What do we speak of when we discuss the concept of rights? There exists the philosophical concept, the notion that all human beings are embodied with certain inalienable rights, simply by consequence of their being human. This notion refers to human rights as they are commonly understood. Then there exists the legalistic understanding, that of rights guaranteed under the law, or to be more specific, under the nation-state. These two conceptions are often intertwined within the common discourse of our society. It is not uncommon to see those who face oppression seeking justice and protection through the struggle for rights within their given nation-state. However, it is my contention that this is a fruitless endeavor and that other paths must be considered. Before that is possible we must first take a moment to analyze the very conception of rights and the rights discourse within our current society.
Rights within our society are often seen as something positive, the embodiment of our freedom and equality as guaranteed by the law, inalienable and untouchable by any individual without risk of punishment and debasement. The supposed secularism of the nation-state is one that is meant to encompass the rights of all peoples, all peoples as human beings generally or that of our collective human rights. This seems to be an entirely positive and agreeable conception; however when probed further, one can easily see that rights are nothing more than a phantasm in the hearts and minds of the people, a lie meant to make us feel free while being enslaved.
A right is simply that which the nation-state allows or tolerates, a mere concession in favor of its own power and stability. These rights in and of themselves are only enforceable–as a right is only something that can be enforced–by the use of the nation-state’s courts, police, and military institutions. These institutions can be seen as extensions of the nation-state’s power, its ability to act and make change. Power is centralized within the nation-state itself, in opposition to its own population. This centralization of power causes many of those oppressed under and within the nation-state to seek justice, either to enforce already given rights or to gain those that were previously not held beforehand.
Justice in this conception is meant to make us equal under the nation-state. When someone is “brought to justice” they are being punished for their supposed violation against the rights of others. To seek justice, in this sense, is to seek the power of the nation-state’s ability to enact vengeance against those that violate the rights of others through the use of its own power. Those judged by the nation-state are supposedly equal before the law; however, this supposed equality is hardly equal at all, as it actively ignores the differences between individuals in regards to its judgment so that the most vulnerable individual is considered the same as the most privileged.
Justice is meant to be unbiased in its judgment, however, the very real material and social conditions of individuals make such judgment clearly unequal. For example, the racism and white supremacy within the United States create conditions under which people of color are more likely to face violations of their rights, that is to say, they are less likely to be tolerated socially, economically or politically under and within the nation-state. These conditions are such that attempts to seek justice by people of color run into the contradiction that an inherently white supremacist nation-state is far from likely to enact justice on their behalf, as such an act would be to commit the self-mutilation of its own power.
Privilege, whether social, economic or political, plays a fundamental part in the conditions of people’s lives. A privilege can simply be conceived of as an advantage, for example, the privilege of white people to not have to be concerned with racial violence and intolerance towards them. One might be in a position of economic privilege and as such would be able much more effectively to exercise their property rights than someone who is economically disadvantaged. In other words, those with greater privilege are often able to exercise their power more effectively than those without.
This is not to say that the two are mutually inclusive. For example, someone may have the social privilege of being white, while also lacking any economic or political power. Inversely a person may hold great economic and political power while still suffering from racial oppression and discrimination. Such intersections of social, economic and political realities greatly influence and determine the ways in which rights, and by extension justice, are enforced under the nation-state.
If we cannot rely on the power of the nation-state to enforce our rights, especially when it is the nation-state itself that violates these rights, then how are oppressed people supposed to protect themselves? If we cannot rely on the nation-state, then it is my contention that we must rely on ourselves. To realize the people’s ability to self-organize is to effectively enact our ability to make change, our power as the people.
Through the self-organization of people’s power, we can manage to create dual power systems, institutions that are in opposition to the nation-states, that are capable of feeding, housing, and generally protecting communities through their own capabilities. These directly democratic, self-governed communities would be based not on rights, what is allowed and enforced by a hierarchy, but rather the direct needs and wants of the community as such. Though prejudicial attitudes may remain, the social, economic and political privileges of the nation-state can be abolished and more effectively combated under conditions in which the oppressed are able to directly govern their lives as opposed to a potentially oppressive government above them. The power of the people is the most effective weapon against those who dominate and oppress them. The people simply need to learn how to wield something that they already possess within themselves.