Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Look at The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) has been revisited continually over the last two centuries and its principles have become the model for many, if not all, western societies.  So what political program does it announce?  The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen proclaims a specific concept of legal equality based on citizenship.  (It does nothing to mitigate the fact that life is not fair and equal to all, so you have the right to own property, but if you don't own any, too bad.)  Also rights only apply to people who are considered citizens given that rights are enforced within specific national frameworks (See Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights 176).  In theory, the Declaration of 1789 attacks the system of privileges based on group identities known as the estates of the realm (See Sieyes “What is the Third Estate?”), but the law secures private property and the riches of individuals even when these are based on heredity or other -isms that promote social inequality.  Whereas prior to the French Revolution, groups (Nobility, Clerics, Guilds, Commoners) were treated as corporate entities before the law, the Declaration makes individual citizens independent entities to be treated equally before the law.  In his essay "On the Jewish Question" Karl Marx railed against the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen because of its focus on individual citizen subjects and disregard for notions of the collective, "None of the supposed rights of man go beyond the egoistic man."

Defining Citizenship
Who counts as a citizen?  What happens to people that are not considered citizens?  The discrimination against French Protestant religious minorities was curtailed during this time because, as Christians, they were still considered citizens and were entitled to the natural rights of man and citizenship. Louis XVI proposed an edict of toleration that improved the situation of French Protestants.  Based on human rights philosophy and the precedent set by prior edicts of toleration for protestant religious minorities, the Jews made a petition for toleration to the King in 1790.  They insisted that the Jews should be treated no differently than other religious minorities.  An important question was pending before the supreme tribunal of France, "Will the Jews be citizens or not?"  If not, the Jews would become a sort of stateless people (See Hannah Arendt Origins of Totalitarianism Chapter 9).

In Chapter 9 of the Origins of Totalitarianism, "The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man" Hannah Arendt takes up the issue of citizenship and statelessness in the twentieth century.  Given the atmosphere of disintegration and instability following World War I, religious minorities and groups of people fled their countries were deprived of their political and legal identities. Arendt proposes the irony in the fact that people lost human rights as soon as they become nothing more than humans stripped of citizenship and national identity:

With the emergence of minorities in Eastern and Southern Europe and with the stateless people driven into Central and Western Europe, a completely new element of disintegration was introduced into postwar Europe.  Denationalization became a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics, and the constitutional inability of European nation-states to guarantee human rights to those who had lost nationally guaranteed rights, made it possible for the persecuting governments to impose their standard of values even upon their opponents.  (Arendt 269) 

In "Biopolitics and the Rights of Man" Giorgio Agamben points out the ambiguity of the very title of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  There seems to be a splitting of the identities of man and citizen inherent in the document's title, but it also could be that one entity is both man and citizen.  What is certainly not clear is the relationship between the two concepts of man and citizen (Agamben 127).  Agamben makes a distinction between the citizen engaged in political life (bios) and man engaged in animal life (zoe). Rights are granted to men who are members of the bios (active citizens) while members of the zoe, or homo sacer who have been expelled from the bios, have no political life.  Agamben argues that the difference between man and citizen are crucial and points out that during the "Final Solution" the Nazis were adamant that the Jews sent to concentration camps be fully stripped of their citizenship (Agamber 132).  This gets back to the paradox that Arendt highlights, the "inalienable" rights of man only function for citizens of the state and members of the bios, not for members of the zoe.  Additionally, Agamben points out that Democratic societies can expel individuals or groups from the bios and strip them of rights.  According to Agamben, this latent totalitarianism is present in Democratic societies.
Additional Nuances of "Citizenship"
In 1791 the Legislative Assembly made a distinction between “passive” and “active” citizens (here’s where they exclude women) with economic restrictions that excluded a large portion of men and all women from “active” citizenship.  Passive Citizens had no property rights or voting rights, but they were entitled to equal protection by law.  Active Citizens were literate adult males, who spoke French, had been residents for more than one year, and paid taxes equal to about three days work a year.  They could own property and enjoyed voting rights.

In sum, the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen is an important document because it establishes the citizen as a subject and entity before the law.  The rights of man then became anchored to national identity.  It is ironic, as Hannah Arendt points out, that one's human rights are soldered to one's citizenship.  The failure of the rights of man and citizen to prevent the atrocities of World War II including the Holocaust made the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) necessary.  To quote the preamble, "Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind."  Additionally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights accounted for Hannah Arendt's "stateless people" by calling for freedom of movement and the right to a nationality.         

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