Reflection by Nathan K. Hensley
The Beneficiary arranges its recuperative defense of “ordinary moral intuitions” (25), “decency” (83), and an internationalized vision for the welfare state against the “cocktail of irony, self-conscious marginality, and ethical hyperscrupulousness” (37) that its self-avowedly impolitic author locates around himself. Although it is announced as a “rant” (36), the book’s claims are curiously oblique, mediated through the work of like-minded writers—George Orwell, Naomi Klein, Larissa MacFarquhar—whose positions track closely but not exactly with the author’s. The Beneficiary’s key terms are moral and affective, and thus ethical. But its aspirations, Robbins says, are political. Its focus is on the psychic agonies of the (individual) western consumer (the “you” of its insistent second person address); its goal is to recuperate “a certain potential” from the “pained perception” that we benefit from a global system that is (a) objectively unjust and (b) sustained by one’s own activities (9). “Your hands are dirty,” Robbins tells us (40).
The book’s oscillation between “the causal power of the individual” on the one hand and “the system” (70) on the other leaves out any mediating categories—collectivity, solidarity, organized action at varying scales—that might begin to make sense of that relation. This micro-macro duality also prevents the book from advancing a coherent theory of responsibility or rigorous account of human action. Collective responsibility is a “vexed subject,” we are told. “[C]omplex and oblique. But … also real and unavoidable” (23). This imprecision is important because it limits the book’s ability to understand political agency. Here rich people have it, and they exercise it alone. For Robbins, that is, the capacity to act comes “‘from above’” (10) and only those who already know they have power can make change. In a statement that would be news to peasant revolutionaries and salt marching insurgents no less than newly radicalized high school students, nonwhite citizens blocking freeways to protest police killings, or women finding community as harassment victims, Robbins claims that “in order to find the world intolerable, you must have the power to change it” (125). “Things cannot even be seen as wrong,” he writes, “unless the capacity to change them already exists and is seen to exist” (68, italics added). But power is not given in advance: it is performatively seized, and it is collective. The book’s tendentiously individualizing presupposition about who does and does not have “the power to change it” denies agency to the dispossessed; cements the global division it avows to critique; and sponsors the book’s fixation on the affluent denizens of the global north, “you” who grab lattés and read the NYRB on lazy Sundays.
The book’s most audacious gambit may be this form of direct address—you, us, we—which hails the reader into a catechism aimed at sharpening her sense that she, in Orwell’s term, “acquiesce[s] in” an obscene global system (33). But the narcissistic certitude that “you” and “me” make an “us” transforms into formal feature exactly the unconsidered universalism driving the book’s arguments about the “ordinary moral intuitions” (25) and “unarticulated common sense” of “most people most of the time” (136). This unargued-for moral realism conscripts the audience into a situated point of view—the author’s—whose parochialism becomes evident in, for example, the book’s citational practice. This ushers us into a journalistic world populated not by informed debate among scholars of globalization and justice, but glossy magazines and opinion pieces, most written from Manhattan. Long paragraphs joust with articles in the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, and the New York Review of Books; take coordinates from “a New York Times series on class in America” (40); painstakingly rehash a magazine profile of Klein and her response in the letters page there; and take facts about globalization from a piece in The Nation called “What is India?” (46). As for actual information about global inequality, it is “there for the Googling” (45). Along the way we are asked to entertain, if finally to dissent from, the notion that middle eastern wars “can be explained by a clash of civilizations” (121); that Black Lives Matter “may or may not lead to hesitant, overcautious police forces” (138); that “the New York Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman” is an interlocutor to be taken seriously (53). This degraded sphere of address could be explained by the fact that most of the book’s contents appeared first as essays. But intellectual work in public need not reiterate the (presumed) ideological coordinates of its (presumed) audience; nor must it ignore vast swaths of existing scholarship. The Beneficiary conjures a world of breezy phrasemaking and conceptual slackness to which its own prose alternately aspires and, in asides about Klein’s branding-savvy “tonality” (100), condescends. If this self-described rant aims to jolt out of complacency an allegedly fussy and reticent “political left” (112), it is a curiously attenuated, middlebrow rant, less Marx than MSNBC. This matters because, rather than generate ethical theory from the fact that we’re “always inside relations of suffering” (as Alexis Shotwell does, in Against Purity ) or address in a sustained way “the philosophical difficulty… of thinking about individual accountability in a collective world” (as Daniel Stout does, in Corporate Romanticism ), we circle obsessively, recursively, around the basic tenet of immanent critique, ending where we started: we participate in and even sometimes enjoy a system and nevertheless want that system to end. What to do?
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon posed this question from the vantage of the “native town”: a place “starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of light” (37). And he got an answer—revolutionary collective action by the excluded—that followed from that perspective. Robbins locates his allegiances across the way, in “the settler’s town,” and presumes you do too: this is “a well-fed town, an easygoing town; its belly … always full of good things” ( Fanon 37). “The settler’s town,” Fanon summarizes, “is a town of white people” (39). It is telling, perhaps, that this book finds cause to worry over Sartre’s introduction to Fanon—and a later reading of that introduction by Jacques Rancière, a “human rights cynic” (78)—rather than Fanon himself. “My premise here,” Robbins writes, “is that bourgeois guilt is not uninteresting” (41). Some will disagree with this premise—I wrote a happy face next to it—and the double negative suggests Robbins isn’t quite ready to own it either. But in that hesitation, could there be space to imagine a different version of The Beneficiary, a Beneficiary of the poor? A manual for uplifting and amplifying the incipient power of the damned, forgotten, and dispossessed? Those guides for action and thought have been, and are now being dreamed into being—but that work is happening far from the pages of the New York glossies, in zones of intellectual activity and collective making unlikely to answer to the name “Humanitarianism 2.0” (25).
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. (1961) Translated by Constance Ferguson. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
Shotwell, Alexis. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Stout, Daniel M. Corporate Romanticism: Liberalism, Justice, and the Novel. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.