David W. Bates


On his book States of War: Enlightenment Origins of the Political

Cover Interview of December 28, 2011


The book argues that it is the very specificity of a defined political community defending itself in a world of war and violence that alone can sustain rights—and therefore, it is the existential, militarized state that paradoxically guarantees the very possibility of equality, the rule of law, and political freedom. However, this is only possible if we recognize that only authentic political decisions about survival are legitimate ones.

One implication of my argument concerns the way we think about rights today, and especially human rights. Many critical theorists claim that sovereignty and political authority is necessarily exclusionary and therefore anti-democratic. The so-called universal rights of man and citizen (to cite the declaration of the French Revolution) are only given (and protected) within bounded territorial states. Other critics point out that these seemingly universal rights are actually very historically and culturally specific—namely, European and liberal. So what is the nature of a universal “human” right?

I am suggesting that we think about human rights as inherently political. The key argument of the Enlightenment was that rights are derived from a political community that seeks to defend all citizens equally, with no exception. However, there was nothing within that theorization that implied that the only true political community was the nation-state formation prevalent at the time. By thinking of the political as a concept (defining, that is, a certain form of being and activity) we could, I think, begin to think about larger political units, transnational spaces, as defending populations against certain kinds of violence and oppression. This is an open question, and a controversial one. Still, I think that is best to acknowledge the specific kinds of rights we are willing to defend in our historical moment than to assume these are truly “universal” and transhistorical. Otherwise, we risk dehumanizing those that think differently about human order.

Since human rights regimes already depend on military and political support for their implementation, it is important to acknowledge the deeper connections between violence, warfare, and the foundations of rights, if we are to be successful in establishing meaningful protection.