Rights and Liberties

Introduction to
Volume 9, Number 2 of the Connexions Digest
(Rights & Liberties issue, Summer 1984)

In compiling Connexions, which focuses on a different social or political issue in each edition, we are often struck by how seemingly distinct problems turn out to be strongly intermeshed. Nowhere has this been more so than in this edition on "Rights and Liberties." Civil liberties and human rights appear as a key dimension in almost every other field of social justice and social change.

The struggle to change the role of women in society, for example, often revolves around equality and human rights. Environmental issues focus on our right to breathe clean air, drink clean water or lead lives in harmony rather than in conflict with nature. Economic issues pose the right to earn an income, to a fair share of society's wealth, to security for the future. The question of peace concerns the right to live itself, free of fear of annihilation.

Western society is strongly coloured by the idea that we have rights which are ours "by right," not as a privilege bestowed by authority. Defining human rights gives rise to many of the sharpest political divisions of our time. This is especially true of the right to "freedom." What is freedom, for the individual and for the group? Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? Subject to what restrictions to safeguard the freedoms and rights of others?

If freedom is the ability to shape one's life without domination by others, then what are its elements and pre-conditions?

How free are we, for example, if we are too poor to obtain decent housing, proper medical care, or education? How real is our right to "freedom of speech," if public discourse is dominated by a handful of large media chains, corporations and paid advertising and we have no realistic or effective way of making ourselves heard? How real is the right to equality nominally guaranteed by law in the face of immense inequities of wealth and power? In a society where our freedom is primarily defined as one of choice among alternatives in the marketplace, what happens to the possibility of choosing options that are never offered: for example, choosing to live in a real community rather than simply buying or renting housing?

Any discussion of rights involves recognition that human beings are both social and individual, and therefore that human rights include social and collective rights as well as individual rights.

Western society has traditionally equated social rights with civil rights, our rights as individual citizens: the right to equal treatment before the law, the right to vote, the right to form associations with others for political or other ends. Less, and more slowly, accepted have been social or collective rights such as the right to health care, or education, or assistance in the case of economic misfortune, or our rights as workers, gays and lesbians or old people. This has especially been true where such rights come into conflict - as they often do - with what Western Society considers the most fundamental of rights: the rights of property. For example, labour unions, and the rights of working people which they try to represent, have often been attacked in the name of protecting the rights and freedoms of property.

More radical conceptions of social rights are also often in severe conflict with the established order. For example, that the people who perform the work should have the right to control their work is an anathema to those who now own the means of producing the wealth. Similarly, the idea that the right to democracy logically means shared and direct participation and control by all those affected by decisions is dismissed as impossible and probably "subversive." Thus the right to vote becomes the denial of the right to participate more directly in decision-making.

Yet many of the rights and freedoms for which people struggle are so widely and instinctively seen as just that it becomes difficult and even dangerous for those who oppose them to do so too directly or explicitly. Instead, they are commonly given lip service, or one set of rights is denied by appealing to other rights.

If one trend is clearly visible in virtually every society, it is toward greater centralization, bureaucracy, and social control, and a corresponding curtailing of individual and collective freedoms. The principal agent of this process is the state, often linked to and assisted by the other institutions, classes and elites, and ideologies that also wield social power.

The relentless expansion of state-dominated power structures is often explained as necessary precisely to achieve social rights that are so widely seen as just and desirable. To obtain economic security, we are told, we must yield more power to police and state security agencies. To be protected from hate literature or pornography, we must accept that the state or its agencies will rule on what is fit to be expressed and published. To ensure essential services, we must give up or drastically restrict our right to bargain collectively and withdraw our labour by striking. To obtain credit, or a government job, the most personal data about us must be handed over and scrutinized. To ensure the efficient and "fair" administration of all the programs and institutions set up (supposedly) to benefit us, we must submit ever more to the imperatives of computers, technology and hierarchical, controlling forms of social organizations.

"If one of us is not free, then none of us is free," because a crucial aspect of any denial of rights, any erosion of liberties, is that it establishes the right, and enhances the power, of the state (or other institutions) to deny rights, to decide which rights may be exercised and which not.

For this reason, too, a central component of any strategy for rights and liberties must be to challenge the legitimacy and power of the state, and its allies, to grant or withhold rights and liberties. In the final analysis, the perception of legitimacy is the strongest underpinning of power.

Practically, this requires that those who seek a freer and more just society cannot rely on the state to achieve their goals. Even beneficial measures are often double-edged, both because they increase the weight of the state in society, and because typically the price exacted by any hierarchical, centralized, bureaucratic institution acting for the general welfare is a further restriction of that which it cannot easily control or predict: dissent; spontaneity; the desire to decide for oneself, individually and collectively.

As one examines human rights, however defined, it becomes clear whatever rights one thinks there ought to be, or whatever rights people are said to have, the rights that people actually have are achieved and protected only by struggle. Rights are won.

And they can be lost. They can be lost if those who defend them are too isolated, not powerful enough, not organized enough or not vigilant enough. Group working to win or defend one set of rights greatly increase their chances if they form alliances with others groups, especially if such alliances are not merely expedient, but rooted in an understanding of how their different causes are actually component parts of larger struggle for justice and freedom.

While this can be a tactic to undercut a demand to exercise particular rights, it is also sometimes true that legitimate rights do come into conflict with each other. People concerned with human rights must be prepares to admit and deal with the dilemma of rights being in conflict.

This is not to say that in a world in which the state is a dominating force, we are not sometimes faced with the necessity of ourselves pressuring the state to act if we want to accomplish a particular goal. But if we do so, we must be aware that in gaining something, we lose something too, and we have to be prepared to rigorously weigh the gains against the losses.

One of the most shocking realizations in compiling this issue of Connexions was the extent to which rights and liberties are under attack even in Canada, still one of the freest countries in the world. We were struck by the comment of one civil libertarian, that "Saying we should be thankful we live in the freest country in the world reminds me of the man who fell into a canyon, broke 85 bones, and said he was thankful he hadn't broken 87."

Despite a few victories, we in Canada have less freedom to be thankful for with each passing year. Individual losses of our liberties are frightening enough, but what is even more frightening is the scope and intensity of the assault.

Governments, corporations and conservative elements are on the offensive in almost every area, seeking to enhance their control, and reduce the power of citizens, employees, and ordinary people. Their motivation is for our own good - as they define it. They have little question that they know what is for our own good, and the right to make the decisions.

The question is whether we will let them continue increasing their power at the expense of ours. Across Canada groups are fighting to protect and enlarge our rights and liberties. There are more such groups than we have been able to mention in this edition of Connexions. We have tried to describe some of the principal and most representative ones.

Karl Marx observed that "No one opposes freedom - at most he opposes the freedom of others." We guarantee our own freedom by supporting the rights and freedoms of others.


Aussi disponible en français: Les Droits et les Libertés.
Also available in German: Rechte und Freiheiten.
Also available in Chinese: Rights and Liberties.
También disponible en español: Derechos y Libertades.


Subject Headings

Civil Liberties  Democracy  Democratic Values  Free Speech  Freedom  Freedom of Expression  Human Rights  Property Rights
Contact Connexions

Donate to Connexions

If you found this article valuable, please consider donating to Connexions. Connexions exists to connect people working for justice with information, resources, groups, and with the memories and experiences of those who have worked for social justice over the years. We can only do it with your support.

Memory Resistance Grassroots Archives People’s History