I would like to comment on Kathryn Sikkink’s thoughtful piece on human rights from the perspective of economic rights. Kathryn Sikkink’s main argument in her essay is that human rights play a key role in the transformation that we need to build a just and flourishing future. I agree, but for human rights to play a key role in societal transformation, we must work to create a radical shift in the economic paradigm.
I would agree that human rights must be the driving force for transformation of human values for many reasons, including the four reasons offered in her essay: universality, supranationalism, emancipatory potential, and expansiveness—with their emancipatory potential perhaps being the most sought after by the people (“the Demos”) to break the shackles that the current system has imposed to capture most societies in the world. Human rights must be at the core of a pillar of a new ethos, but that new ethos requires a radical paradigmatic change. This new paradigm would put the welfare of people and planet above the market. We are enduring market-based oligarchic governments, where the dictatorship of the market, or marketocracy, reigns supreme and the vast majority of elected officials are truly proxies of the market’s owners, the institutional investors of international financial markets, instead of representatives that were bestowed with the sovereign power of the Demos to carry out their will.
This new paradigm would rest on two pillars: true democracy and true sustainability. True democracy requires that the Demos be in permanent control of the public agenda. This is impossible under so-called representative democracy as practiced today, for it is a hoax, a twentieth-century utopia to say the least. It must be done under direct democracy, where the Demos permanently participates directly in all areas of the public sphere to set the agenda, establish priorities, and monitor its execution by the public servants elected by the community. The sole purpose of a truly democratic ethos is for communities to organize in pursuit of the welfare of every rank of society, with special emphasis on the dispossessed. Furthermore, the welfare of a community must be anchored in the full enjoyment of all human rights. Until these rights are enjoyed to the utmost by all members, the welfare of the community cannot be achieved. Consequently, true democracy, human rights, and welfare are inextricably joined. One cannot exist without the others.
Sustainability, the other pillar of the new paradigm, demands that we seek the welfare of communities by providing a dignified standard of living that is sustainable on our planet. Maintaining a consumeristic lifestyle, the dominant understanding of “welfare” today, is completely unsustainable if we want to recover and preserve the resources produced by our planet. Our ecological footprint, a major driver of climate change, must be drastically reduced until we reach a stage where we can replenish natural resources at the same rate we consume them. This process would require a gradual but strong shift from consumerism to holistic sustainability through a process of degrowth in all our human activities.
As a part of this push for a new paradigm, the concept of a universal basic income is gaining traction conceptually as a fundamental economic right. The basic income guarantees every individual––and not families––the fulfilment of the basic needs to live with human dignity. However, many, including myself, see it as commonsensical as part of the new ethos. Currently, realizing this right in practice is completely unrealistic. We cannot even guarantee a living wage in today’s marketocratic order. The minimum wage, which has been sanctioned as a right for many decades in the International Labour Organisation, is often flouted. Nearly two billion people in the world work in informal economies where the minimum wage is usually not respected. Additionally, slavery and human trafficking have become in the last decades a major problem where governments have shown a tendency to tolerate them rather than decisively work to end them. By the same token, governments under the sway of the marketocratic ethos have systematically stopped any attempt to establish strict binding norms that would govern the social, economic, and environmental responsibilities of business. Voluntary regulations, where companies can cherry-pick the norms where they look good and avoid the rest, have made a mockery of this. Yet, even in this strictly voluntary scheme, the living wage standard is often left out. Henceforth, the basic income should be seen as part of the third generation of human rights that would be at the core of the pillars of the new ethos.
Kathryn Sikkink comments on the doctrine of popular democracy, suggesting it would be suitable for the advancement and protection of human rights. If we aspire to build a truly democratic ethos, the Demos must be the only sovereign of an organized community. This is not a new notion whatsoever. It is closely associated with the concept of the social contract with Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke, and it has made its way in some cases to current constitutional law. One example is the current Mexican constitution of 1917, where article 39 explicitly declares, “National sovereignty is bestowed essentially and originally upon the people. Every public power derives from the people and is instituted for their benefit. The people possess, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or change their form of government.” To be sure, there is a long distance between established law and daily praxis. Given that we are enduring marketocratic governments, nation-states as we know them today must cease to exist and be replaced. The same goes for all the multilateral supranational organizations, such as the UN system, that respond to nation-states who have been captured by the marketocratic system.
Evidently, a paradigm devoted to people and planet would be completely incompatible with capitalism, which is utterly anthropocentric and undemocratic. Under capitalism, the public matter has been privatized, and politicians discuss and decide on the matter in private with the owners of the market, their true constituents. Thus we do not have governments that work for the people. We have politicians who, for the most part, act as market agents to impose the conditions demanded by their partners to maximize their wealth accumulation, where they together benefit through the revolving-door system. Therefore, if we want to aspire to a sustainable planet where future generations would enjoy a dignified quality of life, we must completely replace capitalism. The sole purpose and principle of capitalism is the reproduction, accumulation, and maximization of capital regardless of any other consideration and at the expense of all other stakeholders. Needless to say, the argument in favor of the concept of a capitalist democracy or of a democratic capitalism is unsustainable, for we can hardly find a more direct antagonism between the raison d’être of democracy and that of capitalism.
Welfare of people and planet, human rights, freedom, and true democracy are completely anathema to capitalism. The most emblematic and pervasive example where a human right is supplanted by a private good is access to health care in the United States. Contrary to the values of most societies, health care is treated as not a right but a privilege, a mere piece of merchandise that can be purchased by those who have the purchasing power to buy it. As a result, it should be evident that the condition sine qua non for achieving the entire spectrum of human rights is to put an end to capitalism as the system for societal organization.
In the new paradigm, we must transcend the market in order to redefine how work will be remunerated, and to do this, we must redefine the role of business. Under the new paradigm, there would be no global corporations, but only businesses that serve both the private as well as the public good. Their workers would be stakeholders in the mission, goals, and management of any business, regardless of the size. Building the new paradigm inevitably requires conceptually redefining the purpose of business to make it congruent with an ethos of true democracy and to transform the market into a vehicle for generating the adequate level of sustainable welfare. As organs of society, businesses must take full responsibility for the impact of their activity on the social, economic, and environmental dimensions.
In a transformative scenario, the market’s flaws as an agent of equity—work remuneration or otherwise—would be recognized by all parties. A new rights-based paradigm would inherently redefine the purpose of business. Markets would be strictly limited to becoming vehicles of commerce to provide the material quality of life that can be sustained by new predefined ecological footprints. Today’s capitalistic logic of the market––anchored on supply-and-demand and sheer speculation––would end. Financial markets and their amoral casino-like mindset would no longer have a role, for they would cease to exist. The commoditization and privatization of every aspect of life, including public goods, would cease to continue, and past privatization of public goods would be undone, enshrining these goods as rights once again. The purpose of business would shift from profit maximization toward public service. Competition, innovation, and efficiency would remain core business attributes, but democratic control and transparency, anchored on long-term horizons, would direct enterprises toward creating and sharing wealth within a framework of justice and truly sustainable ecological limits.
As a consequence, in the new paradigm, financial compensation would no longer be a wage, but a shared remuneration for their contribution that guarantees to all employees/workers a life worthy of human dignity in line with the high quality-of-life standard that the community has democratically established as a legally-binding standard. In this way, the basic income would guarantee a minimum standard of living for individuals regardless of whether or not they are involved in an economic activity, and a shared remuneration would compensate individuals for the product of their economic activity, always based in both cases on the predefined quality of life that would guarantee the true sustainability of the system for future generations.
In summary, human rights can be the driving force for the transformative change of societies, but we must realize that economic rights, such as a basic income, will never materialize unless we embark on a tectonic shift to replace the current unsustainable paradigm with a paradigm whose purpose is to seek the sustainable welfare of the people and the planet.
As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.