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John Passant

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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

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Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
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Human rights and the left

The Rudd Government has decided not to introduce a national Human Rights Act. Typically conservatives have welcomed the decision while liberals have condemned it.

Both misunderstand that we live in a world that not only restricts freedom; it is built on unfreedom. We are denied the freedom to be human in a society where we are forced to sell our labour power to survive.

As Rousseau put it, man is born free but he is everywhere in chains. Turning Rousseau on his head, those chains are not of the mind but economically determined – under capitalism production is organised for profit and based on wage slavery.

As Marx famously proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto: Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Human rights legislation does not at all challenge the fundamental inhumanity that is capitalism; it reinforces it. It is at its best a form of political emancipation, but it is not, and does not deliver, human liberation.

Human Rights Acts are an expression of systemic differences that reflect capitalist concepts like race, sexuality and gender. They are not their destroyer.

What human rights laws do is reinforce the idea we need protection from other people when in fact our humanity only finds real expression with and through other people.  

Human rights legislation individualises and atomises us in a society where cooperation and community is in fact essential for production to occur. Human rights are a political mirror of the individual expropriation of value in the context of the socialisation of its production. 

It is ordinary working people, in fighting for their basic economic and political rights, who have won real gains.

The right to vote, the overthrow of slavery, the destruction of the idea of women as the property rights of men and home carers, and the decriminalisation of homosexual activity were won through mass struggle, not parliamentary niceties.

And yet these victories, while steps forward, are not real human liberation. 

Every few years workers get to vote for labour parties whose principal commitment is to the ruling class.

Women are massively under-represented in the leadership of companies and the public service. They are paid 17 percent less than men for work of equal value.

Racism is systemic in Australia, with many aborigines for example in the Northern Territory under occupation, and their life span up to 17 years shorter than non-Aboriginal Australians. The Rudd Labor Government locks up asylum seekers in concentration camps around the country.

Human rights legislation will not change that. In fact, given the lack of struggle in Australia today, the fight over human rights here is a battle between two wings of the bourgeoisie over how best to embed and reinforce the exploitative relationship between capital and labour – the carrot or the stick.

In Russia, as the Stalinist capitalist class cemented its brutal political power, it introduced the most liberal and freedom friendly Constitution on paper in history.

The reality of the gulags and the show trials gave the lie to emancipation and the concepts of freedom became subservient to the needs of the new Russian ruling class to drive peasants off the land and into the new factories and to expropriate the wealth Russian workers were creating.

The left can support the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie in its push for human rights. We do so because it opens up the possibility of struggle from below for real human rights.

Our task is to extend and deepen the milksop rights the bourgeoisie might want to grant.

But really the debate is a sideline to the main issue – are there struggles going on in the here and now against the repressive nature of capitalism? Yes.

There are campaigns against Labor’s Northern Territory invasion, against Labor’s freeze on refugees, against Labor’s attempts to jail Ark Tribe for attending a lunchtime union meeting, for same sex equality, even occasionally industrial action over wages and jobs.

Marx was once asked ‘What is?’ Struggle was his answer. 

That’s where we on the left should concentrate our forces.



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Time April 24, 2010 at 11:46 pm

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Comment from David Jackmanson
Time April 25, 2010 at 12:56 am

I’ve not come across the argument that human rights legislation atomises people. Not sure I agree at first reaction but will have to think about that.

I’m not against human rights laws but I agree in themselves they’ll never deliver as much as people deciding to fight for themselves.

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Time April 25, 2010 at 3:04 am

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Comment from John
Time April 25, 2010 at 8:16 am

Thanks David. I’m not opposed to Human rights legislation. It just doesn’t deliver unless it is built on real struggle.

Here in the ACT we have a human rights act which makes it unlawful for any public servant making a decision without taking into account relevant human rights. in my experience no one takes it seriously.
As to atomisation i was drawing on Marx’s criticisms of Bauer in on the Jewish Question.

He says for example:

The limits of political emancipation are evident at once from the fact that the state can free itself from a restriction without man being really free from this restriction, that the state can be a free state without man being a free man.

Comment from Guy
Time April 25, 2010 at 10:22 am

I think that you got it a bit wrong. First of all, you’re right – human rights legislation by themselves are not immediate agents of mass change. But it is undialectical to look at these laws by temselves, and not by their long-term historical role and relationship with movements.

The importance of human rights is not only in what political hardships they immediately solve, but at the age of late monopoly capitalism, the concept of rights is the realisation that oppression is not natural. The concept of “rights” (women’s rights, workers rights, land rights, the right to free speach to name a few) was crucial in the development of most progressive movements under capitalism in the 20th century, and the concept of “human rights” internationalises the basic concept of rights, and thus becomes a progressive agent, transitional if you will.

It is true that one of the many ideological tactics of Capitalists is to co-opt the rights terminology, as they do with virtually every progressive concept which gains mass support. But at its core, the concept of human rights remains inherently progressive, as it really is a struggle “against the repressive nature of capitalism”. And note that all the struggles that you mention after the struggle for human rights, all use variations of the concept of inherent rights as a main agent to recruit support from working people.

Comment from Shane H
Time April 25, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Yeah not sure either. My usual response in these situations is not to argue against bourgeois rights but to argue for them to be taken seriously and extended.

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Comment from Beau
Time April 27, 2010 at 3:04 am

Implement an identical Bill of Rights in Australia. Any legislation past, present and future which contravenes such a document must be abolished and thrown out immediately.