Vulnerable Dignity, Enchained Rights: On a Suggestion by Maximilian Forte

by Red Maistre on October 31, 2013


Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters escort a pro-Muammar Qaddafi fighter (center) after he was captured during a street battle in Sirte

Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure—and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one. . . . . There’s no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.
—Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize Speech

Our position is very clear. We reject and condemn human rights because they are bourgeois, reactionary, counterrevolutionary rights, and are today a weapon of revisionists and imperialists, principally Yankee imperialists.
—Communist Party of Peru, commonly known as the Shining Path

Freedom and inalienable rights [for Hegel] do not precede progress, but are the result of it. The result of man’s complex and contradictory struggle to build a world in which he can actualize himself. . . . Freiht, gleiche Wurde, and Selbstndigkeit: This seems to be another version of the motto of the French Revolution. But these rights (in addition to a new right that has begun to emerge, that is, the right to life) are said to be inalienable, inseparable from “nature” and from the concept of man to the extent that they are the result of a long period of historical suffering from which there is no turning back.
— Domenico Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns

In the last chapter of Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (Montreal: Barra Books, 2012), anthropologist Maximilian Forte makes a few intriguing remarks on an underexamined concept, dignity. In the context of deconstructing the rhetoric of “humanitarian” imperialism, which has authorized the ruin of so many states, Forte shows the incoherence of rights in such discussions. The “right to protect” became the right to back one side of a civil war over the other. Saving Benghazi from a fictitious threat of genocide ultimately rationalized raising the loyalist town of Sirte. Protecting the allegedly “helpless” rebel faction meant terrorizing and exterminate the opposing side. Affirming the value of human life meant reducing Libyans to either victims to be rescued or racialized demons to be destroyed. “Their answer to the killing, real or imagined, that they claimed to find so abhorrent was to introduce more killing,” Forte writes (305). By its own standards, humanitarian imperialism is revealed as anything but humane.

But Forte does not think a critique can end with countering the maudlin litanies of human rights violations penned by the pro-interventionist press with litanies of his own, as necessary and effective as such an exercise is. If human rights become the reason for opposing imperialism, just as it has become the default justification for it, then discussions concerning the operations of empire will remain finally indeterminate. For human rights discourse registers violations everywhere. And how are we to weigh the relative weight of one person’s violated rights vs. another’s? By what measure can we decide what lives, which are claimed to have a unique, irreducible value, are more equal than others? A Syrian government paramilitary, we are told, tortured and killed an unarmed rebel supporter; from other sources, we hear that a Syrian rebel does the same to a prisoner of war. The suicide bombers of the local resistance kill civilians, as do the bombs of the occupiers. If human rights are truly the supreme standard in such matters, then all sides become equally abhorrent, and anti-political pacifism becomes the only correct response. One can attempt to escape the problem with utilitarian calculations, which surrender the principle of right that was the interventionist argument’s original premise, only to arrive at a higher order of indeterminacy as one faces a welter of conflicting and uncertain empirical claims. Naive moralism mutates into a blind and obscene callousness as it pretends to speak from a safe objective point beyond both law and merely human strife. The abstract universality of human rights thus ends either by negating itself and retreating from politics in a form of secular quietism or by taking a side and revealing itself to be in fact the alibi for one particular set of interests fighting for supremacy over another. What presented itself as a simple, inalienable principle reappears to us as a choice for one form of life over another. The humanitarian imperialists, in the end, appear to  bomb less because they care about ending human suffering (for who can ever promise that?)  but because they believe “democracy”, capitalism, and that intangible Occidental quality must triumph, presuming that they are intrinsically valuable social goods for human beings.

To truly disrupt and decenter rights discourses, a state of ethical life that falls outside of it is invoked, the name of which is “dignity” in Forte’s text. To help explicate this concept by way of juxtaposition, he gives an account of the type of humanity that is implied by the rhetoric of human rights and of contemporary imperialism and which it seeks, with varying degrees of success, to create everywhere in the world. For it is not merely the quantities of deaths and tortures that these lovers of humanity commit that repel, he says; it is the qualitative features of the humanity which they are seeking to engineer.

A Blind, Many-Headed Beast

Forte writes: “On the other hand, both NATO propaganda and public advocacy of humanitarian imperialists are based on certain assumptions of humanity, thereby creating another image of ourselves that is not about dignity, but rather impulse-not even impulse, maybe more like pulsation. This is an image of humanity that is fundamentally founded on consumerism and instant gratification. The vision of our humanity that liberal imperialists entertain is one which constructs us as shrieking sacks of emotion: throbbing with outrage, contracting with every story of incubator babies . . . , bulging up with animus at the arrest of the Gay Girl of Damascus, recoiling at the sound of Viagra-fueled mass rape” (299).

Here is an ironic twist: this image of a subrational and violently erratic humanity is what capitalism has long set up as its opposite, both in the exotic margins and the dark spot of its interior. The imagined criminal/revolutionary mobs of the cities and fantasied passion-driven hordes of savages in the colonies were the ones marked for punishment and genocide precisely for their presumed lack of reason, prudence, and self-control. But here we are presented with a reversal: the malevolent many-headed beast is empire itself. Many headed not, as one could say of its opponents, because of a genuine diversity of life, but because its messianic hatreds and possessive loves cancel each other out in a confused grasping in all geographic directions. The most deadly antisocial “animality” is located in the fantasies of the metropolitan ruling class and those who seek to imitate it; not its many targets, and certainly not human nature itself. Within an economic system that boosts of its hyper-rationality, a subjectivity is more or less intentionally cultivated that denigrates reason (and thereby empathy) in favor of a capricious sentimentality and sadism that has an entire world to project upon.


And as Forte also points out, this model of humanity as pulsation requires the erosion of memory and with it, history. Each outburst of emotional identification with empire must repress knowledge of the world before the mundane moment was transubstantiated by spectacle into the movement of decision. In the buildup for humanitarian intervention, time is flattened, then concentrated, giving the (pseudo)-event an eschatological fullness that contrasts dramatically with the homogenous, disenchanted temporality of everyday life in the capitalist core. Our world was uncommitted boredom, theirs tyranny, till we were caught up together, in a union innocent of the past (or for that matter, the future). In the fantasy of the event, the gravest error would be to shrink from this raw encounter with freedom with reservations about facts or ultimate consequences. Such things would only encourage the immemorial evil of totalitarianism, which is named the true corrupter of history. But just as quickly as this postmodern chiliasm arises, it is spent, then forgotten or even denied. No responsibility after the fact is acknowledged, for how could we have known? It’s really because “they” are not ready for freedom, etc. The mind and heart again become blank slates, ready for a new distraction, new causes. The past is erased to give the happy, lordly innocence that can act without consequences. As Forte puts it: “If we do not act, we should be held responsible for the actions of others. When we do act, we should never be responsible for our own actions” (299).

This short attention span is turned into a virtue. To avoid identifying too firmly with what one has committed to allows one to play the favorite Occidental part, the compassionate but untainted observer. Call with righteous urgency for expeditions against the barbarians, tabulate with more muted indignation the atrocities of the victorious legionaries, remain oblivious to guilt or irony, and at all times ask for funds. Such is the case with dozens of NGOs that help produce “truths” preferred by the US State Department, but then gain moral credibility by making reports about the wreckage of the wars its original propaganda helped legitimize. This incoherence is abetted by a profitable institutional forgetfulness that works because of the learned disinterest in the past on the part of its audience.

Finally, this expanding and contracting node of violent imperialist forgetfulness is the product of the reduction of the social to individual within metropolitan society, a reduction whose global perpetuation it identifies as its rationalization, its historical destiny. The consumer citizens of the world elevate themselves by posing as being above the despised particularities of the uncivilized. Their alleged uniqueness is their badge of true (super) humanity that knows no tribe. They can stand in judgment over the world, while they remain outside the judgment of anyone else. Proudly rootless, the Euro-American gentry, however, remain desperately attached to the most abstract of names: Democracy, Markets, Mankind, and Civilization. Possessed by these names, the petite bourgeoisie, the chattering classes, periodically mob the (cyber) streets to further the plots and prejudices of their superiors in short-winded crusades that they will forget in six months; King and Crown riots, minus the genuinely populist character of those quaint eruptions from the past. They dream of the fall of Bastilles in other countries because they sense obscurely the narrow cage of their own private self as it has been determined by property. Their mutilation is soothed by the prospect of a heroic vengeance elsewhere that is not burdened by the hellish loneliness and boredom of being themselves. And since they resentfully admire their captors, the scapegoats have to be officially approved.

Thus we have arrived at an appropriately dramatic picture of the enemy, the one who negates dignity in others and in doing so negates liberty for himself. But the exact contours of its opponent remain hazy.

Defining Dignity?

Forte refrains from giving a clear definition to this word dignity, which he invokes as the anti-imperialist counterpart to the degraded, and degrading, humanism of the Occident. Within his text, several qualities appear which are attached to the state of having dignity—that it is independent, strongly collectivist, can’t be commodified, possesses historical memory—but no definition of the thing itself is presented. Instead, dignity is portrayed as a fluidity that evades the rationalism of written rights. Forte in fact considers this lack of definition a positive feature: “Dignity has no universally agreed upon list of traits—so the concept defies measurement, and it escapes positivism, capitalism, and Western humanitarianism” (306). But a such lack of clarity risks reducing dignity to only a romantic cri de coeur against the militarist machine of capital. Rationality is thereby left as the preserve of the “civilized,” while those who have always been considered “savages” are preserved as their noble, emotion-filled foils. And ironically, this vagueness enables the imperialist co-option of the word that Forte himself points out as competing with the subaltern usage:

“Dignity has become a target for imperialist appropriation. … U.S. national security documents seem to essentially equate dignity with having modern conveniences and cash-in other words, an instrumentalist or transactionalist view of dignity that sits well with capitalist values, and makes for easy policy options” (305).

But this is not solely a weakness in Forte’s account. Dignity is a word that has been used often in modern political discourse while remaining an underdetermined signifier. To take but one example: the Universal Declaration of Rights of 1948 reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” But while it explains what these shared rights are, the question of what dignity exactly consists in is left ambiguous. This is because this concept is historically rooted is a conception of human beings possessing intrinsic value, tied up with accounts of what is human beings are, what is truly good, what is or is not an end in of itself, how should we live. But the question of value—it’s existence, its nature, whether it is universal or not, etc.—is highly contested, not least of all in the contemporary West, in the wake of the “death of (the moral) God”; the reinforcing processes of atomization and bureaucratization; the rolling waves of genealogical critique and their Nietzschean shadow; the drying up of classic Enlightenment humanism and the long crisis of its fraternal opponent, Marxism. This controversy over values has become crowded with hosts of mutually opaque warring parties (and subparties). And there is no quick and obvious path out of this bedlam, this confusion of tongues. Thus, like other commonly invoked ethical concepts, dignity seems trapped in a discursive valley of radical incoherence.

But on the level of macro-politics now being discussed, the conflicting moralities can be, provisionally, bypassed and with them, the accompanying debates between the various schools of metaphysics (and anti-metaphysics). By considering what claims for dignity, of intrinsic value, that arise in affairs between human polities, despite the lack of substantive agreement about ultimate ends, the concept of dignity is given a finite form. What for individuals and their lived communities of inquiry necessarily appears as an infinite task of reflection and practice appears in the realm of states and peoples as a nameable, constitutive limit.

Things not for Sale, Even in Babylon

Liber Floridus

Depiction of Leviathan from the Liber Floridus

Public orders, whether on the level of individual states or on the international level, do not find it necessary in their daily operation that there be universal agreement about what has ultimate value or that all their members be “just” (by any consistent criteria), united by a consistent apprehension of a final end. Not even what are considered “collectivist” and “illiberal” states live by such unanimity (they would not need to utilize anything besides brotherly moral admonishments otherwise). Rather, they seek agreement about a certain minimal set of desired objects that can be mediated through institutions, under the banner of law and collective imaginaries, with the aid of legitimized violence. Their arrangements must be conducive to the management of the economic base of society, of the antagonisms between the classes, and the various nonclass forms of social differentiation that arise. At the same time, all these endogenous problems are worked out in the shadow of potentially hostile neighbors. Nor can any state assure itself of solving any of these internal and external problems by the use brute force all the time.

Motivated by these concerns, the peoples with states or those seeking to have a state are led to posit a notion of an unassailable sovereignty (or, failing that, local autonomy) standing over and above the competing factions within its territory and independent of foreign powers. Only if something is posited as being irreducible to private interests can these same interests have a relation around which their differences can take on a relatively orderly and resolvable form. Since wars for domination have both become more destructive and more doubtful in success as modernity has unfolded, these considerations become ever more cogent. Only by drawing a distinct line between the political authority of one state from another can the free pursuit of both be assured, in a relation beyond that of imperialist domination. And only if each state is in turn treated as possessing, despite differences in power, the same rights in their dealings with each other can they enter into rational and peaceful relations with each other. Thus, each people striving for a national existence will tend to claim to the same abstract form of a sovereign state entitled to the protection of common international law. For sovereignty is the sine qua non of the enjoyment of many social goods in the present world system. This is the universal side of the demand for dignity: the positing of an abstract right of states to exist and function as sovereign entities, equal in law though differing in strength.

But as polities seek to assert this abstract right, many find that they stand handicapped in the realization of their claims by virtue of their background. To the extent that states find themselves outside the hegemonic racial-propertial order of imperialism, they are painted as lacking in civilization and thus not “worthy” of sovereignty, but all too in need of tutelage. Within an economically unequal world, from the perspective of the core, certain parts of the world are not so much determinate bodies of states to be negotiated with as they are liquid zones of anarchy in need of policing by those who are their cultural superiors. Those states and peoples who are not content with this situation are obliged to respond by affirming that in fact their historical particularities have an unalienable value. This claim may arise in many different ways—as a drive toward multicultural integration into the liberal order; as the assertion of a tradition as a rival public universality to liberalism; or even, paradoxically, as part of a revolutionary rejection of the nation’s traditional ways in favor of an anti-liberal modernity. But while these demands differ among themselves, they share a common denominator: the notion that a people’s historical particularities cannot be made into an excuse for aggression and conquest. Not because subaltern cultures are free of all faults (even the traditionalists among them tend to admit something is awry), but because no culture is so free of fault that it can put itself above any common laws without perpetuating barbarism, or seek to play progressive master without creating everywhere slaves and monsters. As long as such aspirations to armed pedagogy are not checked, the logic of genocide will be at work. Thus comes the particularistic side of anti-colonial claims to dignity, the sense in which it is “fundamentally local,” as Forte puts it (306). For only when we are allowed to be different without risking being killed on sight can each people be established in security, and the global community of states become something like an actual community.

From looking at these two sides of dignity, a definition of the term as it applies to states can be put forward: the exercise of sovereignty due to all like political bodies, without diminishment on account of its culture and historical circumstances. This is what must be treated as being an end in and of itself, if the game of power is to tend toward peace and mutual upbuilding, i.e, the happiest long-term outcome for the greatest number of states, few of whom can even pretend to be capable of acting as despots on a global scale, and those few who can know they can’t get away with imperial fiat at all times in all places. Such reasoning empathetically does not presume any comprehensive theory about what is good for human beings as such. What is at stake for states as states is above all else survival. That is the sole intrinsic value that cannot be bargained away, for the state cannot do so without accepting its own negation. The claim to sovereignty regardless of local particularity is simply an elaboration of this imperative.

Around this rather grim inter-state struggle for recognition, different ways of life will crowd around and mediate these political realities to the various communities, strong and weak, in which the people are cultivated as social, if not ethical, subjects. For politically conscious individuals who identify with a polity, their subjective satisfaction will be tied up with securing what constitutes the dignity of the state. Their conception of this dignity will be mediated through the richness of one or more ideologies that put their political allegiances in the context of a comprehensive worldview that the state form itself does not imply. They link the goals of their particular projects with that of the state itself. The state’s banal functionality becomes part of their pride and glory, the manifestation of a very particular apprehension of the order of reality itself. Or, to the extent that a community does not view the state as having a strong link to its positive aspirations, its members will at least see it as providing the necessary space for the working out of a good life, however understood, and will seek to shape it with this extrinsic goal in mind. The state will then be, if not the center of what is considered a fully human existence, than, as the one who holds the sword, that entity who is valued as the ultimate referee and guarantor of the competing claims for dignity within society as a whole.

This seems to lead us back into the indeterminate culture war. But while each culture translates the meaning of the state’s dignity into its own terms, it’s form—the condition of being a sovereign entity, whose self-governance can not be abridged because of its historical particularity—remains the same. And in fact, it is precisely because the dignity of the state as a form (if not that of the particular governance of the state at any given moment) is taken as a given that the various controversies over what is human flourishing can take place within the sphere of civil society. The greater the diversity of groups and the more nuanced the points of contention, the more the need for an authority to check the pride of individuals and the narcissism of communities. On the international plane, this is how states of very differing ideology and historical background can find a common point for recognition and alliance in the face of assault everywhere by imperialist expansion, for their differing national aspirations all are formulated in terms of political self-determination as sovereign regimes. The process of decolonisation, which has given political life to so many hitherto invisible peoples, created many others, and forced them to deal with each other, has made such points of abstract commonality more, not less, necessary. Thus, the free indeterminacy of one part of social life leans on the translatable clarity of the self-governing state, just as the state would lack content and motion without the perennially discontented particulaires that shape it.

Thus we can arrive at a prosaic understanding of what claims to dignity entail in the realm of international politics. Having identified a concrete and universalizable definition of what is being spoken about, we can reinterpret it and integrate this presentation of dignity into the aims of an emancipatory politics that pushes for the overcoming of the racialized global regime of private property.

The Root and Crown of Rights




For an anti-capitalist perspective seeking to overcome the aporias of liberal freedom, there is a clear necessity for a concept of dignity. Not because, as Forte thinks, political dignity “goes beyond freedom and rights” (306), but because it allows for their fulfilment. For the establishment and assurance of greater positive and negative freedoms requires the existence of conditions for peace, and in the arena of global politics, this means supplanting the law of force by the rule of law. And this can be achieved only by making equality ever more concretely realized in the affairs between all states and peoples, by ensuring that aggression and colonization are off limits, and by promoting relations that are decided within a framework of mutual respect (however cool in feeling the respect is given).

Iran demanding the end of economic warfare against it, Argentina asking that its restructuring of national debt be respected, the president of Brazil making the protection of privacy from American surveillance an issue: all these are instances of claims to certain freedoms, formal or material, made against imperialism, that are grounded in a prior claim to dignity in the form of sovereignty. When the political existence of x country is posited and recognized as non-negotiable, demands for the meeting of a host of other needs may be made. Whether these claims are more bourgeois or socialist in nature will depend on the balance of social forces in each country, but regardless of which coalition of classes is ascendant, the task of actualizing the freedom promised by achieved sovereignty will appear, demanding action from those who govern and who wish to continue governing. And to the extent that the equality among nations is taken seriously and chauvinistic hostility is dampened, progressive alliances of a transnational character among the oppressed becomes ever more feasible.

At the same time, dignity as the positing of historical particularity restrains the assimilationist pretensions of universal reason. Any puffed up would-be avatar of World Spirit is reminded of the uneven spread of world development, the diverse appropriations of modernity, and the many roads that attempt to survive the limits of the capitalist present. The liberal imperialist projects everywhere an abstract human homogeneity in which everyone is already like “us,” or about to become like us, and whose interests can be summed up with a list of bourgeois rights. But the concept of dignity confronts us with the fact that uniqueness of culture and history not only persist but in fact have been continually re-created by capitalist modernization, and that such differences determine the content of each people’s aspirations for freedom, though they use similar formal language to express it. Any emancipatory politics that ignores this risks both failure, rejected by the differences it refuses to recognize, and collaboration, by reproducing in shadow form the mental schemata of capitalists-imperialist rule. In other words, it would demonstrate its own practical haplessness and theoretical irrationality.

Having recognized the undeniable realities of historically produced difference and the necessity of formal right in the furthering of freedom, we can then appreciate, with wishful participation, the story of each people as the product of the intersection between an ever expanding universality and the local conditions in which they are rooted. Each case is singular, yet each bears witness to having labored through the same contradictions that capitalism has exported everywhere. We can rejoice in the victories of distant countries, as well as mourn their defeats, not because we presume “they are just like us,” but because we have been forced to recognize rationality in their differences through finding in their differences the limits of our own rationality. Having accepted both what is contingent and generic in each political situation, we can view their product as an intelligible, if not perfected, whole that possesses an unsubstitutable value. The particular horror of genocide and wars of aggression is thereby made clear to us. The death of a people is not horrible because its a Levinian spectacle of victimized Others, demanding our ethical commitment by virtue of their helpless, suffering life. Rather, the destruction of a society by imperialism is the death of a particular pattern of reason, traced out in flesh, that can never again be replaced. The perpetrators have done violence not only to the bodies of their victims, but also to an enculturated intellectual life that we can share, and mourn, as fellow rational animals. Thus we arrive at a third definition of dignity: the inalienable value of whatever human existence that has been worked through by the same process of reason that we value in ourselves. The narrow mask of Enlightened European Man is destroyed and replaced not with nothingness, but with a new, larger image of a truly global humanity.

By moving through these three senses of dignity – dignity as sovereignty, dignity as acknowledgment of particularity, and dignity as respect for fellow rational, social animals – we can better avoid legalistic rights discourse, ahistorical humanitarianism, and the anti-rationalist trap of romantic resistance. The spirit of cosmopolitanism is thereby freed from its original entanglement in the myopic domination of the metropolis, and can become a genuine internationalism, based not on the merit of coerced conformity to a monolithic civilization, but the giving of each to each according to need. This is not accompanied, as some hope and others fear, by the general victory of monsters or the overflowing of the sea, but by the encomposing of the earth by the ever more differentiated topography of a well-canaled city.

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