Deleuze & Guattari: Human Rights Are Not Universal

A friend was not happy with Deleuze and Guattari’s statement:

“Human rights say nothing about the immanent modes of existence of people provided with rights.”

He would say: “There are some passages by D&G that ping my bullshit detectors, and this is one. Human rights say nothing about immanent modes of anything because they are protections.”

When if you’ve read enough of their work one should ironize; in other words their saying the opposite of what they mean: human rights say nothing about the people because of the fact that these rights cover over those external others of the political that “provided” those rights in the first place. Which means what they provide masks the power behind such rights, rights that are a mere formality and mask of power as such: rights that provide nothing to the people as immanent modes of existence, but rather as codes of a cultural hierarchy that has nothing at all to do with the “human” or “rights”. This is the irony of “human rights” that it exposes power in the very empty place where the human should have been, therefore uncovering as you said a layer of protections that are always external to the subjectivation process rather than immanent to it as its mode of existence. The point being human rights are a farce, not an answer to the dilemmas of the political truth of subjectivation. Therefore covering over the very shame culture that hides itself in the shadows of such masking’s… Human Rights provide neither protection nor escape, but rather provide the powers that be the legalisms to protect themselves from any stain of shame for having not acted on the part of those very victims.

(Such as the Genocide happening in the Middle-East under ISIS… remember the reluctance of John Kerry and the Obama Administration to admit genocide, and only under a restricted purview which entails no action on American’s part, but rather just one more legalism to protect it from having to act. This is the truth of Human Rights: it is to protect the powers from acting on behalf of victims, rather than a protection of the victims from power.).

Deleuze’s criticisms have to do with a quite specific historical phenomenon, namely the manner in which human rights are represented as ‘eternal values’, ‘new forms of transcendence, new universals’ and so on. Nothing in what he says implies rejection of human rights, the rule of law or democratic government as such. The argument attributed to Deleuze in fact confuses the representation of human rights with human rights themselves and supposes that, just because he refuses the representation of human rights in these terms, Deleuze is opposed to rights in any form. It is true that existing forms of constitutional state and incipient forms of constitutional world order increasingly rely upon the concept of human rights as the basis for legal rights. Deleuze is critical of the uses made of rights talk in the contemporary world: ‘Human rights will not make us bless capitalism’ (107).1 However, this does not make him an opponent of rights or even of the idea that some rights should be universal. He is wary of attempts to ground human rights in features of human nature such as human freedom, rationality or the capacity to communicate. Understood in these terms, human rights presuppose a universal and abstract subject of rights, irreducible to any singular, existent figures. They are eternal, abstract and transcendent rights belonging to everyone and no one in particular. Human rights understood in this manner ‘say nothing about the immanent modes of existence of people provided with rights’ (107).

Deleuze elaborates on the emptiness of human rights in the abstract in his Abécédaire interviews with Claire Parnet, with reference to the situation of an Armenian population subjected to a massacre by Turks and then to a subsequent earthquake. He objects, firstly, that when people make declarations about human rights in such situations, ‘these declarations are never made as a function of the people who are directly concerned’. In this case, he suggests, the Armenian people concerned have specific needs in the context of a specific and local situation: ‘their problem is not “the rights of man”‘. Secondly, he argues that all such situations must be considered as cases to be decided rather than simply subsumed under existing laws. He further develops this idea of a jurisprudence proceeding case by case with reference to French legal decisions relating to the banning of smoking in taxis. A first decision refused to allow such a ban on the grounds that the occupant was considered to be in the position of a tenant renting an apartment. A subsequent decision upheld the ban on the grounds that a taxi was considered to be a public service and the occupant in a public rather than a private space. In other words, the judicial response to such cases is properly creative and not simply the rote application of existing categories.2


  1. Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1994) What is Philosophy? (trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell). New York: Columbia University Press.
  2. Patton, Paul. Deleuze and Democracy. Contemporary Political Theory (2005) 4, 400–413. doi:10.1057/palgrave.cpt.9300236

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