Rights, War, and the State

War is the father of all things.

Heraclitus

1. End of History

We have been raised on the belief that mankind has progressed to a higher form of existence via a struggle for human rights. From greater tolerance, greater respect, greater all round ‘love,’ members of mankind can now live lifestyles of independence and self-expression. This ‘end of history’ sentiment is very much that of closure on a past that we would rather not reflect upon, given that the present is so joyous.

2. The Dark Side

Of course, along with the progress came a darker side, that of wars, repression, genocide, and the like. This darker side is often discussed but forms something of a foil for the more civilized achievements of the human race. At times, we are alerted to the possibility of this dark side re-emerging when we see atrocities around the globe.

3. A Great Coincidence?

It is popularly considered to be somewhat of a coincidence that the freeing of the individual human, and his subsequent equalization with his former masters, occurred at the same time as an upsurge in ever more savage forms of conflict. The two world wars epitomized the barbarity of the conflictual ‘coincidence’ that existed side-by-side with the progressive development of humanity.

However, this view is simply false. The reality is that war, and the preparation for war, has often been the driver of a rights-culture. War and the modern human rights culture are thus inseparable.

4. Simple Examples

Think about it … the suffragette  movement was a lunatic-fringe (in terms of how it was perceived) movement until WWI. Then, women entered the factories, and after the war women had the right to vote. Lunatic-fringe movements were subsequently those opposing the female right to vote. Switzerland didn’t grant women the vote until 1971, Switzerland of course having a history of neutrality. So, for such a simple example as women’s rights, we can see that war, not the protests of petitioners, was the decisive factor in this particular movement.

5. Don’t Forget the State

An objection is of course that war has existed since the dawn of time but there never existed the freedom and individualism that came to fruition in the 20th century. The reason for this is that there never were ‘states’ (a centralized national ‘brain’ organizing and administering vast areas of public and private life) up until the modern era. With the growth of the modern state came the requirement for rationalization. Everyone had to contribute to a war effort, no one was left behind. The state organized war, and war became increasingly industrialized in the later modern era, but also had to make concessions to groups in order to effectively prosecute a war effort.

6. Social Changes

Great social changes were made during the course of the war, but the same dynamic also occurred outside of war-time, particularly in the immediate aftermath of war. Britain’s great social changes were after WWII and these changes had in fact been promised after WWI. When was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated but in the aftermath of war? And, in fact, even the preparation for war can induce great social changes such as those which were evidenced in Germany during the 19th century years.

When the big states went to war, there was something of a ‘low-hanging fruit’ effect. Smaller countries not involved in great conflicts had to concede to their own populations the same rights as has been afforded to those citizens residing in the ‘bigger brother.’

7. Reconfiguration of Rights

At the same time, it should be noted that what took place in the 19th-20th centuries was not the development or progression of rights, but rather a reconfiguration of rights. Conservative groups are often wary of wars because of the potential for vast social change and the diminution of rights that conservatives defend. From the 20th century we can generally see that while the right to self-expression has vastly increased, the right to personal privacy and, crucially, the right to dispose of one’s wealth as one pleases, have been diminished and in some countries (e.g. Sweden) the right to freedom of property is all but extinct.

8. Conclusion

So in reality, war and the birth of the modern human rights culture are joined at the hip and are mediated via the organizing and administrating capabilities of the modern State. A similar argument can also be made for technology.

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