Reflection by Racheal Fest
Bruce Robbins’s new book, The Beneficiary, looks like a novel. On its cover, ominous clouds roil beneath an unencumbered title, signaling readers might find inside it a dark story of unnamed (illicit?) recompenses. The book delivers a story of just this kind, tracing from George Orwell to Naomi Klein a critical history of its titular figure, one who at once causes and reaps the rewards of “global economic injustice.” By eschewing on its face some of the generic habits academic readers might expect from a monograph put out by a major university press, the book’s cover also hints at what is most interesting and important about its contents. Robbins admits at the outset that he himself is a “beneficiary” of contemporary capitalism and its injustices, and he calls his readers to recognize that we likely are, too. By beginning his most recent engagement with the urgent set of global questions that have long preoccupied him this way, Robbins closes the distance between academics, our audiences, and our objects of study—a distance that dominant historicist modes of scholarship often inflate.
Beneficiaries, as Robbins defines us, are aware that we at once contribute to global economic inequality (usually, as citizens of democratic nation-states who license with votes or silence state and market activities) and enjoy its privileges. Speakers of “the discourse of the beneficiary,” he notices, have over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries deployed this awareness for different ends. Some accept their fraught privileges; others find these intolerable and so exhort their peers to help change the conditions from which they profit.
In naming this discourse and constellating its history, Robbins does not hope to incite in readers the “liberal guilt” we usually feel when we reflect upon our privileges. Rather, he draws out and invites us to sit with the contradictions proper to this complicated structure of feeling—one can occupy an impoverished position at home in a wealthy nation at the same time as one claims a relatively advantaged global position—in the hope that doing so might motivate a new mode of political activity. If oppositional humanitarians can recognize ourselves not only as critics of global capitalism, but also, and simultaneously, as its fortunate originators, we might be able to supplement the left’s conventional investment in revolution from below with novel demands for equality from the top or middle.
To do so, those who cannot bear to profit from a system that impoverishes others must take up a project of self-abolition. For Robbins, such a project would have to set its sights on redressing present, rather than historical, injustices. Of course, Robbins recognizes, it is difficult to distinguish between these two categories of grievance, as present conditions always grow out of the past. In order to renounce benefits and transform systems in ways that serve the living, however, Robbins encourages us to differentiate between appeals that aim to make change now and those that aim solely to rectify historical wrongs. He gives priority to “ongoing debts” and abandons those that might not repair continuing suffering on a global scale.
This move may seem to some readers on the left controversial, as it strategically reverses what has been commonsense left practice for some time. The 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. Robbins suggests a properly cosmo-political left might take up the opposite cause. Instead of tallying and compounding a list of domestic victims, Robbins presses beneficiaries to notice how relatively powerful groups profit, at the expense of the global South’s poor, from contemporary market forces. As Robbins puts it, we have been more “comfortable adding items to the inventory of the injured and aggrieved, usually with no vetting of the candidates or any sense that the group as a whole might be devalued if it came to have too many members,” than we have been admitting that we wield global influence, however limited (145).
Some might read this provocation as an attack on multiculturalism and its methods, and in a limited sense, it is that. Revising our “inventory of the injured and aggrieved” with the possibility for present action against economic inequality in mind would likely change our methods and commitments as cultural studies critics and scholars. It would require us to assess anew, for instance, our various appeals for reparations, as well as the means by which we believe we work for them. At the same time, however, Robbins continues to value difference as a concern for the left, distinguishing himself again from critics like Walter Benn Michaels, who has long claimed radical attention to diversity serves neoliberalism. The Beneficiary does not dismiss the legacies of race violence, say, that continue to disenfranchise groups in the US and Europe. On the contrary, it asks us to understand them in a broader global context, and to consider how doing so might inspire collective transformation right now. The book’s sense that we should keep constantly before us the changing relationship between our present and our past in order to do so seems to me a vital insight.