- The Beneficiary by Bruce Robbins
Bruce Robbins wants you to feel responsible for global inequality. In his latest book, he argues for an ethical approach to inequality by examining what he calls "the discourse of the beneficiary" (13). For Robbins, that means the discourse of "the well-intentioned beneficiary: the relatively privileged person in the metropolitan centre who contemplates her or his unequal relations with persons at the less-prosperous periphery and feels or fears that in some way their fates are linked" (5). George Orwell is his central interlocutor, in particular Orwell's accusation that his readers "acquiesce in it [global inequality] every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream" (9). Robbins does not so much interrogate Orwell's division of the world into two crude categories as ask readers to assent to these categories. In some respects, this is an affective strategy. He states upfront, "what this book tries to do is to tell a story that the numbers themselves cannot provide" (3). Throughout, [End Page 519] Robbins addresses readers as "you," at one point telling them "to give a talk like this [book] a respectful hearing, you have to be prepared to stay in your seat even when you suspect you are in the presence of a rant" (36). Robbins's argument is less a rant than an attempted subjectivation, a demand that readers accept their interpellation by taking the seats he assigns. As a result, Robbins's argument has little to offer in terms of social, political, or economic analysis. He goes so far as to claim that acceptance of one's status as a beneficiary precedes political actions such as financial regulation. That this seems a willful misunderstanding of the manifold relations between ethical and political actions should give one insight into the tenor of the book.
The Beneficiary is, in short, a provocation. As such it relies throughout on loose arguments, weak evidence, and a persistent use of logical fallacies framed in rhetoric slippery enough that they can be waved away as rhetorical devices. Consider, for example, Robbins's decision to frame a chapter about Naomi Klein as a love story, beginning with an intensely problematic description of her appearance, and then writing of her critiques of capitalism that "this sounds less like an analysis of capitalism than an analysis of men" (97). Such language is ridiculous in its sexism-his discussion of Orwell certainly has nothing to say of Orwell's clothes or of his relationships, let alone the troubling depiction of women in Orwell's writings-and thus he writes unconvincingly a few pages on: "The points I've raised may seem dismissive of Klein's argument. That is not at all how they are meant" (101). Robbins's game, I suspect, is to incite readers with his rhetoric and sloppy argumentation in order to launch a series of responses couched in ethical terms-surely you have misunderstood my serious point due to an insufficient grasp of my ethical insights!-and thus claim more space in the attention economy of cultural production. It is a game I would encourage others not to play.
The central failing of The Beneficiary is its refusal to take seriously class analysis. Robbins claims that by seeing oneself as a beneficiary of global inequality, one gains agency. If you have a stake in global inequality, then you can resist it. According to Robbins, to acknowledge one's status as a beneficiary can allow people to see that they "are simultaneously but unequally victims and beneficiaries of the system" (136) and thus to recognize shared interests with other disenfranchised peoples. For Robbins, this argument is somehow elided from Marxist thought and contemporary critical theory, a perspective that results in misleading characterizations. Robbins chooses to highlight a relatively new popular magazine, Jacobin, and claim that "orthodox Marxism" would argue that "if you are not the cause of distant suffering, then your self-divestment choices are no longer so politically consequential" (108). This fails to grasp the more...