Veitch’s text argues that throughout history our legal culture has been saturated with—and dependent upon—manifold layers of often unseen forms of obligation, including throughout the modern ‘age of rights’. In thinking about this, I’m interested in the aspect of Veitch’s argument that concerns ‘structural substitution’: his phrase for describing the way obligations have maintained this continuity by adapting both their discursive and material embeddedness in the social bond. I’ll start by summarising a few key elements of Veitch’s argument (with a brevity that will no doubt betray the nuance of his text).
In the early-modern age, as the authority of state law had aligned with our primordial debt to God, it was unsurprising that obligation was more prominent in social formations: “in the seventeenth century writers had conceptualised the constitution of subjectivity in the language of pre-existing obligations: kingly power and subjects’ loyalties as constituted by obligations to God” (p. 48). By contrast, the post-Enlightenment age might be regarded as substantially deposing obligation in favour of rights, for example conceived through a nexus of freedom, reason and autonomy. Upon this view, whatever obligations I have appear merely as the other side of your rights, and vice versa. But Veitch carefully and extensively argues that, in fact, obligations hadn’t been deposed, and had “gone underground, there to do as much work as ever but largely now hidden from the light of reasoned discourse” (p. 42). This what Veitch describes as a structural substitution, in which the priority of obligation is maintained but attaches to a new locus of social organisation, in this instance “from religion to economy” (p. 6).
There are some important offshoots of this idea that also require a mention. First, there is an asymmetry between rights and obligations. The rewards of rights are contingent to the individual, yet all people are subject to many ‘waves’ of obedience to the underlying practices necessary for those rights to be coherently and practicably (and selectively) realised. For example, workers in a capitalist economy must submit to their own economic exploitation in the name of respecting rights to property, “no matter how exploitatively it had been gained now how unequally it was now distributed” (p. 53). At surface level, obligations have a limited juridical form (e.g. to honour one’s contractual duties bargained within a market), but they rely upon underlying layers of socialised obedience that are not visible in formal legal doctrine.
Second, we can see this is important, not merely as a way of critiquing the ideological veneer of individual rights that can mask underlying material inequality. It also demonstrates that the positive potentiality of rights depends, inevitably, on how we conceive their expansive and underlying foundation upon obligations. For instance, addressing matters such as poverty, healthcare and education by expanding human rights into the categories of social and economic equity. Such rights require even more expansive layers of obligations within states and civil society to actively create the conditions in which such equality can be realised (p. 94). Where such layers of obligation are absent or ineffective in society, these rights still exist in the abstract but do not reflect material reality.
Even more pressingly, he also questions whether a global environmental crisis can be addressed in an age of rights without our conscious development and prioritisation of the types of obligation that are demanded to achieve ecological sustainability. In other words, we need to take obligations seriously, and consciously, as a necessary aspect of the social bond with the potential to secure an equitable and sustainable future. To do so, Veitch suggests the need for a new structural substitution, decoupling the rights-obligation nexus, and renewing the capacity of obligations to express human solidarity in the face of our common vulnerability. This would mean conceiving “obligations as correlative to needs rather than rights” (p. 97, my emphasis). A shift to needs corrects the in-built inequalities of previous regimes of obligation and their ideological buttressing of abstract rights, precisely because “we are all equal in needs” (p. 98).
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