19 February 2007

Collective Rights: A Retrograde Step?

Most formulations of human rights are drafted in such a way as to apply equally to citizens and do not increase, decrease or qualitatively alter the content of those rights on account of the citizen's membership of an ethnic group. Collective rights, by contrast, are not solely based on the citizen-state interface, but legally interpose the ethnic group between the state and the citizen. Thus citizens, either through choice or by compulsory designation, receive legal rights and duties not universally and equally, but according to the ethnic group of which they are members.

Historical Examples

In the Roman Empire, for example, Jews possessed a special status and as such enjoyed specific rights as Jews, e.g. the right not to work on the Sabbath, or to recognise the divinity of the Emperor. Such rights were granted to the Jewish collective and thus to the individual Jew of the Empire by virtue of being Jewish so that the Jew was distinct from the Greek or Syrian or Celt in the Empire. The Ottoman Empire was governed so that each ethnic group in the Empire was defined on the basis of its religious community. Thus, people living in the same town but belonging to different faiths had different rights and obligations on account of their group membership. The British Empire too made effective use of collective rights: colonials were dealt with according to British justice, whereas in many cases tribal or customary law tried locals.

In Europe, though, under the influence of Enlightenment thought, which focused on human rights as applying universally to all human beings, the system of "collective" rights began to break down. In 1856 the Ottoman Empire introduced a constitution guaranteeing (in theory) equal rights and treatment for all its subjects regardless of national origin or religious affiliation. Likewise, in Europe, the movement for Jewish emancipation, based on the Jewish Enlightenment, predicated its calls for equal treatment for Jews on the grounds of a single universal standard of rights and that each person deserved equal treatment as an individual. (It is interesting to note (i) that the state of Israel is based a concept of collective rights for Jews, and (ii) that fundamentalist Muslim thought in the West today is moving towards an advocacy of collective rights for Muslims in secular societies.)

The implications of collective rights in contemporary society

Collective rights are rooted in an understanding of the human being as an individual, but also as a member of an ethnic community. The theory denies that all people should be treated equally as citizens and that people should be associated with the ethnic groups to which they belong with its specific system or rights and obligations.

Arend Lijphart coined the term "consociationalism" to describe the sharing of power between segments of society joined together by a common citizenship but divided by ethnicity. In a democracy collective rights would assume that each ethnic group has an elected body; e.g. Jewish Council, Muslim Parliament which would legislate for the ethnic group. Many questions are left floating around, however.

Is membership of an ethnic group determined by birth of by choice?

Can citizens be members of more than one ethnic group?

Can citizens change the ethnic group of which they are members?

What is the position of citizens who don't belong (or don't want to belong) to any of the groups?

Are there limits on the powers of ethnic groups? (e.g. can a group freely determine its laws)

What happens when the laws of one group impinge on those of another?

A personal opinion

I personally see the introduction of ethno-religious collective rights as a state of affairs where the national state is managing a group of Bantustans. The state could never be neutral between addressing what it saw as individual needs and the demands of the ethnic group councils. Establishing Christian ethnic councils would be have little support among the white majority in Britain and, in so far as such measures were adopted, the result would be less to provide collective rights to Christians than a means of excluding Muslims from institutions’ i.e. legitimising racism. For minorities, even if adults could ‘opt out’ of their Bantustan children and young people would be subject to state supported traditional authority which would deny them the rights and choices of the white majority.

In a liberal society there is nothing to stop two people in dispute going to a religious court to sort out their problem, and if both parties accept the solution that is fine. However the idea that the state, through recognition of collective rights, would enforce a non-universal religious based judgment on the parties is unacceptable to me.

For me if the political left strives to move away from humanist universalism and endorses state sponsorship of religion and segregation (either in principle or as part of a strategy of moving towards ‘revolution’) then in my view such people are no longer left-wing in any meaningful sense. Hatred of the injustices of capitalism is good politics, hating capitalism so that any enemy of capitalism becomes an ally is the politics of ideological bankruptcy.

February 2007


13 February 2007

SINGER, Isaac B - The Magician of Lublin

SINGER, Isaac B - The Magician of Lublin

Penguin 1996 (first published 1960)

Read February 2007

This must be about the seventh of Singer’s novels that I have read, and yet again Singer establishes himself as the master storyteller. Having said that though, I begin to get the feel that I am reading the same book over and over again, as the stories are set in the same place, among the same Polish Jewish community and the same moral/religious themes are presented.

The story is about a circus performer who is unfaithful to his wife. On his travels he has a circus assistant whom he sleeps with, a prostitute whom he visits regularly and a Catholic Polish noblewoman in reduced circumstances with whom he plans to elope. His emotional and professional balancing act brings him luck for a while, but then everything starts to go wrong. He believes God is speaking to him; he rediscovers his faith, returns to Lublin and seals himself into a bricked up house as a pennant.

This is an excellently written story which brings to life the characters and a lost historical period.

February 2007


January 2007 Comments

Guantanemo, Blair and torture 2007.01.08

The key points are simple. The torture of prisoners, physical or mental, is wrong. Holding people for years without form of legal address or trial is wrong. It’s wrong if you do these things directly (the US) or if you facilitate or apologise for them (the UK).Mr Blair and all his government in London are stained with this filth.

Religion and anti-gay discrimination 2007.01.09
The moral/legal issue is this: people who are gay should not face discrimination because of their sexuality.The protesting religious groups are using their civic freedom to try to persuade Parliament to take away somebody else’s right to equality. They should not be allowed to succeed.

Debate on the Labour Party leadership 2007.01.10

In the last couple of decades the Labour Party has been turned into a top-down shell organisation choreographed by Mr Blair and company. Government policy is now actively hostile both to social democratic and liberal causes; and most progressive people have long disengaged from the Labour Party apparatus.Sadly, in these circumstances the kind of debate Tony Benn would like to have simply won’t happen outside a powerless fringe of people.

Ruth Kelly 2006.01.10

Ruth Kelly presumably sent her son to a private school because she believes she can use her money to buy better for family. Most families in Britain do not have this option.Mrs Kelly, a cabinet minister in Blair’s government, is doing her bit to reinforce Britain’s class divided society.Why is person like this responsible in equality legislation in a supposedly centre left government?

Blair and Iraq 2007.01.11

Bush is a president who serves a fixed term of four years. Blair, by contrast, is a prime minister who holds office so long as a parliamentary majority has confidence in him.What I find remarkable is that Mr Blair could take Britain to war in 2003 for reasons that proved wholly false, and yet remain in office. More odd still, when his ‘after-the-event’ justification for the invasion (i.e. bettering the lot of Iraqis) is unrealised, he can still stay on as prime minister. Does democracy in Britain work?

Bush and Blair on war 2007.01.12

Until recently Bush has been able to win considerable support in America among the ignorant by being uncompromising and violent with the US’s perceived or created enemies. At least in part US aggression against Somalia and Iran is due to Bush’s need to find or exacerbate conflict, so he can portray himself as the unflinching military defender of America. Wars tend to make unpopular leaders popular (Cf. Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands) What needs explaining, though, is Tony Blair’s unconditional position as a junior partner in this enterprise, and the Labour Party’s toleration of Blair’s policy, irrespective of the killing, destruction and suffering the policy causes.

Raising school leaving age to eighteen 2007.01.15

I think young people should stay at school or college until they are eighteen, but it is mistake to force them. They would learn little and disturb the learning of those in the class who wish to learn. At sixteen a young person should start making decisions for him/herself; and whether to stay at school is one such decision.Far better would be to channel the money into adult education, so that when people feel the need for education and value it, they can opt in again.

Attacking Iran 2007.01.15

Any US attack on Iran would be the most insane act by a major power since Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Millions would die in the region-wide conflagration; and it would be hard to see how American interests would be advanced.Bush’s apocalyptic visions of confronting ‘evil’ (shared it would seem by Tony Blair) are delusional. It goes without saying that every effort should be made to prevent such a murderous insanity ever happening.

Prostitution 2007.01.16

The right of one person to pay another for sexual services is a basic freedom. The state should regulate the practice so that the seller is not coerced (through poverty, drug addiction or violence) into the contract. In the performance of the contract, both the buyer and seller need health and safety protection as consumer and service provider.What ever the moralist thinks about prostitution may rightly govern the behaviour of the moralist but should not be imposed on the choices other persons.The Swedish Model of criminalising prostitution only criminalises the clinent punter.The issue is not whether the Swedish model ‘works’ or not; it simply offends the principles of justice and equality.If two people agree to do XZY sexual activity, there is no crime. If one party then suggests the other pay money to make it happen, there is no crime. The only crime occurs when the other party agrees to pay.The principle is absurd. It treats prostitute like a person below the age of criminal responsibility, and treats the client as if he were having sex with a minor.

England and Scotland 2007.01.17

Political associations with two members which develop divergent opinions tend not to last long. With two constituents, the politics of building alliances is denied, and at the end of the day, in the absence of a compromise, one party has to get its way. If London imposes its will, devolved Scotland is affronted, and support for independence grows. If Edinburgh gets what it wants the steps to independence have already started. Does anyone remember the history of Czechoslovakia?

Super ASBOs 2007.01.18

The Guardian wrote: “The new crime-prevention orders, for example, would dilute the presumption of innocence by curtailing the liberty of people not proved to have committed a crime. That erosion of freedom needs to be balanced against a theoretical cut in crime.” I argued, no, the punishment of people who have not been convicted by a judicial authority is axiomatically wrong in a liberal society; even if such measures were to cut crime levels.These criminal justice acts are designed for their publicity affect, and to outflank (triangulate) the Conservatives and tabloid press. If the government were serious in wanting to tackle organised crime it would beef up detection agencies which would have the resources and powers to gather evidence and then prosecute the criminals in courts.

Anti Asian remarks on Big Brother 2007.01.19

What we saw on the programme were several anti-Asian remarks springing from ignorance, hostility and stupidity. Such views are, unfortunately, widely held across society and it is obvious that banning them from television will not cause the bigots to stop holding these attitudes. This idiotic Big Brother programme has highlighted the need to do more to combat such racially motivated prejudice in society. Advocates of greater censorship are merely attempting to push the problem under the carpet.

Three questions for socialist historians 2007.01.23

Any socialist historian of Britain will in future years have to answer three fundamental questions. First, how did someone like Tony Blair become leader of the Labour Party; second, why, even after the Iraq fiasco, was the Labour Party unable to get rid of him; and third, given Blair’s policies why didn’t a serious party emerge to Labour’s left. Why, in short, has social democracy in Britain been killed and political liberalism been serious wounded.It is not that I cannot furnish answers to these questions, but it is only by writing full answers, and discovering and articulating all the evidence that would support answers to these questions, that we will come to understand the neo-Liberal consensus in Britain. Who is doing that work?

Scotland and Wales 2007.01.24

British identity was very much sustained in last couple of centuries by the prize of Empire. The Anglo-Indian, the colonial civil servant, the commercial bank clerk and Australian emigrant were as likely to Scottish or Welsh as English. Imperial contracts went as easily to Glasgow as they did to Birmingham. With empire consigned to the history books, what reason is there for these small nations to subordinate their affairs to England? And from the 1960s Scottish and Welsh nationalism has been edging forward, helped by a vision of being part of the confederal structures of the European Union as independent states. Future individual membership of the EU for Scotland and Wales would provide more room for flexibility than any greater grudgingly granted devolution from a dictatorial London.

Gay adoptions 2007.01.25

The issue of exempting the church from anti-discrimination laws concerning the adoption of children by gay would-be parents is off track. The church should have nothing to do with adoption – or education for that matter. These things are properly part of the secular domain.If the churches were divorced from all social and education provisions in society, it would not matter a damn what the church thought about gay adoptions or anything else. People could just see such religious groups for what they were – an irrelevant and bigoted minority.

American support for democracy 2007.01.25

Yes, the US supports democracy when the people vote for leaders who are amenable to US interests.The US has a long history of sabotaging democracy in Latin America, even as late as 2002 backing a coup against Chavez. Democracy has to be smashed in the Palestinian territories because the voters elected Hamas. Brutal anti-democratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi and Pakistan have strong US backing.The US may prefer democratic regimes abroad, but the political and economic interests of the US come first. Is anyone still surprised by this conclusion?

Britishness 2007.01.25

One result of the politically induced panic about Muslim fundamentalist ideas and violence has been the demand for ‘Britishness’ to be taught in schools. ‘Britishness’, if it means anything at all, is a variety of diverse traditions and thinking, but Education minister Alan Johnson has simplified it to ‘the values that we hold very dear in Britain which is free speech, which is tolerance, which is respect for the rule of law," It is, of course, sheer arrogance to suppose that these are not universal values held across Europe and the world. To suggest that they are uniquely British is to compound prejudice rather than reduce it. Another difficulty seems to arise too. If it is to be claimed that these values are the bedrock of British society, surely the first line of educational enquiry is to ascertain the extent to which contemporary Britain manifests them. And I’m sure any serious enquiry would not give Mr Johnson the conclusions he wanted. In short, this whole sordid exercise in corrupting education is about America emulation. Blair, Kelly and these other neo-conservatives in New Labour clothing merely wish to emulate the catch-all totalitarian ‘crime’ of ‘anti-Americanism’ by creating a British equivalent. In future any dissent or protest will be dismissed as ‘anti-British.’

Fascists in the European Parliament 2007.01.29

Hatred of fascists is a correct attitude, and it is right to draw attention to this poisonous influence both in so-called old and new Europe. Two points should be made. First, the emergence of fascists in democratic polities provides a warning, (e.g. that class inequality and uneven capitalist development is driving the ignorant into blaming other ethnic groups for their woes.) Second, it is hard to see these people - driven by national chauvinism - forming a cohesive Euro-wide unit, when each nationalism has the others as enemies. Though not all represented in the European Parliament, the Hungarian far-right MIEP party won’t get bed easily with the Greater Romanians and the Slovak National Party to take but one example.

Afghanistan 2007.01.30

The current US assault on Afghanistan (backed to the hilt by the pillion passenger of American Imperialism, Britain) is devoid of sense other than in one aspect.The occupation and decision to kill as many Taliban fighters (real or potential) as possible in Afghanistan is based on a contorted chain of reasoning: ‘without NATO intervention the Taliban might take over the country and they might in turn support Islamic terrorism against the US.’ Even acknowledging this hypothetical possibility - which does not in itself justify the war - the killing of the Taliban gives them no incentive not to support terrorism against the West, and their ability to support terrorism is hardly altered whether they control two or ninety percent of the country. Thus, as in Iraq, the war is increasing the motivation for terrorist acts, not reducing it.The only sense in which the war makes sense is that defeat would be psychologically painful for the US. However a reason such as this can never justify war.

My enemy’s enemy 2007.01.31

Events in history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq included, are complex in terms of their facts, and the application of ‘left wing principles can become an even more muddled affair. One particular principle, which often pollutes strategy, is the devil’s alliance principle – my enemy’s enemy is my friend. And two prominent instances appear in the Iraq debate.For a cohort of slippery neo-con ex-left renegades (Mssrs Aaronvitch, Cohen, Geras, Hitchens) the argument is that because Saddam’s regime was so utterly dreadful, the Bush administration (enemy Saddam’s enemy since 1990) are the ‘good guys.’ Whatever else these men may have said in their lives, their current identification is their pro-Bush image.Leading members of the anti-war coalition, on the other hand, reverse the parties in this mistake. For them US imperialism is enemy number one, so Saddam and now the Iraqi resistance (enemy Bush’s enemies) are the ‘good guys.’ The left’s identification with dictators and jihadists (albeit a minority of the left) undermines the left’s core value structure. (Ironically this is Cohen’s main argument, all the more outrageous because he deploys the same mistaken reasoning himself.) Until the bipolar schema, of which the ‘my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend’ is a constituent’ is dispensed with, much socialist thought will be disabled by this logical flaw.

Respect 2007.01.31

Echoing developments in the US, the political concept ‘respect’ and its correlative ‘no-offence’ has now entered British politics. Respecting the cultural practices of other social categories, but particularly ethnic ones, is set to replace social equality as the guiding goal of many so-called progressives. The vision of the respect brigade is of a multicultural apartheid in which each community respects the norms of the others. If a film it offensive to Muslim sensitivities it is not shown; if one community practises genital mutilation, then the others respect it.What has this agenda got to do with socialism and liberalism? Precisely nothing. We should assert that nobody has a right to have his/her beliefs and values (as opposed to their person and material interests) respected by others. Liberals rightly demand individual freedom; socialists need space for the propaganda of struggle within and across ethnic boundaries.Respect is properly an individual moral matter; e.g. not using four letter words when sitting next to granny on the bus. As the Trojan horse of conservative political values, the doctrine of respect is poison.