Social Rights and the Politics of Obligation in History opens up a new field of research devoted to socio-economic rights and more broadly to the history of equality and distributive justice. Social or socio-economic rights are legal guarantees of access to material resources: the right to land, flour, bread, assistance, work, health, housing, alms, education, books, to take just a few examples of rights that appear in the 16 chapters that make up this volume. More precisely, the authors define them as “claims and obligations related to individual well-being (physical, spiritual, moral and intellectual, depending on the context)” (p. 6). As a work that aims to historicize these rights, Social Rights and the Politics of Obligation in History is a call to arms as the introduction and the various chapters unveil the various forms of (political and scientific) amnesia these rights have suffered from. A manifesto book, the work is carefully constructed, with each chapter integrating the major issues and concepts defined in the introduction, and referring to the other chapters, giving the reader a real sense of progressing from one chapter to the next in an orderly fashion.
The book puts forward three main arguments. First of all, the book rejects the idea that social rights are “secondary” in comparison to civil and political rights. The book provides a rebuttal to the ready-made “three-generation theory” of law, which constitutes a broadly accepted conceptual framework. In a nutshell, as Philip Alston puts it, the three-generation theory “reifies various misconceptions that are used to suggest not just the chronological evolution of the rights but essentialist differences among them” (p. 309). Jensen, Walton and their coauthors give these rights a historical density. They explore medieval rights – the rights of the poor and to the forest, for instance, as well as 18th century physiocratic doctrines and the constitutions of socialist regimes throughout the 20th century. By multiplying temporal and geographical points of view, from France to Japan, via the United States and Haiti, the authors also multiply the possible chronologies, contexts and origins of social rights.
Secondly, the book reflects on the system of rights and the system of obligations that mirror these rights. Socio-economic rights are integrated into the conceptual framework of the “politics of obligation”. This framework can be summed up simply by saying that these rights oblige a collective (a Church, a State, wealthiest people, companies, etc.) as well as the beneficiaries to give up something, or to do something (for someone else).
Finally, the book makes another shift by integrating the history of law into a wider set of means of guaranteeing access to a certain level of material resources. Legally recognized rights are thus understood as a formalization among other possibilities to redistribute wealth. The authors sketch then a history of administration, of the “bon droit” (generally accepted moral claims distinct from formal law), of all the institutions mobilized (and competing) to guarantee the satisfaction of legitimate socio-economic needs. In this sense, the question of social rights is embedded in other stories. In some cases, as Nicolas Delalande shows, individuals (workers, for instance) experienced the legal recognition of “social rights” as regressions in comparison to preexisting customary practices.
The book is then divided into three parts. The first part of the book entails 6 chapters covering a period from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. They highlight the long history of social rights and the importance of taking account of the institutions where the individuals could lodge their claims. Julia McLure’s chapter devoted to the “rights of the poor” (4th–16th century) is a manifesto for a pre-modern history of rights. In their groundbreaking contributions on the French revolution of the end of the 18th century, Dan Edelstein and Charles Walton highlight the fact that social rights were part of the same intellectual toolbox as political rights. They both stress the contingent nature of their exclusion from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen issued in 1789. Charles Walton’s contribution builds on Dan Edelstein’s chapter: while Edelstein points out that social rights could have been included in the 1789 Declaration of Rights, Charles Walton asks what prevented them from being included. Philip Kaisary brings the Haitian revolution out of the relative silence in which it has been held within Eurocentric narratives. He highlights the centrality of socio-economic rights during the revolution in this slave colony of France, which freed itself from the clutches of the Napoleonic Empire at a time when many European monarchies were buckling under its yoke. The next two chapters question the place of “rights” as a redistributive mechanism. Stephen Sawyer and William Novak reflect on the very meaning of the legal framework inherited from the history of liberalism (rights are rights of individuals to be protected from state’s infringement). To the authors, legal mechanisms and law are only one way to satisfy legitimate claims over material resources. In the same line, Nicolas Delalande resists the idea that workers were deprived of rights before the establishment of modern welfare states; on the contrary, Delalande insists on the existence of a shared belief in the “natural” rights of workers in the 19th century’s France, prior to any formalized “labor law”.
The second part of the book, devoted to the 20th century, places “social rights” in the context of the fault lines of gender, race and class. Scott Newton argues that the USSR deployed a fragmented and contradictory system of social rights, despite proclamations giving them precedence over civil and political rights. In their constitutional phrasing, these rights were not abstract individual rights. The constitution saw the social system as a whole as the counterpart to these rights. Bernard Thomann, for his part, highlights the role played by Japanese reformers at the beginning of the 20th century in establishing a form of citizenship based primarily on human dignity and social rights. In a fascinating contribution on the social rights of indigenous people in Mexico, Rosie Doyle studies the role of the liberation theology in Mexico from 1965 to 2000. Laura Frader’s history of women offers a captivating line of research, highlighting the fact that social policies in France before the Second World War were a response to “needs” (of individuals, patriarchal families or demographically declining nation), before being transformed into a policy of “rights” under the impact of international standards emerging after 1945.
The final section examines the international dimension of social rights, focusing primarily on the United Nations. Having already written a pathbreaking monograph on the topic, Samuel Moyn reflects on social rights along two historically competing lines, sufficiency and equality: on the one hand, some theorists understood social rights as guaranteeing the access to a certain level of resources – an idea which the following chapter by Mark Goodale explores -, on the other hand, others such as T. H. Marshall promoted an egalitarian theory of social citizenship. Meredith Terretta analyses the racialized regime of global inequalities in relation to human rights discourse. To do so, she studies the territories supervised by the UN and the UN Trusteeship Council. Her chapter demonstrates that the “universal” declaration of human rights left the structure of racial inequality intact in the 1940s and 1950s. Christian Olaf Christiansen and Steven L. B. Jensen, in “The Road from 1966”, examine the 1966 Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, one of the two covenants designed to implement the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. The authors show how the hopes of the 1970s were weakened – but not annihilated – by the neo-liberal wave. Philipp Alston’s concluding chapter points out the arbitrary boundaries between civil and political rights, on the hand, and social, economic and cultural rights, on the other. The text raises several points of attention for a history of social rights, such as the question of the historicity of the idea that poverty can be fought and that there is a right to distribute wealth.
The book ushers in a revolution in the history of human rights which has long exclusively been focused on civil and political rights. It provides a framework for a wide range of research and forges a set of tools for thinking about social rights. Over the pages, these rights are one element among others in response to specific (legitimate) needs; they are the subject of conflict between various institutions that legitimize themselves as “protecting” people in need (the poor, “indigenous”, workers, etc.); they are instruments of equality policies; they formalize pre-existing practices; they are progressive or regressive, and so on. This new research program could benefit from an explicit discussion with the work of Sandrine Kott, Daniel Maul, Paul-André Rosental and Véronique Stenger, among others, who have devoted their research to the International Labor Organization and to its role in the international expansion of social rights.
 Samuel Moyn, Not enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, Cambridge 2018.
 Sandrine Kott / Joëlle Droux (Eds.), Globalizing Social Rights: The International Labour Organization and Beyond, Basingstoke 2013.
 Daniel Roger Maul, Human Rights, Development and Decolonization: The International Labour Organization, 1940–70, Geneva 2012.
 Paul-André Rosental (Ed.), Silicosis: A World History, Baltimore 2017.
 Véronique Plata-Stenger, Social Reform, Modernization and Technical Diplomacy: The ILO Contribution to Development (1930–1946), Berlin 2020.