The Economic Case for Human Rights

Imagine a scenario. You are walking along the street and you see a couple with a small child. A man comes up to the family and begins verbally abusing them. You do nothing. The man then becomes physically aggressive, slaps and punches the husband and father and knocks him to the ground. You do nothing. The man pulls out a knife. You do nothing. In front of your eyes, the attacker slits the other man’s throat and kills him. You still do nothing. The man takes the knife to the child, and you do nothing. He then attacks the woman, rapes and murders her while you just stand there. Now, obviously, this level of apathy and inaction would be contemptible. We might understand it if it was due to extreme fear or disorientation, but it would still be reprehensible. But let’s imagine that you weren’t afraid. In fact, let’s imagine that you are yourself a powerful, well-trained, experienced fighter with absolutely superior skills, who could easily have subdued the attacker; but you consciously chose not to do so.

Let’s imagine that the reason for your inaction was because you wanted to transact some sort of business with the man who was attacking the family, and you thought that if you intervened, you might lose this opportunity. Let that sink in. You made a deliberate decision to stand back and allow a horrific crime to take place, one which you had the power to prevent, because you wanted to do business with the attacker. In this type of scenario, I think we can all agree that you would be diagnosed as an extreme sociopath.

Well, this scenario is, in a nutshell, what is happening today with corporate power in states where human rights abuses are rampant. Tremendously powerful entities are standing back, saying nothing, doing nothing, even claiming that they have no responsibility to act, while atrocities are being committed in front of their eyes; all because they do not want to disrupt their existing or potential profitability. In some ways, indeed, they allow these atrocities to continue precisely because they may themselves create opportunities.

Any discussion about human rights is necessarily a discussion about the distribution and use of power. That should be self-evident. Advocating human rights means checking the abuse of power, and it means demanding a distribution of power; or at least demanding accountability of power; to ensure that people will be safe from oppression and persecution.

Well, we are living in an era in which extreme power is highly concentrated in the hands of very few people. It is concentrated in the hands of people who are not elected into power, and cannot be voted out of power. It is concentrated in the hands of people who exist beyond the pale of democratic accountability. And it is concentrated in the hands of people who are dedicated exclusively (and legally) to use their power to serve their own private interests.

In the context of this high concentration of private, unaccountable power, how can we campaign for human rights? It seems clear enough that the conventional method of merely lobbying governments or institutions like the United Nations has become obsolete. What amounts to a sort of reconfiguration of the old imperial model has emerged, with governments comprising a tier of management that is subordinate to corporate power. That is not to say that governments are irrelevant; far from it. They play a crucial role in the consolidation of power by corporations, and their enrichment. If you go down the list of the top companies on the Fortune 500 list, you will find very few that have succeeded without massive government subsidies and support. So government matters, but its primary function is as a subordinate instrument to private power.

We can lobby government, but we cannot equal the level of influence over policy wielded by multinationals. That is just a fact. Government is largely incapable at this point of defying corporate economic pressure. Again, we can look at Greece. We can, in fact, look at almost any military coup that has taken place in the last 50 or 60 years, anywhere in the world, and we will see that it was carried out under the auspices of big business, and for their interests. Consider Egypt, for instance. The overthrow of Mohammad Mursi was a Neoliberal coup, which was followed up by rapid and extreme capitulation with the demands of the International Monetary Fund, against the wishes of the population, and against their better interests.

The Anti-Globalisation movement of the 1990s and early 2000s fought against corporate influence over government. They wanted business out of politics. But this movement failed, and it was bound to fail. It is an unrealistic goal. Multinational corporations are not going away, and their power is not about to dissolve. We have to be practical about this. The transfer of power has happened, and it is simply not feasible to reverse it; at least not yet. We have to reconcile ourselves with the reality of a new set of power dynamics in the world today.

It seems to me that the only way forward is to address ourselves directly to corporate power. We have to lift the corporate veil, and expose to the light of day that corporations are political entities, and we have to deal with them as such. We do not have to abolish corporate influence (which, anyway, we can’t) we have to, in short, democratize corporate influence. This is going to be the only way, now and in the future, that we can successfully improve the state of human rights; indeed, it is the only way that we can re-establish any semblance of democracy.

So, how can this be possible? How can we impose accountability upon corporations? How can we lobby and persuade them to use their unparalleled influence for the greater good of society when they are legally and exclusively dedicated to the interests of no one except their shareholders? It seems to be an intractable conundrum. But it isn’t; not at all.

When you begin to recognize corporations as political entities, you also begin to realize that their stakeholders; their workers, their customers, and everyone impacted by them or who contributes in any way, directly or indirectly, to their profitability; are also political players. Just like voters, just like political parties, just like political action committees, and so on. We are all members of corporate constituencies. Rather than party affiliation, we offer brand loyalty. Rather than political insignias, we wear logos. Rather than campaign contributions, we offer consumer purchases. Everything we do, and everything they spend billions of dollars in advertising and marketing to make us do, empowers corporations to pursue their political agendas. We have the right to expect our interests to be reflected in how they use their power. Our consumption, our brand loyalty, our labor, should earn us the right to representation when these companies pursue political agendas, and we should have a say in what they do with the power we have given them.

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