Racheal Fest responds to Nathan K. Hensley

The Beneficiary’s project for “global economic justice” asks those who occupy positions of relative privilege to admit they are advantaged, acknowledge their advantages depend upon distant others’ suffering, and then speak and act in novel ways to put an end to this situation. Robbins worries as he develops this project that he is demanding too much of his readers, most of whom he (rightly) assumes will be fellow US academics. Admitting we are beneficiaries, he anticipates, will be “hard to live with” for many academics on the left (37), in part because our “proximity to power” seems to us “undesired, unarticulated, and embarrassing” (126).

Nathan Hensley’s polemical reading of the book indicates Robbins is right to worry. Hensley is uncomfortable with, and refuses to be conscripted into the service of, Robbins’s central demand—that radical academics in the US (among others) recognize and mobilize in new ways our own proximity to power. Instead of asking members of Robbins’s own economically privileged group to find ways to abolish inequality, Hensley wishes Robbins had composed instead a “manual for uplifting and amplifying the incipient power of the damned, forgotten, and dispossessed.” Hensley, in other words, does not want a provocation that incites the privileged to confront our own complicity in injustice and then organize ourselves against our own apparent self-interests. He wants instead a practical guide that would tell academics how to intervene from above to influence the revolutionary actions of the Global South’s poor. Curiously, Hensley imagines such a guide would not engage journalism or popular culture, but would draw primarily upon the elite, specialized enterprise of the scholar.

This fantasy of an alternate book indicates Hensley believes scholars in the US academy can function for the Global South’s disenfranchised groups as what Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals,” those able to direct and shape the activities of a class through “active participation in practical life” (10). Even if it were desirable for those located in the US academy to influence the distant poor in this way, and subaltern studies warns it likely would not be, US academics have rarely sought out or secured for ourselves power of this kind. This is one reason why Robbins’s attempt to speak directly to members of the collective to which he belongs, rather than imagining he can or should speak for others, seems to me so refreshing.

Hensley fears The Beneficiary proposes we swap individual action by “rich people” for the efforts of “peasant revolutionaries,” but Robbins is unequivocal on this point: “‘Workers of the world unite!’ remains the indispensable slogan,” he writes. “I am not making the ludicrous proposal that ‘workers’ here be replaced by ‘beneficiaries.’ But I am not the first to suggest that the workers of the world will have a much easier time of it if a slice of the stratum above them, those who are simultaneously (but unequally) victims and beneficiaries of the system, come to see what the two groups share, in terms of values and even of self-interest” (135). This spur to re-imagine how the left might form a collective block that crosses traditional class lines and reconfigures class interests seems to me the book’s central contribution to reinvigorating radical politics from within US institutions of power.

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