THE RIGHTs’ FUTURE explores the history, development and current success of the human rights ideal, with all the dangers and compromises that such success has brought. It argues for a particular human rights story, one that rescues the radical activists and the egalitarians from the footnotes to which they are often relegated in the standard accounts. Whatever about its origins in early capitalism, the book argues that the concept of human rights is best understood today as a fundamentally progressive ideal in a world which has precious few ethical resources to hand. Building on earlier scholarly work, I propose that the term is now best seen as standing for three central ideas: respect for the dignity of each and every one of us; belief in accountability to an independent rule of law; and commitment to community self-government. Underpinning all of these is a strong sense of the equality of all. Human rights redeliver ethics to a Global North that is fast losing its sense of purpose in a post-socialist, post-religious haze of market supremacy, while also effectively connecting the North to the energetic radicalism of the Global South (itself often articulated in rights terms) and to the better parts of the world’s religious faiths.
The only contemporary idea with true universal and potentially progressive appeal, human rights is too important a term to leave to the liberals, the market-slaves or to the neo-conservatives. These are the various forces that have at some point or other sought to colonise the term and I am very critical of their efforts to do so in the course of the book. As this dimension to the book shows, there is an historical as well as a forward looking aspect to the work: I track the unfolding of the language of human rights through time as well as setting down pointers for the phrase’s deployment in the future. There is some doom along the lines of imagining a world without human rights, or with spurious human rights, but also a great deal of hope in the form of the potential that human rights offer for an ethical engagement with the world leading to a fuller life for all – human rights as the ethical architecture necessary to a decent everyday life.
The culmination of the project will see a presentation at the LSE’s Space For Thought Literary Festival in February 2011. This will be a round up of the ideas and themes which have been discussed on the site.