Nathan K. Hensley responds to Alexander Bove

Alexander Bove’s response tugs on some of the loose ends in The Beneficiary’s program of describing “global justice for selfish people” (101), a “double-action politics” (in Robbins’ words) that stands against global inequality while remaining unafraid to ask “What’s wrong with having a good time?” (101). In so doing, Bove puts his finger on the exchange logic and dehistoricization driving the book’s program of what Bove names “ontological exchangeability.” This utilitarian calculus construes injury in unit-terms, then computes it across a field understood to coincide with the total world at the present time: a spreadsheet logic of human quantification that (Bove writes) underpins ethicist Peter Singer’s arguably obscene cost-benefit analysis of moral worth. Bove’s suggestion is that, by redescribing moral and political obligation as (again in Bove’s words) “a matter of exchanges and redistributions” across a synchronic field, Robbins reinforces at a conceptual level the system of assessment, exchange, and extraction to which his project is promised as material enemy. We could call it capitalism for short. The book cops to this, I think, arguing that “capitalism deserves some of the credit” for the fact that global economic justice can be conceptualized at all (28). It may strike some as surprising to see a book professing to oppose global capitalism take moral coordinates from Adam Smith (67-74) and George Orwell, the latter of whom secretly informed on leftists and “crypto-communists” for the British Foreign Office before he died (see Ash). As Alex Woloch notes, “Orwell has become a largely ritualized figure through which two warring entities—two modes of reading—seek to obliterate each other” (xviii). Bove helps us see that on one side of this war is a theoretical attunement to philosophical concepts and the force they exert on lived experience in a global frame of dispossession and injury. On the other is (in a 1980s assessment Woloch cites as symptomatic) “Orwell’s homespun empiricist outlook—his assumption that the truth was just there to be told in a straightforward, common-sense way—[which] now seems not merely naïve but culpably self-deluding” (qtd. xviii). It is a compliment to The Beneficiary to say that it forces us to look this war in the face, and to ask once more that old question, first posed in a song written by striking union workers during the Orwell era: which side are you on?

Ash, Timothy Garten. “Orwell’s List.” New York Review of Books, 25 September 2003.

Woloch, Alex. Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2016.

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