Individual and Collective Rights

August 7, 2015

As we all know, the PR men for capitalism never tire of advertising it as the society of the “individual.” Contemporary U.S. capitalism is extolled for allegedly guarantying individual freedoms, individual human rights and the fullest expression of the individual human personality. What is more, the propagandists for capitalism assert that the struggle for collective rights and especially the collective life and collective rights which are a key part of the socialist and communist program are hostile to and negate individual freedom and individual human rights.

How do things really stand?

To begin with, today – several hundred years after the first capitalist revolutions which enshrined on their banners such things as freedom of conscience and freedom of association – these elementary rights are routinely violated by the capitalist state and denied to the masses of workers and oppressed people. Who can count the number of laws passed in this country and others forbidding people to discuss or even think about socialist and communist ideas? Who can count the numbers of people persecuted, imprisoned or killed for espousing such ideas? What is more, everyday workers are hounded and fired for union activity, just as strikes and other struggles are repressed. In fact, these days, the capitalist state is more and more turning back towards feudalism, demanding that all Americans must accept the morals, lifestyles, “work ethic” and culture imposed by monopoly capital.

But let us forget about all these hard facts. Let us take the PR-men for capitalism at their word.

The individual freedoms and human rights asserted by the ideology of capitalism all pertain to the political sphere. That is, capitalist theory and politics postulate that all humans are equal and that the state – the public authority – must treat all humans as equal under the law.

But of course the real humans living in the U.S. or any other capitalist society are not equal. Some are born (or become) capitalists, a class of people given, by authority of the state, a monopoly over society’s means of production – the tools used by the whole society to secure its material existence. On the other hand, the vast majority of the people are born with nothing but their minds and bodies, and throughout their entire lives remain forcibly separated from and deprived of the means of subsistence, except to the extent that they put their labor-power at the disposal of the capitalist owners. In fact, the sine qua non of capitalist theory and capitalist society is that the state and the law arise only on the basis of, and in order to protect, a civil society based on private property in the means of production. In other words, before the law recognizes the “equality” of human beings, it starts out by sanctioning and fortifying a system of inequality, a division of society into classes – a propertied class with all the means at its disposal and a laboring class – dispossessed, oppressed and exploited.

It is this real contradiction at the very base of capitalist society which reveals that all the propaganda about “individual human rights and freedoms” is nothing but a cruel hoax for the masses of people. Where are the human rights for the workers when they are denied such elementary economic rights as the right to a livelihood? In fact whenever the workers and people come out as collectives to assert their rights, the capitalist ideologues and the government rant and rave that the very foundations of society are under attack. Any demand or inroad which strikes against the prerogatives of private property in the means of production, which demands recognition of the human rights of the workers and oppressed people, is considered an attack on “individual rights” and society itself.

Thus, it can be seen that the “individual rights and freedoms” of capitalist society are really nothing more than the rights and freedom of capital, of the owners of private property in the means of production. It is the individuality and personality of capital which is enshrined in the constitution and fortified by the capitalist state. It is an individuality and freedom for a few on the basis of the exploitation of the vast majority and the denial of their individual and collective rights.

And the same is true in politics. While capitalist ideology proclaims equal political rights for all individuals, everyone knows that the entire political process and political system – as well as the ideological apparatus at the disposal of society (including the mass media, educational institutions, and so forth) – are rigged by big money and are really nothing but the organized political power of the capitalist class. The workers have the “right” to whisper their opinions to their co-workers and neighbors while monopoly capital has the “right” to own the airwaves and telecommunications systems. The workers have the “right” to vote but can only choose from two parties which in law and in fact have a monopoly over the selection and nomination of candidates and which are both creatures of big money.

Just as in the economic sphere, where the “rights” of private property in the means of production necessarily mean the denial of rights for the vast majority of the people, so too, in the political sphere, the power of capital denies the collective right of the people to determine their own political system and to participate directly in governing their own social existence.

The reality is that the workers and vast majority of people can only claim and realize their individual human rights by coming out together and winning the struggle for their collective rights. In the first place, the collective right of the people to determine the economic and political system must be claimed. Only when the people themselves are sovereign can they put into practice their most fundamental human right to participate in shaping their social environment. Only when the people govern themselves can they create all the means necessary to guarantee their other individual and collective rights, including such economic rights as the right to a livelihood and health care, including such political rights as the right to nominate candidates and run for elections. Only when the collective right of the people to hold the economic and political power in their own hands is asserted can the people use these resources and this power to guarantee the means necessary for the blossoming of the individual human personality of everyone. For example, how can the individual worker enjoy a secure economic existence unless society recognizes and creates the necessary means for insuring the right to a livelihood for everyone?

Asserting the right of the people to hold the political power and asserting the collective rights of the workers, oppressed peoples and other collectives is the only way forward in terms of humanizing society and winning guarantees for the individual rights of the workers and people. This struggle must be carried forward as a struggle against the “rights” of private property in the means of production – against the handful of individuals who, as capitalists, base their entire social existence on denying the rights of the overwhelming majority of humanity.