Nathan K. Hensley responds to Racheal Fest

Racheal Fest begins her alert response by noting The Beneficiary’s mixed genre signals: with a novelish cover (which is beautiful) and a slantwise take on established conventions of academic discourse, the book is not easy to pin down, and it may be that Duke’s coverwork aims to turn what might have been a liability—the elusiveness of its central claims—into the virtue of enigma. Fest’s response helped clarify for me points that the book itself might have emphasized more. It helped me see, for example, that Robbins’ premise is that any movement toward global justice by the enriched classes must aim toward those classes’ “self-abolition” (154). Yet like its bracing if understated emphasis on North-South “loyalty” or what I would rather term solidarity (153), the book’s important claim about the leveling ambitions of any global justice project is obscured, for me, by another aspect Fest alludes to, which is its tendency to “attack … multiculturalism and its methods.” The obliqueness of these attacks makes parsing the claims difficult. Early on, the idea that poor people exercise power is dismissed as “the going mantra” from which Robbins tacks away (10). But is The Beneficiary disagreeing with this supposed mantra, or, as Fest suggests, “supplement[ing]” it?

Fest alludes to an answer when she writes that “[t]he New Left’s cultural turn swelled the ranks of the oppressed as a political strategy, expanding beyond class the categories of disenfranchisement worthy of radical attention.” I see what’s meant here, but it wasn’t the Left’s … turn that swelled the ranks of the oppressed: a racialized system of dispossession swelled the ranks of the oppressed, and the Left has been forced to decide whether it will or will not adapt its analytical habits to accommodate this fact. In passages Fest cites, Robbins I think labors to maintain in the face of new forms of exploitation the analytical resources of a midcentury Left-liberalism whose contours are tipped off by the book’s focus on Orwell: a “fiercely simplifying” class analysis above all (19), combined with moralizing if discreet allusions to allegedly PC campus politics. But this attempt to preserve the supposed purity of an effectively whitened (because “colorblind”) and quite straight class analysis (albeit now cast at global scale) ignores the strategies of dispossession and suspended personhood that characterize our phase of globalized extraction, at home and abroad. To see this as a “comfortable” way of adding yet more “items to the inventory of the injured and aggrieved” (145) makes sense, maybe—but only from the perspective of those empowered citizens who have never been made to feel their disposability as lived experience.

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