Recent discussions have reminded me of the relationship between economic and political rights, and the varying interpretations of it. For orthodox Marxists economic rights supersede political rights for two reasons: 1) without an equitable material distribution of resources political rights mean nothing; and 2) with an equitable material distribution of resources there is no need for political rights.Â In this view “politics” is either a status quo instrument of domination that conforms the masses to the requirements of production in a system dominated by private interests, or is a means of revolutionary challenge to that status quo. In neither case is it an end of itself. Subsequent Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist interpretations all concur with this view.
Socialists see economic rights as taking precedence over but not superseding political rights. Here the view is that economic rights are more important than political rights but the latter are needed to ensure the just distribution of material resources in a society. Even if imposed by dictatorial fiat, the maintenance of economic rights requires popular participation in the decision-making process surrounding the collective allocation of resources. That is a matter of political rights.
Social democrats see political rights preceeding economic rights. Here the priority is on gaining political rights first in order to subsequently secure economic rights to the material benefits of production. Since they see political rights as a universal good, they recognise the rights of non-socialists in the political arena, which means operating from a position of structurally-conditioned disadvantage within capitalist societies. The emphasis thus shifts from control of production to redistrubution of surpluses (via taxation and state involvement in the social relations of production, mostly).
The Right has its own interpretations of the relationship. Libertarians place the emphasis on political rights (e.g. the right to do as they please so long as it harms no other) and, in the most extreme version, do not believe in economic “rights.”Â Beyond that, the Right gets a bit fuzzy. Some free-marketeers assume the precedence of economic rights over political rights, so long as the rights conferred are market-driven inÂ nature (i.e., the “right” to make a buck without government interference). Other conservatives see political rights trumping economic rights (e.g. “no taxation without representation” or the right to mandate morality on a collective scale). The Right notion of economic rights differs from the Left notion, as it is not about material redistribution but about unfettered access to and freedom within anÂ economic system controlled by private interests. Likewise, the Right view of political rights is more about freedom of choice and expression rather than about vehicles of collective redress and representation.
Showing my colours, I subscribe to the view that political rights are required for economic rights to obtain. The formation of unions, the extension of suffrage, the recognition of indigenous claims, the redress of past injustices, theÂ acceptance ofÂ universal “human” rights and the very ability to speak truth to power and challenge the status quo or elements of it all hinge on the prior granting of legal authority, or at least recognition,Â to do so. That is a political act, and legal recognition is the certification of political rights. That makes the move to secure political rights the precondition for the eventual recognition of other rights, to include those of an economic nature.
ThisÂ is the hidden factor in transitions from authoritarian rule. The transition is most fundamentally marked by the extension of political rights to previously excluded groups, who in turn use the opportunity to agitate for previously unobtainable economic rights. The more the extension of political rights is achieved by force and economic rightsÂ redefined as a result, the more revolutionary the character of the regime change. The more negotiated the extension of political and economic rights, the more reformist the change will be.
This is just a broad sketch and not meant to be a definitive pronouncement. Readers are welcome to add their own intepretations as they see fit (within the bounds of civility, of course).