Read the full introduction below to The New Human Rights Movement.
A central message of this book is that solutions to modern social problems are less about the moral aptitude of society and more about how society is technically organized. If I had to reduce the idea to a singular term, I would say the perspective is structuralist. Structuralism simply means we are accounting for larger order relationships when thinking about social affairs. It is a derivation of a more generalized concept called systems theory (chapter one).
In terms of structuralism, if we had to locate the most influential, man-made force affecting the human condition, there is no doubt that a society’s social system would be most prominent. A social system is defined as the means by which a society organizes itself to facilitate survival, prosperity, and, ideally, peaceful coexistence. From networking the behavior of individuals and institutions, to characteristics such as security, medical access, resource management, political processes and transport infrastructure, the defining features of a social system can vary.
Overall, a social system serves to maintain and improve public health (chapter four). Public health is an umbrella idea that embraces many factors and outcomes. As a broad measure, the quality of overall public health in a society ultimately reflects the quality of its social system. If it happens to be that a system is allowing or even facilitating unnecessary disease epidemics, pollution, starvation, violence, crime, deprivation, social oppression, bigotry, and other harmful features, then the integrity of that social system is brought into question.
However, any challenge to the integrity of the system is really a challenge to the integrity of its core foundation, and that core foundation is economic. How a society organizes its resources, labor, production, and distribution is by far the most defining and influential feature of culture. This is why when people discuss social systems in general they usually refer to them by their economic modes.
Capitalism, communism, socialism, feudalism, mercantilism, and so on, each have specific economic properties that temper the entire social construct. The economic foundation of society is what determines not only the kind of political and social institutions it has, but also its dominant cultural values (chapter two). An example of the latter is the cultivation of “consumerism.” Consumer culture reflects a sociological adaptation to the structural needs of our prevailing economic mode. The most optimized state of market capitalism is one of high product turnover. Without this, economic expansion would not be possible in technical terms. Therefore, a culture that is motivated to buy and sell as much as possible is one favorable to the structure of a market economy (chapter four).
I wish to clarify that throughout this work various terms will be used to reference our current economic mode. Free market, capitalism, market, market system, market economy, and market capitalism will be used both in a detailed and generalized context. To the chagrin of any traditional economic purists reading this, once this text establishes its core definition of a market economy, such terms become mostly interchangeable in use (chapter two). While direct clarification will still be made at times, the decision to use one term over another will be contextually subtle. For example, if the context pertains to class relationships, perhaps highlighting the historical wealth and power divide between “owners” and “workers,” the term “capitalism” will likely be used. This is because inherent to that term is the structural distinction between the two labor classes. In contrast, if the context is about dynamics related to trade itself, such as general equilibrium theory, I will likely use the term “market economy” since it is more specific to the dynamics of exchange itself.
There is, however, one term that is very specific and will be used a great deal. That term is socioeconomic. This refers to economic activity that connects to social and personal outcomes. It can be used to describe a cause or it can be used to describe an effect. A simple example is poverty. Modern poverty is actually not an inevitable byproduct of humans’ sharing a planet that is supposedly deficient in resources. Rather, poverty today is a systemic consequence native to our current economic mode. In other words, its existence is artificial and contrived, not natural. Poverty is simply a negative externality of the market economy, just as industrial pollution often is (chapter three). However, while poverty is certainly an effect of the social system, it can also be separated as a cause. In modern sociological research, poverty is frequently referenced as a starting point, or precondition, that leads to a spectrum of socioeconomic problems. These include premature mortality, violence, social destabilization, epidemic disease, crime, suicide, mental illness, domestic abuse, and many other public-health concerns.
Yet, poverty is just one feature of the overall phenomenon of socioeconomic inequality. Socioeconomic inequality links to a range of detrimental social problems, many of which are quite surprising (chapter four). For example, as odd as it may seem, a person living in a generally wealthy nation, with a smaller income gap, may experience very different public-health outcomes than a person living in another generally wealthy country that has a larger income gap. This statistically occurs even if those people have the same absolute income. The more economic inequality, the unhealthier a country’s people are on average.
Put succinctly, socioeconomic inequality is the greatest detriment to human health and social stability in the world today. It is a systemic problem that has far-reaching consequences. The New Human Rights Movement is about ending it or coming as close as we possibly can. This is not to ignore other issues of social injustice such as racism, discrimination, or xenophobia; nor is it to bypass growing socioecological problems such as biodiversity loss, climate change, water pollution, and other problems that will harm the poor of the world long before the rich. Rather, The New Human Rights Movement serves to unify these issues.
While a fragmented focus has been required in pursuit of social and environmental justice historically, there is a dominant through-line that has consistently been missed or ignored. That through-line is that almost all forms of social oppression are rooted in socioeconomic inequality. And most forms of destructive environmental destabilization are rooted in the essential nature of our economic mode. These two issues are critical to understand.
Causality surrounding them may not always be direct or obvious. As will be discussed, our minds have a hard time understanding extended chain reactions. We tend to think in a very proximal sense rather than a systemic one (chapter one). This means when we see, for example, a company polluting a water supply, hurting a local population, we tend to blame the company, ignoring the larger structural pressures that may be occurring beyond that company, motivating or even coercing its decision to pollute.
The bottom line is that when we trace the systemic chain reactions of our most detrimental social problems, we almost invariably end up at the doorstep of the economy. If we expect to achieve new levels of prosperity, peace and social justice on this planet, while also stopping or reversing many detrimental trends currently on pace, then it is about time we started to expand our sense of possibility. While the future has yet to be seen, it is safe to say that a “business-as-usual” scenario can only lead to increasing social problems at this stage of social evolution. While we have seen great strides over the past 200 years, the value of those strides is only as good as our ability to maintain them. Social and ecological trends now show not a path toward further prosperity, but a path toward social destabilization and an overall public-health crisis (chapter five).
I wish to reiterate that the real issue of concern today isn’t moral, it is structural. It has little to do with people’s general, day-to-day intent and everything to do with the organizing framework of global society. All the best intentions in the world are not going to stop the existing and emerging problems as long as the current socioeconomic framework remains unaltered. What we have today is an increasingly incompatible social system, clashing with a world very different than the one it evolved out of. While it is convenient to assume that we humans, as smart as we are, will naturally adapt society to new requirements, given current trends this very well might not be the case. In the same way the abolition of abject slavery or apartheid didn’t occur though polite, rational conversation, at no time has the march toward social equality and rational societal adjustment been fluid.
As will be detailed, the character of our social system favors preservation and elitism (chapter three). Social dominance and the facilitation of social control and oppression is structurally codified in the system; a normative function born from its inherently competitive, scarcity-driven ethic. Given this, the odds of any kind of easy transition are slim. That is because those with great power and wealth, those who have been rewarded greatly by the system, naturally find cognitive dissonance with the idea of altering the very mechanism that has rewarded them so disproportionately. In the words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them . . . “
Therefore, the need for social movement on the global scale, with very specific and strategic plans to shift the social architecture, is now critical to progress. These needed adjustments have already been made clear by both modern trends in economic or productive means, and the sociological and ecological revelations presented by contemporary science. The train of thought as to what socioeconomic preconditions will allow for a highly sustainable and socially just world is virtually self-evident. How we get there—and if we get there in time—is the ultimate question.