SOCIOLOGISTS WITHOUT BORDERS
Sociology and human rights have had an awkward and complex relationship. During the Enlightenment, early sociologists – social philosophers, really – embraced freedom, equality, and liberty. “By right and by convention,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1762, “people will be equal” as they forge a social contract with one another. These early sociologists did not consider themselves mere students of society, but used their education and imagination to devote themselves to understand how people could liberate themselves from oppression and create better societies.
However, as sociologists increasingly aligned themselves with the natural sciences, beginning with August Comte, they embraced the idea of studying social life and society dispassionately and uncritically, rejecting any notion of aligning themselves with agents of progressive social change or even of envisioning possibilities for a better society. As a consequence, sociologists, especially American sociologists who were the most adamant about scientific sociology, were alienated from indigenous agents of progressive change in their home countries, including labor unions, Marxists, and in the US, the Civil Rights Movement. Academic sociology in the US was mostly irrelevant in the twentieth century, and, it is likely that social movements were stalled as because sociologists and other social scientists were holed up in the Ivory Tower.
In 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps the world’s most significant statement regarding human rights, was proclaimed by the nations of the world when American sociology was overwhelmingly functionalist and scientific. Sociologists took no notice. Because of the dominant position of the US after the war, US sociology too exercised a hegemonic role in the world. Incorporated into US sociology was the idea that democratic capitalism was part of the framework of coexistence. Capitalism was naturalized along with a neocolonial approach to development. This model improved somewhat with T. H. Marshall’s conception of social citizenship and Keynesian reforms that buffered the public against the most serious harms caused by the private-sector, Still, functionalism as a premise in sociology always underscored that the status quo should be preserved.
We do not want to imply that there were not cracks in the edifice. There were: the Frankfort Schools, Political Economy of the World System, Conflict Theory, the Birmingham School, various French authors (Bourdieu, Touraine, Baudrelaird), and, recently, cracks are appearing everywhere are abandoning value neutrality to advocate for social justice (race, gender, GLBT, migrants).
Where is American sociology now? Sociologists are challenging the human rights) consequences of class, race, gender, and other injustices, but may not be seeing the forest for the trees. The wise and inexorable market’s rationality is a subterfuge for presenting capitalism in a better light, as if the market was really free and wasn’t dominated by the most powerful who are often the perpetrators of financial and fiscal frauds. In his recent book “One Market under God”, Thomas Frank has explained with sagacity the fallacies of the explanation that several economists and sociologists adopt easily. The model is based in the “trickle down” principle that says that governments have to give money and freedom to the rich, in order to reach the poor in a “mysterious” way (Frank talks about the market theology). Two percent own half the world’s wealth, according to a report of the United Nations University, and half of the world’s population live on less than two euros a day according to a Population Reference Bureau report.
Globalization is the third chapter in capitalism’s history. The first one was State capitalism, which was the colonialism practiced by the powerful States over the weak ones with the object of appropriating their wealth, generally by violent means. This is the case of Spain with America, of England with India or Belgium with the Congo. The second chapter is represented by the protection that the State gave to Companies, as in the case of the United States sending its army to protect the United Fruits’ interests in Central America (resulting in the “banana republic” expression). Other examples include the origin of the Chilean military coup and the constant crisis relating to oil in Middle East. In globalization, the third chapter, the main players are the multinational corporations that count on the protection of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, especially, the World’s Trade Organization. With the support of these institutions and trade agreements, the interests of multinational corporations in foreign countries prevail over the host countries’ interests. This chapter represents the period in which capital is really free, not only to overcome borders, but to disregard other countries’ labor and environmental laws. This freedom allows a network of organizations that goes from fiscal extraterritoriality to the creation of paradises for hiding money, along with the overvaluation of the financial sector and, always, the exploitation of the countries that accept free trade.
With globalization, the main economic power is the multinational corporation. There are also two political powers. One is built by these three entities, which has a poor democratic nature and which works in favor of companies. The other is the UN, which is becoming weaker. It represents US antagonism and even rejection, as demonstrated in Iraq. The UN is supposed to have a legal international power that would allow it to act as an international police force and wealth balancer.
The UN is supposed to have a legal international power that would allow it to act as an international police force and wealth balancer but it lacks the means and political legitimation to do it and is a witness to the growing inequality of people and environmental damage
The inequality is not only between North and South. In United States, 48 million inhabitants don’t have health insurance. However, it is in the South where the inequality and shortages are increasing. In Africa, the AIDS crisis continues because of the pharmaceutical companies’ avarice. The recent Di Caprio movie, “Blood Diamond”, shows how gem smuggling, encouraged by specialized firms, promotes the political instability of producer countries. There are lots of cases that illustrate the damage to the environment accompanied by multinational arrogance. In the meantime, wars, some waged for practical purposes such as the control of oil, and others, such as in Iraq, result in the creation of an international enemy: Terrorism is much like the old enemy of communism. These omnipresent threats divert the world’s attention from the inequality and scarcity for the poor populations of the world. These wars also continue favoring the maintenance of a military-industrial complex, which in the American version considers the United States as the military appendix of the new global economic power.
In capitalism’s logic, everything is left in the hands of the free markets and its corollary, the privatization of even basic services. From here the human rights’ logic emerges, a logic that has had its own evolution. In the beginning, it was the recognition of people’s basic equality, with the abolition of slavery. After that, it was the protection of minorities’ political rights. At the same time, the humanitarian rights emerged with the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war, calamity victims, etc. Now, we are in the midst of a third generation of basic rights: those relating to health, education, and housing.
Basic rights include healthy standards for common goods like the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink. These rights should be maintained by States and the by the UN to prevent the privatization of these goods by the adoption of repressive and control measurements. This would allow the human rights’ logic, which is now being neglected, to flourish. It is not only about having free education, housing and health. Most of these services are paid through taxes. The majority of these are indirect taxes that citizens must pay throughout their lives and which have a disproportionately adverse effect on the poor. We don’t oppose the utilization of taxes for the use of public services, as the “utilities” traditional model establishes in the Anglo-Saxon model. We say that human rights cannot be a matter of business or an object for speculation; they must be separate from commerce.
There is an inevitable confrontation between these two logics. As sociologists we must choose the human rights model over the market model. Many young sociologists as many young journalists only want quick success in life, to become rich as soon as they can. That is why they end up working for the people that pay the most, without questioning the causes they are supporting.
The highest powers do not want to be known and use media to disguise their motives and identities. For the most powerful, the best information is non-existent information, and the best situation is the invisibility of their affairs
Sociologists and journalists that serve these powers collaborate in those exercises of simplification, as in the case of “Spain goes well”, which the powers that be would love to be accepted as common knowledge. As everybody knows, immediately after the attacks of September 11, president George W. Bush encouraged New Yorkers to go shopping as the best thing to do to overcome the tragedy.
In the trilogy about Human Rights that Judith and I wrote, published by Rowman & Littlefield, we maintain that human rights are the last version (and the most complete one) in the long story of civic demands. Especially because they are not only about property and civil rights, but also with society’s acceptance and recognition of basic rights that are barely recognized nowadays in a world where hunger, poverty, inequality and oppression are still very real problems.
Sociologists have to feel comfortable in the analysis and defense of human rights, whether they are from the right or the left side of the political spectrum. In a certain way some Marxists did not feel comfortable with this problem because, for them, human right’s defense would arise as a consequence of the leftists taking power and, for them, taking care of this issue would mean to delay their project. Historical communism had caused violations of human rights as severely as the most pure capitalism of the Chilean model.
To embrace the cause of human rights simply means to help those who need it, maybe because they are not able to enjoy its benefits, or because their rights are seriously curtailed. We, sociologists, are especially prepared to embrace this cause, as we are part of the profession that has the most information about social causalities and broad methodologies. The next step, to go along with this cause, is almost inevitable as part of our deeply democratic communities that we believe will blossom. .
Legal and economic difficulty is a problem for human rights protection. There are more than three hundred international and national documents about human right’s protection, although, many are not carried out, because of the States’ lack of action, the nonexistence of an executive international authority and, in most cases, because of a shortage of money.
One example of this is children. Although there is an International Agency (UNICEF) that addresses this problem, more than 25,000 five year olds die each day because of malnutrition, lack of potable water, malaria, lack of sanitary facilities, etc, mostly in poor countries. Sociological studies show the relation that this tragedy has with the structural problems of the international community. That is why it is necessary to continue calling attention to this subject from a professional and committed position.
In Sociologists Without Borders we propose human rights as the base of the sociologist’s deontology, of our moral commitment. In this way, if an American sociologist is in charge of analyzing whether the death penalty serves for fighting crime, after concluding that it does not (as it is obvious), he or she also has to mention that it is a human rights violation. Unfortunately, if this sociologist was working for Texas, Nevada, China or Kuwait, he or she would have very little chance of being hired again. There is a moment in life in which we have to choose between helping the powerful or raining on their parade and if we stick to our proposed deontology and if we do not worry about the money, we should prefer the second option.
The International Sociologists Without Borders’ purpose is to organize meetings of professors and students from Social Sciences so as to spread these ideas.
Alberto Moncada firstname.lastname@example.org
Judith Blau email@example.com
Copresidents of SSF Internacional
lunes, 4 de febrero de 2008
SOCIOLOGISTS WITHOUT BORDERS