- Promiscuous RelationsA review of Bruce Robbins, The Beneficiary
Bruce Robbins opens The Beneficiary with a 1948 State Department memo written by George F. Kennan. The memo acknowledges a stark disparity between the United States and the rest of the world (the U.S. held 50% of the world's wealth but had little more than 6% of its population). Kennan encourages the development of relations that would sustain that disparity. Robbins's point in opening with this secret memo is to argue that many people would now find its explicit call for inequality between the U.S. and other countries embarrassing; he suggests that the embarrassment implies the existence of a perhaps unexpected strong cosmopolitanism, a developed belief that there actually is something wrong with such disparity and inequality. This anecdote allows Robbins to introduce the central topic of his book, the beneficiary, or rather the discourse of the beneficiary.
A beneficiary in Robbins's study is one whose privileges and comfort depend, in various direct or indirect ways, on the suffering of others. The discourse of the beneficiary is at times in implicit conversation with certain Marxist arguments that point to the ways in which commodities appear while the labor that generated them is erased. The discourse of the beneficiary is generally more about those perceived to be very distant others, and often generates guilt that may or may not be alleviated by various humanitarian efforts. This is in contrast, as Robbins makes clear, to Marxism's emphasis on nearness, solidarity, and direct political transformation. The Beneficiary thus of necessity engages a complex history of humanitarianism, illustrating many of its problems and pitfalls. Robbins acknowledges from the outset that we are all beneficiaries; anyone likely to be reading his book is already in a position to reflect on his or her beneficial relation to the rest of the world. The discourse of the beneficiary is, in fact, Robbins contends, always spoken to and by the beneficiary: to and by those whose privilege in some ways depends upon unjust relations. Even workers in quite dire circumstances in the U.S. are positioned in Robbins's analysis as beneficiaries in relation to the rest of the world; it is perhaps controversial but actually important to his concluding argument (which considers immigrant workers in the U.S. who send remittances back to their home countries) that Robbins partially brackets more localized disparities (say, within the metropole, or within the U.S.) to reflect globally on the discourse of the beneficiary: those living below the poverty level of $11,000 in the U.S., including many immigrant workers, he points out, still have incomes in the top 15% globally. Robbins draws this figure from William MacAskill's Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference; MacAskill makes clear that these figures of comparison have been corrected to account for the differential value of a dollar in different global locations (19).
The discourse of the beneficiary is now quite entrenched and might in fact be said to generate what Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism. As the history of humanitarianism makes very clear, sincerely-desired, optimistic efforts on the part of beneficiaries to redress the injustices upon which our world depends often or usually risk participating in those very injustices. At the very least, humanitarianism reifies an agentic "us" always and everywhere helping a passive and objectified "them." The discourse of the beneficiary, however, cannot be entirely dispensed with; ultimately it is from within that discourse or other compromised discourses that the imagination (arguably the key player in The Beneficiary) works to generate possibilities. Put differently, the discourse of the beneficiary can be worked with and through. Late in The Beneficiary, Robbins suggests that a quotation from John Berger could well have served as the epigraph to the book: "The world is not intolerable until the possibility of transforming it exists but is denied" (qtd. 126). For ancient Greeks, for example, slavery was not intolerable because they could not imagine a world without slavery. In the U.S., slavery did eventually become intolerable because an abolitionist discourse existed that...