“There are no human rights without social justice”

“Trump isn’t a threat to our democracy. Hysteria is.” This is the title of the opinion piece published by Samuel Moyn in The New York Times, one year after the investiture of the new American president. But don’t be taken in, Moyn is not a fan of Donald.

Karl Van Den Broeck (BOZAR) about Samuel Moyn's book

Culturally responsible happening. The giant – symbol of terror- is the work of the Dutch artist Herman IJsebaert.
Culturally responsible happening. The giant – symbol of terror- is the work of the Dutch artist Herman IJsebaert.

Samuel Moyn (°1972) is a Law and History lecturer at the University of Yale and before that, he had mainly lectured at Harvard. Strangely enough this American is interested in European human rights philosophers and studied the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Pierre Rosanvallon. He is internationally recognised as an eminent personality and authority in the domain of the study of human rights.

In 2012, he made his name with the book The Last Uto­pia. For Moyn, belief in human rights is the “last utopia” to survive, on the ruins of com­munism and nationalism. Human rights are at the heart of western civilisation but they only gained a universal character after 1945, and in particular after 1968. But is this “faith” in human rights enough to “save the world”?

“Born of the yearning to transcend politics, human rights have become the core language of a new politics of humanity that has sapped the energy from old ideological contests of left and right. energy from old ideological contests of left and right. With the advancement of human rights as their standard, a huge number of schemes of transformation, regulation, and “governance” contend with one another across the world. But if in the thirty years since their explosion in the 1970s human rights have followed a path from morality to politics, their advocates have not always forthrightly acknowledged that fact. Born in the assertion of the “power of the powerless,” human rights inevitably became bound up with the power of the powerful” he writes at the end of the work.

Moyn also asserts: “If human rights put forward a series of fundamental values which should be protected, they are not the solution to all the problems. In other words, the last utopia cannot be moral. So it is far too early to determine whether human rights are worthy of defining the utopia of the future.”

In his incendiary opinion piece published in The New York Times, Moyn summarises this idea in a concise and powerful way: “It is easier to believe that democracy is under siege than to acknowledge that democracy put Mr. Trump in power — and only more economic fairness and solidarity can keep populists like him out”.

Moyn violently attacks the wave of hysteria which followed the Trump’s election. He criticises the major declarations according to which democracy is in danger, truth is in peril and totalitarianism is lying in wait.

He believes that Trump scared everyone. If implemented his radical projects could endanger democracy, irrevocably plunge the very poorest into destitution and seriously damage the United States’ international relations.

But according to him, it only took a few months for people to realise that Trump’s threats were insignificant and he would in fact be simple to control. “There is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed…”

He believes that hysteria doesn’t in any way help us to understand how to curb populism. “If there is one lesson from the 20th century worth learning, it is that an exclusive focus on the defense of liberal fundamentals (editor’s note: in American political semantics “liberal” means “progressive” in European political vocabulary) against a supposed totalitarian peril often exacerbates the social and international conflicts it seeks to resolve. This approach to politics threatens to widen the already yawning gulf between liberal groups and their opponents, while distracting from the deeply rooted forces that have been fueling right-wing populist politics, notably economic inequalities and status resentments.”

“Adysfunctional economy, not lurking tyranny, is what needs attention if recent electoral choices are to be explained — and voting patterns are to be changed in the future.”

In his latest work Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, Moyn goes into this idea in more depth. According to him “the age of human rights” was mainly of benefit to the wealthy. Violations of human rights have benefitted from all the attention at the same time as the objectives of material equality were forgotten. “In its place, market fundamentalism has emerged as the dominant force oin national and global economies.” Moyn explains very precisely how and why we chose to make human rights our supreme ideal whilst neglecting demands for more economic and social justice.

In his book, Moyn looks back over the history of human rights and goes back as far as the Bible. He is particularly interested in the Welfare State of the 20th century, created to fight both extreme poverty and exorbitant wealth. The idea was to respond to the basic needs of citizens and to ensure that the wealthy didn’t remain in their ivory tower. After two world wars and the collapse of international superpowers, the Welfare State tried to export this model outside of Europe and the United States. But their project of an international fight against injustice failed while the economy of the neoliberal market triumphed.

Not Enough calls on more ambitious ideals and movements to achieve a fairer and more human world.


In 2018, we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1968 was the official year of human rights, even though almost all the human rights inscribed there have been flouted. The Vietnam War, the assassination of Mar­tin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the race riots in the United States, the invasion of Prague by the Soviet Union are just a few of the dark chapters of 1968.

Following these events, human rights have taken on a central importance and the human rights movement came into being. Moyn deplores the fact that this movement primarily places emphasis on the rights of victims of terror regimes, losing sight of social citizenship. Amnesty International, the main organisation created at the time, concentrated its action on unlawful detention and torture. Human Rights Watch also refused to promote social and economic rights.

The fight against injustice has returned to the headlines in 2018. Thomas Piketty’s work was a powerful signal. Yet, today, human rights and social justice have never been under threat to such an extent, something which didn’t escape the attention of the multimillionaire and philanthropist George Soros. On the jacket of Moyn’s book he wrote:

“If we don't address the growing global phenomenon of economic inequality, the human rights movement as we know it cannot survive or flourish..”

Samuel Moyn evokes a painful truth at a time when growing numbers of citizens are rising up against populism and nationalism. It forces us to open our eyes and see that the divisions “left” –“right” and “market” – “State” have still not been overcome. These divisions are there, with a vengeance.

See also