Can a democracy fully function without a set of universal economic rights?
As India celebrates its 74th Independence Day, its citizens need to take a hard look at the relationship between their democratic rights and basic economic security
While the need for instituting a set of fundamental political rights is generally recognized and enshrined in all democratic Constitutions, there has scarcely been any similar recognition of the need for a set of fundamental economic rights. On the contrary, serious theoretical reservations have been aired on the question of the provision of such economic rights.
These reservations come from two sources. First, there is a liberal argument regarding economic rights, which contends that a right has no meaning unless the state is in a position to guarantee it. Since economic rights cannot be guaranteed by the state, as their fulfilment depends upon the capacity of the economic system, it is pointless to legislate a set of economic rights. What is the point, for instance, in enacting a right to employment if the functioning of the economy is such that it cannot be guaranteed? Economic rights, therefore, are best left un-enacted, but the ideas behind them can be used as markers for pointing to the type of society we should be aiming to build. It is perhaps such an understanding which underlies the fact that the Indian Constitution institutes a set of social and political rights but relegates what should have been economic rights to the Directive Principles of State Policy.
This argument against economic rights, however, is fundamentally flawed, since it makes democracy adjust to the limitations of capitalism, that is, it privileges a particular economic system, capitalism, above the demands of democracy. Democracy demands that the citizens of a country must have basic economic security and that this should be provided not as largesse from the state but as their due, that is, by the fact of their being citizens. It should, in other words, be provided as a matter of right. To say that we cannot have such rights because we have an economic system that cannot guarantee their realization amounts therefore to abridging democracy for the sake of preserving a particular economic system, which is a complete inversion of what should be the correct priority.
In fact, accepting this logic does not just mean prioritizing capitalism over democracy, it runs the risk of accepting the status quo in matters of economic arrangement. Whatever the economic arrangement that happens to exist in a country, whatever the specific form of capitalism that happens to prevail, no matter whether it is characterized by large-scale bribery, corruption and nepotism, the predilection of this argument would be to reconcile with that arrangement rather than to overthrow it under the compulsion of having to cater to a set of economic rights. This argument, in short, entails the privileging of the status quo.
The effective counter to this argument is that the acceptance of democracy, as mentioned earlier, should mean the provision of basic economic security, and this security should be provided through a set of economic rights. And the economic arrangement must be so altered that these economic rights are actually guaranteed. In other words, the economic arrangement must serve the needs of democracy, rather than the other way around.
The second set of objections to the institution of rights comes from the left. These go back to Marx’s critique of human rights in his early essay ‘On the Jewish Question’, where he says, for instance, that ‘the rights of man . . . are nothing but the rights of egotistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community’. Human freedom, according to him, consists in overcoming alienation, and not in enjoying a set of rights as ‘monads’, as self-centred, isolated individuals. Of course, Marx’s remarks are not made specifically with regard to economic rights, but more generally on the concept of human rights; nonetheless they are the source of scepticism on the left on the matter of rights.
Much has been written on the question of the relationship between Marxism and ‘human rights’. While some have seen an irreconcilable epistemic contradiction between Marxism and the concept of ‘human rights’, others have argued that the emancipatory project of Marxism cannot be carried forward without some notion of rights. In fact, they argue, Marx himself had maintained that there could be no political activity without the freedom of expression and association, which therefore had to be guaranteed through the institution of appropriate rights.
Marx’s remarks in his early essay are of course meant primarily to emphasize that a society of atomistic individuals, each enjoying certain rights, does not constitute true emancipation; for the latter, a new ‘community’ must come into being. However, there is an additional point to note in this context. Capitalism is a ‘spontaneous system’ which is driven by its own immanent tendencies, through the actions of individual agents who are forced by competition to act in particular ways. The atomistic individual under capitalism does not act according to his or her own volition, but is forced to act in particular ways, for otherwise he or she would fall by the wayside as a consequence of the Darwinian struggle in which capitalism traps all economic agents. ‘Combinations’ of workers are the first blow against this spontaneity of capitalism, and they constitute the genesis of a new ‘community’.
A regime of economic rights constitutes a blow against the spontaneity of capitalism. Therefore, this regime cannot be instituted except through struggles, that is, through collective action. Hence, even though the rights may be individually enjoyed, they can come into being only through a collective struggle. The collective struggle of the workers that is needed for achieving a set of individual rights, including above all a set of economic rights, already makes the workers transcend their individualism. If they win these rights through such collective struggles, they have already moved away from being mere monads; if they do not, then that is all the more reason to carry on with the collective struggles.
Hence, while rights may not figure in the concept of emancipation that Marx had visualized, that ideal itself cannot be divorced from the struggle for rights; and the collective struggle for rights, whether or not it succeeds, is a means to get closer to the realization of that ideal.
Thus, the two kinds of arguments that may be put forward against the instituting of economic rights are both unconvincing. There is also a further point to note here. An immanent tendency of capital is to overcome all constraints that may be imposed upon its spontaneity. Hence, even if in particular circumstances capital is forced to make concessions of various kinds to the working class, its spontaneous tendency is to negate these concessions over time. Instituting a set of justiciable, universal economic rights is a means of preventing such future negation.
Excerpted from We The People: Establishing Rights And Deepening Democracy edited Nikhil Dey, Aruna Roy, Rakshita Swamy, published by Penguin Random House.
FIRST PUBLISHED15.08.2020 | 11:30 AM IST
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