Racheal Fest responds to Alexander Bove

Alexander Bove understands the call for “global economic justice” Robbins sounds in The Beneficiary as a project for the “common good,” and his response to the book therefore raises the important questions we should ask of all such projects: What does it mean to work for an abstraction of this kind, and can any attempt to do so succeed without further harming those whose suffering it aims to alleviate? Bove reminds us that past projects with these ambitions—namely, those manifest in modernity’s liberal capitalist democracies—have failed, and so he encourages us to be wary of new proposals, like Robbins’s, with similarly wide-reaching aims. 

If I understand Bove correctly, he doubts Robbins’s distinction between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries can serve a contemporary project to end suffering across the globe because he suspects it reproduces the problematic ontological view of the human that utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer (a key interlocutor and target for Robbins) shares with the nation-state and with capitalism’s ideologues. If that project requires us to divide those who benefit from contemporary capitalism from those who do not, as Robbins proposes, Bove worries we will thereby redraw on an international scale the state’s line between “bare” or “nonpolitical life” and the life of the privileged “person” or citizen imbued with political agency. (For Giorgio Agamben, of course, whose language Bove borrows, the modern nation-state secures its sovereignty by understanding citizens and noncitizens alike as “bare life”).

While the familiar insight Bove invokes—claims to universality have licensed violence—deserves attention in this context, Robbins’s central distinction does not seem to me to reproduce the simultaneously universalizing and exclusionary ontology of the human out of which Agamben argues the state claims its exceptional power over life and death. This is in part because Robbins is, as he says, a “cultural historian” (137), not a philosopher, and he emphasizes throughout the historical nature of the book’s undertaking. When Robbins distinguishes between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries, then, he invents two contingent, ontic categories that describe the historical conditions we face today, strategic categories he hopes might inspire novel forms of political action in our moment. He does not, as do Singer and the state, seek or endorse a fixed, essential, and exchangeable vision of the nature of the species. This difference leads me to believe we might at least consider how Robbins’s call to readers to admit and begin from our own economic advantages might serve the left’s constitutive desire to realize “the common good” by mobilizing, as Robbins puts it, our “inability to ignore the stark and unyielding global disparity in resources and life chances” today (66).

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