The 19th century lives

One of the things most striking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which was ratified 67 years ago today – is how dramatically it differs from the rights discourse that prevails today.

Consider Article 22, which states:

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Or Article 23:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.


The incorporation of economic and material provisions into a legal rights framework might be treated as somewhat archaic by the contemporary liberal constitutionalist. In the early postwar period, however, it was essentially the norm – at least aspirationally.

Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposed Economic Bill of Rights – intended as a supplement to the existing Bill of Rights and encompassing employment, food, clothing, leisure, housing, freedom from monopolies, medical care, social security, and education. In a 1944 presidential address, Roosevelt said the following:

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. 

They were our rights to life and liberty. As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.


Second Bill of Rights, proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his State of the Union Address on January 11, 1944.

Across the ocean in Britain the Labour Party, which had worked alongside Winston Churchill in his wartime coalition, made similar noises in its 1945 election campaign. After winning a surprise victory over the popular Conservative Prime Minister, Labour embraced the Beveridge Report – a foundational welfarist document which radically overturned the political logic of the 1930s. Beveridge made three principle recommendations:

  1. Proposals for the future should not be limited by sectional interests in learning from experience and that a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for “patching”.
  2. Social insurance is only one part of a comprehensive policy of social progress. The five social evils on the road to reconstruction were Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
  3. Policies of social security must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual, with the state securing the service and contributions. The state “should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.



Clement Atlee celebrates Labour’s election victory in 1945.

A key addendum to the third recommendation was that Beveridge opposed means-testing. Earlier conceptions of social security had regarded it as merely a “safety net” designed to catch individuals who “fell through the cracks”. In the new, socialist Britain social security was to be the birthright of every person – a basic collective minimum that effectively decommodified huge sections of the social and material economy. That five “social evils” were to be overcome was no mere rhetorical flourish. Rather, it reflected a new paradigm of thinking wherein social afflictions like poverty and unemployment were to be seen as forces endemic to prewar capitalism rather than as byproducts of individual human inadequacy. Freedom was no longer entirely to be concerned with license (put simply, freedom to) but would henceforth be synonymous with solidarity and equality (put simply, freedom from).

It would be an understatement to say that the contours of dominant rights thinking had shifted considerably several decades later. By the 1980s a thoroughly new discourse was prevailing – one that synthesized the individualist ethos of the 1960s with a resurgent bourgeois ethic that emphasized consumption and acquisitiveness as ends in themselves and sought to reconstruct the state more or less from top to bottom. Aspirations of universality gave way to means-testing when it came to social programs. Keynesianism gave way to monetarism. The “five social evils” Beveridge had identified were increasingly seen as synonymous with individual and cultural pathologies rather than market irrationality.

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Thatcher and Reagan.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher actively demonized welfare recipients and the subsequent Clinton and Blair administrations followed suit by transforming welfare programs into workfare (here in Ontario, Mike Harris’s hard right administration did the same).

Simultaneously – and proceeding hand in hand with the new epistemology of “individualism” – the unemployed and working poor were increasingly subjected to a new, Victorian-style social authoritarianism that represented their low class position as the product of inferior culture and ethics. Social conservatives, alongside many liberals who were not much less complicit, identified poverty as the result of moral, rather than market, failing: the disintegration of the “traditional marriage”, drug use, the lack of a sufficiently aspirational “ethic” came to be the new ontologies of poverty and social depravation.  (During the 1970s one of Margaret Thatcher’s senior ministers Keith Joseph blew his chances at becoming Conservative Leader by giving a speech that essentially identified excessive breeding among the British working class as the source of the country’s social ills. Had he run a decade later, he might have been more successful…)

The seductive rhetoric of emancipatory “self-sufficiency” supplied a populist garnish to an ideological program that dramatically increased poverty and inequality, while simultaneously ensuring that the fruits of progress and economic growth accrued disproportionately to an increasingly narrow cadre of economic and financial elites.

Even some more benign liberal efforts reflected this shift. In Canada, the administration of Pierre Elliot Trudeau adopted a new constitutional framework that guaranteed political and civil rights while substantively excluding economic rights. Again, the state was to ensure an ostensibly just framework for individual citizens to pursue their private goals (within reason) and little else.

In our present, post-2008 moment, we are arguably seeing a resurgence of something resembling the postwar economic rights discourse in the Atlantic liberal democracies – as evidenced by the nascent rises of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the United States and Great Britain – though the rhetorical and ideological strength of the neoliberal/neoclassical paradigm that has prevailed since the 1980s still feels basically impregnable.

What’s a stake is quite considerable: Are poverty and inequality essentially the result of individual moral inadequacy or does liberal capitalism contain fundamental contradictions which only the guarantee of economic and social rights by the state will remedy? By any measure, including its own, the neoliberal/neoclassical paradigm has failed to deliver inclusive material prosperity, let alone economic stability. While it never intended to, of course, its now transparent failure to even meet its own standards creates new opportunities to assert a superior paradigm for thinking about individual rights, freedom, and equality.

Whereas the New Right of the 1970s – which continues to rule even in death – mined from the conceptual repertoires of Hayek (neoclassical) and Adam Smith (classical liberal) to construct its New Jerusalem, its contemporary opponents should rediscover the language and thinking of postwar economic rights discourse to confront its corrosive legacy.

The product of decades of popular organization and mobilization, it still offers the decisive alternative to the barbarism and depravation thrown up by the 19th century – and unfortunately still embraced more than a decade into the 21st.



9 thoughts on “The 19th century lives

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