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Centre of Governance & Human Rights (CGHR)


On 16 May 2023, CGHR organised a book launch—“Human Rights for Pragmatists: Social Power in Modern Times”.  In this book, Jack Snyder holds that human rights are among our most pressing issues today, yet rights promoters have reached an impasse in their effort to achieve rights for all. "Human Rights for Pragmatists" explains why: activists prioritize universal legal and moral norms, backed by the public shaming of violators, but in fact rights prevail only when they serve the interests of powerful local constituencies. In the talk, Jack Snyder demonstrated that where local power and politics lead, rights follow. He presented an innovative roadmap for addressing a broad agenda of human rights concerns: impunity for atrocities, dilemmas of free speech in the age of social media, entrenched abuses of women’s rights, and more.

Exploring the historical development of human rights around the globe, Snyder showed that liberal rights–based states have experienced a competitive edge over authoritarian regimes in the modern era. He focused on the role of power, the interests of individuals and the groups they form, and the dynamics of bargaining and coalitions among those groups. "The path to human rights entails transitioning from a social order grounded in patronage and favoritism to one dedicated to equal treatment under impersonal rules. Rights flourish when they benefit dominant local actors with the clout to persuade ambivalent peers. Activists, policymakers, and others attempting to advance rights should embrace a tailored strategy, one that acknowledges local power structures and cultural practices," postulated Jack.

More about Jack’s book:

Emma Mackinnon (University Assistant Professor in History, University of Cambridge) provided a review of Jack's book, and Dr Devon Curtis (host), moderated the session. Below is CGHR Co-director Dr Sharath Srinivasan's review of the book, also presented at the launch:


Human Rights for Pragmatists, is a moral realist’s defence of liberal international order, right when that order needed some friends.

“Liberal modernity works!, and liberalism, and liberal human rights, need work to work.” 

This is a book anchored in consequences: the good consequences that liberal human rights sustain, and the consequentialist approach needed to do good liberal human rights work and to assess its impact.

And, so, the work required is not about crafting persuasive moral discourses or socialising rarefied universal values, nor about presuming that law’s constant lasting force is a given, this is about heavy lifting kind of work: strategy and tactics, power and politics. Vocational, sometimes dirty hands, social and political action.

In Prof Snyder’s own words up front, ‘this book is an attempt to integrate … pragmatic arguments in a social power theory of the role of human rights in making modernity work’. Yes, the attempt is that big. Keeping up the pragmatist’s contrarian spirit, it’s unselfconsciously about rescuing Modernity in our times.

What does this come to mean?

Liberal modernity is the most enduringly impressive game in town, and liberal rights are core to how advanced societies achieve this.

But rights activism has become mired in otherworldly legalistic projects that have poor results, or paternalistic moralising that is prone to trigger damaging backlash, or idealistic universalism that is offensively out of touch with actual historical and cultural contexts.

Right when liberals are licking their wounds and bidding retreat in a time of crisis, in the end-days of the last utopia, enter the pragmatist, the historically-grounded pragmatist, who seeks to show that progressive reform that gave us liberal human rights was a much more grounded social power project of coalition building, bargaining and persuasion, and so it must be anew...

You need core supporters of liberal human rights, whose interests are served by them, and they need power, sufficient power, to fight for and protect such rights. But they also need smart thinking and acting to achieve their aims, to bring along others and to effect lasting institutionalised change in the state.

The book develops each of these aspects as five hypotheses, which you’ve probably just heard. Crucially, the motor of sequencing and achieving these is power and politics not rights or the discourse of rights.

This isn’t the time or place to expand on how the book scrutinises and develops arguments on each of these. Instead, I want to say just a few words about the work itself, and then offer one different way of thinking about its arguments.

First, on the book. Human Rights for Pragmatists is really well organised treatise and a real joy to read. And boy does it have bold and ambitious scope and depth. Self-admittedly a work of analytical synthesis and thesis building, it draws from and argues with works in historical sociology, economic history, social movement theory, social psychology, political science and international relations, amidst much more. All the way, the reader is given super succinct and lucid snap shots of scholarly work in these disciplines, which itself is a valuable and edifying contribution.

It’s the kind of book that perhaps only the Jack Snyders of this world can get away with: after their eminent career of scholarship they’ve arguably earned the right to write a book such as this. But these are also books that seem far too rare in present day politics and international studies… in our sub-sub-specialised myopias we’ve forgotten the charm and profound insightfulness of the scholarly epic. So, we owe Jack Snyder thanks for doing a courageous horizon setting, boundary busting book.

Boldness comes with scaled-up risk, and there is a foundational element to the book that jars somewhat, ultimately leaving this author deeply unsatisfied with its implications. There’s a seeming ambivalence between a defence of Liberal Modernity as the only real modernity that matters, and the need to value and respect social power as agentic, and historically and contextually situated.

One the one hand, all modernity that is not advanced Liberal Modernity is presented as stuck in some problem with Tradition, but on the other hand the nation state is deemed centrally important to defining and realizing rights, not transnational or supranational institutions. So the book, then, is a call to action for liberal-minded local socio-culturally situated actors and, perhaps, their transnational allies. And they need to amass sufficient social power to drive change in good time, adopting savvy tactics along the way.

However, who’s to say that the rights that emerge through bargained processes involving social power in late capitalist modernity would, or should be, primarily or firstly liberal ones? In a diverse historically varied world, these situated and negotiated processes might privilege other rights alongside or over and above classic liberal individualistic ones. This is especially so in the context of collective consequences of the climate crisis; the foregrounding of lasting and enduring experiences of racial socio-economic injustice in spite of centuries of western liberal modernity doing its thing; anxieties over jobs, health and livelihoods in a relentless time of neoliberal precarity; and uncertainties brought about by digital technology and AI.

Should transnational rights activists act in solidarity with local rights activists who prioritize other rights claims over primarily liberal ones? If they don’t, are they respecting liberal freedoms and a true social power approach?

Indeed, here, the empirical argument regarding Modernity might end up being a normative one, because it is inevitably culturally and historically situated.

The central consequentialist basis for championing liberal rights in this book is that they have been crucial to achieve a successful transition to high income Modernity. Countries caught in lower or middle income modernity – in “backward economies” – need liberal rights to get further on and to then consolidate.

Of course, there’s a hefty body of literature that argues that the global historical constitution of Western modernity depended upon extraction from colonial and subjugated peripheries, and this was reinforced in the post-war international economic order. On this thesis, advanced liberal Modernity isn’t for everyone, because it simply can’t be. That’s an old debate, but worthy of a bit more scrutiny for an argument built on a universalist and empirical theory of consequences.

But there’s also the more recent but growing argument – call it the Anthropocene argument – that says that unreformed Modernity as liberals knew it and liked it, is proving to be a train wreck. Unsustainable growth and systemic ecological failure make individual liberal rights emphasising property and personal freedom seem consequential more to crisis than to the good life.

So, the foundational consequentialist argument - Modernity is good, and liberal rights undergird successful transitions to Modernity – starts to seem a little out of touch. If the Enlightenment were now, wouldn’t it seek a different illumination of progress and freedom?

And might the contrarian pragmatist, today, instead take this head on? Perhaps the pragmatic progressive reform movement of the 21st century would and should seek to reimagine and redefine liberal values centred on individual freedom altogether, because the consequences tell us we really must.