Benjamin P. Davis, Territory, Humanity, Opacity: Notes on Hannah Arendt’s Right to Have Rights (Conference: The Right to Have Rights Today) [2022 C4eJ 36]

we should read the first right of “the right to have rights” as a right to land

[➡︎ read the rest of the symposium | watch the conference video]

Benjamin P. Davis*


When I was envisioning a workshop on Hannah Arendt’s concept of the right to have rights, I also had in mind a few other theorizations of rights. In this brief essay emerging from the proceedings of that workshop at the University of Toronto, I want to make explicit those theorizations. Doing so, I hope, will serve to continue the conversations we began in June 2022.

  1. Starting from Land: José Carlos Mariátegui’s Re-framing of el problema del indio

Mariátegui’s Marxism leads him to a critique of liberal intellectuals in Peru, whom he calls an “obedient clientele,” a “caste” that has inherited “colonial feudalism.”[1] Because of their ties to land and caste, they fail to “descend to the deep reality of Peru.”[2] His verb descend implies that a break with caste/class position is necessary for accurate social-historical analysis. He also adds a proviso to such a move: “Nor do those who rebel instinctively and continually against these class interests, immerse their view in social and economic realities either.”[3] “Their ideology—or their phraseology,” he continues, “is nourished by the abstract literature of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.”[4] Prefiguring Arendt in Origins, Mariátegui argues that the abstractions of the French Declaration fail to capture, and in turn to address, the concrete social reality of his Peruvian context. Indeed, while he does not elaborate on his critique of the Declaration in the essay I’ve quoted from so far, his 1925 “Toward a Study of Peruvian Problems,” he makes it clear elsewhere that the target of his critique is rights claims that do not start from land.[5]

In his 1926 “Aspects of the Indigenous Problem,” which was published before his better-known 1928 “The Land Problem” and 1929 “On the Indigenous Problem,” he states two clear theses he will develop in the later essays. The first is that the lesson of pro-Indigenous advocacy in Peru has been “that the Indigenous problem could not find its solution in an abstract humanitarian formula in a purely philanthropic movement.”[6] The abstraction and philanthropy attempted to “protect” Indigenous peoples through legal advocacy directed toward the state.[7] To reject this path, he quotes Luis Valcárcel, an activist and influential anthropologist in Peru: “Pro-Indigenous… always a gesture from the lord for the slave, always in the air the protector in the form of those who have dominated for five centuries: Never the severe gesture of justice, never a word of justice… never the thunder of biblical indignation.”[8] Mariátegui’s reply to such simple (and never severe) “gestures” is that solving the so-called Indigenous problem requires “a social solution.”[9] In this second thesis, he argues that “[i]t must be carried out by the Indigenous peoples themselves.”[10] Both theses argue in part against Peru’s more elite “Generation of 1900,” who viewed Indigenous peoples as obstacles on Peru’s march to civilization and who promoted educational measures in response to this “problem.” Indeed, by “social solution,” Mariátegui rejects the Generation of 1900’s paternalistic and racist argument by re-framing the “indigenous question” from a cultural one to an economic one. In doing so, he calls for fundamental change to the economic order or Peru, a proposal the more aristocratic or elite Generation of 1900 failed to raise.[11]

His 1928 essay “The Land Problem” is much longer than his brief Mundial pieces from the previous year. In 1924 he had started writing the column “Polemical Motives” for the weekly magazine Mundial. Later he would write the column “Let us Peruvianize Peru.” The length of “The Land Problem” allowed him to develop his earlier claim. He argues that humanitarian sentiment in Peru has its roots in the advocacy of Bartolomé de La Casas.[12] But a humanitarian method, an “apostolic battle,” he went on, is outdated.[13] What is needed is to insist on el problema del indio as an economic problem. Here, at length, is how he re-frames, or re-problematizes, social reality in Peru:

For those of us who study and identify el problema del indio from a socialist point of view, we begin by declaring as absolutely outdated the humanitarian or philanthropic views that, as an extension of the apostolic battle of Father Bartolomé de las Casas, supported the old pro-Indigenous campaigns. Our first effort is to establish its [el problema’s] character as a fundamentally economic problem. First, we protest against the instinctive and defensive tendency… to reduce it to a purely administrative, pedagogical, ethnic, or moral problem in order to avoid at all costs its economic aspects… We are not content with demanding an Indigenous right to education, culture, progress, love, and heaven. We start by categorically demanding their right to land.[14]

When I was thinking of the right to have rights in the present, these lines from Mariátegui continually returned to my mind. In contemporary human rights discourse, it remains rare to hear a theorist start so emphatically from the question of land, even to the point of poking fun at those who would start from second- or third-generation rights (education, culture, etc.—“love, and heaven,” as he puts it). The import of his essay as a whole is even broader than its key claim around the need to start theorizations of rights from land: the essay also offers a path for socialist and Indigenous struggles to come together. The major sources of wealth in Peru should be nationalized, he argues.[15] Part of the state’s role is to pass and enforce laws that shift land ownership—“Nowhere has the division of agricultural property, or rather its redistribution, been possible without special expropriation laws that have transferred ownership of the land to the class that works it.”[16] Overall, Mariátegui offers a defense of Indigenous peoples, in his own words, “not based on abstract principles of justice or sentimental traditionalist considerations, but on concrete and practical reasons of economic and social order.”[17]

Importantly, Mariátegui is writing against at least two fronts. First, he is writing against the concentration of land ownership that occurred during the industrialization of agriculture.[18] This concentration maintains Peru’s economy as a “colonial economy” in which Peru’s interests and development “are subordinated to the interests and the necessities of the markets in London and New York.”[19] Second, he is writing against a liberal and philanthropic orientation to Indigenous rights. As Mike Gonzalez emphasizes in his reading of Mariátegui, he was not an indigenista; instead, he aimed to shift the debate on Indigenous people in Peru away from any question of their character or “essence” and toward the material conditions in which they lived and worked.[20] It is the ruling classes who want to describe Indigenous people in terms of a backward or non-modern character. Starting from materiality, particularly questions of land and property, Mariátegui argued that the so-called problem of Indigenous people in Peru was central to building what he called a “united front”—not a popular front bringing together middle classes with lower-middle classes, but a unification of working classes, including Indigenous people, miners, farm and factory workers, as well as artisans and some intellectuals.[21] “[E]ach will maintain their own affiliation and ideas,” he wrote of the united front, “[b]ut all should feel united by class solidarity, by the same revolutionary will, and by an urgent necessity.”[22] For Mariátegui, Indigenous people were poor not because of a lack of strength of will, but because of a colonial landholding system in which they were forced to work the land for the profit not just of the gamonales but also of the foreign capital that invested in the agriculture and mining sectors. It is because of how land was structured in 1920s Peru that Mariátegui’s position was anti-colonial not only in the sense of opposing settler exploitation, but also in his attempt to cut off foreign profit by taking on the question of land ownership on which that profit, through extraction and exploitation, relied.[23]

Crucially, Mariátegui’s transformative call for land redistribution was not simply based on European conceptions of land. Rather, in his concept of the territorio, most directly translated as “territory,” he had in mind senses not just of bounded geography, but also of history, narrative, culture, collectivity, and popular memory.[24]

In my reading of some of Mariátegui’s late 1920s writings on land and Indigenous rights, I have underscored three elements. The first is his critique of a liberal position that endorses humanitarian sentiment and aid without addressing the question of land.[25] The second is his vision for socialism and Indigenous movements to converge through addressing the question of land. The third is his prioritization of a right to land as foundational for other rights. And so it is from Mariátegui that I gain the insight that in the Americas, we should read the first right of “the right to have rights” as a right to land.

  1. The Question of the Human: Hannah Arendt on the Limits of Human Rights

I offered my reading of Mariátegui’s problematization of capitalism as an economic order, and of the nation-state that backs up such an order, before commenting on Arendt because Mariátegui prefigured Arendt. Arendt’s own words nevertheless demand careful examination:

We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation… Before this, what we must call a “human right” today would have been thought of as a general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.[26]

After Arendt’s analysis of a right to have rights, the political theorist can no longer hold that there are, in fact, inalienable rights. Instead, we have witnessed in the twentieth century conditions of total rights denial. Of course, when it makes sense to do so strategically, we might still leverage a natural-rights understanding of human rights—this is, for instance, a point Marie-Bénédicte Dembour makes regarding the rights of migrants in her helpful study Who Believes in Human Rights?[27] To be clear, that we can no longer think of human rights with the comfort of believing they are characteristic of the human condition (and therefore non-derogable) does not mean that we have to abandon claims to human rights. As Lida Maxwell argues reading Arendt, “to have” rights simply means “to participate in staging, creating, and sustaining (through protest, legislation, collective action, or institution building) a common political world where the ability to legitimately claim and demand rights becomes a possibility for everyone” and involves “helping to stage a common world where everyone can demand rights.”[28]

            In other words, one of the points that I wanted to think about in community at our workshop—in dialogue with Mariátegui and Arendt as well as with their commentators—was the need to achieve rights, that is, the fact that rights are not inherited or given but politically contingent. One example of rights-protecting work that comes to mind is that of Shoshone, Peruvian, and Haitian activists who are working together not only to challenge the rhetoric of the Newmont Corporation’s self-professed relationships to the communities its gold mining operations affect, but also to affirm Indigenous rights to their ancestral lands as basic rights, to connect histories across the Americas and the Caribbean, and to bring to light the true cost of the gold bands that wrap around fingers of married people—in other words, to provide a paradigm of human life that rejects capitalist extraction in every form of life, because all of these forms are already holistically connected to one another. Again and again, however—and this is the problem of the (settler) state that Mariátegui underscored—the state, as it did at Standing Rock, as it did at Fairy Creek, as it did in Brazil, has criminalized resistance to Newmont, framed protests as terrorism, and repressed peaceful gatherings with militarized police violence. But having already made my point above (with Mariátegui) about the problem of the state—and many of us have simply come to expect further criminalization and repression as a condition of our time, which remains a colonial time[29]—I want to conclude with some comments for further conversation, comments not about political activism so much as about the ethical dialogues that, perhaps, sustain political commitments across coalitions and over time.

  1. Working across Traditions: The Question of Édouard Glissant’s “right to opacity”

I have for some time been dwelling with the idea of what the anthropologist David Scott calls a “receptive dialogue” with intellectual traditions that are not our own.[30] The poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant draws our attention to the “opacity” of other traditions, meaning the fact that while traditions not our own are difficult or perhaps impossible to comprehend—and that the goal of “comprehension” is not much of an approach to another tradition in the first place—there is still something beautiful about a dialogue that proceeds in its plurality, that proceeds, Glissant says, “without conjoining, that is, without merging.”[31] A receptive dialogue that accepts the opacity of other traditions while engaging them works against the European tendency, in the art historian Samantha Noël’s terms, “to mystify rather than examine various cultural practices.”[32] Perhaps such an examination could lead to a further self-examination, a re-understanding of the intellectual traditions and cultural practices we understand to be our own. “As Édouard Glissant explains,” Noël goes on, “the human spirit years for a cross-cultural relationship without universalist transcendence, and diversity requires the presence of people with the intention of creating a new relationship.”[33] And so one lesson from Caribbean philosophy for human rights discourse today—and it is not a coincidence that this insight should come from the Caribbean, a site of tremendous cultural exchange, colonial repercussions, independence movements, and ongoing repression and resistance—is that the movements working to defend and realize human rights (Arendt) against extractive state-enforced capitalism require an ethical and epistemological foundation (Glissant) in addition to starting from a right to land for Indigenous peoples as a basic right (Mariátegui). This ethical foundation might sound to some as a Pollyanna desire for cross-cultural relations, but as Glissant and some of his commentators, including Noël, have stressed, such relationships are themselves based on not just good will but on a study of history and a shared political commitment.[34]

* Benjamin P. Davis is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of African American Studies at St. Louis University. From 2020-2022, he held a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. In the broadest terms, Ben’s research applies concepts from Caribbean and Latin American philosophy to contemporary human rights discourse. In addition to starting from these sites, his work is in dialogue with the ethical and political claims of this century’s social movements, including Occupy, Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter.

[1] José Carlos Mariátegui, José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, eds. and trans. Harry E. Varden and Marc Becker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 66. Henceforth JCM.

[2] Ibid. Cf. Arguedas, Deep Rivers.

[3] JCM 66.

[4] Ibid.

[5] In a discussion outside the scope of this essay, in Black Reconstruction W.E.B. Du Bois centers the failure, due to great repression and violence, of land reform in the U.S. South, a failure that prevented the U.S. from achieving democracy. Recently the sociologists José Itzigsohn and Karida Brown follow Du Bois’s analysis to describe the “racial state,” meaning “the organization of political power along racial lines,” an organization largely “sustained by an alliance between white workers and different factions of the white bourgeoisie, based on support for racial and colonial privilege” (José Itzgsohn and Karida L. Brown, The Sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois: Racialzed Modernity and the Global Color Line [New York: New York University Press, 2020], 187-188).

[6] JCM 151. Cf. Du Bois’s critique of philanthropy in Color and Democracy.

[7] JCM 152.

[8] JCM 153.

[9] JCM 152.

[10] Ibid. Translation modified.

[11] See Juan E. De Castro, Bread and Beauty: The Cultural Politics of José Carlos Mariátegui (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 24-27.

[12] JCM 69.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. Translation modified.

[15] Ibid., 113.

[16] Ibid., 88.

[17] Ibid., 99.

[18] Ibid., 100.

[19] Ibid., 111.

[20] Mike Gonzalez, In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019), 3, 11, 86.

[21] See also Gonzalez, In the Red Corner, 111, 174.

[22] Quoted in Gonzalez, In the Red Corner, 170. Quotation modified.

[23] See Gonzalez, In the Red Corner, 168.

[24] See Gonzalez, In the Red Corner, 15, 112-113.

[25] I expand on this point in my forthcoming essay, “The Right to Have Rights in the Americas” in Arendt Studies. I thank Lucy Benjamin for many fruitful discussions on this and related topics.

[26] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Boston: Mariner, 2001), 296-297.

[27] See Marie-Bénédicte Dembour, Who Believes in Human Rights? Reflections on the European Convention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[28] Stephanie DeGooyer et al., The Right to Have Rights (New York: Verso, 2018), 48.

[29] Ayça Çubukçu, a reader of Arendt from whom I have learned immensely, has written insightfully on our moment. See Ayça Çubukçu, “We Are All Criminals,” Jadaliyya, May 2, 2022,

[30] David Scott, “The Traditions of Historical Others,” Symposia on Gender, Race and Philosophy 8, no. 1 (2012): 7. I thank Aliosha Bielenberg for conversation on this topic.

[31] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 62.

[32] Samantha Noël, Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 48.

[33] Ibid., 51.

[34] Cf. Paul Gilroy’s reading of Glissant in his opening to Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line (Cambridge: The Belknap of Harvard University, 2000). Gilroy cites Arendt several times in Against Race, and he has elsewhere said that his book is modeled on Arendt’s 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism (See Max Farar, “Paul Gilroy in Conversation,” darkmatter: in the ruins of imperial culture [2007]: While it remains implicit in Against Race, elsewhere Gilroy makes explicit that the “vulnerable figure” of Arendt’s basic human in Origins—her famous line is “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human” (OT 299)—“might,” Gilroy says, “be described much more accurately as a racialized human: a particular, infra-human creation rather than a specimen of the catastrophically empty humanity that she wishes to repudiate. Her error corresponds to a refusal to engage racism directly and critically” (Paul Gilroy, “Multiculture and the Negative Dialectics of Conviviality,” in eds. Rebecka Rutledge Fisher and Jay Garcia, Retrieving the Human: Reading Paul Gilroy [Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014], 105). For my summary of Gilroy’s humanism, see Benjamin Davis, “Humanism,” Political Theology Network, May 17, 2022,