Giving Up (on) Rights? The Future of Rights and the Project of Radical Democracy


  • I thank Rebecca Brown and Dan Williford for comments on earlier drafts, and I thank the reviewers for AJPS who helped to strengthen this article in innumerable ways. I owe my profound gratitude to the students in my “Giving Up (on) Rights?” seminars at St. Mary's College of Maryland in both the spring and fall of 2000: their engagement, commitment, and collegiality turned a schematic set of ideas into two vibrant seminars, and into a viable article.

Samuel A. Chambers is Visiting Assistant Professor of Government, University of Redlands, P. O. Box 3080, Redlands, CA 92373 (


Debate over the theory of rights has recently reemerged, with a confrontation between postfoundational writings that challenge the very discourse of rights and Habermasians (and others) who insist on the foundational centrality of rights. This article will not enter such a debate directly, but rather will try to take seriously that challenge itself. The article asks what, exactly, is at stake in an argument for or against rights and queries whether this challenge to rights discourse entails giving up on rights as a tool of political leverage. In responding to such questions I indicate a future for rights and rights discourse, one found within the project of radical democracy. I not only insist that we cannot abandon the discourse of rights in contemporary theory and politics, but also go on to suggest that sustaining and reinvigorating the discourse of rights requires a significant displacement of that discourse from the dominant terms of liberalism and toward those of radical democracy.