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The Paradox of “Mobility” and the Crisis of the Modern Human Rights Concept
March 02,2021   By:CSHRS
The Paradox of “Mobility” and the Crisis of the Modern Human Rights Concept
 
YU Junbo*
 
Abstract: The idea of human rights and the dynamics of reality have been shaped by one another throughout history. Together, they develop the character of an era. Through the observation of the human rights crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, “mobility” can be derived from the connections of space, behavior and values as an analytical concept, identifying and investigating those historic events and their milestone impact on the idea of human rights. By further applying mobility in the deconstruction of modernity, one can reveal a paradox in the globalization process, and deduct and explain the crisis of modern human rights concepts. The solution to the crisis calls for the return of autonomy in modern state and society, especially the state’s independent and political guidance for citizens in balancing diverse values.
 
Keywords: idea    mobility    globalization    liberty    equality
 
I. Introduction
 
Human rights relate to how a society historically shapes individuals’ basic perception of their own rights, and it is the micro-foundation for the specific concept systems sifted by the space-time grid. Throughout the development of social sciences, whose mission it is to reveal causality and mechanisms, one of the key consensuses reached across disciplines is that the survival and development of individuals should be based on the order of collective social life. The realization of this order depends on the convergence of individual choices of behavior under certain norms, while the normative force that can shape converging behaviors appears to be a balanced game of interests, but actually derives from the concept system adopted by people to define such interests.  Therefore, whenever we attempt to explore the milestone significance of major historical events, we should start from the micro-foundation of the human rights concept and order. We should first understand the impact-response model between events and human rights concept and then, starting from changes in human rights, explore and analyze the potential chain reactions along the concept-interest-behavior-order links 
 
António Guterres, the current United Nations Secretary-General, has pointed out that the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has evolved from a global public health emergency into a human rights crisis.  Reflecting on the escalation of the crisis, at the early stage, there was controversy over compulsory mask wearing, social distancing and self-isolation as well as the resulting indecisive response strategies of some countries. It will take some time to produce scientific evidence and make a systematic evaluation of the extent to which these should be held accountable for the spread of the pandemic and how much harm and loss they have caused. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic, as an event, has not only impacted and tested the existing human rights concepts in the world, but is escalating the differences among these basic concepts into interest differentiation, behavioral conflicts and even order confrontation within and among countries, thus becoming an inevitable milestone in history. “Theory is reality in thought ... Any major issue in reality implies key deep-seated theoretical issues”.  Faced with a major humanitarian crisis, the whole world shoulders the crucial mission of rebuilding the order of cooperation and coexistence. Hence it is of paramount urgency to reflect and innovate human rights concepts and theories.
 
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.”  Conflicts of human rights concepts during the pandemic stem from their inherent tensions — whether to prioritize the protection of lives from diseases or the freedom of actions and choices? When analyzing such a dilemma of human value options, historical materialism emphasizes that social and economic characteristics of a specific era should be taken into account to understand and criticize the value ranking championed by that era — a “relatively absolute choice” and a “legitimate prejudice”. Just as under the oppression of the “Three Big Mountains” (imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism), while guided by the poem “If it is freedom, both can be thrown away”, China still re-examined the “standard of truth” in the “historical meditation”: conflicting value appeals may have reaffirmed with each other, but this balance is broken and requires new reconciliation as the era changes. How has the outbreak and spread of the novel coronavirus caused an imbalance among the “modern” human rights concepts led by the West? How can the balance of human rights in the post-pandemic era be rebuilt to impact or even define the transformation of this era? Considering the rich connotations of human rights concepts, this paper attempts to establish the analytical concept of mobility. First, by analyzing and integrating the value appeals in the human rights concepts, such as security, freedom, equality, order and development, this paper explores how the intrinsic value balance of the modern concepts of human rights is achieved. Next, it will analyze how modern societies are subjected to the paradox of mobility and subsequently how the intrinsic balance of modern human rights concept is broken. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the conflicts, exposed the imbalance and promoted the re-establishment of a consensus on human rights concepts. 
 
II. Mobility and the Evolution of Human Rights Concepts
 
As a new infectious pathogen, the novel coronavirus has demonstrated high rates of infectivity, pathogenicity and fatality at the early stage of its outbreak, posing a major threat to human life. It has become a necessary and urgent public service for countries attempting to fulfil their mission of safeguarding human rights to stop the spread of virus as quickly as possible and protect the health of the vast majority of their uninfected population. However, before vaccines are universally available, effective public policies including social distancing, self-isolation at home and lockdowns will inevitably and directly endanger the freedom of the protected population. In particular, when the majority of the protected population argue that the restrictions on freedom does more harm to their human rights than to their health, the public policies advocated by the state to curb the epidemic will fall into the value dilemma of human rights protection. Worse still, the unexpected continuation of the pandemic is further complicating the aforementioned value dilemma: the rights to health and life, which should be protected equally under undifferentiated public policies, are unequally realized due to the discrepancies in the original socio-economic conditions of different groups of people. For instance, some occupations are more likely to be exposed to the threat of the virus, or be more severely impacted by various forms of restrictions and subject to greater losses, while some people are associated with vulnerable occupations. Therefore, after the pandemic evolved into a human rights crisis, it has generated a structural impact on the existing dominant human rights concept system in terms of the core values of security, freedom and equality. To present the nature and influence of this structural impact in a concise and effective manner, we need to construct an analytical concept with an integrating capacity to integrate horizontally the core value appeals in human rights concepts and vertically the historical divisions among pre-modern, modern and post-modern times.
 
The risk of an epidemic to health and security starts with the combination of its infectivity and population mobility. The interference with freedom by epidemic prevention and response measures stems from the restraint on people’s spatial mobility for work, socializing, travel, even emigrating. The varied dependence of the main economic and social activities of different groups on spatial mobility leads to the inequality of vulnerability across groups amid the epidemic. This paper, with mobility as the basis for behaviors, attempts to establish the analytical function of the mobility concept by injecting the value appeals of human rights into objective factors such as scale, technology and cost of mobility behavior. Mobility represents the intensity of horizontal spatial motion in the process of human production and life. From an objective perspective, it is the integration of the distance and frequency of spatial motion. In a subjective sense, it can maintain safety in flood settings, endanger safety in epidemic settings, and be harmless to safety but beneficial to freedom due to the integration of isolation technologies under the same setting. Being compatible with the dimensions of time, space, behavior and values, mobility can be applied to systematically explore micro-behaviors and macro-values as well as the basic logic of the evolution of human rights concepts, focusing on the key events in history and the changes of human rights concepts before and after.
 
The setting for mobility in pre-modern societies was people tried to get rid of the threat of wanton violence and provide basic social order by maintaining the traditional state so as to guarantee universal personal security.  Looking back, human rights standards of traditional countries in pre-modern societies were extremely low. Nevertheless, the social order established via the monopoly of violence  was in fact the starting point from which human rights were protected in a systematic way, but also provided certainty, the fundamental element which enables the universal cooperation of mankind. In this setting, the relationship between mobility and certainty is zero-sum to a larger extent. The estrangement of relationships resulted from the spatial motion of people will impact the social order built upon personalized authority in traditional countries, and will increase the cooperation cost in an acquaintance society naturally evolved from a farming economy, threatening the already low productivity in pre-modern societies. Therefore, prioritizing the security guarantee in the human rights concept system in pre-modern societies was shaped and matched with the contemporary agricultural economic form, which was dominant and relied on limited cooperation in a fixed space. Under this constraint, one of the shared features of traditional countries is the resistance and denouncement of mobility, whether in times of crisis or under normal conditions.
 
In contrast, modern societies and temperaments demonstrate admiration and commendation for  mobility. In the system of modern human rights concepts, personal freedom has gradually begun to transcend personal security and has been given priority in many cases. In particular, freedom of movement occupies a core position in the system of human rights concepts in modern Western countries. Freedom of movement directly guarantees and promotes the mobility of human production — from low-productivity industries (agriculture) to high-productivity ones (industry and the service industries), as well as the mobility of life — from scattered rural areas to concentrated cities. Industrialization and urbanization, as new production and lifestyle alternatives, were made possible thanks to three successive industrial revolutions. The flow of human resources to industry and cities and the efficient division of labor and cooperation relied on the transformation of transportation and information communication tools during the three industrial revolutions, which reduced the cost of mobility and acquitting oneself among strangers. Hence, the enrichment of the connotations of freedom in the modern human rights concepts system as well as the increase of its significance have also shaped and conformed to the modern industrial and economic forms. Under this constraint, growing mobility is the prerequisite for the development and maturity of the industrial and economic forms in production and life, and has become the expression of values of freedom of the era, which is increasingly equated with the modern concept of human rights. It is worth noting that, as industrialization provides high efficiency and urbanization high agglomeration, modern countries have more surplus production to offer public services and achieve greater spillover effects of public services. Under the social safety nets offered by the so-called welfare states, mobility and security have established a positive-sum relationship. At this point, mobility seems to have balanced the tension between security and freedom appeals in the human rights concepts. Modernization takes mobility as a panacea and ultimate solution for the protection and promotion of human rights of all.
 
III. The Paradox of Mobility and the Crisis of Modern Human Rights Concepts
 
In concepts-modernization-mobility chain of human rights, a chain which can be abstracted as concept-benefit-behavior, the risk of chain rupture has never disappeared. Although tensions between security and freedom can be alleviated through development, it is hard to resolve the conflict between equality appeals, which are common in human rights concepts in history and mobility. The modernized production spheres will be distributed in a gradient manner due to the productivity discrepancies within existing industries and between existing industries and emerging industries. Mobility means that people entering different industries will necessarily have unequal ability to acquire wealth. The modernized life spheres also present a “center-periphery” structure between cities and between cities and rural areas based on the degree of agglomeration. Mobility means that people who settle in different locations will inevitably face inequality in the quality and cost of accessing public services. Therefore, as shown in the left half of Figure 1, the extension and expansion of the modernization process and the continuous increase of mobility tend to intensify the tension between freedom and equality in human rights concepts at the logical level.
 
To balance the conflicts between the fundamental values in human rights concepts in a specific historical period requires the state and society to build an ideology centering around their consensus and with the characteristics of the times, based on their own autonomy. However, the autonomy of modern states and modern societies are highly influenced by the market economy, with the former becoming production-oriented countries and the latter consumption-oriented societies. In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith revealed the recipe of how market economy brought about continuous growth of productivity and social wealth, through the specialized division of labor and economies of scale. Specialized division of labor requires the mobility of human capital across industries, while economies of scale needs the mobility and final agglomeration of human capital to production and living areas with location advantages. Therefore, the market economy needs mobility to guarantee high allocation efficiency between the “invisible hand” and the “spontaneous order”. To this end, we can also say that the autonomy of modern states and societies has been controlled by mobility. In the trade-off between freedom and equality, modernity prioritizes freedom and mobility and can only tinker with equality. The ideological consensus between modern states and societies is that since the market economy and mobility can aid Western and emerging countries in getting rid of material shortages, they are already defending equality within their ability as long as they insist on freedom of belief.  
 
In the past two centuries, modern states dedicated to productivity improvement and modern societies dedicated to consumption upgrading, which uphold mobility and the universal realization of human rights, have built a global village from regional integration, internationalization and globalization to super-globalization.  In the meantime, in order to alleviate the inequalities caused by prioritization of freedom and high mobility, the modernized human rights concepts first equate unrestricted freedom of mobility with the formal equality between people, providing legitimacy for prioritizing freedom above equality in its ranking of values. Second, on the operational level, the global trade systems and welfare states systems have become the way in which freedom and mobility dominate reality: the former absorbs the population and resources of underdeveloped countries into the same division of labor and cooperation systems, realizing formal equality in the sense of access; the latter implements undifferentiated minimum guarantees of income and public services in developed countries, empowering the equal mobility of all citizens to the market economy and urbanization. Objectively speaking, the aforementioned “legitimacy-dominance mode.”  in the Western modernization process not only established new human rights concepts, but improved the human rights situation all over the world in an unprecedented manner. Moreover, it opened up a comparable development path for reference for late-developing countries including China. Yet to gain mobility via equal freedom is not the whole connotation of equality and cannot eliminate the tension between freedom and equality. The more comprehensive development of mankind brought about by the continuation of modernization will for result in the “re-balancing” of priorities among the value connotations of human rights concepts such as security, freedom and equality. The sudden change in people’s situations caused by intensified mobility will break the “end of history”, which sets the solidified human rights concepts as the institutional arrangement.
 
Since the financial crisis in 2008, the global inequalities have widened, gradually revealing the paradox of “mobility”. Although more countries and regions are engaged in the global trade system, the “North-South gap” has not narrowed in terms of the main human development indexes and the disappointment of African and Latin American people in free trade has in turn aggravated local political turmoil. China and a few other countries have caught up and achieved rapid development by joining the World Trade Organization, but their successful experiences are mostly state interventions in industrial upgrading and the urbanization process, with a selective and restricted mobility. Among modern Western countries, countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States encourage unlimited mobility with the view to supporting the flexible dynamic adjustment and innovation in the market, which makes it difficult for welfare policies as a product of the political game to keep up with, and their effects in alleviating social inequalities even weaker. Sweden and other Nordic countries as well as Germany have chosen the upgrading of welfare policies as a priority, which limits the “creative destruction” of industrial elimination and mega-scale urbanization, and maintain their competitiveness of intensive focus and routine innovation in specific industrial sectors by slowing down mobility and ensuring social equality.  As a result, where freedom and mobility are less restricted, the industrial gradient and the “center-periphery” structures cannot alleviate, but may or will exacerbate the inequalities in income and public services within the population. As time goes by, inequalities and subsequent social class solidification begin to divide society. In despair, countries and people lacking a sense of relative gain can only resort to more radical and extreme means to “break” the mobility barrier. The rise of a public opinion base allows “populist” politicians to stand out in competitive democracy and ballot politics. The anti-globalization policies of “Brexit” and “decoupling” have come into being. The all-around dominance of freedom and mobility over other human rights concepts of production and behavior, have caused a crisis in the historical process of modernization.
 
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IV. Conclusion
 
“Last year, the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French scholar Thomas Piketty aroused broad discussion in international academic circles. Using accurate and abundant data, Piketty shows that levels of inequality are as high or higher than they have ever been in the US and other Western countries. He argues that unconstrained capitalism has aggravated phenomena such as wealth inequality, and that the situation will continue to get worse.”  When the populist leaders in the United Kingdom and the United States advocated for “herd immunity”, “liberating New York” and “liberating California” in the COVID-19 pandemic, the conflicts over the value connotations of human rights caused by the paradox of mobility was only further aggravated: under restrictive measures, industries and people’s livelihoods have been hard hit, while the owners of internet companies such as Amazon and Google, which are still operating normally, are expanding their wealth via the flow of capital and information. Out of their sense of helplessness and anger over this inequality, groups of people in Western countries that have been hit the hardest by the epidemic have turned out to be more resistant to strict epidemic response measures. They have resisted the mobility of the global production system, but strongly demanded the mobility of their domestic production system be restored. They have called for mobility to get rid of the predicament while completely overlooking the fact that mobility made them the most vulnerable group in the epidemic. One logic that could explain this embarrassing and confusing behavior is that up to now, the world order constructed by Western modern human rights concepts with the supremacy of freedom as its legal basis and the mobility of production and life as the dominant approach, is already unsustainable. Its collapse is no longer the reflection and warning of a few intellectuals, but the outcome of mass resistance and consensus after long-term sufferings. When absolving freedom of the responsibility on social inequality could not convince the public, the crisis of modern human rights concepts is inevitable.
 
The turning point in this crisis, as mentioned above, relies on how national and social autonomy re-constructs the value consensus in the new era through interactive games. However, as Foucault described in his “Bio-politics”, the public administration in modern Western countries is actually a tool with which the capitalist production system, on a needs basis, shapes and controls the formation and evolution of human rights concepts.  This means that if the pandemic had not pushed the modern states and societies with extremely high mobility into an “state of exception” and thus exposed the serious inequalities of benefits from mobility through inequalities after the loss of mobility among the population, modern human rights concepts will continue to inspire some countries and societies amid the paradox of mobility with lofty visions of freedom, empowerment and equality. In this pandemic, a sustained civil rights movement by the African American people took place in the US. In France, , the top concern of the public has changed from “economic crisis and employment difficulties” to “the health of individuals, relatives and friends”.  The autonomy of Western civil societies has been activated in the “state of exception” and the path back to equality and security as top priorities. Thus whether modern human rights concepts can be reshaped and overcome the crisis lies heavily on how Western countries and politicians respond to the reality and the rising appeals of the public.
 
In 1895, the globalization was driven by the internal combustion engine and the electrical revolution was, but Weber had begun to remind the rising modern countries, “When we reflect in the graveyard of our own generation, what thrills us is not how future generations will be well-fed, but what kind of people they will become, the cornerstone of all the work of political economy.  What we crave is not to bring happiness and well-being to the people, but to cultivate those great and noble qualities in our humanity.”  Meanwhile Karl Marx, who lived in the same time as Weber, had an insight that compared traditional countries and politics, which alienated themselves as “sacred images” to educate people and maintain order, capitalism, which maintains “modern” order by alienating modern states and politics as “non-sacred images” of social contracts, enterprise contracts and bureaucratic rules.  In other words, the respect of modern Western countries for liberalism has the progressive significance of breaking the “self-alienation of mankind in the sacred images”, but also falls into the extreme of “self-alienation in the non-sacred images”, completely controlled by market rationality and increasingly losing its functions of holistic qualities and value balancing. History realizes its own development in a one-sided manner.  In the process of over correcting traditional human rights concepts, the modern human rights concepts increasingly blurs the boundary between freedom and other values. Any practice of any country or organization to protect other human rights by restricting freedom under certain circumstances has been demonized as an attempt to lure mankind onto “the path to slavery” with security and equality. Only “weak states” and “small governments” can protect the accumulation of personal wealth brought by the market and achieve the harmony and democracy of civil society by shaping a massive middle class. However, the current turmoil of anti-globalization and the suffering inflicted by the pandemic have demonstrated to the people that freedom cannot make people overcome the defects of human nature.  The insatiable desires and the ease of staying away have undoubtedly encouraged people to turn a blind eye to the hardships of others after they themselves became rich and to the risks that others bear because of their own mobility. Fully developed people and qualified citizens can be made solely by freedom. While shaping the human rights concepts that are more aligned with the needs of the times, states cannot continue to step back and hand over the cultivation of people to market rules. Instead, they must assume the political responsibility of “coordinating differences and making compromises”,  and rearrange the order of the tension-filled value appeals in the future human rights concepts system.
 
(Translated by LU Mimi)

* YU Junbo ( 于君博 ), Professor of School of administration, Researcher of Human Rights Research Center, Jilin University.
 
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