An unconvincing but resonant tale, Bluebeard’s Castle: A beautiful young woman marries a strange but captivating aristocrat: Before leaving on a journey, her new husband entrusts her with a magic key to a locked room. Curiosity overcomes her. Inside, she discovers the horrifying remains of her murdered predecessors. Relocking the door, she stains the key with blood. Nothing she does can clean it. Bluebeard returns, discovers the truth from the bloodied key. He is about to cut her to pieces. Her brothers arrive at the last minute and save her.
Writing in 1971, the cultural critic Geroge Steiner used the story as a symbol for the irreparable gap between the high moral claims for Western culture and its practice of torture, pogrom and massacre. He wrote:
“We come immediately after a stage of history in which millions of men, women, and children were made to ash. Currently, in different parts of the earth, communities are again being incinerated, tortured, deported. There is hardly a methodology of abjection and of pain which is not being applied somewhere, at this moment, to individuals and groups of human beings. Asked why he was seeking to arouse the whole of Europe over the judicial torture of one man, Voltaire answered, in March 1762, “c’est que je suis homme. ” By that token, he would, today, be in constant and vain cry.”
That was true in 1971. How much more so it is now. Despite the high cultural lit. crit. context of Steiner’s remarks, pretty arcane for anyone remote from his particular background, it is hard, at first, to disagree when he adds,”The numb prodigality of our acquaintance with horror is a radical human defeat.”
Well, yes. But a defeat for whom? For all of us, of course. Of course? But wait, the metaphor of Bluebeard’s Castle can’t be cast off so glibly. And since the time Steiner wrote, the Castle has been redeveloped.
The interior is more luxurious than ever, while the locked rooms have been extended over the Castle grounds and made more secure. Overwhelming and readily used destructive military power awaits popular dissent in the enclosed boneyards. Corporate media blather drowns out inconvenient reality.
Squads of bureaucrat chatelaines and butlers from international financial and trade institutions, all with bloody keys of their own, make sure the doors stay locked. They have no need to open up to discover the wretchedness within. They already know all too well the deepening poverty and intractable misery that lies inside.
Their job is not to improve things in the locked rooms. Their job is to organize the servants to better manage the misery and horror. The prime task is keeping peripheral unpleasantness in the distant Castle wings from encroaching on the party in the great halls, far from the darkened corridors. They have not done very well lately. Even so, the terrible events of 2001 in New York and Washington and this year in Madrid, bear little comparison with the daily toll exacted by our contemporary Bluebeards.
They prate tirelessy with truly gobsmacking hypocrisy about freedom and prosperity. But from the vast locked rooms in Asia, Africa and Latin America people gaze undeceived into the narcissistic hearts of Europe, the United States and their partners. More than ever, the gaze is one of scepticism not far short of contempt. For the US, because it behaves like a quixotic mendacious homicidal ogre, and for Europe as its paunchy, craven Sancho Panza.
Now and then Bluebeard retainers visit the Castle library, usually when they need to check out pretexts and excuses. Lately, shelf-loads of obsolete inconvenient texts have been sent to the Castle furnace for disposal – the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenants on Civil and Political and on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, the US Constitution, the United Nations Declaration. But it is still possible to consult them as they lie in the bins before going up in smoke. Among them is another document, so mouldy from neglect at this stage that one can hardly read it at all, the 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development.
It seems an incredible fantasy now after a quarter century of discredited, factitious neoliberal fakery, but back then it was the same year the International Court of Justice found the United States guilty of mass terrorism against Nicaragua. It seemed possible to think that international law and institutions might be a force for progress. A pathetic hope really, in retrospect : Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Colombia and Chechnya tell us pretty much all we need to know about the “new” world order.
Reading the Right to Development Declaration (1) now one almost gasps with incredulity. Did the world’s governments really vote for all this? Through the smelly encrusted blue-green efflorescence of privatization and deregulation, brushing off the dank black-spot of “free trade” pillage and piracy, under the desiccating white serpula lacrimans tendrils of unjust external debt, one can still make out:
Article 1. 2. The human right to development also implies the full realization of the right of peoples to self-determination, which includes, subject to the relevant provisions of both International Covenants on Human Rights, the exercise of their inalienable right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.
Art. 2.3. States have the right and the duty to formulate appropriate national development policies that aim at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals, on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of the benefits resulting therefrom.
Article 4. 2. Sustained action is required to promote more rapid development of developing countries. As a complement to the efforts of developing countries, effective international co-operation is essential in providing these countries with appropriate means and facilities to foster their comprehensive development.
Article 5. States shall take resolute steps to eliminate the massive and flagrant violations of the human rights of peoples and human beings affected by situations such as those resulting from apartheid, all forms of racism and racial discrimination, colonialism, foreign domination and occupation, aggression, foreign interference and threats against national sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity, threats of war and refusal to recognize the fundamental right of peoples to self-determination.
Article 6. 2. All human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible and interdependent; equal attention and urgent consideration should be given to the implementation, promotion and protection of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Article 7. All States should promote the establishment, maintenance and strengthening of international peace and security and, to that end, should do their utmost to achieve general and complete disarmament under effective international control, as well as to ensure that the resources released by effective disarmament measures are used for comprehensive development, in particular that of the developing countries.
Article 8. 2. States should encourage popular participation in all spheres as an important factor in development and in the full realization of all human rights.
“Self-determination”, “Sovereignty over all their wealth and natural resources”, “free and meaningful participation” “fair distribution” “resolute steps to eliminate the massive and flagrant violations of the human rights of peoples”, “general and complete disarmament under effective international control”, “popular participation in all spheres”. Were they possessed? All those government UN representatives?
The original vote in the UN was 146 in favour with just one solitary country against, the United States of America, as usual. That is well in tune with what one has come to expect from a country that long ago forgot its founding declaration which demands, as William Blum once reminded us, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”. What are we to make of all this nearly 20 years later?
It is almost as if somone sat down and drafted a manifesto against every single tenet of neoliberal economic practice as implemented by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and their other more local, more junior mobs. The Declaration reads like a conscious provocation directed at the gangsters who run those rackets, the governments of member countries of the OECD, G8, the “Western Group” or whatever their latest quasi-legitimate front happens to be called. For the inhabitants of the locked rooms, the nitty gritty is the gangsters have a virtual monopoly on overwhelming military firepower, what US Marine General Smedley Butler once described as “high class muscle”.
Legitimacy is based on a voluntarily accepted division of rights and duties, not on firepower. Breaching that mostly unspoken rule, ignoring the duties, claiming only the rights. has been the downfall of every despotic regime in history. Now with oil prices at US$44+ and heading higher as the oil runs out and demand outstrips supply, the old despots will progressively shed whatever vestiges of legitimacy they ever had. Their bitter resistance to the Right to Development is symbolic of that.
Since 1986, the Right to Development has been tossed around from out-tray to trash can and back again. In April this year there was a vote on a process towards making the Right to Development legally binding. Those for: India, Malaysia and 46 other countries, including, shamefully “reluctantly” the European Union (represented by, of all countries in this context, Ireland). Those against: Australia, Japan and the United States. (2) As a result the Declaration remains a poor majority wish, forever overruled by the wealthy few.
So it’s business as usual, only more so. While the great majority of the world’s countries vote willingly to strengthen decisive moves towards peace, security and equitable prosperity, the imperial plutocrats and power brokers fight back as efficiently and slickly as ever. Welcome to Bluebeard’s Castle, remodelled under the same old bloodthirsty management. Don’t expect fraternal rescue in a hurry. Those brothers now hustle for the World Bank and the IMF.
TONI SOLO is an activist based in Central America. Contact via www.tonisolo.net.