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Why, according to some anarchists, is the concept of 'rights' a mistake?

+5 votes
So I don't think that rights are magic or that they're discovered or anything -- clearly people make them up.  But do 'rights' really, always and everywhere, flow from the state?  Don't some 'rights' (ideally) protect one from the state?  Human rights as opposed to legal rights say?  Isn't it OK to have some basic standards for our treatment of one another and can't that be totally independent of the concept of the state?  And, finally, can't new rights take political / social space away from the state and capital?  For example wouldn't the concept of housing as a basic human right take some space away from the idea that property rights should be primary and form the foundation of the social order?

New questions:

So are rights *always* or only enforced by the state or by appealing to a higher authority?  (For example: if I believe in a right to abortion and I help establish a community clinic that performs abortions.)

Can the concept of 'desire' replace the concept of 'rights?'  What are the implications of this?  If it doesn't replace this concept what are some of the consequences of eliminating a discourse of 'rights?'  How does one talk about the importance of people's access to basic resources or the importance of eliminating torture (for example) outside of this discourse.

asked Jun 18, 2010 by anonymous
edited Jun 22, 2010
interesting question. i also agree with dot, that it is far from solely an insurrectionist question. a couple of years back, i think one of the most widely discussed issues amongst some anti-globalization academics was the question of "whether human rights are ethnocentric?"... i'm going to try and dig up my long lost response to this question, but unfortunately i think it is lost down the memory hole (among the many other pieces of writing one loses when a computer crashes with no backup). perhaps, i feel that if the question was phrased that way, it may be a little easier to respond too, or not... but, i do like where you are going with this.
It seems that maybe anarchist go overboard that if something is bad it came from the "state".  "Rights" is a concept that unbalances the scale of resolution and community.  It over emphasizes the importance of the individual or group, rather than seeing everyone as factors.  To enforce or favor the importance of one over another does not lead to a "best answer" but leads to the advantage of one's position and outcome over another.  "Rights" also do not fix the problem for which they are created.   Probably rather than rights coming from the state, they appease the wrongness of the states, as a trade off of voluntary oppression.  Whereas we are ok with taxes as long as we are represented (WTFudge).  We are ok with whatever the government does as long as we can speak against it.  We are ok that someone can remain silent in their best interest rather than to own-up to their mistake or the damage they have created, of course with a justice system that resolve nothing other than some form of vengeance perhaps that is not such a bad choice.  

Rights try to created an artificial solution rather than to create the conditions where our words matter, where we as people choose our own conditions of life and are not enslaved to any state.  And where justice and the need for punishment no longer exists but where issues are worked out to the best solution of all involved, where truth is not a confession but explains the conditions and choices of the event in order to prevent reoccurrence and undo the damage that was done as much a reasonable possible.
i voted up on this one just because it asks a lot of good questions and clearly creates confusion

As an odd/interesting historical aside, Proudhon (not necessarily your go-to guy on questions of desire) actually reimagined "rights" in a non-governmental sense, positing an equal "right" for all of the natural demands that living, evolving beings place on the world around them as the continue to exist and grow. "Justice" then became a question of balancing those demands. So there is at least an opening to this rethinking in terms of at least something like "desire" that goes a long way back.

3 Answers

+5 votes
Best answer
Rights always come from the state. The idea that rights should be written into law was developed when people were so pissed about getting stepped on and ruled over by sovereign powers that the governments had to do something. So they made a tremendous shift into a system of politics called liberalism (not the same as liberalism as in liberal vs. conservative or liberal vs. maoist) in which the law recognizes the rights of citizens. These laws serve to not only convince citizens that they aren't going to be stepped on as hard but also to ensure that people will appeal for recognition of their rights by the state or a change in the rights written in law, rather than revolt when they have grievances.

It is a remarkably successful political system, in which revolt now tends to happen only when the system is clearly fucking people over and clearly not going to change itself. Even then, revolt can be settled by implementing some larger systematic change or having a revolutionary government take over.

Anarchists do not want protection from the state. Or, to put it another way, a truly anarchist life guarantees that one will not be protected by the state, and instead punished by it. The state offers protection to (certain normal, decent, law-abiding, good, productive, etc) citizens in exchange for their preservation, reproduction and reformation of the status quo.

An alternative understanding would be that rights are first and foremost inherent to our being human, and only secondly is this 'real' human essence recognized by the state. I would reject this because no one can point to the existence of these essential rights except in the writings of law (whether international or national). There isn't an inherent human essence, or if there is it would be a highly paradoxical, enigmatic "thing".

To appeal (to the state) for the establishment of greater rights does not "take away space" from the state. It would seem that only revolt can actually wrench spaces from state control, but even then, state-forms manage to creep in through the back door (the implementation of self-management among the insurgents).

As for alternative discourse, I don't see the need for one. For anyone to actually achieve the essence of what you are talking about -- to live free of the domination of state and capital in their lives -- they would have to live fighting against domination and not appeal it to recognize the importance of their needs or how cruel torture is. In other words, they would have to become a non-subject. And only subjects can have rights.
answered Feb 26, 2011 by anok (19,530 points)
edited Feb 26, 2011 by anok
"rights always come from the state"  o.O
hey anok, i like the answer but i also find the whole reform vs. insurrection a little troubling...i guess sometimes i like the idea of revolt as a form of juijitsu? Clearly trying to parcel out/redistribute resources through some sort of governing body is messed up from the start, but is absolutism really the best thing here?
We can imagine rights that do not, in fact, come from a state, but I don't think we can imagine rights that do not ultimately come from some real or imagined collectivity with authority over the individuals associated with it.
+2 votes
insurrectionists aren't even close to being the ones to come up with an anti-"rights" argument.
in fact, i found a pretty decent comments re: the problem with rights at  organise!

... Our objection to rights rests on their political content. Rights are only of use if they can be enforced. To which we must ask - who decides what rights there are and who will make sure they are put into effect? This cannot be simply side-stepped by more 'democratic' or anarchist forms of decision making. The idea of rights presupposes that there is a correct answer to be discovered and that makes it an issue for experts. Anarchists do not believe that there are factual answers to how people interact. It effects everyone in a community and everyone should participate in the decision making process. No one is greater expert on you than yourself. Of course if you want to build a house you would be foolish not to consult people with expertise in architecture or bricklaying but they have no greater knowledge than anyone else in the community as to whether a house needs to be built. These types of decision can be blurred on occasion but with rights we can see a definite difference. Rights are the product of a hierarchical society. If you are in dispute with someone over a clash of rights you must appeal to a higher authority. When decisions go against people in British courts they go to the European Court of Human Rights. Regardless of whether they win or lose they have surrendered control of their own lives to someone else. We are not saying that the idea of rights is a manipulative con by capitalism to divert rebellion into acceptable channels but it is product of capitalist, individualistic and authoritarian thinking which cannot serve as the basis for a society of freedom and equality.

(i would change the "insurrectionary" tag you applied. this isn't an insurrectionary issue.)
answered Jun 18, 2010 by dot (50,590 points)
No problem with late responses (though sometimes I do change my mind about things hahah). I'm not sure what "pm in bolo'bolo" is ...I'll have to look that up. I'll admit that it when people start talking about "Rights" it is a red flag to me as well. I think your point about new symbols makes a lot of sense even though I didn't get the whole context of it. It would probably be better for another question to get into these issues of word choice and what ideologies tend to correspond with various phrases or conceptions of life.

Thanks for the response ;)
pm is the author of a book called bolo'bolo (originally in german). the book discusses a future in which society is formed into groups of roughly 500 people each (called bolos), each of which is organized around something that the people choose (cigar-smoking bolos, left-handed bolos, these are silly examples, but...). it's the best anarchist utopia vision i've ever read - truly decentralized and expressing many of the values that i care about - like traveling and staying, choice and no-choice, etc.
I've not read this book you mention, but your talk of these bolos organised around the collective interest's and perhaps, dare I say, cultures of each individual in these bolos raises an interesting question for me. How would you feel if there was a cigar smoking bolo, a left-handed bolo and a bolo where only white people were allowed? I am not advocating this sort of thing, I'm just curious as to what you yourself and others would think of what seems to me to be a natural(though personally objectionable) extension to this communitarian based society.

i would be delighted that the people who only wanted to be around white  people were all in one place so that they could be easily avoided.

the issue is not dumb decisions. the issue is power over other people. if the white (edit: people) isolationists start to gain power and dominate others, then there's a problem. the same is true for cigar-smokers.
and those evil evil left-handers!

dot: "i would be delighted that the people who only wanted to be around white people were all in one place so that they could be easily avoided."


–5 votes

i think that a lot of people are missing the point on this one.

i'm not a religious person, but one could view anarchism's critique of liberalism similarly to jesus' critique of the jewish law. liberals have this wide swath of rules meant to govern how states and people interact with each other. anarchists would say that there is but one simple rule, articulated in a wide variety of manners, but here in the old english saying: 'an' it harm none, do what ye will'. 

but can any of us cite an example of a human right (not related to private property, in a traditional socialist definition: means of production, land, etc) that we explicitly disagree with? i would claim that we mostly cannot.

regarding natural law, let's take a step back to where it came from. we've all become very confused about this. for, aquinas would never have claimed that the natural law is an ethereal force or an authority. to the contrary, he would have claimed that it is to be arisen at individually through reason. aquinas' concept of natural law - which early liberal and anarchist thinkers wholly adopted - most closely resembled what we today call secular humanism. anarchists may be moral nihilists, but it is merely a step in reasoning rather than an end of it. we may reject absolute morality, but we would not reject our own logical intuitions as to what is just and what is not. we just claim that it is a human construction, arisen at through reason and carried out not because we are forced to but because we want to.

there are two kinds of rights: rights that individuals have in opposition to the state and rights that humans have in opposition to each other. in the first case, the fundamental issue is property. the right to food is about property. the right to shelter is about property. after all, the purpose of the state is to protect property. anarchists are consequently going to have a hard time with these kinds of rights, because we neither believe in the state nor in property. we would rather abolish both, and the rights laws that come with them, than accept the hierarchy they put in place. but, none of us would claim that we are not all entitled to food or to shelter.

in the second case, a moment's reflection is required: we would not have so many court cases in front of us that attempt to rule on human rights if we did not have so many violations. and, the underlying issues are often very deep seated. i think that anarchists should view this class of rights as an experiment. what it's doing is slowly putting in place the framework that we will one day adopt, when we are ready. it would be nice to claim that we do not need this - but, unfortunately, at the moment, we clearly do. we cannot abolish hierarchy overnight. there's not really a way around this in the short run - an anarchist society would need a tort-like system to deal with personal conflicts until the proper behaviour becomes enforced as social norms.

so, it's really a very subtle point. and it reduces mostly to the issue of property.

answered Aug 30, 2015 by deathtokoalas (70 points)
edited Aug 30, 2015 by deathtokoalas

[beating a dead horse, here...]

a quote from an article on @news, which i think is quite relevant to (particularly) dtk's interactions here on this subject:

"Ideology castrates the ideas one has, turning them into sterile and mummified dogmas that cannot exist beyond their initial form.  If we are going to challenge the existing order, we will have to move beyond ideology. This does not mean abdicating from our ideas and principles, but their constant re-evaluation and development."

funky@; recall Nietzsche in _Twilight of the Idols_:

You ask me which of the philosophers' traits are most characteristic? For example, their lack of historical sense, their hatred of the very idea of becoming, their Egypticism. They think that they show their respect for a subject when they dehistoricize it sub specie aeternitas — when they turn it into a mummy. Everything that philosophers handled over the past thousands of years turned into concept mummies; nothing real escaped their grasp alive. Whenever these venerable concept idolators revere something, they kill it and stuff it; they suck the life out of everything they worship. ('Reason' In Philosophy)

ba@, you wrote: "i think we use too many fucking words.

(by "we" i mean me and almost everyone i know in person or cyberspace)"

as it happens, i've been reading Annie Le Brun's _The Reality Overload_. You, and other anarchists, may find it worthwhile.

thanks for the suggestion, AF. i had that one on my list after i saw it mentioned in a book i read called the idler.

also thanks for suggesting david abrams' books. i just finished reading Becoming Animal (which i liked a lot) and plan to read Spell of the Sensous next.


good call on annie le brun, af. though i have only read excerpts, a very close friend has read much of her stuff (in the context of critique of feminism) and has read some great stuff to me.

some years ago we tried to get one of her books translated from french into english, but it never got done.