Reflection by Alexander Bove
The “relatively single-minded focus on the beneficiary as a present-tense relation to present economic realities” (148) of Bruce Robbins’ recent book The Beneficiary is in part what makes it, on the one hand, so engaging and compelling, yet on the other perhaps ultimately somewhat troubling. The concept of the beneficiary, developed with rich nuance throughout the book’s six chapters, applies to all those who derive benefit from a global system that thrives on the exploited labor of (usually distant) non-beneficiaries (i.e. a system characterized by global economic injustice). And just as Robbins’ approach is remarkably focused, his lodestar is clear and steady throughout the book: that beneficiaries should leverage their power so as to ultimately eliminate the category of the beneficiary by establishing a level of global equality—clearly a noble cause, bolstered by a fascinating cultural history of the “discourse of the beneficiary.”
Since Robbins seems to be envisioning a kind of Humanitarianism 2.0, he turns to modern utilitarianist Peter Singer as a springboard in the first chapter, of whom he has several strong critiques. And yet Singer seems to pervade the whole text, to underlie its “common good” (Robbins 135) worldview sustained by “metropolitan self-interest” (99) and even to return in the conclusion to help define the central concept: “Think of the discourse of the beneficiary as what is added to Singer by Jack Nicholson [in his A Few Good Men speech]. Singer speaks in the name of the traditional cosmopolitan premise that all lives everywhere should matter to you as much as the lives of those around you” (152). Singer’s universalizing philanthropy (“all lives everywhere”), on which Robbins builds, seems difficult to dismiss; after all, how can an ethical person oppose the common good? And yet, at a time when a motto like “all lives matter” exposes so unequivocally the potential violence lurking in a “common good” founded on inclusion and the question of death implicit in “lives,” I want to see any author who adopts such a viewpoint interrogate the logic of exception lying at the heart of this “all.”
But Robbins’ single-minded focus prevents him from interrogating the logic that sustains Singer’s ethical system, a logic that is itself steeped in capitalism’s premise of what I would call ontological exchangeability. Consider how in Singer’s The Most Good You can Do (cited by Robbins), for instance, life itself becomes abstracted from person in order to establish an exchange-value system where a disabled person’s life is given a “discount rate” of 20 percent; thus, “1 year when blind is equivalent to 0.8 years of healthy life, or curing a person of blindness for 5 years is equivalent to extending a healthy person’s life by 1 year” (Singer 132). Likewise the “beneficiary/ nonbeneficiary divide” (Robbins 108), a threshold almost exclusively defined by capital, is at bottom a matter of exchanges and redistributions within a system that seeks to regulate the quality of “lives” by establishing personhood. Robbins’ “global justice for selfish people” (101), in other words, is haunted by the specter of utilitarianism. The field of biopolitics, which strangely never crosses Robbins’ radar, has long since illustrated how humanism’s/ utilitarianism’s ethical order depends on the “dispositif of the person” and its intrinsic problem of “bare life,” and that therefore humanist thinkers like Singer, however seemingly well-meaning and ostensibly inclusive, never avoid falling into the same biopolitical violence, since “personalization and depersonalization are nothing but different flows of the same process, one that is ancient in origin but whose effects are far from being exhausted” (Esposito 99). Robbins only ever seems to register this problem as a tension, never fully articulated, between “local” politics and global economics; but doesn’t the transition Robbins envisions from the rights of citizens of nation states to global economic justice for human beings, as noncitizens, give rise to a wealth of unanswered questions? For instance, doesn’t Robbins’ beneficiary/ nonbeneficiary divide merely repeat the modern biopolitical gesture of transforming “nonpolitical life” into “a line that must be constantly redrawn” (Agamben 131)? In a similar vein, says Agamben, “humanitarian organizations … can only grasp human life in the figure of bare or sacred life, and therefore, despite themselves, maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight” (133). Singer’s implicit utilitarianist eugenics is a blatant case in point here that Robbins doesn’t bother to address in this book.
Robbins is far more self-reflexive about methodology than Singer, but these underlying biopolitical tensions press to the surface in his chapter on life, “Life Will Win,” where for instance a discussion of Wall Street excesses unpunished after the US financial crash elicits the admission that, when “life itself” is at stake, being a beneficiary may provide justification for self preservation via capital (130) instead of working to “abolish itself” as he otherwise intends. And it is in this context of containing Wall Street transgressions that such seemingly righteous claims of inclusivity as “the problem with finance is … that it is injurious to the common good” and therefore “must be answered… in the name of the common good” (134) will emerge, from the biopolitical perspective, as unsettlingly haunted by an unspoken force of nomos, which points to an implicit exchangeability between the good, life, and economic power within the “discourse of the beneficiary.” As Robbins puts it in his discussion of life: “That said, it may not be such a bad thing that the beneficiary’s power… is associated with life or even that it benefits from an underserved moral toleration” (134), or more concisely, that “[l]ife is power” (135). In this sense, I wonder whether the “discourse” (ideology?) of the beneficiary, by interminably obscuring our focus on the ontology of global capitalism with its biopolitical violence, doesn’t, like Singer, inadvertently compel us to repeat it.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Esposito, Roberto Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal, Zakiya Hanafi (tr.), Polity Press, 2012.
Singer, Peter. The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically. Yale University Press, 2015.