The class-blindness of human rights

by Dr. Andrew Fagan, Director, University of Essex, Human Rights Centre Blog, Blog, By invitation

If you are reading this piece, it’s unlikely that you are, or that you originate from, a working-class background. I say this not as a rebuke. Nor do I intend to question your commitment to social justice and human rights. As a class migrant myself, I am also not claiming that the human rights community doesn’t include people who still consider themselves to be working class, or who may have been formed within working class environments. What I hope to achieve in this short piece, is to identity and draw attention to the damaging consequences of a continuing blindness to social class within the human rights community. I shall argue that our increasing concern for social inequality within even some of the most affluent States necessitates a far more robust engagement with social class as a contributing and intersecting component of this inequality. I shall conclude by seeking to dispel some of the principal concerns many within the human rights community have regarding the consequences of engaging with social class.

Social class – a figment of the imagination?

Some readers may be inclined to reject my central thesis. After all, there are many who reject the existence of social class as a category of identity and who, in effect, insist that being blind to class is no less of a problem than being blind to unicorns, since neither actually exist, and both are mere figments of an overactive imagination. Advocates of this position often point to the apparent ideological partiality and interests of those who insist that social class continues to blight societies whose legal and political systems are based upon the ideal of formal equality and non-discrimination. Often the rejection of social class as a meaningful category of identity will also refer to the myriad difficulties confronting anyone who attempts to objectively define social class. Finally, and this is particularly the case within human rights circles, there are those who insist that social class simply isn’t a sufficiently visible identity in the way other identities are which have secured formal acknowledgement within international human rights law.

In response, one can counter the charge of ideological partiality with a ‘straight-back-atchya’ claim; that it is simply in the interests of the powerful and privileged within any society to concertedly deny the possibility that their own status and position isn’t significantly based upon systemically unjust and unequal relationships and conditions. Few, if any, societies actually resemble the level playing field so beloved by meritocrats. Neither the assertion nor the denial of the existence of social class is immune from the influence of politics and ideology. However, this counter-objection does nothing, by itself, to support the existence of social class. For that, one must turn to a largely deductive mode of engagement, which provides a far more compelling and credible account for the growing levels of poverty, destitution, socio-economic inequality and marginalisation found within many societies, including those that complacently consider themselves to be basically fair and just. In the face of a vast body of research and data which catalogues fundamental disparities in the life expectancies, living conditions and opportunities found within so many societies, it is simply absurd to continue to cling to a naively individualist perspective which, in denying the existence of social class, necessarily blames victims for their own vulnerability.

A step in the right direction – human rights’ interest in relative poverty and socio-economic inequality

Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to ‘social origin’ as one of the grounds upon which individuals suffer discrimination and inequality. Whilst other recognised grounds of discrimination and inequality went on to secure formal legal recognition through subsequent covenants, treaties and legal rulings, social origin (or class in other words) simply faded into the background. This perfectly illustrates my claim that the human rights community is largely afflicted by a form of class blindness. The existence and the harmfulness of this condition are increasingly highlighted by a growing interest within the human rights community with the relative poverty and inequalities found within many affluent societies. A growing body of scholars and prominent human rights defenders now acknowledge the extent to which the growing inequality that has accompanied neoliberalism for decades has become so bad and egregious as to amount to violations of a wide array of human rights commitments. Countless millions of people are increasingly exposed to a profoundly precarious existence within some of the world’s most affluent States. This precarious condition has, of course, been compounded by the discriminating effects of Covid-19 upon some of the more vulnerable sections of affluent societies. Previously dismissed by many as being simply too ideological to count as genuine human rights, there exists a growing constituency of human rights scholars and professionals who finally recognise the challenge of relative poverty and socio-economic inequality as a human rights issue. One of the best examples of this can be found in the manner in which the former (as well as the current) UN Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty exercised his mandate. This is, I strongly believe, a great cause for celebration. Relative poverty and socio-economic inequality have the potential to severely undermine the liberal-democratic order, of which human rights is a component part. It is imperative, therefore, that the human rights community begins to take this threat seriously.

Still not doing enough and the persistence of class blindness

A growing body of research points to social class as a key contributing factor in many peoples’ exposure to the relative poverty, inequality and the wider condition of precariousness which undermine social equality. Social class intersects across many more ostensibly visible identities such as ethnicity, race, gender, religion and disability, adding to and compounding the injustices that so many suffer from. Injustice within affluent societies (and others) consists of a profoundly complex cocktail of material and socio-cultural injuries and insults which connive to reproduce conditions that are increasingly recognised as intolerable. Despite this, and despite a growing acknowledgment of these forms of injustice by the human rights community, the specific role played by social class remains largely ignored or overlooked by many within the human rights community, including some of those who have championed the need for us to take such conditions seriously. Social class has not figured significantly, if at all, in any Special Procedures report into the relative poverty and inequality. Even Philip Alston’s uncompromising country reports into extreme poverty in the United Kingdom and the Unites States do not extend to include a detailed engagement with social class as an intersecting component of the injustices suffered by large sections of countries. To state the obvious, if we are to seriously engage with the injustices that blights the lives of so many people, we must seriously engage with all of the key contributing causes of those injustices, including social class.

Why don’t we open our eyes to social class?

 If class plays as significant a role as I am claiming in maintaining intolerable social inequality, why doesn’t class attract far more attention within the human rights community? Needless to say, the answer to this question is highly complex and cannot be satisfactorily delivered here. What I shall do, however, is to briefly highlight three factors that I consider to be particularly significant in sustaining the class blindness of the human rights community.

  1. The colour of class

Within the so-called northern hemisphere context, social class, and in particular, working class identity, is often misconstrued as necessarily signifying whiteness. This misconception is widespread. It is also false and harmful. While there will be significant cultural differences within any multicultural, working class community, the members of such communities will be similarly exposed to a wide range of systemic inequalities and injustices, some of which amount to human rights violations. Social class intersects across many different forms of identity including race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and even religious conviction. This is obviously crucial for those who have avoided an engagement with social class for fear that it will entail some validation of distinctly white identities with all of the justified concerns that raises. It also enables us to precisely reject the essentialist and nativist politics that white supremacists and racists argue are precisely what is required to protect working class identity. The deplorable white racists exist, of course. But we ultimately fail the all-important cause of social equality, by assuming that working class is code for white and the existence of white, working class racists prevents our engagement with social class for fear of sullying our cause with such intolerable prejudice. Social class, particularly in respect of its role in human rights violations and social injustice, must be seen for what it is: a diverse, multi-cultural phenomenon, within which exist many different communities of people who, despite their differences, share a common exposure to systemic and structural human rights violations and injustices.

  1. The ideological partiality of social class

A great deal of human rights theorising draws upon a particular account of liberalism and the claim that core liberal principles transcend partial ideological perspectives and interests. For many, the appeal of human rights lies precisely in its apparent ideological neutrality and its apparent ability to transcend the differences which blight the political landscape. The purportedly apolitical character of human rights retains a powerful hold over many theorists and practitioners alike. It also serves to explain why many human rights people are reluctant to embrace the reality of social class. For many, class is ultimately an ideological construct, which rests upon a series of partial claims and commitments, most frequently found amongst those on the left of the political spectrum, from moderate social democrats to hardcore Marxists. Acknowledging the reality of class is thereby rejected as being entirely incompatible with the political impartiality of the human rights project.

Notwithstanding the possibly good intentions of those who continue to espouse the political impartiality of human rights, the exclusion of social class which it entails fundamentally hamstrings the human rights community’s ability to engage with the vast array of injustices and human rights violations which impact the most vulnerable social classes in most, if not all, societies. It is ironic perhaps, but a continuing refusal to acknowledge the existence of social class in the name of avoiding ideological partiality, becomes itself a form of partial ideology where this refusal serves to perpetuate systemic inequality and social injustice. If we are truly committed to social equality, we must acknowledge the multiple ways in which social class intersects across many vulnerable communities in many, if not all, of our societies. Others are paying the price of our illusory political neutrality.

  1. The gentrification of human rights

The third and final reason for what I have labelled the class-blindness of the human rights community within liberal capitalist societies, consists of what I have referred to in a previous publication as the gentrification of human rights. The argument I have outlined elsewhere is complex and I cannot do justice to that complexity here. However, the essence of my characterisation of the gentrified character of human rights consists of the prevailing sociological (and with it, the normative) composition of the human rights community. Put simply, our ability to engage effectively with the discriminatory and unjust consequences of social class is significantly hampered by the sheer lack of people within the human rights community who have direct and long-standing experience of the kinds of social inequalities and injustices that afflict the lives of those most exposed to the harmful effects of neoliberalism. As Rhoda Howard has bluntly written over 25 years ago, ‘(T)he Western human rights discourse of the late 20th Century has become a discourse of the privileged – of relatively well-off members of social categories who claim the right to equal treatment in law and society, while the poor have little chance of using that discourse to claim their fundamental rights in the economic sphere.’ (1995: 6)

A barrier largely separates members of the human rights community from those who are increasingly exposed to the injustice of social inequality. Very few of us know what it feels like to have to survive within impoverished, deprived environments, that undermine a sense of self-worth and even basic dignity. This barrier undermines the establishment of a key attribute of any efforts to overcome social injustice and equality: solidarity. Our ‘gentrification’ serves to undermine our credibility and legitimacy.

Once we were blind, now we can see

There is an urgent need for the human rights community to overcome its blindness of social class. Accomplishing this will entail addressing many challenges, from the theoretical to the utterly practical. This will be not be an easy task. Nevertheless, I hope to have spurred some of you, regardless of your own class backgrounds, to commit to this cause.


Andrew Fagan is Director of the globally renowned Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex. He was raised by a single parent and grew up in a severely deprived area of London. Andrew didn’t complete his formal schooling and left school, aged 14. After several twists and turns, Andrew returned to study as a mature student. He is the author of several books and many articles. He has lectured to audiences around the world and has taught human rights at Essex for over 20 years.

Feature picture: Staircase at the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex

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