Original image on Economic, Social, Cultural Rights by Avinash Kuduvalli
Children probably think of human rights as pretty obvious. It must seem strange to them why Adults spend so much time and effort and money negotiating and rewriting what is so fundamental – the right to a decent and happy life for everyone.
But the truth is that “human rights,” in the formal sense, live in a strange intersection of competing interests: despots needing to wage wars versus people needing to live in peace, business owners needing to maximize profits versus workers needing higher pay, institutions needing to preserve traditions versus young people needing to create new pathways. Perhaps the problem is that all parties have a right to participate in the drafting of human rights.
And so the wording of human rights policies, laws, and mechanisms, becomes a long and tedious process, which results in the re-writing and re-packaging of these rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is one of these examples of a particular packaging and iteration of human rights. The economic section of the ICESCR is fashioned entirely as rights of exploited people who work in capitalist economies. It is an oxymoron to discuss the rights of exploited people. It seems to me that the smarter thing to do would be to end their exploitation, i.e. end capitalism. Similarly ridiculous to me are the endeavours to grant women rights under patriarchy when, obviously, the goal is really to end patriarchy.
But, sadly, the argument that won the 20th century battle for acceptable activism was the one that posited that granting more rights within an exploitative system will contribute in the (very) long run to diminishing the power of that exploitative system. So the majority of people have been convinced that a patriarchy that allows women the right to divorce, for example, is an easier and healthier step we must work towards, rather than a feminism that abolishes the exploitative marriage contract once and for all. Similarly, a capitalism that offers paid sick leave and the right to unionizing is an easier and healthier step we must work towards, rather than a socialism where all workers share in the profits and government of their enterprises.
Sadly, the argument that won the 20th century battle for acceptable activism was the one that posited that granting more rights within an exploitative system will contribute in the (very) long run to diminishing the power of that exploitative system. So the majority of people have been convinced that a patriarchy that allows women the right to divorce, for example, is an easier and healthier step we must work towards, rather than a feminism that abolishes the exploitative marriage contract once and for all.
And so the term “economic, cultural, and social rights” became a framework for addressing people’s rights within overwhelmingly oppressive systems. But even with all the concessions we made to the real justice we deserve, these rights remain fundamentally violated for most populations. At the turn of the millennium, a time when human rights actors were ambitiously striving to end poverty (while keeping capitalism) or end war crimes (while keeping nation states), along came the internet, as if straight from the imagination of science fiction writers. The network was finally here and the network was good.
Today, as has been for the past century, the fight for digital human rights is a battle between competing interests and time is running out before the “system” becomes too powerful to change online. Let me explain through 3 different examples:
Data & Self-determination
Article 1 of the ICESCR recognizes the right of all peoples to self-determination, including the right to pursue their economic, social and cultural goals, and manage their own resources. It is a fundamentally significant idea that people who share geography and history can come together to a) decide for themselves how to manage their concerns and b) manage their natural resources, minerals, and assets (capital). And yet, this very concept is under threat with the rise of data as the new form of capital. What does it mean when corporations own more data about peoples than their own ministries or public census offices?
It is a fundamentally significant idea that people who share geography and history can come together to a) decide for themselves how to manage their concerns and b) manage their natural resources, minerals, and assets (capital). And yet, this very concept is under threat with the rise of data as the new form of capital. What does it mean when corporations own more data about peoples than their own ministries or public census offices?
Sometimes it’s difficult to conceptualize big data in our heads precisely because we don’t have a frame of reference for how ‘big’ it actually is. But let’s imagine a nation-state of 100 million adult citizens and where by 2020, 90% of that population is on a social network that mines their data. This is now data privately owned by a foreign corporation. It is not available for public use (as was data collected by universities or by government agencies, for example). If data is an enabler of control, then the power of this private corporation to influence the citizens of this nation-state undermines the very idea of self-determination. Those who doubt that, need only to know that news on the internet can be post-Trump rhetoric of “post-truth”.
Labour & automation
The automation of jobs is not new to industrial development. But the increase of jobs lost to automation is going to spike exponentially in the next 5-10 years, because of inventions like self-driving cars. We will likely see strikes and uproar from workers protesting machines taking over their jobs. But it is not automation that we must fight; that part is inevitable. What workers would actually be protesting is the loss of their livelihood – not the loss of a profession. But yes, some will get nostalgic about the loss of professions like truck-driving (most probably these will be the people who haven’t had to drive trucks for a living). The point, however, is that some principles of ICESCR might no longer apply in new economies. Collective bargaining will shift for some professions as entire sectors are automated. Universal Basic Income will pick up momentum, as will the de-linking of social security and pensions from employment. Today, it is as important as ever to re-imagine productivity outside of wage labour and to propose new ways of structuring (and collecting!) taxes owed by giant tech companies.
Culture vs. online culture
Article 15 describes participation in cultural life as a fundamental right. This has to do with the right to preserve cultural heritage – especially that of minorities – and also the right to enjoyably participate in the (re)production of art and thought and music. Whenever I think of “culture,” I remember Nietzsche’s obsession with it:
Friedrich Nietzsche: The problem of culture is seldom grasped correctly. The goal of a culture is not the greatest possible happiness of a people, nor is it the unhindered development of all their talents; instead (…) the production of great works is the aim of culture.
By definition, culture is non-global. It is particular to a people. But we can think of universal online culture, can’t we? Indeed, tech corporations have worked very hard to globalize internet culture. Samsung ringtones, Candy Crush, selfie sticks, Facebook likes, Whatsapp voice notes, memes – these are all signifiers of a global culture.
The difference between this wave of globalization and the previous century’s Coca-Cola wave (when, similarly, you could find Coca-Cola bottles anywhere in the globe) is that these are now tools of cultural production. We might all be sending voice notes in our own languages but Whatsapp is how we send voice notes. If we think of culture as a space of meeting, of debate, of art, how do online spaces affect our right to participate in cultural life? How is it affecting or consuming our creativity? Who is bullied and/or harassed out of this participation, and why?
And what are the “great works” of the digital?