Humanism Amidst Our Machines   /   Summer 2011   /    Book Reviews

Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

James Loeffler

There is no more universal moral language in the world today than human rights. Indeed, it is striking that American government officials have invoked “human rights” even more frequently than “democracy”  in  responding to the recent uprisings in the Middle East and in justifying militar y  inter v ention.  The implication is clear: even when we are willing to tolerate anti- democratic, repressive regimes, we recognize human rights as a fundamental global stan- dard of morality. Yet for all its contemporary significance and universal resonance, Samuel Moyn argues in his provocative new book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, the concept of human rights hardly existed in the global conscious- ness before the 1970s. Not only is human rights a recent invention, according to Moyn, it is not a logical extension of liberal democratic politics but a radically new kind of “anti- politics.” It was only when the world lost faith in all other universalist ideologies—liberal democracy, socialism, and anticolonialism—that human rights rose to primacy. In a compact volume  of  interlocking essays, Moyn assidu- ously pursues this bold claim with the dexterity and lucidity of an intellectual historian at the height of his powers. The result is two books rolled into one: the first a critical history of the intellectual origins of human rights; and the second a stimulating reflection on the evolving character of the modern political imagination.

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