chapter  4
22 Pages

Politics and legalism

So far in the book, we have seen that human rights is a notion that cannot simply be privileged over citizenship. While citizenship appears currently problematic, it is a rich and dynamic notion. The citizen makes politics and challenges politics. By contrast, the type of subject that human rights presuppose appears to be a subject forever split and lacking. Lacan showed us that identifying a rational and autonomous subject, as the human rights idea does, is impossible. Subjects never attain a complete and stable identity, and precarious acts of identification are their only option. As a rights and legalistic discourse, moreover, human rights are also limiting according to the Lacanian perspective, which we explored in the previous chapter. They are a fantasy scenario necessary as compensation for a subjecting legal system. Of course, an important clarification is due at this point. Problematising the legalistic discourse and type of subject on which human rights draw by no means implies a complete rejection of the concept. As we explored in Chapter 1, human rights, an inextricable tenet of modern liberal democracy, play a central role in challenging and exposing relations of power and subordination. However, this political role, the book has been arguing, not only is different to that of citizenship, but also needs to be recognised and valorised as different – otherwise we risk impoverishing and weakening democratic politics by reducing it to one principle. Human rights, therefore, are not eo ipso limiting according to the argument of this book; rather, it is only and in so far as they substitute for citizenship, therefore undermining democratic practice, that they are shown to be limiting. But there is a further implication to the case of privileging human rights and it is the aim of the present chapter to examine this in more detail. It concerns the anti-politics of the human rights argument.