JUNE 29, 2018
IT’S SPRING IN COPENHAGEN and I am once again smitten with this city, thankful for whatever good luck has washed me up here. The canals are clearer than urban waterways have any right to be; the parks glow green and play host to hoards of healthy-looking children. By mid-afternoon the grass is speckled with workers who see the good weather as reason enough to clock out early.
I’ve felt this rush of gratitude before. In pretty university towns and along the North American shorelines, spring has also been a time of giving thanks for having made it through another winter. In Oxford and in Vancouver I have walked across lawns with my heart singing. But I’ve never done it without hearing the descant to my song, that unmistakable refrain: me-not-you-me-not-you. In the Ivy League towns where the workers who tend the lawns are bussed in and out from urban wastelands before dawn, the refrain is harsher: because-not-you, me.
In The Beneficiary, Bruce Robbins wants to make room for the note of guilt in our songs of gratitude. Who is a beneficiary? Robbins’s answer is that it is probably you. Readers of books such as his, and reviews such as this, can claim high-level literacy with all its associated and metropolitan comforts and liberties. They can also recognize their indebtedness to others — not just as a matter of unequal luck, but of systematic unfairness. Every object we use implicates us in the uncomfortable truths of the global economy. As George Orwell puts it boldly in a quote Robbins favors: “In order that England may live in comparative comfort a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation — an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step in a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.”
The object of Robbins’s analysis, however, is not the history or logic of this 20th-century world system; nor is it the role of literature or criticism in mediating it. He brings together a range of critics, from Orwell to Naomi Klein, John Berger, and Larissa MacFarquhar, who have made thinking about global unfairness the signature of their work. His own topic, however, remains the more practically modest and more ethically tricky question of how we should evaluate the intellectual work of systemic thinking that gets done by beneficiaries.
There is little doubt that Robbins wants to assess this tradition positively. He is not interested in the novelists or filmmakers whose plots just happen to circumnavigate the world, or the diplomats, entrepreneurs, and market researchers whose reports and correspondence register with more pragmatic intent the ways the fortunate profit from less fortunate lives. His cases are writers who have made an effort to describe the contributions of foreign laborers and offshore resources to our domestic well-being with ethical intent; journalists who write about global injustice in the hope of lessening it.
Yet The Beneficiary also shows why this kind of intellectual activity can itself be difficult. In Howards End, the 1910 novel whose anthem, “Only Connect,” might have served as Robbins’s own, Forster connects the dots between a woman consigned to poverty and her lover: an imperialist who rises to the highest social and economic positions that new money will allow. The relationship between the man in power, the people his company exploits, and his lower-class lover is a conceptual challenge for Helen, the liberal, independently wealthy character who confronts it. The idea that the man’s success might depend on the woman’s failure, or that Helen herself also benefits from their inequality, remain propositions as hard to fathom today as they were for Forster.
Robbins’s case in point is Naomi Klein, a modern-day Helen he admires a little wryly. Her No Logo tracks the London Fog coats made in Manila all the way back to her own neighborhood in Toronto. While Klein doesn’t quite connect this to her own fashion choices, or the publishing success that funds them, Robbins does, registering obliquely how immaculately she dresses and how well her books are placed to sell. Only connect, played properly, is a merciless game.
Yet if anyone can comment on the risks and virtues of writing so reflexively, it’s probably Robbins. He’s made a career of writing about his own good fortune in these terms. Upward Mobility and the Common Good debunks the myth of individual success by pointing to the role of a larger community, including the welfare state, in ensuring an individual’s health, happiness, and flourishing. It links the man imprisoned in one corner of the country to the family safely eating breakfast securely in another. And it ends by anticipating The Beneficiary, acknowledging that thinking beyond the nation-state might be necessary if we are to take this logic to its proper conclusion.
Robbins’s reputation as someone alert to certain kinds of international causes — boycotts, Palestine, Greek austerity — means he’s in a better position than most to open the life of academic privilege reflection. Of course, one might still ask: Would Robbins have gone, as Orwell did, to join a foreign civil war? Would Klein wear different clothes? What might make you stop, say, eating meat, or driving a car, or sending your kids to private schools? But The Beneficiary is not invested simply in exposing liberal American hypocrisy or telling us to put our money where our mouths are. Instead this is a study, in many ways a generous one, of the uneasy place we live intellectually, in that zone somewhere between “a recognition of global economic injustice and a denunciation of it.”
Certainly, then, The Beneficiary doesn’t get far in recommending a course of action that would make life better for all the people on the planet. It does recall some moments where global thinking has helped in recalibrating national life — for instance, when wartime rationing radically altered behavior on local scale, or when Greek islanders rearranged their spaces to accommodate Syrian refugees. But, more important, Robbins suggests, is recognizing that privileged people thinking about their own place in the world is probably better than one of them ignoring or denying it.
If this approach results in an argument against structural inequality, it’s delivered through an interesting kind of inversion. At one point, Robbins notes John Berger’s reworking of Che Guevara’s claim that a world of inequality might be bearable all the way up until that point at which it can be thought, beyond which it becomes intolerable. For Robbins, this translates, perhaps too quickly, into the message that being able to think about something puts one in a position to change it. He enlists Guevara as urging us to bring about this change.
The grass in Denmark really isn’t any greener than the grass in Princeton or Vancouver. The fact that it’s watered by well-paid people who see it in the light of day, who lie on it in their lunch hour, makes it better food for thought. But of course, there’s plenty that might be said about what it means to live in a country at the top of a global food chain: a country resistant to taking in refugees, deeply estranged from its own colonial history, and dependent in many ways on those lacunae for its own high-functioning welfare state.
It seems likely that in the near future, an early spring day anywhere, even in Denmark, might provoke environmental thinking of the scale Robbins recommends. At whose cost this dry land, this breathable air? Whose death marks my stepping into this life-affirming spring, having gratefully survived another year? Perhaps in the future tallying up the planetary cost of national happiness will become so painful we’ll give up that thought experiment altogether. But if Robbins has his way, we’ll not only still be thinking globally — we’ll live in a world that makes doing so tolerable.