Benoist also assumes that the modern theory of natural rights can be inextricably connected to the current concept of human rights, sometimes using both terms interchangeably even when referring to seventeenth century thinkers. The concept of human rights, however, is really a twentieth century phenomenon infused with new intentions, driven by different political agendas, and coming after important transformative developments in the West. Connected to this is the lack of any consideration, by de Benoist, of the intimate relationship between human rights theory and cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism is one of the most powerful theoretical currents in the West today. The aim of cosmopolitanism is to force upon European nations a new concept of citizenship based not on natural rights (or civic rights) but on human rights, in order to break up the distinction between European nationals (citizens) and non-nationals (non-citizens), in order to facilitate the inclusion of aliens and strangers, immigrants and newcomers, refugees and asylum seekers into the existing polities of Europe.
De Benoist’s Thesis
Let’s present de Benoist’s thesis as fair as we can in the best possible terms. The concept of human rights supposes that we can conceive every human being as a bearer of rights irrespective of the community they come from. The idea that we can speak of rights attached to individuals as individuals is particular to modern Western civilization, and nowhere else. Neither the ancient Greeks nor the Romans, he insists, defined individuals in terms of rights inherent in them as humans since that would have entailed thinking of Greeks and Roman citizens as isolated beings outside the very polity that identified them as citizens and non-citizens, by virtue of their different stations in their communities, as males, as property holders, as residents of particular city-states, or as Roman citizens. The Ancients did not think that humans as humans were born with rights to liberty, to happiness, and to equal status under the law.
It was the Moderns who invented a philosophical discourse of individuals living in a state of nature with inherent rights “valid at all times and in all places independently of personal situations and socio-historical attributes” (25). This discourse was restricted to the West until the enthronement of human rights in recent decades, at which point this ideology sought to “impose itself everywhere without consideration for relationships, traditions and contexts”. This language of individual rights is now pretending to be applicable everywhere on the planet as if everyone was equal to everyone else no matter where they were born and what values may hold in their respective cultures.
De Benoist traces the roots of this abstract self to the Christian proclamation that all humans are equal sons of God, members of a moral community above any particular land, without borders, each uniquely in possession of a soul with free will and reason, capable of making choices as an individual in direction relationship with God. But while Christian philosophy through the Middle Ages, with the exception of nominalism, remained attached to the Classical concept of natural law and the idea that human norms were valid only in the degree to which they reflected a moral cosmos created by God, the modern theoreticians of natural rights, Hobbes, Locke, Francisco de Vitoria, Pufendorf, came up with the idea that it was possible to apprehend the fundamentally true principles of life, the natural rights of man as man, simply by thinking what would be the most basic needs and desires of humans living in a state of nature without being influenced by any particular customs and ways of life, but struggling for survival as presocial beings. I am taking some liberties thinking through what de Benoist implies; natural rights theorists formulated a contractual theory of government wherein each individual was seen as a judge of his interests and wishes, agreeing to be governed by a polity as long as this polity recognized his sovereignty as an individual in the state of nature, willing to hand over some of his natural rights, but only for the sake of a security guaranteed by the state, lacking in the anarchic and violent state of nature, without rescinding his natural desire for liberty, private property, and happiness.
But while these theoreticians spoke of rights founded in humans as presocial beings, Kant would later emerge (in-through prior anticipatory thinkers) with the idea that the rights of man, if they were to be truly absolute, would have to be conceived as emanating from the free reasoning powers of man unencumbered by his natural inclinations. In order to come up with universal principles all humans could agreed upon, these principles could not be founded on human nature since by nature humans can only think about their own interests, influenced by their personalities, animal drives and subjective tastes. They must be derived from the free exercise of reason alone, for only then can humans come up with a moral law wherein they can agree that humans should be treated as ends rather than as means. They would not abide by this principle naturally but by willing themselves morally to act in such a way that all humans are treated as ends regardless of their personal inclinations, and detached from all social conditions and natural idiosyncrasies. Only when humans are treated as ends is their dignity validated.
De Benoist points out that this Kantian conception of moral autonomy cannot rise above the social community from which it resides, and that this is why Kant could only come up with a formal categorical principle devoid of any content. Whereas in Rome dignitas presupposed a concrete comparison on the qualities that made a person worthy of respect, the modern view merely asserted the equal dignity of everyone and therefore the equal worthiness of anyone regardless of merit or lifestyle. De Benoist however is not altogether clear as to how Kant relates specifically to the theory of human rights, but seems to coalesce together the natural rights approach and the Kantian approach in his assessment of human rights, criticizing both for the way they speak about the universal rights of man when “everybody knows well that the ideology of human rights is a product of the thought of the Enlightenment”, and that it refers, therefore, to a particular period in Europe’s history. He writes:
If the rights have been ‘there’ always, present in the very nature itself of man, one may be surprised that only a small portion of humanity has perceived it, and that it has taken so long to be perceived […] One does not find in any European language — not in Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, or Japanese — a term designating a right as the subjective attribute of the person distinct in itself (61-3).
Hegel and the Western Sociality of Reason
He mentions, without elaboration, Hegel’s concept of “social morality”, contrasted to the autonomous Kantian subject. Hegel’s concept says that our sense of what is right and wrong presupposes the existence of subjects bounded by customs, relationships, locality. But he ignores Hegel’s approval of the Enlightenment’s break with ancestral custom, tradition and superstition, as an important moment in Western consciousness, and how Hegel sublimated Kant’s invention of moral autonomy by conceiving European communities as more reflective in allowing individuals to “step back” from the normative world around them, grounding morality in reason, but at the same time exposing the Enlightenment’s futile effort to rise above the particularization of Western society by showing how this society itself nurtured individuals with moral autonomy and rights and a disposition to understand themselves both as individuals and as members of cultures.
Thus, when de Benoist writes
To speak of the freedom of the individual in himself thus makes no sense in cultures which have remained fundamentally holistic and which refuse to conceive of the human being as a self-sufficient atom (64).
we should reply that it does make sense within Western culture to speak of individual rights and autonomy. What makes no sense is to speak of individual rights outside the Western sociality of reason.
Greek Civic Freedom
De Benoist thinks in a multicultural way in attributing to other cultures a desire to escape despotism, in saying that the “desire for freedom is universal”, and in adding that other cultures, unlike the current West, understand that the best means to achieve freedom, to “acquire individuality”, is in connection with the concrete particularities of one’s culture, rather than as an abstract individual “disconnected from all his cultural affiliations” (66). This confuses matters and amounts to an acceptance of the current multicultural assault on the West. “Valuing freedom is not a part of the human condition”, to use Orlando Patterson words;
non-Western peoples have thought so little about freedom that most human languages did not even possess a word for the concept before contact with the West (Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, 1992: x).
Only Europeans, since ancient times, with roots going back to the prehistoric Indo-Europeans, have exhibited a peculiar desire for freedom in a variety of ways. The Greeks did not have a well articulated concept of individual rights, but did have a concept of civic freedom, as de Benoist knows and prefers over the modern concept of rights. But de Benoist habitually writes of Greek freedom without distinguishing it from non-Western forms of freedom, as if Greek freedom amounted to no more than being an ordinary participant in one’s community life. What was uniquely Greek was their invention of “civic” freedom, which means freedom to participate in the public affairs of the state, to vote, run for office, and be free to express critical views about one’s leaders.
|Greek assembly of citizens|
In fact, the Greeks had rights of free expression generally, as evident in the multiplicity of views expressed in their literature, particularly in Athens, during their staged plays, where actors would give speeches critical of their city and its policies. They were also free philosophically speaking, writing about subjects in a rational way without feeling limited by established views and conventions, never submitting to the authority of some sage, as in China, but pursuing truth wherever their reasoning took them, even if their reasoning came with extra-rational notions that were not yet subjected to reflection but taken for granted. But de Benoist, in attributing to the Greeks a vague sense of social freedom, freedom in the community, more or less in the same way that he speaks about freedom in all other cultures, forgoes what was uniquely Greek, for the sake of advancing his multicultural critique of human rights.
Moreover, it is essential to understand that this conception of Greek civic freedom took on novel characteristics in Roman times, related particularly to the incredible origination of a consistent and all-encompassing legal structure, concerned to define rational procedures that would increase the probability of a just outcome, applied equally to all citizens, empirically tested against individual events, with rights and claims and procedural remedies, transcending the social particularities and cultural ways of different regions within the Empire. This was uniquely Roman, and it created a tradition in which citizens were treated as having legal rights as individuals rather than being judged as members of groups. It would be way too complicated and time consuming to trace the intellectual links between Rome, the Papal Revolution of the 12th century, and natural rights theory in the seventeenth century.
Rationalization, Common Humanity, Ius Inter Gentes
There is no question that the idea of natural rights is connected to the idea that there is a common humanity with culture-transcending qualities. The idea of natural rights spoke of the rights of individuals to liberty and security independently of any social determination. It sought to apprehend certain innate attributes of humans in a natural state. During the modern era European thinkers began to talk a lot about a common humanity existing on the globe with common dispositions. This was all part of Western uniqueness.
John Headley, in The Europeanization of the World. On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy (2008), draws all the following connections effectively: the mathematized geography started by Ptolemy and others, which “treated the celestial and territorial globes as equivalent, applying the same grid system to each” (11), concentrating on the just proportions and positions of places, coordinates, and which “posited a continuous and essentially uniform surface to the globe” (41); the medieval university’s curriculum and those studies that communicated by number, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy; the rationalization of space during the Renaissance with its linear perspectival painting; “the universalizing theme associated with the advancement of geography” (22) with the discovery of the world in the sixteenth century, “which brought the entire globe within its survey”, and which revealed that there were similar biological humans spread through the earth; preceded by the Roman principle of universal inclusion and incorporation, which gave practical realization to the Stoic notion of cosmopolis, and which persuaded Roman jurists to speak of ius gentium, or a common law for all men, and an eternal law valid for all nations and for all times, which eventually coalesce with the new citizenship of Christian baptism — all these currents reached a certain completion in the idea of natural rights.
The very idea that individuals are all members of a common humanity each with natural rights presents in its universality a uniformity in keeping with the uniquely Western rationalization of the world and the knowledge that the world is regulated by laws that can be understood and which hold true across all places. There would have been no mapping of the earth’s geography without these ideas, not permanent revolution in navigational technologies, no military revolutions, no modern state, no modern science and no bourgeois revolutions. The desacralization of law and politics, the apprehension of man as a natural being, the science of human nature initiated by Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, among others, the onset of religious tolerance, right of dissent, and the development of international law, are modern achievements that we should validate.
The theory of natural rights grew in reaction to the brutal Thirty Years War (1618 and 1648) and the English Civil War (1642-1651). The population of the Germans states was reduced by about 25 to 40 percent, with up to 2,000 castles and one-third of all German towns destroyed. The so-called School of Salamanca (16th and 17th centuries), which was the first to write about the rights of all humans, and establish norms for the conduct of Spaniards in America, drawing on the old Roman concept of ius gentium, but which went beyond by announcing that the Indians of the Americas had a right to the property of their lands, proclaiming the innate dignity of human beings, right of equal sovereignty, and the international obligation to cooperate among states, ius inter gentes, was a major achievement of Westerners. Although there is a connection between these principles and the current theory of human rights, they are very different. These jurists were not calling for the right of non-citizens from different countries to be granted citizenship in order to diversify their nations without regard for the cultural heritage of European natives.
Neo-Republicans: Natural Rights as Civic Rights
We should not confuse Locke’s idea that all men by nature are equally alike in wanting liberty, security, comfort, with the current human rights idea that it would be a violation of Britain’s liberal traditions if Africans were prohibited from acquiring British citizenship. The Bill of Rights of 1689 were rights for British citizens; and the Declaration of Independence did not declare that all humans were equal in all respects, in intellect, moral development, sexual orientation, and cultural achievements, but only that American citizens, British descendants, not African slaves, had inalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The modern concept of natural right renounced the ancient/medieval concept of natural law, which postulated (as an extra-rational principle beyond comprehension) a transcendent order with metaphysical gravity, in the name of rights comprehensive by rational humans based on the study of human nature and history.
It is true that the theorists of natural rights mistakenly imputed to all humans a desire for a government founded on the principle of natural rights. But as de Benoist realizes, in a disconnected way, towards the end of his book, a long lineage of Western thinkers, beginning in the 17th century, known as the neo-Republican school of civic freedom, which included Henry Parker, John Milton, and, most importantly, James Harrington, emphasized the “common liberty” of a people, “civic liberty”, meaning that one cannot speak of rights except inside a community that happens to value rights.
De Benoist also mentions, in this vein, contemporary authors like G. A Pocock and Quentin Skinner, who have elaborated on this school, known as the key members of the Cambridge School, who have insisted that natural right theorists should be understood in the context of their time, and that men can only have rights in a political context, not in isolation. They have prescribed, against a misguided notion of freedom defined as “freedom from” government interference, a positive freedom wherein individuals acquire true citizenship as a public participants in the affairs of society. Yet, de Benoist leaves matters unclear by not identifying these civic republicans as Westerners, and by giving the impression that it is all a matter of saying that rights presuppose “membership” in a political order, without specifying that we can only speak of individual rights and of citizenship as members of a Western political community, since both neo-Republican freedoms and natural rights are uniquely Western.
He further confuses matter by not considering whether these civic republicans were actually rejecting modern liberties in preference of ancient civic freedom, or whether they were making the argument that one cannot understand modern liberties outside a community of people, and that we should designate modern liberties as “civic” rather than as “natural”. There is no space to go over each of the individuals, but neo-Roman republicanism as a school included as well Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both of whom emphasized individual rights combined with republican ideals of public duty, the importance of educating citizens with a sense of responsibility for their polity, and the need to protect the state from mob rule or the arbitrary powers of majorities. De Benoist welcomes a redefinition of freedom that is inseparable from a political community without addressing the way these neo-Republicans and Cambridge School scholars were trying to find a middle ground between the ancient concept of freedom and the modern notion of natural rights.
He refers to Benjamin Constant and his phrase “the freedom of the
Ancients” (108), in apparent opposition to the idea of natural rights,
but Constant’s famous 1819 essay, On the Liberty of the Ancients Compared to the Moderns,
was written from the standpoint of a moderate liberal or conservative
liberal in favor of modern liberties over ancient civic freedoms.
Agreeing with the need for a constitutional Monarchy, a limited electorate, with the executive power in the hands of ministers elected by citizens ranked according to their civic virtues and property, he did not think that the public oriented form of civic freedom of the Ancients was any longer suitable for the larger and more commercial states of Europe; he hated the mob mentality of the Reign of Terror and the Jacobin imposition of despotic measures to ensure conformity with the state, leaving no room for individuals to think for themselves and enjoy personal pursuits. He attacked those who glorified the Ancients identification of the highest virtues with war, preferring the Modern right to commercial-peaceful existence.
Having brought up, in the latter parts of the book, the neo-Republican reconceptualization of modern freedom as civic rather than natural, de Benoist retracts somewhat from his initial equation of natural rights with human rights, stating
The ideology of human rights can only recognize abstract individuals, while democracy [modern freedom] knows only citizens (99).
He notes as well that the “authors of the Revolutionary texts”, of the radical French Revolution, with its Declaration of the Rights of Man, “adhere[d] to a civic oriented conception of rights” (93), by which he means that the seemingly universal ideals of this revolution were actually constructed within the particularistic framework of the nation-state of France; these rights were meant for French men only. Further on he writes about the “redefinition” of civic nations as “the regime that respects human rights” (101). But these remarks are left disconnected when they could have been the basis for an interesting investigation of how modern European liberal nations, in very recent times, not since the seventeenth century, have come to be defined as nations that should be dedicated to the human rights of “residents”, of guest workers holding “second-class citizenship, of “foreigners”, of “refugees” and of “migrants”.
I should be noted parenthetically that the neo-Republican conception of modern freedom was not an idealized program but a consideration of actual tendencies in modern political life perceived to be threatened by an undue emphasis on private over civic duties; but I am skipping over these issues to consider the situation after WWII, though I will remind readers that the Anglo-Saxon tradition was more heavily inclined with each passing generation to emphasize the rights of individuals in terms of his release from all forms of collective associations not based on private contract, whereas other European nations were more inclined to emphasize the importance of communities and the state to the development of freedom.
Allied (Anglo) Scheme of History
De Benoist comes from a post-WW II intellectual background in France characterized by a strong reaction to the American-led Cold War and the American appropriation and redefinition of Western civilization in terms of the success of the Anglo-American alliance for democracy during and after WWII, in which the “Atlantic community”, NATO, liberal capitalism, were seen as the pinnacle of progress. In his book, From PLATO to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (1998), David Gress borrows the term “Allied Scheme of history” from Norman Davies to argue that between the 1940s and 1980s this American version of the history of Western civilization was touted across the world and in Europe as the “definition of the essence of the West, the true West” (23). It was a definition in which the history of the West was seen as a progressive story that started with ancient Greek democracy and reason, or the “Judeo-Christian” emphasis on the dignity of the individual, through Roman law, the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Enlightenment, the American Revolution of 1776, all culminating in 1940s America with its hopes for a free world and for human rights.
As Gress writes, this definition of America as the pinnacle of Western progress was “unapologetically rationalist, progressive, and confident in the benefits of science and industry” to remake the world in its own image (30). This “liberal American story of the West took freedom as its axis” (172), in strong opposition to Communism and to the discredited doctrines of racial hierarchy identified with Germany. It was a conception in which priority to the private rights of individuals came to be equated with freedom, leading to the marginalization of the public oriented character of civic freedom, and to the re-assertion of the theory of natural rights, as an innate quality of humans, rather than as rights afforded within a particular collective. Karl Popper’s two volume work, The Open Society and Its Enemies, published in 1945, selected by the Modern Library Board as one of the “100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th century”, may be seen as a key pillar of the Anglo view in its identification of any area of the world with democratic institutions and modern science as part of the “Western world”, and its exclusion from the Western lineage European thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and others deemed to be attached to tradition, collectivism, and tribalism.
De Benoist is correct that the theory of civic republicanism was “progressively dethroned in the Anglo-Saxon countries since the Eighteenth century” (115), but it was really after WWII that the liberalism he condemns as presocial came to dominate much of the official, NATO interpretation of the West. There was still a lively sense of community life in the United States in the 1950s, as Robert Putnam documented in Bowling Alone (2000), with loss in membership and number of volunteers in civic organizations declining rapidly thereafter. Moreover, contrary to de Benoist’s impression, this Anglo-Saxon (or Allied) form of individualism was being undermined by new cultural forces as it was seemingly growing, not only by the massive rise of the welfare state and a whole host of public agencies manned by bureaucrats rather than civic oriented citizens, but also by the relentless and successful attack led by cultural Marxists on the ideals of the West generally.
I cannot get here into Gress’s long book, how this Allied idea came to be contested starting in the 1960s, and culminating in the 1990s, with the abolition of most required courses in Western Civ, by leftists who argued that America was an immoral, uncivilized, imperialistic nation, by multiculturalists who argued that the United States should emphasize the identity of its non-European population, and by postmodernists who insisted that no culture could be elevated as a model to the world. Suffice it to say that the Allied view continues to exist today, though in a thinner, less cohesive, less confident way. It is a view that now downplays the relationship between Christianity and Western culture, and even equates the West with racial diversity and immigration, with some adherents still attached to “Judeo-Christian” values, but others speaking mostly about free markets, science, and secularism, or simply identifying the West with modernization and looking forward to the integration of all cultures into a modern global culture.
What one does not get from de Benoist is any sense of the far greater power leftists have had over the identity of the West in recent decades surpassing the natural rights tradition by marching through every institution, both in a hard core fashion, or in seemingly “liberal” ways, calling for the eradication of all the remaining particularistic aspects of Western nations, successfully enforcing even on conservatives the idea that all Western nations must become multiracial if they are to fulfill their human rights destinies. So, although in the past the natural rights tradition had contained an explicit sense of rights for nationals, and an implicit sense of ethnic identification, better articulated by the neo-Republicans and the Cambridge School with their emphasis on a shared polity and culture as the precondition of all individual rights, and understood by nationalists in the nineteenth century as rights within a particular nation based on a deep-rooted, widely shared sense of territory and ethnic identity, liberals (or Neocons in the United States) gradually came to accept a “propositional” view of rights divorced from strong ancestral cultural markers and open to anyone willing to accept the universal values of democracy.
Deconstructing Civic Nationalism
Here I want to bring attention to one aspect of this take-over, which relates to human rights, the way cultural Marxists have successfully redefined the concept of natural rights in human rights terms in order thereby to argue that the distinction between nationals (citizens) and non-nationals (non-citizens) must be diluted. Hundreds of publications could be listed pushing this argument with titles similar to Max Silverman’s Deconstructing the Nation: Immigration, Racism and Citizenship in Modern France (1992), for example, which finds wanting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen for limiting the “the universality of citizenship by making it dependent on nationality” (27), and condemns the way “French society became nationalized” and racist through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, discrediting as well the liberal or contractual theory of the nation famously proposed by Ernest Renan in his essay What is a Nation? (1882), for advocating a “new” form of “cultural racism” (even though Renan explicitly rejected an ethnic definition of the nation). Silverman picks on Renan’s apprehensions about foreigners not having “the same memories, the same past as us”. Renan was writing about European immigrants; Silverman has in mind African and Muslim immigrants, and insists that a France that speaks of itself as having a particular culture is racist and would not be universalist enough to make Algerians and Jews feel at home.
Drawing on Eric Hobsbawm’s claim that all European nations were deceptively founded on fictional accounts about shared ethnicities and cultural traditions, and the claims of Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, in Race, Nation, Class. Ambiguous Identities (1988), that European civic nationalism, regardless of its separation of race and nation, has always been inherently racist and Anti-Semitic, Silverman writes:
[R]acism in France over the last hundred years is, at heart, a classic case of national racism, that is, a racism which is deeply embedded in the structures (institutions/ideologies) of the nation state (24).
The fact that France declared itself to be a contractual rather than an ethnic nation simply “made it more difficult to locate this racism at the heart of everyday, common sense nationalism” (26). De Benoist misses this intersection of human rights thinking and the demand that Western nationals be decoupled from any cultural identity. He is too preoccupied with the harmful effects of human rights advocacy on the particular customs of non-Westerners, to the point of raising questions against critics of the stoning of women in Muslim countries, writing in admiring terms about the snugly communitarian lifestyle of Hindus, Chinese and Black African villagers.
|I, Seyla Benhabib, embody the highest moral values of humanity|
Meanwhile, Seyla Benhabib, born in Turkey, currently Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, has built herself a very lucrative career shabbing the argument that Western citizenship for non-nationals “must be viewed as a human right which can be justified along the principles of a universalistic morality” (42). This is the argument she makes in The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (2004). Redefining the natural rights of citizens to mean human rights, and that everyone on the planet has human rights, she then tries to inflict guilt on whites by arguing that it is “impermissible from a moral standpoint”, a human rights standpoint, to deny incorporating aliens and strangers, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers into the existing polities of Europe. Aware that nations by definition have sovereign power, she goes about weaving into Western national sovereignty, as an overriding moral presupposition, a human rights obligation, according to which a Western nation will
draws its legitimacy not merely from its act of constitution but, equally significantly, from the conformity of this act to universal principles of human rights that are in some sense said to precede and antedate the will of the sovereign (44).
In a subsequent book, Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times (2011), Benhabib unequivocally states that human rights are central to a “cosmopolitanism without illusions” (1). Foregrounding her views on the writings of Hannah Arendt and Raphael Lemkin on genocide, the Frankfurt School’s writings on cultural pluralism, and Jurgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action, which she interprets to mean that Europeans can only achieve truth and freedom by living together with, and learning from, Africans and Muslims, she pushes the argument that democratic polities gain in legitimacy to the extent to which they incorporate human rights principles in their concepts of citizenship in the face of world migration movements. She uses the experience of the Holocaust to argue that genocide is an ever present reality in a world in which nations have exclusionary forms of racial, national, and ethnic citizenship. The burden of guilt is not on the nations committing human rights violations; the issue is whether European nations are willing to incorporate human rights principles into their notions of citizenship.
De Benoist’s dated focus on the extension of human right principles onto the non-Western world is of little concern for Benhabib. She questions a “human rights minimalism” that ignores not only the theory of communicative action wherein everyone learns from everyone else, but also fails to reconceptualize notions of citizenship beyond national boundaries. She wants a “citizenship of residency”, rather than one restricted to nationals, dual or multiple citizenship, and the “disaggregation” of citizenship into rights-bearing modes of membership for noncitizen immigrants, guest workers, refugees, and asylees.
|We have Human Rights, and THEREFORE, we are Citizens of Europe!|
Deeply admired in Germany as a Turkish compatriot, a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (2008-2009), she was awarded the Ernst Bloch prize for 2009 (one of Germany’s most prestigious philosophical prizes), and the Leopold Lucas Prize from the Theological Faculty of the University of Tubingen in 2012. We cannot underestimate the influence of these munificent ideas, the more so because they are not original to her, but are being advocated by numerous academics in multiple ways. The German Chancellor Merkel recently announced, in front of the leader of Turkey, that “Islam belongs to Germany”. If Germany is to be a moral nation it must be cosmopolitan; indeed, it was reported that Germany is now enjoying “a boom in its global reputation” for welcoming in the last few years large number of immigrants, with 1 million arriving in 2012 alone, the year Benhabib was granted the Leopold Lucas Prize. Although the estimates vary, and not all migrants stayed in Germany, in 2013, the number of arrivals increased to 1.2 million, and some 667,000 people migrated in the first half of 2014. There were 173,072 asylum claims in 2014, up from 109,580 in 2013. The Germans, however, must do more. The Bertelsmann Institute published a study in 2015 estimating that Germany will need 500,000 migrants a year until 2050 to compensate for the looming retirement of the baby boom generation and fulfill her human rights obligations.
Rather than complaining about Westerners who impose human rights obligations on Chinese who eat dogs and Muslims who engage in honor killings, we should be paying attention to how academics and foreigners are deconstructing the Western notion of civic identity in a human rights/cosmopolitan direction. There is no reason to turn on ourselves, our heritage, our rights as Europeans, under the misleading idea that the Allied view of the West is “the West”, or that Civic Rights = human rights, when in fact modern liberalism was framed within cultures and peoples rooted in ancestral territories and ethnic ties.