Toward a New Bill of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949. Photograph Source: FDR Presidential Library & Museum – CC BY 2.0

When in the U.S. bicentennial year of 1976 radical historian William Appleman Williams offered a modest proposal to re-constitute the United States as a federation of regional commonwealths, he envisioned doing so in the context of a “new federalism.” I began to address this in my last post. Today I want to dig deeper into a critical aspect, common agreement on a framework of rights.

Williams proposed “a firm commitment to basic rights as a condition of membership in the federation. We can begin with the Bill of Rights and move on through other political, and social and economic foundations of a democratic socialist community.”[1]

There’s that scary word, to many at least. Socialism. Even buffered by “democratic,” it still raises images out of the Cold War, of repressive police states requiring gulags, and inefficient economies with lines for poorly made consumer goods. Having grown up in a conservative Roman Catholic family in the 1950s and ‘60s, I had it hammered into me. So I understand how people recoil from the word.

Many people, particularly younger folks who grew up after the Cold War, have no such problem.  In fact, among people 18-39 years old, hard hit by realities of raw capitalism from crippling debt and stagnating wages to unaffordable housing, socialism is actually now seen in almost as favorable a light as capitalism.  Politicians such as Bernie Sanders and AOC have made the term more acceptable. In my home base of Seattle, Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the movement she leads have given socialism a place in City Hall.

It will take ideas understood as socialist to pull us out of the multiple crises in which we are ever more deeply enmeshed. We cannot expect profit-oriented developers to build affordable housing when they can make much more money selling to the upscale. We need a social housing enterprise, much as Vienna has successfully modeled. We can expect the utility industry to discourage rooftop and community solar because it eats into their bottom lines.  We need much more community-owned renewable energy. A transportation industry focused on private vehicles may provide us with electric cars, and with our land use patterns we will need some. But we also need vastly expanded public transit, which is, after all a socialist enterprise. Those are just several of many possible examples.

In fact, we live with many elements of socialism that were incorporated to buffer the effects of raw capitalism, elements that originated with socialist parties. The 1930s New Deal brought in Social Security and unemployment insurance. It was also characterized by large public works projects. These were meant to save capitalism from itself. FDR, every bit a capitalist, said, “It was this administration which saved the system of private profit and free enterprise after it had been dragged to the brink of ruin.”

As much as we live with forms of actual socialism, it is still a hard sell. As mentioned, it has been the subject of relentless McCarthyite demonization. People barely know what the word means. Like Christianity, it is one of those words that mean so many different things to different people, it is almost unusable. This is not to ask socialists to back down or cease to explain what it actually means. But for broader political organizing, it may be better to lead with a more basic set of principles deeply embedded in the U.S. political tradition. The expanded Bill of Rights envisioned by Williams is a good place to start, and some other words of Franklin Roosevelt offer an inspiration right out of our history.

It was January 6, 1941. The world was at war. Fascist regimes in Germany, Japan and Italy were rolling over countries, bringing tyrannous regimes.  The U.S. had not officially entered, but was actively moving in that direction. FDR and his advisors crafted his annual State of the Union speech to present the rationale for fighting to a country that was still not fully convinced. It became known as the Four Freedoms Speech.

Roosevelt conceived a basic framework of universal human rights to distinguish U.S. war aims from the tyrannies imposed by the fascist powers. It started with basic political rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights, and then broadened to include economic and security guarantees. His lengthy speech detailed the global situation and U.S. response. It rose to a crescendo at the end as FDR laid out the Four Freedoms. The section is well worth quoting in full.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

“The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

“The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

“The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

“That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called ‘new order’ of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

“To that new order we oppose the greater conception — the moral order.”

It is obviously a tragedy that FDR’s vision of the Four Freedoms was not realized in the postwar world.  We live in world in which basic rights of expression are under assault, where basic human needs are not met for many millions, and where arms are being built up, risking the insanity of conflict among nuclear-armed powers. That is why recalling the Four Freedoms is more important than ever.

Freedom of speech and expression are obviously fundamental to any kind of democratic politics. We must have the right to speak out, and in many countries turning toward increased authoritarianism these rights are being squeezed out. In the U.S. draconian anti-protesting laws have been passed in a number of states. Obviously, there are tricky issues around speech that promotes violence against groups of human beings, and the First Amendment has never been absolute. One doesn’t yell fire in a crowded theater. But overall, we need to stand with the right to speak, and to protest.

In terms of freedom of religion, the language needs updating to freedom to have no religion. The U.S. far right is shot through with theocratic ideas, and many would like to impose a “biblical” Christian government. My Northwest corner of the U.S. seems to have a profusion of such types. In Moscow, Idaho, a local megachurch is seeking to make a “Christian town.” Former Washington State Rep. Matt Shea laid out a “Biblical Basis for War.”  With theocracy knocking at the door, it is absolutely crucial to insist on freedom to address one’s own sense of the spiritual as one chooses, or not to address any sense of the spiritual at all.

Freedom from want obviously goes far beyond the traditional Bill of Rights framework.  It is the most important basis around which to build agreement on a broadened framework of human rights. In the foreground of a new democratic politics, we must build “economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life.”  The use of the word “understanding” indicates a conscious choice developed by dialogue among people, in contrast to leaving it to the “magic of the marketplace.” This does not mean abandoning the marketplace, but configuring the place of the market within broader social purpose, and meeting needs where the market does not. For example, a larger social housing enterprise does not mean there will be no private developers, only that there will be a balancing force that provides housing at reasonable costs.

The neoliberal politics that has prevailed in both major U.S. parties has left far too much to the marketplace. In abandoning much of the regulatory framework that protected people from the ravages of the free market, it has left many people feeling abandoned and inclined to listen to populist demagogues such as Donald Trump. Free trade agreements undermined the U.S. working class. Some of the sharpest swings from Democrat to Republican are in towns where manufacturing jobs have been lost. Yes, racism is a major driver, but when the pie seems to be shrinking, it brings to the fore racist sentiments that might be tamped down when economic stress is less.

Capitalism is about what the word says – accumulating capital. That is the goal. So when communities and groups of people are useful for adding to the bottom line, capitalism may somewhat work for them. But when they are no longer useful, capitalism will throw them under the bus, as it has whole towns and cities, places and regions. That is an economic order, but it is not a moral one. We need to build a politics that says places and people are valuable and worthy in and of themselves, that we must create economic arrangements that provide every community and nation with “a healthy peacetime life.” This is particularly important for healing the urban-rural divide.

Call it whatever you want. Socialism. Communitarianism. Cooperativism. Progressivism. It’s not so much about the name as leading with the basic moral principle. That we must make economic understandings among ourselves to not leave people out, to not abandon whole communities because they no longer feed the bottom line. If we are to pull out of the reactionary morass into which the U.S. seems to be sinking, centering a new “moral order” around basic human rights is crucial.

The fourth freedom, from fear, deserves a whole post of its own.  In a world where global leaders are promoting great power conflict, and more money than ever is being spent on armaments, we need to revive the peace movement. If we don’t diminish the drain of arms and military budgets on our societies, we will not have the resources we need to address the multiple crises coming upon us. If we allow our leaders to continue pushing conflict, we could end up with situations now almost unimaginable. Our “empire as a way of life,” as Williams called it, might be an end to complex life on Planet Earth. His proposal for a federation of regional commonwealths was meant to offer an alternative.


[1] William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1976, p. 198.

This first appeared on The Raven.