The Right Not to Have Rights: Dispossession in Fiction and Philosophy

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


Why would anyone wish to claim the right not to have rights? According to Giorgio Agamben, this is precisely what was attempted by the Franciscan monks of the thirteenth century, as part of their struggle to live without worldly goods. In renouncing all forms of ownership, the monks argued that they should be allowed to use goods and services for free without possessing them; recognising that they would therefore be living outside the law, the monks proposed to give up their rights as well as their duties and responsibilities. Agamben goes on to develop a philosophy of use as an alternative to ownership. This is central to his theory of antinomianism and his critique of biopolitics.

In this paper, I will consider the implications of these ideas for human rights law. Is there a way to enable people who have lost their rights, the stateless, for example, to use rights rather than possess them? This leads us to reflect on the fact that human rights law presupposes that rights are possessive. Even while asserting rights as ‘inalienable’, the aspirational early documents such as the UDHR accept that rights can be claimed, granted, or withheld. This gives nation-states huge power over citizens and noncitizens alike. Even states that have agreed to ratify aspects of international human rights law retain the ability to dispossess citizens of rights.

The history of rights reveals them to be a technology of control rather than liberation. Developed alongside proprietary notions of subjectivity in early capitalism, rights were simply another possession that enabled propertied men to codify their social power in politico-juridical terms. The wider distribution of rights in the modern era has not changed their possessive nature.

Drawing from contemporary fiction and continental political philosophy, I argue that what prevents human rights law from ensuring that humans have safe, happy, and liveable lives is the fact that rights are possessive. What we need instead is a new concept of collective sovereignty in which power and goods cannot be individually owned and thus not taken away.
Period1 Dec 2018
Event titleContemporary Challenges to Human Rights
Event typeConference
LocationBrighton, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Agamben
  • Butler
  • Arendt
  • Mohsin Hamid
  • Human rights law
  • Dispossession