Boaventura De Sousa Santos: If God Were A Human Rights Activist

Date01 December 2015
AuthorAdam Gearey
Publication Date01 December 2015
Book Reviews
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015, 160 pp., $19.95)
The request to review De Sousa Santos's If God Were a Human Rights
Activist came at a very opportune time. I was avidly reading William
Stringfellow's sadly neglected (at least on this side of the Atlantic) work and
thinking about the ongoing refugee crisis in Calais. One image struck me: the
construction of a church in the refugee camp known as the Jungle. Themes
from De Sousa Santos' book became immediately and dramatically relevant.
However, before developing these concerns, it is worth outlining the basic
arguments of this wide ranging and syncretic text.
If God Were a Human Rights Activist is a heterodox work of human rights
theory. It is a long way from standard apologetics for human rights, and,
perhaps even somewhat eccentric as far as critical traditions are concerned.
There are certainly no references to Badiou, Balibar or Rancire. There is a
sole reference to Walter Benjamin. Levinas's name crops up once. One
might have thought that a book such as this would pick up on Derridean or
Nancean currents or make reference to developing Habermasian articulations
of human rights. This is not the case. De Sousa Santos sets out to do
something new. If there was a central point of reference it is perhaps to
liberation theology ± and perhaps liberation theology in its Latin American
forms. Indeed, one possible way of reading the book might be to see it as a
timely extension of this particular legacy of critical thinking into human
rights theory. Most specifically, the book comes out of the experience of
working with activists of faith: how can those with faith, and those outside
faith traditions collaborate?
The force of the argument comes from the author's ongoing endeavours to
elaborate counter-hegemonic thinking on rights theory and practice; a form
of thinking that is alive to the realities of neo-liberalism and globalized
capitalism and also in touch with the diverse forms of counter-hegemonic
thinking and practice. However, the globalization presided over by the IMF,
the World Bank, and the WTO, and the military adventures in Iraq and
Afghanistan are essentially in the background for this book. The important
point is that globalization clearly makes use of very particular under-
standings of human rights, which are entirely coherent with capitalist
markets and `democratic' or `rule of law' societies that are seen as the
essential political and legal substratum of market societies.
ß2015 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2015 Cardiff University Law School

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