Lately, there has been some talk of a greater collaboration between progressives of various stripes from around the world. I wholeheartedly agree that more cooperation is necessary to fight back against reactionary forces across the globe. Nevertheless, there is often such a wide disparity of beliefs that it is hard to imagine more than the loosest of associations, whose members would often come into conflict over various issues regardless. I believe we should reflect on our principles and explore further potential common ground.
Therefore, I ask; is it possible to reconcile some of the various strands of liberalism, socialism, environmentalism and feminism that progressives may adhere to?
To kick-start this dialogue, I would like to suggest that progressives pursue a shared commitment to the principle of a ‘right to live free’.
What does this principle involve, exactly?
The first part, the right to live, means that one recognises that life has inherent value. An organisation dedicated to upholding this right must ensure that people have access to the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing and shelter.
Secondly, the right to be free – that is, that nobody has the right to control someone by potentially withholding their right to live, except to prevent them from withholding it from others. It also means that one cannot be imprisoned against their will, while one should also be free from government interference in unnecessary places.
Furthermore, we recognise that a person can do whatever is necessary to guarantee this right for themselves. It cannot be considered immoral to fight oppressive governments, or to hunt animals when one has no other source of food.
Many other rights can be considered to flow from this principle. Although these other rights should still be laid out explicitly, I believe that placing the principle of the right to live freely at the core of our human rights approach would be incredibly beneficial.
There are countless wonderful people out there who already support the right to live freely by fighting for the various rights which constitute part of it. However, without recognising this core principle, it makes it easier for unscrupulous organisations, governments and leaders to subvert human rights policy for their own ends. If all rights are considered separate and not intrinsically connected, it’s relatively easy to justify taking any one of them away. By laying out the core principle of the right to live freely, we can demonstrate that any one violation undermines everything.
Rather than telling governments what they aren’t allowed to do to, we set out very specifically what governments are allowed to do to people. That is, they are only allowed to violate someone’s right to live freely if they pose a real threat to the same right of others. This includes, for example no imprisonment for nonviolent crimes, guaranteed freedom of speech except for incitement to violence, freedom of travel, freedom of association, and so on.
Some argue that to give people this guarantee of life would be to make them stop working. I would counter that this is a very dim view of humanity, and one unsupported by the evidence. There are many people who do not reasonably expect to be deprived of life or liberty if they refuse to work. And yet, they continue to labour. If such a motivation were necessary, people would only ever work the bare minimum that they needed to. Nobody would end up rich, and they would never spend money on anything extravagant, but instead they would build up enough funds to live a very modest but functional life. The fact that we do not see this proves that there is far more motivation behind productivity than a basic struggle to survive.
Others will rightly point out that we have to get the resources to guarantee this right from somewhere. I’m not going to get into the economics of it right now. However I would suggest that the ownership of natural resources can reasonably be taxed in order to pay for the basic necessities of life. Let people benefit from the effort they expend – but then expect them to pay back to the rest of the world the value of the resources they extract. After all, the land is our natural source of life.
The principle can be applied, in modified form, to children and animals, as well as people who are incapable of self-determination for various reasons. Where true freedom is impossible, instead we should make every effort to encourage as much self-determination as is possible given the circumstances. In the case of children we should be nurturing their future ability to live freely as adults.
We cannot implement this principle within a single country. Individuals and corporations will simply exploit people in other countries and take their ill-gotten gains back home with them. People will try to come to this haven of human rights and if they’re rejected, people smugglers will emerge.
On the other hand, by applying this principle globally, we can help to solve many of the major problems we are currently facing. Not only can we address exploitation, poverty and authoritarianism which are absolutely worthy causes in their own right, but we can set the stage for global cooperation on issues that threaten the entire world.
As long as gross inequality exists between countries, there will always be resentment, superiority and inferiority complexes, and various other conflicts. But we have an increasing need for coordinated action on climate change, resolving health crises, ending border disputes and xenophobia and so on. In order for this to happen we absolutely must establish global equality, in both economic and political terms.
And yes, this might involve big sacrifices to be made by rich countries. But the alternatives if we don’t apply this principle could be even worse. Corporations have grown beyond the control of national governments. Economic policy has become a race to the bottom to attract trade and jobs. Increasingly efficient machines will eventually eliminate almost all manual labour, and that’s just the beginning. Machine labour replacing human labour is a utopia when all humans have inherent value, while simultaneously being a dystopia when one’s value only comes from what one produces. There are countless issues which demand global action currently, but are impossible to solve under present conditions.
We need an international movement for liberty and equality more than ever. We need a simple, unifying principle to rally as large a coalition around as possible.
Yes, there is a lot of potential room for ambiguity and disagreement. But we can agree to support the principle while continuing to debate over the specifics.
This is only my opening suggestion on the matter – I welcome a broad and intense dialogue on this subject as with everything else. However, I believe that this is the best answer right now to the question of how to build a broad movement for progressive values with popular appeal. The principle of a right to live freely should be improved, elaborated upon and developed further by better philosophers and law scholars than me. Fundamentally however, it must remain simple to understand and explain.
Editor-in-Chief of Uncommon Ground Media