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The global human rights agenda and the (im)possibility of the ethical state

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This largely conceptually based paper will argue that the global ascendancy of a particular liberal-individualist form of human rights discourse has ambiguous consequences for the kinds social rights and vernacular claims that are required for an effective struggle against poverty. Globalisation has reinforced the tendency by which social rights have been subordinated to civil and political rights. More than that, it will be argued, concepts of human rights are now being colonised or subverted to serve a managerially inspired human development agenda, while the abstract nature and ideological underpinnings of prevailing human rights discourse are implicated in a process that both limits the scope of local programmes of social protection and marginalises local understandings of human needs. The paper will advance an alternative solidaristic conception of human rights and seek to demonstrate how this might be harnessed both to a politics of capabilities (in the sense espoused by Amartya Sen) and to a politics of needs interpretation (in the sense espoused by Nancy Fraser). It will conclude by developing Antonio Gramsci’s elusive concept of the ‘ethical state’. In so far that the ethical state would exist for the formulation and recognition of socially negotiated claims on resources, it represents an immanent critique of actually existing state forms and of the orthodoxies of the ‘development’ paradigm. Potentially, it also provides a basis for social movements and pro-poor activists to re-conceptualise the role of the state and to frame and defend alternative anti-poverty strategies.

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