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Part of the problem is that there is no accepted hierarchy of rights and there is a tendency to conflate various types of rights. What we have is a cafeteria approach to rights, where the assortment selected on any given day can vary according to taste.

An anarchist might place individual human rights at the very top of the list. These must be preserved and cannot be violated. But this position is routinely rendered meaningless by rich and powerful elites being able to grab control of the state and use its powers against the rights of all who oppose the agenda of those elites. The favorite justification for so doing is to preserve "order", which, after some time, devolves into preserving a social order, and the political order through which that social order acts and the virtues of continuity and stability usually come to be emphasized.

The idea of self-determination seems largely derived from cultural and linguistic nationalism. Each ethnic group is entitled to select its own form of government. This is challenged by the de-facto intermixing of ethnicities within defined geographic locations and the lack of any standard for the sort of government that is suitable for a particular people or collection of peoples. Often the result is rule by the most determined and/or sophisticated user of some combination of violence and rhetoric, as in Libya.

Non-violence is great as a social goal, but weak as a guiding principle. It is, on its own, helpless against determined violence exercised without conscience. The best that can be achieved would seem to be to have as a goal a society in which there is the least level of violence possible. Post WWII Japan ranks high on this scale. But this was made possible by the existence of the USA as the military guarantor of Japan's independence and there are costs to that arrangement.  

When we allow the "principle" of self-determination and national sovereignty to trump the principle of universal human rights we set the stage for debacles such as the various genocides of the 20th century. So self determination and national sovereignty is supported most by those who fear they might have to violate the rights of their citizens in order to remain in power.

A state run in the interests of its elites, be they hereditary nobility or financial elites, and comes to value the institutions that serve their interests. Only fortuitously do their actions seem to conform to any collection of principles. An excellent discussion of this problem in terms of "the real" vs. "the ideal" is provided in E.H. Carr's The 20 Year Crisis.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Apr 2nd, 2011 at 11:08:24 AM EST
The problem of inconsistency has always plagued the idea of rights, but without some such doctrine it becomes very, very difficult to make arguments in favor of any sort of checks and balances in a democracy - or even in favor of democracy at all.  Notions of rights do not mix well with utilitarianism at all, and one can make all kinds of rather nasty utilitarian arguments in favor of non-democratic systems.

However, I think it's important to come up with a vaguely coherent statement of value as part of any political project, and right now the obvious and glaring conflicts at the heart of the modern liberal program have rendered it incoherent on issues of foreign policy.  Incoherence and a lack of principle make it impossible to advocate with any force for . . . well . . . anything.

You mention that anarchists would place human rights above all, and I think I can agree with that basic position.  However, in doing that anarchists also reserve for themselves the basic right of self protection, through violence if necessary.  After all, a radical construction of human rights which includes absolute human freedom by necessity rejects any restraints on one's ability to do violence to others, and thus any violation of the freedoms of another could be met with lethal violence.  Endless spiral of chaos, anyone?

The idea of self-determination seems largely derived from cultural and linguistic nationalism. Each ethnic group is entitled to select its own form of government. This is challenged by the de-facto intermixing of ethnicities within defined geographic locations and the lack of any standard for the sort of government that is suitable for a particular people or collection of peoples. Often the result is rule by the most determined and/or sophisticated user of some combination of violence and rhetoric, as in Libya.

So, is your opposition to European domination of North Africa entirely practical/utilitarian in nature?  If the Italians, Spanish, or French could go in and sort things out with a new Imperial settlement, that would be okay?  The principles of self-determination have no sway with you at all?  In all likelihood a re-conquest scenario is not very probable or realistic, but to say that is just skirt the philosophical issue entirely.

What I mean is, if one is going to have any sort of program or goal in mind beyond "do whatever seems like the best idea at the moment," then one needs to coherent explain and defend that position.  If one is comfortable with "do whatever seems like the best idea at the moment," than any principle-based denunciations or attacks on the Western intervention are nothing but hot air.  In my opinion, that includes cynically dismissive statements along the lines of, "it's empire 2.0" or "blood for oil" and whatnot - because if everything is about contingency and the moment, than what on Earth is wrong with that?  Where is the basis for criticizing those objectives?

by Zwackus on Sat Apr 2nd, 2011 at 02:23:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am agreeing with you that arguments based on rights are inherently messy, not that no such principles are feasible or desirable. I tend to think within a frame of a relative hierarchy of rights, but cannot say that I have a coherent position. I would definitely place the rights of individuals to be free in their persons from arbitrary arrest, imposition, impressment and harassment over the rights of a state to justify such treatment on any but the most fundamental interests the state might claim -- and there we again get into trouble.

The above very limited statement of rights, which could be augmented with everything in the US Bill of Rights, gives us a very partial conception of rights. What rights does or should an individual have against a state that has been captured by a powerful interest group who continually manage to secure practical control of the apparatus of government through electoral means? How do we secure a right to have the policies of our government operate in the interests of 97% of the population instead of 3%? When it becomes obvious that we have lost that struggle what rights do the 97% still have and how are they secured?  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Apr 2nd, 2011 at 03:18:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Zwackus:
What I mean is, if one is going to have any sort of program or goal in mind beyond "do whatever seems like the best idea at the moment," then one needs to coherent explain and defend that position.  If one is comfortable with "do whatever seems like the best idea at the moment," than any principle-based denunciations or attacks on the Western intervention are nothing but hot air.  In my opinion, that includes cynically dismissive statements along the lines of, "it's empire 2.0" or "blood for oil" and whatnot - because if everything is about contingency and the moment, than what on Earth is wrong with that?

(i have puzzled this one for a while, and it always leads me off an intellectual cliff.)

pragmatically, there's nothing wrong with that, just as pragmatically there's nothing wrong with bopping your neighbour over the head because he has something you fancy, and as you chummily eat his meat round the fire with your tribe, surely their happy smiles and warm gratitude is plenty to soothe any pangs of doubt.

when we were brutes, we were conscience-free, might ruled, end of story.
now we are trying to look in the mirror and see something better than brute, so we construct a narrative to help soothe pangs, such as 'he was the wrong colour, not 'one of us', smelt funny, thumped the wrong tome etc' so he had it coming to him, social darwinism with lipstick of justification.

after a few more million dead, we have become more sophisticated about the rationalisations, that's all. thicker lipstick.

our aspirations remain just that, aspirations, and fine and noble they are, but some of us at least have them, which is marginally better that not.

how do you teach people to abjure force without using force?

no easy answer, methinks, just a long haul up the hill to social responsibility, with many tumbles and trials.

now we can destroy our habitat as the flick of a few switches, we clever apes have come up against a reality we cannot weasel our logic around, so by hook or by crook we have to face up to the fact that brutishness will bring us all to ruin, no payoff there, so with great reluctance we are constrained to contemplate the only rational solution... we need to evolve to better-than-brute, rapidos.

this is the painful blood and radiation-soaked journey we are in the middle of, from animals to angels, some might say. the arrival point is still unknown, but the journeyers, to go on, must envision a goal, even if reaching it seems ludicrously improbable.
to go back is no option, to dwell where we are too dodgy, so onwards and upwards we go, still stinking of mire, stars in our eyes, one step at a time.

it's an exodus from pharaonic institutionalised ignorance and plutocratic misery, towards a land flowing with milk and honey, we are trying to cross a great river of gore and grief to get there. our little boat of hope is tacking across, dodging the jagged spars of fracturing, broken ideologies as they hurtle around in the strong currents.

enough mixed metaphors, fishful winking and delusional whimsy for one comment.

great diary, i wish i had a clearer answer to your question, it is a very perceptive one, i think we better keep asking ourselves what it means to make moral choices, and why we bother even to try, when so little seems to work out optimally in the 'real' world.

the alternative is to accept we are brutes, always were and always will be...

the measure of how far we have to go is the number of people who still do accept that as undeniable, while those of us with the breathing space to contemplate any better alternative feel empowered, even to be able to dream of a nobler ideal than kill-or-be-killed, such as most of the animal kingdom still suffers under.

perhaps it is all an illusion, and brutes we'll remain, but something i love would die if i totally accepted that, so i fervently hope we keep trying to imagine we can affect the course of things with our little thoughtstreams, tiny flaps of tiny wings i guess...

as for dropping multimillion dollar ordinance to sort out libya, it's above my paygrade to morally evaluate. upriver there's the reeking cause of the libyan problem, which is gaddafi would never have had such a vicious hold on the place if we in the west had not armed him, and indulged his delusions.

you can only fight fire with fire so long. i just wish we were dropping millions into PV research, as i think that's what's going to stop this global resource buccaneering that is the endgame otherwise.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 11:03:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Incoherence and a lack of principle make it impossible to advocate with any force for . . . well . . . anything.

Not so. Incoherence may inhibit those who realize that their position is incoherent or they might just not care. And some of the worst monsters we have had never even realized or accepted that there was any fault with their ideas. The problem is that politics operates much more on rhetoric than on philosophy. Most leaders throughout history have either inherited their position or have just "solved" the practical and rhetorical problems facing them sufficiently to gain control of the power of the state and then used that power to insure the continuation of their rule. Only in the last few centuries have we developed systems that allow leaders to exit office other than feet first.

But, ever hopeful, I would like to see an intellectually coherent position developed. When I was 20 I set for myself the task of examining all of my ideas and revising them until they became mutually coherent. Needless to say I soon found this task to be most grandiose. Fortunately, I did not have too much time to devote to it. My fall back position became one of accepting that all of my ideas were provisional and committing myself to attempting to reconcile differences when I became aware of them. Then I realized that some of the biggest problems were likely to be ones of which I was unaware.

Such is the human condition. As a friend said long ago: "sometimes I feel that life is a joke that someone is playing on me." I could appreciate the sentiment.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 11:32:22 PM EST
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