The 1964 Civil Rights Act certainly deserves a shower of golden anniversary tributes. Thanks to what Clay Risen, in his new book about its passage, calls “the Bill of the Century,” most Americans now assume and most welcome the fact that restaurants and hotels cannot turn people away because of their race, that women can apply for the same jobs as men, and that colleges that practice discrimination can’t receive federal funds.
With a big push from progressive social movements, the law also helped catalyze a “rights revolution” that continues to inspire millions of Americans and infuriate others. Mexican Americans, disabled people, homosexuals, and women from every kind of background claimed their own right to economic opportunity, political influence, and cultural respect in language borrowed both from the 1964 act and from the black power movement, which emerged later in the decade. This expansion of rights—of freedoms, both individual and collective—has been the greatest achievement of the American left since the Second World War.
But perhaps it’s time to advance the idea of responsibility as well as rights. Talk of freedom from unjust authorities and traditions cannot address some of the most serious problems that currently face the United States and much of the world: the exploitation of workers and the poor, the rigged casino that is finance capital, the accelerating degradation of the environment. Celebrants of the autonomous, profit-maximizing individual did much to create and aggravate these injustices. They claim that businesses have a right to operate free of unions and government regulation and that the EPA has no right to compel landowners to follow any rules that might restrain what they do on their property.
A rhetoric of interdependence, of responsibility to others, is essential to rebutting these claims and to mitigating and, eventually, abolishing the outrages they dismiss or legitimate. Bosses should be responsible to the well-being of their workers; wage-earners to the consumers they serve; professionals to their clients; banks to the communities and nations where they operate; parents to their children; the rich to the poor; and everyone to preserving the natural world and reversing the damage industrial civilization has done.
Every religion preaches a version of this ethic, which some call the Golden Rule. Socialists traditionally prefer to talk about solidarity, recognizing the need to transform a society in which those who have the gold make the rules. But whatever one calls it, the alternative is barbaric disorder, the war of all against all. And that would be a world in which the only right that mattered would be the right to survive.