Are Human Rights Neoliberal?

Event Date:22 November 2018

Room B34
Birkbeck, University of London
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HX

The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities presents:

Are Human Rights Neoliberal?

In recent years, scholars have sought to understand the simultaneous rise, from the 1970s, of neoliberalism and an individualistic, NGO-driven, politics of human rights. However, most of that scholarship maintains a narrow Eurocentric perspective. This event explores the relationship between human rights and neoliberalism by looking at the broader international context in which both movements came to prominence. We will consider 1) how anti-colonialists mobilised the language of human rights to support national liberation struggles, demands for economic restructuring, and social and cultural security; and 2) how neoliberal thinkers and politicians themselves marshalled the language of human rights to counter-attack those struggles for political and economic self-determination.

Introduction by Professor Esther Leslie (Birkbeck):

Lecture #1:

Professor Joseph Slaughter (Columbia University, Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities) – Hijacking Human Rights: Neoliberalism, the New Historiography, and the End of the Third World

The North Atlantic perspective of the “new historiography” of human rights, which identifies the 1970s as the period when human rights discourse gained traction globally, generally relegates struggles outside the U.S. and Europe to minor, inconsequential, or irrelevant uses of the languages of human rights. However, the West’s late rediscovery and reduction of human rights to a limited set of individual civil and political protections should be understood as part of the larger roll back of a Third Wordlist agenda that included more expansive visions of human rights: postcolonial self-determination, economic redistribution, and social and cultural security. If the 70s became the decade of human rights, it was also the decade of hijackings and a dramatic reversal in the meaning of “terrorism.” Many airliner hijackings were undertaken precisely in the name of human rights struggles to decolonize the international order, but none of those were as effective as the neo-liberal hijacking of human rights.

Joseph Slaughter is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He specializes in literature, law, and socio-cultural history of the Global South (particularly Latin America and Africa). He’s especially interested in the social work of literature-the myriad ways in which literature intersects (formally, historically, ideologically, materially) with problems of social justice, human rights, intellectual property, and international law. His book Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (Fordham UP, 2007), which explores the cooperative narrative logics of international human rights law and the Bildungsroman, was awarded the 2008 René Wellek prize for comparative literature and cultural theory. He was elected to serve as President of the America Comparative Literature Association in 2016. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Public Voices Fellowship, Lenfest Distinguished Faculty Award.


Lecture #2:

Dr Jessica Whyte (Western Sydney University, Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities) – Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism

To date, much discussion of the relation of human rights and neoliberalism has focused on Latin America, where human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International came to prominence for contesting the torture, murder and disappearance that accompanied neoliberal ‘shock therapy’— while generally turning their attention away from its economic effects. This paper shifts this focus by examining the foundation Liberté sans Frontières (LSF), established in 1985 by the French leadership of Médecins sans Frontières. Far from simply vacating the economic field, LSF mobilised human rights explicitly against Third Worldist demands for post-colonial economic redistribution. Its leading figures criticised Third Worldism for promoting “simplistic” theses that blamed under-development on the looting of the third world by the West, the deterioration of the terms of trade, and the power of multinationals. LSF’s human rights warriors were not powerless companions of the rising neoliberalism, but enthusiastic fellow travellers.

Dr. Jessica Whyte is Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney, Australia and an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow. Her work integrates political theory, intellectual history and political economy to analyse contemporary forms of sovereignty, human rights and humanitarianism. Her work has been published in a range of fora including Contemporary Political Theory; Humanity: An International Journal ofHuman Rights, Humanitarianism and Development; Law and Critique; Political Theory; and Theory and Event. Her first monograph, Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben, was published by SUNY (2013). Her forthcoming book, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism will be published by Verso. She is currently working on the project, “Inventing Collateral Damage: The Changing Moral Economy of War”.



Panel discussion on “Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism” with Dr Tanya Serisier (Birkbeck, chair), Dr Başak Ertür (Birkbeck), Dr Robert Knox (University of Liverpool) and  Dr Luis Eslava (University of Kent).

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