Rights discourse is internally inconsistent, vacuous, or circular. Legal thought can generate equally plausible rights justifications for almost any result. Moreover, the discourse of rights imposes constraints on those who use it that make it almost impossible for it to function effectively as a tool of radical transformation. Rights are by their nature ‘formal,’ meaning that they secure to individuals legal protection for arbitrariness—to speak of rights is precisely not to speak of justice between social classes, races, or sexes. Rights discourse, moreover, simply presupposes or takes for granted that the world is and should be divided between a state sector that enforces rights and a private world of ‘civil society’ in which atomized individuals pursue their diverse goals. This framework is, in itself, a part of the problem rather than of the solution. It makes it difficult even to conceptualize radical proposals such as, for example, decentralized democratic worker control of factories.
Because it is logically incoherent and manipulable, traditionally individualist, and willfully blind to the realities of substantive inequality, rights discourse is a trap. As long as one stays within it, one can produce good pieces of argument about the occasional case on the periphery where everyone recognizes value judgments have to be made. [ Duncan Kennedy, Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy, 32 J. Legal Educ. 591, 598 (1982)]
Duncan Kennedy spoke for a large portion of the Critical Legal Studies movement when he wrote these words in 1982. CLS scholars were, at the time, launching a left-wing Marxist attack on the traditional structures and assumptions of legal institutions. Critical Legal Studies attempted to subvert the supposed coherence of our dominant legal categories, exposing them to be actually chaotic and incoherent, and then examine what sorts of entities would have the interest in (arbitrarily) constructing legal reality as we now find it. One of their favorite targets was the idea of "rights", which they thought were (to say the least) overrated. CLSers dedicated themselves, in fact, to "trashing" rights -- exposing them as indeterminate, inchoate, and manipulable to whatever ends desired by the empowered classes.
The Critical Race Theory movement grew out of CLS, and agreed with many of its observations. The writings of Derrick Bell, in particular, took the legal world by storm as an indictment of some deeply held assumptions about the utility of the legal system as a tool for effected civil rights reforms -- particularly given Bell's history as a front line attorney for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund during the height of the civil rights era. Most Critical Race Theorists agreed with Bell that the efficacy of rights talk had been wildly overstated by self-congratulatory White folks, and that progressives needed to reevaluate their options.
Nonetheless, fissures rapidly began to appear between the largely White CLS movement and the more integrated CRT wing. These came to a head in 1987, when the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review published a symposium entitled, simply enough, Minority Critiques of the Critical Legal Studies. One of the primary angles of attack, ironically enough, was that CLSers had gone too far in their dismissal of rights, legal remedies, and formal legal protections. In her contribution, Patricia Williams -- one of the most important contributors to Critical Race Theory -- told the following story, which has stuck with me for a long time:
Some time ago, Peter Gabel [a founder of Critical Legal Studies] and I taught a contracts class together. Both recent transplants from California to New York, each of us hunted for apartments in between preparing for class and ultimately found places within one week of each other. Inevitably, I suppose, we got into a discussion of trust and distrust as factors in bargain relations. It turned out that Peter had handed over a $900 deposit, in cash, with no lease, no exchange of keys and no receipt, to strangers with whom he had no ties other than a few moments of pleasant conversation. Peter said that he didn't need to sign a lease because it imposed too much formality. The handshake and the good vibes were for him indicators of trust more binding than a distancing form contract. At the time, I told Peter I thought he was stark raving mad, but his faith paid off. His sublessors showed up at the appointed time, keys in hand, to welcome him in. Needless to say, there was absolutely nothing in my experience to prepare me for such a happy ending.
I, meanwhile, had friends who found me an apartment in a building they owned. In my rush to show good faith and trust-worthiness, I signed a detailed, lengthily-negotiated, finely-printed lease firmly establishing me as the ideal arm's length transactor.
As Peter and I discussed our experiences, I was struck by the similarity of what each of us was seeking, yet in such different terms, and with such polar approaches. We both wanted to establish enduring relationships with the people in whose houses we would be living; we both wanted to enhance trust of ourselves and to allow whatever closeness, whatever friendship, was possible. The similarity of desire, however, could not reconcile our very different relations to the word of law. Peter, for example, appeared to be extremely self-conscious of his power potential (either real or imagistic) as a white or male or lawyer authority figure. He therefore seemed to go to some lengths to overcome the wall which that image might impose. The logical ways of establishing some measure of trust between strangers were for him an avoidance of conventional expressions of power and a preference for informal processes generally.
I, on the other hand, was raised to be acutely conscious of the likelihood that, no matter what degree of professional or professor I become, people would greet and dismiss my black femaleness as unreliable, untrustworthy, hostile, angry, powerless, irrational and probably destitute. Futility and despair are very real parts of my response. Therefore it is helpful for me, even essential for me, to clarify boundary; to show that I can speak the language of lease is my way of enahncing trust of me in my business affairs. As a black, I have been given by this society a strong sense of myself as already too familar, too personal, too subordinate to white people. I have only recently evolved from being treated as three-fifths of a human, a sub-part of the white estate. I grew up in a neighborhood where landlords would not sign leases with their poor, black tenants, and demanded that rent by paid in cash; although superficially resembling Peter's transaction, such "informality" in most white-on-black situations signals distrust, not trust. Unlike Peter, I am still engaged in a struggle to set up transactions at arms' length, as legitimately commercial, and to portray myself as a bargainer of separate worth, distinct power, sufficient rights to manipulate commerce, rather than to be manipulated as the object of commerce.
Peter, I speculate, would say that a lease or any other formal mechanism would introduce distrust into his relationships and that he would suffer alienation, leading to the commodification of his being and the degradation of his person to property. In contrast, the lack of a formal relation to the other would leave me estranged. It would risk figurative isolation from the creative commerce by which I may be recognized as whole, with which I may feed and clothe and shelter myself, by which I may be seen as equal--even if I am stranger. For me, stranger-stranger relations are better than stranger chattel. [Patricia J. Williams, Alchemical Notes: Reconstructing Ideals from Deconstructed Rights, 22 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 401, 406-408 (1987)]
Williams story evokes part of the general CRT discomfort with the CLS/Marxist attack on "rights" as a concept. People of color, Williams argued, are well aware that rights aren't all they're cracked up to be. They are not a panacea, and they can be manipulated to support near-infinite policy ends -- including brutally oppressive ones. But at the same time, Williams knows well the difference between even nominally being part of the rights-world and being excluded from it. One has the luxury to be alienated by legal formalities only when can be secure that informality will still accord you basic respect and dignity -- a luxury not held by people of color of all classes and backgrounds. The right to hold rights at least provides an foothold -- an avenue which the dispossessed can pivot from and assert claims against those wronging them; the pages upon which one can write a counter-narrative to the dominant conception of rights interpreted solely to protect the privileged.
Even losing a rights-claim is superior to not being allowed to assert the claim in the first place. The act of “[n]aming violence inside and outside the courtroom bears witness to it and preserves the possibility of judging it.” Undoubtedly, the forces of the legal system will attempt to refract the claims and stories so as to ratify the existing order. But stories are fickle things – they are not always read the way their authors intended them to be. Martha Minow points out that even losing arguments can still remain quite powerful “if they continue to represent claims that muster people’s hopes and articulate their continuing efforts to persuade.” One can lose a lawsuit, but still win “pages in the works of historians and anthropologists, and a chance at reviving and recasting memories." [ Martha Minow, Interpreting Rights: An Essay for Robert Cover, 96 Yale L.J. 1860 (1987); Martha Minow, Not Only For Myself: Identity, Politics & the Law 82 (1997)]
Critical Race Theory today remains a vibrant field; Critical Legal Studies, by contrast, is nearly moribund. The reason, I submit, is because the groups it thought it was speaking on behalf of still saw a use for rights, for legal formalities, for contracts, and for law -- all entities that CLS was seeking to "trash". Elsewhere, Williams wrote:
To say that blacks never fully believed in rights is true. Yet it is also true that blacks believed in them so much and so hard that we gave them life where there was none before; we held onto them, put the hope of them into our wombs, mothered them and not the notion of them.... [Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights 163 (1992)]
The promises rights hold out: to speak freely, to bargain equally, to be treated fairly -- these are powerful things. Even when dominant legal discourse seeks to squash them of any life, the concepts they represent do not die so easily. The seeds of life are always there, yearning to germinate.