Is Amnesty International a Progressive Organization?–or Is the Term “Progressive Organization” an Example of an Abstract Slogan of Social Democrats? Part Two


In a previous post, I looked in a general way at the shortcomings of Amnesty International (AI) as a “progressive organization”–one of the abstract slogans of the social-democratic or social-reformist left here in Toronto (and undoubtedly elsewhere).

In an article posted on the Socialist Project’s website (, Simon Black speaks to Sam Gindin, a social democrat or social reformer here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and author, along with the late Leo Panitch, of the book (2013) The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. 

Mr. Black states the following:

SB: Canadian arms exports to Saudi Arabia have been opposed by a range of civil society organizations, from Amnesty International to Oxfam. Collectively these organizations have also called for the federal government to work with trade unions representing workers in the arms industry to develop a plan that secures the livelihoods of those who would be impacted by the end of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. And in Labour Against the Arms Trade’s work with these organizations, we’ve always stressed the importance of centring this demand. Why is it important that mainstream, liberal human rights and humanitarian organizations are calling for a just transition for arms industry workers?

Mr. Gindin’s response?

Progressive organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty [my emphasis] are right to see that this [challenge to profit priorities] is a challenge to capitalist power and capitalism itself and so can be a barrier to convincing people, particularly workers and communities where these arms are manufactured, like the LAVs in London, Ontario. But it’s the only honest – and possible – way forward. The message is not just that there are potential alternatives, but also that they could be introduced only if we could build the kind of social force that’s necessary to [implement them]. Sometimes people want to obscure the fact that our demands are radical, because they feel like [this reality will make it] harder to mobilize. [But] unless we can respect workers enough to address the reality and win them over, we’re left with a progressive demand that is in essence an abstract slogan.

I have already addressed the issue of whether Oxfam is a “progressive organization” in a previous post (Is Oxfam a “Progressive Organization?”–An Abstract Slogan (Rhetoric) of Social Democrats).

In this post, I will look at the specific shortcoming of AI in relation to the world of work in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers. I will also look, briefly, at its shortcomings when it comes to the capitalist state in general and to police in particular.

The Focus of AI on Human Rights Leads to Silence Over Economic Coercion, Exploitation and Oppression of Workers on a Daily Basis

As I argued in the previous post, the human-rights movement emerged as a substitute for a socialist movement. In essence, the class power of employers is, implicitly or explicitly, assumed to be legitimate. AI therefore shifts our attention from the daily economic coercion characteristic of a society dominated by the class power of employers to more direct forms of coercion that involve work. Although such forms of coercion should hardly be ignored, the shift to an almost exclusive focus on more direct forms of coercion at work lead to a legitimation of the economic or indirect form of coercion characteristic of the more industrialized capitalist countries (and also of many less industrialized capitalist countries).

On Amnesty International’s website ( , there are 19 issues listed:

  1. armed conflict
  2. arms control
  3. child rights
  4. climate change
  5. corporate accountability
  6. death penalty
  7. detention
  8. disappearances
  9. discrimination
  10. freedom of expression
  11. indigenous peoples
  12. international justice
  13. living in dignity
  14. police violence
  15. refugees, asylum seekers and migrants
  16. sexual and reproductive rights
  17. torture
  18. United Nations
  19. Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Quite a list. Let us, however, look at at point 13, “Living in dignity.”

The ideal company would provide “fair conditions of employment” (drawn from the “Living in Dignity” section). What “fair conditions of employment” would mean is not elaborated on at the website, but the AI document (2014) Human Rights for Human Dignity: A Primer on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights does elaborate. From page 54:

The right to work and rights at work

The [United Nations] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has emphasized the interdependence of the provisions of the Covenant that safeguard the right to work, rights at work and the right to form and join a trade union, as well as to strike. The right to work remains less well understood than some of the other rights discussed here and is sometimes misinterpreted as the right to a job. The right to work entails access to employment without discrimination of any kind, to choose freely and not be forced into work, access to a system of protection against unfair dismissals, and a supportive structure that aids access to employment, including appropriate vocational education.105 The right to work covers both paid work and people working independently (referred to as
livelihoods in certain contexts) and requires governments to extend protections to people
working in the informal sectors of the economy.

Rights at work protect the right of everyone to just and favourable conditions of work,
including to fair wages, equal pay for work of equal value, safe and healthy working
conditions, reasonable limitations on working hours, protections for workers during and
after pregnancy, and equality of treatment in employment.

The idea of the right to work is thus taken from a document published by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The AI document referred to above says:

The right to work entails access to employment without discrimination of any kind

The implied emphasis here is on discrimination and not on the absolute right to access employment. Employers are not to discriminate in permitting access to work–they need to treat all workers equally regardless of race, gender and so forth. If there is a lack of discrimination, it is implied, then the employment relation is legitimate–subject to other conditions, such as not being coerced employment. From Karl Widerquist (2010), “The Physical Basis of Voluntary Trade,” in pages 83-103, Human Rights Review, Volume 11, page 87:

… coercion (or force) implies a deviation from “the normal course of events;” thus, the answer depends on what one considers the normal course of events to be.

What does AI consider to be “the normal course of events?”

The right to work entails … [the right] to choose freely and not be forced into work.

AI’s position assumes a normalized conception of what constitutes work that is freely chosen, and thereby judges what deviates from this normalized conception as a human rights abuse.

A lack of discrimination at work and not being coerced directly to work for an employer, however, is quite consistent with the indirect coercion of workers and their exploitation and oppression  that characterizes the class power of employers–aka capitalism. AI is silent about economic coercion–the golden chain which obliges workers to work involuntarily.

Mr. Gindin, by referring to AI as a “progressive organization,” simply papers over the issue.

From Widerquiest, page 84:

In two senses, a market economy can be characterized as voluntary. First, people can choose with whom they trade subject to the limits of the property rights of the people involved. They can say yes or no to any one other than the participant. Second, people have the legal right to choose whether or not to trade at all. They have the legal right to say yes or no to trade with all other participants. We can call these the physical conditions of voluntary trade.

But, there is a crucial third sense in which trade is not voluntary for many people today. That is, they are effectively denied any legal means to survive without providing services to someone who controls property. If the law ignores the existence of human needs, it can nominally establish the legal conditions of voluntary trade while legally subverting the physical conditions necessary for voluntary trade. Many people enter the economic system owning nothing; finding that all the resources are owned by someone else, they see that someone will interfere with any effort they make to meet their own needs. Therefore, they are forced to provide services for property owners to obtain money to buy resources. It is the aspect of obtaining money that concerns the discussion here, not spending it. Although trade involves both buying and selling, it is the things we do to obtain money that involve providing services for others; spending money involves other people providing services for us. It is not particularly problematic that a person with government-created tokens called money has to hand them to other people to receive goods and services, but it is a problem for voluntary trade if a person without money has no legal means to survive unless she provides services for people who hold money. It is, of course, desirable that nonmarket interaction, such as marriage and friendship, is also voluntary; but, the primary concern here is trade, specifically the things people do to get money which, for most of us means the labor market.

This article builds on the work I have done to define and argue for the importance of
freedom as effective control …  which, in short, is freedom as the power to say no. More exactly, … freedom is the effective power to accept or refuse interaction with other willing people. I have argued that genuinely voluntary interaction requires that all people have … freedom and that … freedom requires an exit option—some way that a person can survive without being forced to provide services for, to take orders from, or to meet conditions set by any particular group of other people (Widerquist 2006a). … the conditions necessary to secure the power to say no are often ignored in law and in many discussion of economics and human rights, in ways that make one group of people subservient to another. A society that establishes nominal self-ownership but interferes with individuals’ attempts to preserve their effective control self-ownership secures the right to say no but denies the power to say no.

AI makes an implicit distinction between “forced work” and work that is freely chosen. If the work is freely chosen, then it is legitimate, and there is no human rights abuse, as far as AI is concerned. Only if the work is not freely chosen is it illegitimate and a breach of human rights. However, AI implicitly accepts that the billions of workers who work for an ideal company somehow freely choose to work for that employer. As I have argued elsewhere, workers do indeed have some freedom to choose–they generally are not forced to work for a particular employer; that does not prevent them from being forced, as a class, from working for an employer (see Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part One: A Limitation of Some Radical Left Critiques of Capitalist Relations of Production and Exchange (A.K.A. Capitalism) and  Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part Two: Critique of Unions and the Social-Reformist or Social-Democratic Left; see also The Money Circuit of Capital).

Of course, AI implicitly considers that workers who work for an employer without any explicit economic coercion are not forced to work. Mr. Gindin may not consciously agree with such a view, but by rubber-stamping the view that AI is a progressive organization, he in fact does agree to such a view.

Forcing workers to work for employers is not personal; such a situation forms part of the economic structure of a society dominated by a class of employers and is reinforced by the legal system. From Widerquist, page 88:

The question is why people enter the market in a position in which they must sell their labor to people who own property. For this, there is only one explanation: if propertyless individuals try to produce goods to meet their own needs without trade, someone who claims ownership of the natural resources they need to do so will interfere with them, thus, forcing them to work for people who own property. According to Robert Hale, if the law designates other people as owners of anything with which an individual might secure her own diet, those laws coerce her to offer whatever services she can to someone with property (Hale 1923, 471–473).

Contradictory Call for States to Enforce Human Rights

According to AI:

States have a responsibility to protect human rights.

Human rights as defined by AI can only be enforced by states. However, as AI recognizes in its 19-point list, states often abuse AI’s definition of human rights–such as torture or disappearances. States are supposed to enforce human rights–but states are, even in terms of AI’s own limited definition of human rights–some of the worst perpetrators of human rights. How are states then to enforce human rights with any consistency since they themselves can only enforce human rights?

The old question “Do not the educators themselves need to be educated?” applies here: Do not states themselves need to be regulated? Who is going to do that? AI simply does not address the problem.

Consider point 14 on “police violence.” According to AI:

The most important thing to remember is this: it is the utmost obligation of state authorities, including police, to respect and protect the right to life.

This is ideology in a number of ways. Firstly, the emergence of the modern police goes hand in hand with the oppression and control of members of the working class (see Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part 8: The Police and the Political Economy of Capitalism). AI simply ignores the major function of the police as a control mechanism for ensuring workers do not get out of hand. As I wrote in that post:

Modern police function to maintain workers, citizens, immigrants and migrants in a state of poverty–not in the sense of a level of consumption below a defined poverty line, but in terms of a state of dependence on having to work for a class of employers. Those who form the edges of this kind of poverty–who are almost teetering into indigence–are particular targets of the modern police since they represent a more likely direct threat to the premises of that state of poverty and dependence on employers.

Secondly, police hardly exist to “respect and protect the right to life.” If they did, then the police would protect workers’ lives at work–which is hardly what happens. As I wrote in another post:

Some representatives of employers surely did not know what was best for the capitalist economy–whether to shut down for as long as necessary until the number of deaths and infections were reduced, to leave parts of the economy (in addition to essential economic structures, such as food, hand sanitizer and mask production) functioning or to leave most of the economy dominated by a class of employers functioning. But “sacrificing ourselves for our employers” even in normal times is run of the mill. Why is it that there are, on average, over 1,000 deaths officially at work per year and more than 600,000 injuries in Canada (and many more deaths when unofficial deaths are included (see Working and Living in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health).

That the police do protect life to a certain extent is true–but a half-truth. The other side is not only the lack of protection of life at work but the persistent threat of the use of the police as a weapon against workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers.

AI recognizes that laws may make it legal for the state or government to threaten life; on the other hand, it relies on the state or government to protect workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers. This position is contradictory, but nowhere does AI address the contradiction.


Nor does Mr. Gindin. Indeed, his abstract slogan “progressive organization” hides the contradiction, sweeping it underneath an apparent purely positive characterization of AI as “progressive.” For anyone who has been subject to the exploitation and oppression of employers, on the one hand, and the power of the capitalist state (including the police) on the other, Mr. Gindin’s reference to AI being “a progressive organization” rings hollow.

As I wrote Mr. Gindin claimed, as I indicated in my post in this series on Oxfam (see Is Oxfam a “Progressive Organization?”–An Abstract Slogan (Rhetoric) of Social Democrats):

Mr. Gindin implied that it was necessary to create “material structures” first rather than engage in criticizing the ideology of trade-unions (see my critique Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Four: The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)). Oxfam certainly has a material structure. Is Oxfam the embodiment of Mr. Gindin’s ideas (since it is “a progressive organization”)? Or is there need to question the implicit assumption by Oxfam that the exploitation and oppression of workers is legitimate? If so, why would Mr. Gindin call it a “progressive organization?”

Does not Mr. Gindin, like so many social-democrats, engage in abstract slogans by claiming that Oxfam is a progressive organization that somehow threatens capitalism?

The same critique applies to AI.

Does not Mr. Gindin, like so many social-democrats, engage in abstract slogans by claiming that Amnesty International is a progressive organization that somehow threatens capitalism? Or are organizations that do not threaten capitalism somehow progressive?

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