Today I read an article Zizek wrote in February, 2010, titled “Against Human Rights,” on Libcom.org, a political blog.

He starts by saying that advocates of human rights generally position their appeals against three enemies: (1) fundamentalist essentialism (2) oppression or the denial of “free choice,” and (3) violence and excessive state/military power.

Zizek’s main point throughout the article is that each of these enemies are crudely generalized by liberal-democratic societies such that in each case, the problems are uncritically assumed, and, by and large, they rely on mythic representations of “the other,” fixation-points that function to shore up the West’s own liberal-democratic ideology. In short, every society has to posit an “other” outside itself in order to maintain its own ground; it has to set up artificial obstacles in order to justify its own efforts, whether those efforts are evil/ exploitative/ colonialist or the well-intentioned pursuit of “human rights.” The point of his critical analysis is to uncover the point at which this ideology loses its ground, where it misconceives its own notion.

Zizek does a great job explaining the limitations of liberal-democratic ideology, which I’ll go into below. But first, I have to say that, as usual, he risks alienating those he actually wants to join. His point is definitely not that we shouldn’t seek to end the atrocities happening all over the globe; he’s not saying that the pursuit of a just society is misguided or a lost cause. On the contrary, he just wants to shift the way we understand human rights; he wants to politicize these issues, to make them the subject of political debate and not of a “humanitarian” cause. On his account, the motivation to pursue “human rights” is itself based on skewed liberal ideology, and the insistence on human rights actually commits the very crimes it ostensibly opposes:

(1) It relies on an essentialist notion of what it means to be human; it “humanizes” or naturalizes political crimes at the cost of ignoring that underlying political logic: human rights violations are made a humanitarian concern, not an economic/political one; the important part, we are told, is the physical/personal violence to the “individual” (and not the violence of political systems):

The question is: what kind of politicization do those who intervene on behalf of human rights set in motion against the powers they oppose? Do they stand for a different formulation of justice, or do they stand in opposition to collective justice projects? For example, it is clear that the us-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, was not only motivated by hard-headed politico-economic interests but also relied on a determinate idea of the political and economic conditions under which ‘freedom’ was to be delivered to the Iraqi people: liberal-democratic capitalism, insertion into the global market economy, etc. The purely humanitarian, anti-political politics of merely preventing suffering thus amounts to an implicit prohibition on elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation.

At an even more general level, we might problematize the opposition between the universal (pre-political) human rights possessed by every human being ‘as such’ and the specific political rights of a citizen, or member of a particular political community. In this sense, Balibar argues for the ‘reversal of the historical and theoretical relationship between “man” and “citizen”’ that proceeds by ‘explaining how man is made by citizenship and not citizenship by man.’ Balibar alludes here to Arendt’s insight on the condition of refugees:

The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships except that they were still human.
This line, of course, leads straight to Agamben’s notion of homo sacer as a human being reduced to ‘bare life’. In a properly Hegelian dialectics of universal and particular, it is precisely when a human being is deprived of the particular socio-political identity that accounts for his determinate citizenship that—in one and the same move—he ceases to be recognized or treated as human. Paradoxically, I am deprived of human rights at the very moment at which I am reduced to a human being ‘in general’, and thus become the ideal bearer of those ‘universal human rights’ which belong to me independently of my profession, sex, citizenship, religion, ethnic identity, etc.

(2) The advocates of universal human rights insist so adamantly on “free choice” (a misguided idea if there ever was one), that they demand the subject choose to see itself as a free individual, a concept which is itself a crude, misunderstanding of the Enlightenment idea of autonomy; humanitarian ideology forces you to choose free choice, but this very choice is already a substantial ideological notion. For example, when Muslim women choose to wear the veil, even if it’s the result of “free choice,” i.e., even if it’s not taken to be caused by a fundamentalist/religious demand, the woman still has to identify herself with the veil, she has to accept the demand to choose a false sociosymbolic self-identification, i.e., she can’t just be left alone; on the other hand, even for the woman who chooses not to wear the veil at all, she’s still labeled, categorized as someone who rejects “fundamentalist” culture, and now enters a no less repressive ideological matrix, that of the demand to be sexually “liberated,” to be provocative, permiscuous, etc.:

What of the basic right to the pursuit of pleasure? Today’s politics is ever more concerned with ways of soliciting or controlling jouissance. The opposition between the liberal-tolerant West and fundamentalist Islam is most often condensed as that between, on the one side, a woman’s right to free sexuality, including the freedom to display or expose herself and to provoke or disturb men; and, on the other side, desperate male attempts to suppress or control this threat. (The Taliban forbade metal-tipped heels for women, as the tapping sounds coming from beneath an all-concealing burka might have an overpowering erotic appeal.)

Both sides, of course, mystify their position ideologically and morally. For the West, women’s right to expose themselves provocatively to male desire is legitimized as their right to enjoy their bodies as they please. For Islam, the control of female sexuality is legitimized as the defence of women’s dignity against their being reduced to objects of male exploitation. So when the French state prohibits Muslim girls from wearing the veil in school, one can claim that they are thus enabled to dispose of their bodies as they wish. But one can also argue that the true traumatic point for critics of Muslim ‘fundamentalism’ was that there were women who did not participate in the game of making their bodies available for sexual seduction, or for the social exchange and circulation involved in this. In one way or another, all the other issues—gay marriage and adoption, abortion, divorce—relate to this. What the two poles share is a strict disciplinary approach, differently directed: ‘fundamentalists’ regulate female self-presentation to forestall sexual provocation; pc feminist liberals impose a no-less-severe regulation of behaviour aimed at containing forms of harassment.

(3) Advocates of universal human rights often wish to justify military action against their (imaginary) enemies; the same content, the same excessive force that previously held the meaning of totalitarian/repressive power has come to signify, through a purely formal (ideological) gesture, an enlightened pursuit of human dignity:

War is acceptable insofar as it seeks to bring about peace, or democracy, or the conditions for distributing humanitarian aid. And does the same not hold even more for democracy and human rights themselves? Human rights are ok if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture and a permanent emergency state. Democracy is ok if it is cleansed of its populist excesses and limited to those mature enough to practise it.

Thus, one of Zizek’s more provocative points is that we, in the West, are much closer in our ideological practices to our “others.” Every “cause” is underwritten by a basic logic regulating jouissance (excess enjoyment). The crucial problem with our insistence on international human rights, on issues of the other, is that this insistence denies the horrific flaws of our own social systems, the violence done to “free choice” here at home.

This is perhaps the underlying motif of all so-called fundamentalisms—the endeavour to contain (what they perceive as) the excessive ‘narcissistic hedonism’ of contemporary secular culture with a call to reintroduce the spirit of sacrifice. A psychoanalytic perspective immediately enables us to see why such an endeavour goes wrong. The very gesture of casting away enjoyment—‘Enough of decadent self-indulgence! Renounce and purify!’—produces a surplus-enjoyment of its own. Do not all ‘totalitarian’ universes which demand of their subjects a violent (self-)sacrifice to the cause exude the bad smell of a fascination with a lethal-obscene jouissance? Conversely, a life oriented towards the pursuit of pleasure will entail the harsh discipline of a ‘healthy lifestyle’—jogging, dieting, mental relaxation—if it is to be enjoyed to the maximum. The superego injunction to enjoy oneself is immanently intertwined with the logic of sacrifice. The two form a vicious cycle, each extreme supporting the other. The choice is never simply between doing one’s duty or striving for pleasure and satisfaction. This elementary choice is always redoubled by a further one, between elevating one’s striving for pleasure into one’s supreme duty, and doing one’s duty not for duty’s sake but for the gratification it brings. In the first case, pleasures are my duty, and the ‘pathological’ striving for pleasure is located in the formal space of duty. In the second case, duty is my pleasure, and doing my duty is located in the formal space of ‘pathological’ satisfactions.

In his final paragraph, Zizek outlines the key paradox of the notion of human rights: the very moment we stop talking about universal rights — rights that are something more than politics — politics itself degenerates, it turns into the negotiation of particular (social-welfare/economic) interests, effectively loses any political significance; thus politics proper, the struggle over competing articulations of the notions of justice, community, citizenship, etc., cannot happen without a universalizing gesture, which Zizek wants to shift toward a repeated insistence on the universal human capacity to deny association, to assert one’s existence as that which lacks any essential identification. What Zizek is advocating is a return to universal human rights in developed nations, to the universality of human thought, which allows human beings to participate in political communities as “no-thing,” as simply more than any particular identification; the human power against every ideology is this radical denial of association, the repeated refusal of one’s complete belonging in any coercive symbolic community, a refusal which must necessarily continue if the subject is to cope, because one is always, ineluctably, stuck in ideology:

Far from being pre-political, ‘universal human rights’ designate the precise space of politicization proper; what they amount to is the right to universality as such—the right of a political agent to assert its radical non-coincidence with itself (in its particular identity), to posit itself as the ‘supernumerary’, the one with no proper place in the social edifice; and thus as an agent of universality of the social itself. The paradox is therefore a very precise one, and symmetrical to the paradox of universal human rights as the rights of those reduced to inhumanity. At the very moment when we try to conceive the political rights of citizens without reference to a universal ‘meta-political’ human rights, we lose politics itself; that is to say, we reduce politics to a ‘post-political’ play of negotiation of particular interests.