Capitalism and Social Rights

By Ellen Meiksins Wood

“In fact, we could just as easily say that the history of rights has
been a contraction, not an expansion, of political rights — not an
expansion from one set of rights to another but a contraction of
political rights to exclude the social and the economic. Political
rights have certainly expanded in the sense that they’ve become more
universal. More and more people have achieved the right to vote. But at
the same time, political rights have contracted in the sense that they
now exclude so many aspects of life.

There was a time when fewer people had political rights, but the
rights they did have were economic and social powers at the same time.
Today that isn’t true. People with political rights may not have any
social or economic power; and that’s one reason we’ve had to invent new
kinds of economic and social rights.

Let me explain what I mean. I’ll give you the punch line first: we
live today in a capitalist world, and capitalism has completely
transformed the meaning of political rights and their relation to
economic and social rights. The distinctive relation between political
and economic power in capitalism is fundamentally different from
anything that existed in the world before the system came into being.
Capitalism has created a separate economic sphere with its own rules
and its own forms of power; and political rights have been emptied of
economic and social content.

At the same time, the system has produced a whole new set of social
problems. In fact, I think you could say that the very idea of a
distinct sphere of social problems belongs specifically to capitalism.
The idea of “the social question,” as it came to be called in the 19th
century, is very specifically related to the development of capitalism,
with its propertyless laboring class. And it’s specifically in the
conditions of capitalism that we’ve had to start thinking about social
rights, social justice, social citizenship, the social economy, and,
yes, social work.

In other words, just when political rights have been emptied of
social content, there’s a whole new range of social problems, and one
of the great debates of our time is how, or even whether, the political
power of the state should intervene to solve them.”

Read full article at Against the Current

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