A Crooked Path
excerpted from the book
The Rule of Force in World Affairs
by Noam chomsky
South End Press, 2000, paper
... The UD broke new ground in significant respects. It enriched
the realm of enunciated rights, and extended them to all persons.
In a major law review essay on the 50th anniversary, Harvard law
professor Mary Ann Glendon observes that the Declaration "is
not just a 'universalization' of the traditional 18th-century
'rights of man,' but part of a new 'moment' in the history of
human rights ... belong[ing] to the family of post-World War II
rights instruments that attempted to graft social justice onto
the trunk of the tree of liberty," specifically Articles
22-27, a "pillar" of the Declaration "which elevates
to fundamental rights status several 'new' economic, social, and
cultural rights." It is fair to regard the UD as another
step towards "recovering rights" that had been lost
to "conquest and tyranny," promising "a new era
to the human race," to recall the hopes of Thomas Paine two
Glendon stresses further that the UD is a closely integrated
document: there is no place for the "relativist" demand
that certain rights be relegated to secondary status in light
of "Asian values" or some other pretext.
The same conclusions are emphasized in the review of the human
rights order issued by the United Nations on the 50th anniversary
of the Charter, and in its contribution to the first World Conference
on Human Rights at Vienna in June 1993. In his statement opening
the conference, the secretary-general "stressed the importance
of the question of interdependence of all human rights."
Introducing the 50th-anniversary volume, he reports that the Vienna
conference "emphasized that action for the promotion and
protection of economic and social and cultural rights is as important
as action for civil and political rights."
The Vatican took a similar stand in commemorating the 50th
anniversary of the UD. In his 1999 New Year's Day message, Pope
John Paul II denounced Marxism, Nazism, fascism, and, "no
less pernicious," the ideology of "materialist consumption"
in which "the negative aspects on others are considered completely
irrelevant" and "nations and peoples" lose "the
right to share in the decisions which often profoundly modify
their way of life." Their hopes are "cruelly dashed"
under market arrangements in which "political and financial
power is concentrated," while financial markets fluctuate
erratically and "elections can be manipulated." Guarantees
for "the global common good and the exercise of economic
and social rights" and "sustainable development of society"
must I be the core element of "a new vision of global progress
Rights for Whom?
As widely noted, a major innovation of the UD [Universal Declaration
of Human Rights] was the extension of rights to all persons, meaning
persons of flesh and blood. The real world is crucially different.
In the US, the term "person" is officially defined "to
include any individual, branch, partnership, associated group,
association, estate, trust, corporation or other organization
(whether or not organized under the laws of any State), or any
government entity." That concept of "person" would
have shocked James Madison, Adam Smith, or others with intellectual
roots in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism. But it prevails,
giving a cast to the UD that is far from the intent of those who
formulated and defend it.
Through radical judicial activism, the rights of persons have
been granted to "collectivist legal entities," as some
legal historians call them, and more narrowly, to their boards
of directors, "a new 'absolutism' " bestowed by the
courts. These newly created immortal persons, protected from scrutiny
by the grant of personal rights, administer domestic and international
markets through their internal operations, "strategic alliances"
with alleged competitors, and other linkages. They demand and
receive critical support from the powerful states over which they
cast the "shadow" called "politics," to borrow
John Dewey's aphorism, giving no little substance to the fears
of James Madison 200 years ago that private powers might demolish
the experiment in democratic government by becoming "at once
its tools and its tyrants." While insisting on powerful states
to serve as their tools, they naturally seek to restrict the public
arena for others, the main tenet of "neoliberalism."
The basic thesis was expressed well by David Rockefeller, commenting
on the trend towards "lessen[ing] the role of government."
This is "something business people tend to be in favor of,"
he remarked, "but the other side of that coin is that somebody
has to take government's place, and business seems to me to be
a logical entity to do it. I think that too many businesspeople
simply haven't faced up to that, or they have said, 'It's somebody
else's responsibility; it's not mine.'
Crucially, it is not the responsibility of the public. The
great flaw of government is that it is to some degree accountable
to the public, and offers some avenues for public participation.
That defect is overcome when responsibility is transferred to
the hands of immortal entities of enormous power, granted the
rights of persons and able to plan and decide in insulation from
the annoying public.
Current policy initiatives seek to extend the rights of "collectivist
legal persons" far beyond those of persons of flesh and blood.
These are central features of such trade treaties as NAFTA and
the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), the latter temporarily
derailed by public pressure, but sure to be reconstituted in some
less visible form. These agreements grant corporate tyrannies
the rights of "national treatment" not enjoyed by persons
in the traditional sense. General Motors can demand "national
treatment" in Mexico, but Mexicans of flesh and blood will
know better than to demand "national treatment" north
of the border. Corporations can also (effectively) sue national
states for "expropriation"-interpreted as failure to
meet their demands for free access to resources and markets.
The Right to Information
The immortal collectivist persons are easily able to dominate
information and doctrinal systems. Their wealth and power allow
them to set the framework within which the political system functions,
but these controls have become still more direct under recent
Supreme Court rulings defining money as a form of speech. The
1998 election is an illustration. About 95 percent of winning
candidates outspent their competitors. Business contributions
exceeded those of labor by 12 to 1; individual contributions are
sharply skewed. By such means, a tiny fraction of the population
effectively selects candidates. These developments are surely
not unrelated to the increasing cynicism about government and
unwillingness even to vote. It should be noted that these consequences
are fostered and welcomed by the immortal persons, their media,
and their other agents, who have dedicated enormous efforts to
instill the belief that the government is an enemy to be hated
and feared, not a potential instrument of popular sovereignty.
The realization of the UD depends crucially on the rights
articulated in Articles 19 and 21: to "receive and impart
information and ideas through any media" and to take part
in "genuine elections" that ensure that "the will
of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government."
The importance of restricting the rights of free speech and democratic
participation has been well understood by the powerful. There
is a rich history, but the problems gained heightened significance
in this century as "the masses promised to become king,"
a dangerous tendency that could be reversed, it was argued, by
new methods of propaganda that enable the "intelligent minorities
... to mold the mind of the masses, ... regimenting the public
mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its
soldiers." I happen to be quoting a founder of the modern
public relations industry, the respected New Deal liberal Edward
Bernays, but the perception is standard, and clearly articulated
by leading progressive public intellectuals and academics, along
with business leaders.
For such reasons, the media and educational systems are a
constant terrain of struggle. It has long been recognized that
state power is not the only form of interference with the fundamental
right to "receive and impart information and ideas,"
and in the industrial democracies, it is far from the most important
one-matters discussed by John Dewey and George Orwell, to mention
two notable examples. In 1946, the prestigious Hutchins Commission
on Freedom of the Press warned that "private agencies controlling
the great mass media" constitute a fundamental threat to
freedom of the press with their ability to impose "an environment
of vested beliefs" and "bias as a commercial enterprise"
under the influence of advertisers and owners. The European Commission
of Human Rights has recognized "excessive concentration of
the press" as an infringement of the rights guaranteed by
Article 19, calling on states to prevent these abuses, a position
recently endorsed by Human Rights Watch.
For the same reasons, the business world has sought to ensure
that private agencies will control the media and thus be able
to restrict thought to "vested beliefs." They seek further
to "nullify the customs of ages" by creating "new
conceptions of individual attainment and community desire,"
business leaders explain, "civilizing" people to perceive
their needs in terms of consumption of goods rather than quality
of life and work, and to abandon any thought of a "share
in the decisions which often profoundly modify their way of life,"
as called for by Vatican extremists. Control of media by a few
megacorporations is a contribution to this end. Concentration
has accelerated, thanks in part to recent deregulation that also
eliminates even residual protection of public interest