The New Human Rights Movement – A Review

A friend of mine, one day, came to me and said: “Read this book, it's the Das Kapital of our century”. Since he reads a lot and I trust his judgement, I picked it up but with a lot of skepticism because its author, Peter Joseph, was associated with plenty of populists, conspirancy-oriented movements thanks to its previous works and its Zeitgeist Movement. I didn't really consumed much of its content back in those days so I decided to give him a chance.

Little spoiler: the book is not the new Das Kapital but it's still worth the read, especially if you are not really well-versed in sociology, political science and economics. While heavily sacrificing rigour and simplying a lot of topics for the sake of clarity and contrary to my expectation, the book is not a pile of pseudo-intellectual arguments to attack a non-well defined reptilian enemy somewhere in Washington.

The goal of the book is, in fact, to bridge the gap between the beliefs we hold in the western society and the last century of scientific results. In the first pages Peter Joseph states clearly how our culture, our values, our social structure and our institutions have failed to keep up with the progress achieved in many fields like sociology, economics, biology and psicology. The result is a stark inconsistency between what we hold as “scientifically valid” and how we structure our social and political action.

In each chapter he builds an argument to challenge the status quo and invite us to rethink our outdated institutions in order to address a central problem with multi-faceted materializations: systemic violence. For him, systemic violence is an emergent property of a system that brings damage and oppression upon individuals and social categories. A form of violence where there are no perpetrators to be punished, no bodies to put in jail but only rules to be changed and structures to be evolved. The effects of this kind of violence are all around us and have been analyzed in detail. Its complexity though makes it hard for academics and fringe politicians to include it in the mainstream political discourse, especially in an age of simple answers to complex problems.

Nonetheless, employing a systemic perspective is paramount to improving our society, limit the impact of the approaching ecologic and social collapse and ultimately claim to act morally. The book is, at its core, a series of well-elaborated exaplanations of systemic problems from ground evidences to moral and political conclusions, through the lenses of different fields. Examples includes an analysis of how poverty has causal effects on health, life expectancy and self-realization in life, an anthropological discussion on how we value work as a necessary punishment, how ideology and faith determines macro-economics decisions and so on.

The book is then wrapped up by the last chapter that summarizes the ethos of the de-growth and xenoaccelerationist left: building a new future, rethinking the necessity of work, rethinking monetary systems, restructure the system to be free from the necessity of growth, do politics for what will come after the collapse.

So far the book could have been a 10 out of 10: we said it's solid, it touches many interconnected arguments without fear of dealing with them in combination, it's rooted in daily experiences of suffering for many people and it's topped with a pars construens. Unfortunately the execution is not as good as it could have been. I still believe this is a book you should give to your liberal friend to radicalize him: it's a good tool, not necessarily a good piece of writing.

The main problem I have with the book is that it's continously quoting academics and this gives the book an aura of authority but these quotes are often out of context and seem instrumental to reinforcing the author's argument, more than investigating any sort of truth. The boundary between the two endeavours (questioning the status quo and asserting scientific truth) are often blurred and it's impossible for the reader to follow these strains of thought. This would be ok if he carefully selected the authors to quote, but among them we find many controversial figures such as Vandana Shiva and Jared Diamond. He also quotes David Graeber “Bullshit jobs” that while being a good read, is by no mean a solid piece of writing.

Any skeptical reader's trust in the author will be often challenged. I clearly don't believe this approach has been used in bad faith and it's clear how covering so many diverse and sensitive topics for a single person is a titanic work where you want to have your back guarded by as many experts as possible. This is particularly evident in the second chapter, in my opinion the only bad one in the book, where the anthropological arguments, behavioral and economic arguments are poorly stitched together. Nonetheless there's room for iterative improvements that I hope to see in future editions.

In conclusion, the book is a valid instrument to circulate many ideas that are too often presented in an inaccessible way. It's written for a target that is still entrapped in many ideological cages that the author assume are still in place for the reader, contrary to most of the material he references, that often assume a certain degree of ideological alignment in the reader. The accessibility is the most precious trait of the book but the price paid for it might have been too high.