Editors’ Note: The following post is adapted from a talk that Bruce Robbins gave at the University of Copenhagen in June 2017. It is based on his recently published book, The Beneficiary.
In the May 17, 2016 London Review of Books, journalist Ben Ehrenreich interviewed a 31-year-old Syrian man he encountered in the so-called “Jungle” in Calais, waiting for his chance to sneak onto a train going under the Channel to England. The message he got from the Syrian was this (I quote): “We are not criminals and we are not terrorists. We are just trying to find a safe place. We’re here because of the actions of European governments in our countries. We are the outcome of your actions.”
In this very brief passage, we get two distinct arguments. The first argument is that the refugees are not terrorists but are simply seeking a safe haven from war and terror. The second argument is that moral responsibility for the violence they are fleeing falls on the European countries in which they now find themselves. Argument #2—“we are the outcome of your actions”—puts a stronger moral pressure on Europeans as potential hosts to non-Europeans. Argument #1 appeals to humanitarianism. Argument #2 goes beyond humanitarianism. It suggests that the reason you should take us in is not recognition of our common humanity, but because you created the situation that drove us out of our homes.
It seems likely that what the Syrian man has in mind when he refers to the “actions of European governments in our countries” is primarily military actions, whether under colonialism or more recently. But the argument that “you drove us out of our homes” could apply both to refugees, properly speaking—that is, to people fleeing military violence—and to those who these days are being called “economic migrants” and who are therefore being denied entry on principle. That is, it could also cover actions that resulted in economic deprivation, whether or not these actions also resulted in violence—as so much economic deprivation arguably does. So it is possible that the Syrian is not sheltering behind the term “refugee” but is instead making a broader case that would apply as well to economic migrants, or (as we might say) to all representatives of precarity.
I have been told that in Europe at the present moment, where the welcome extended to so-called “legitimate” refugees is itself so very precarious, this second argument is a non-starter, or even a bad tactical mistake. Public opinion in Europe is not ready for it. And perhaps public opinion is right. To say that “Europe” is the (single) cause of which the refugees are the outcome is to ignore other, entirely domestic causes of their plight, like the corruption of their governments. Some European countries, in particular those of the European East and South, will naturally respond that they themselves never had colonies and indeed were themselves colonized or at any rate badly treated by “Europe.” It’s true. “We are here because you were there” does not apply except circuitously to Moroccans in Holland or Pakistanis in Greece, to Turks in Germany, Ethiopians in Sweden, or Bosnians in Denmark.
And yet what it arguably does apply to is a proposition that the Syrian in Calais probably did not have in mind. Subtract military adventures like those spearheaded by the United States. Subtract the more distant facts of colonialism, like the actions of France in Syria, the actions of Germany, Belgium, and Italy in Africa, and the actions of the UK as well as the US in Iraq and Afghanistan—okay, subtract a lot of actions. You are left with the EU’s enthusiastic participation in the global capitalist system. In other words, you are still there in the sense that you participate in and benefit from the global system. And we are here because of the very different consequences for us of our belonging to the same system. You are beneficiaries of the system from which others suffer visible and significant harm.
The book I have just published, entitled The Beneficiary, uses the concept of the beneficiary to explore this specifically economic translation of “we are the outcomes of your actions.” It proposes, first of all, that there is a history of this uncomfortable perception, an archive of literary moments, neither quite political nor quite humanitarian, that express moral and affective dimensions of this economic interconnectedness. In a short essay like this, one example will have to suffice. “Under the capitalist system,” George Orwell wrote in 1937, “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 into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.” For Orwell, the relation between prosperity here and hunger there highlights not just a shameful incongruity—the sort of thing that might figure in a humanitarian appeal. Rather, it is an illustration of implacable economic causality. They are poor because I am rich, and vice versa. Their poverty is part of my identity. “This is the system,” Orwell writes with remorseless emphasis, “which we all live on.” And you acquiesce in it.
If the assumption is that my country’s prosperity produces your country’s poverty, then guilt and shame seem more appropriate than the characteristic humanitarian feelings of empathy and compassion. Orwell, who was no stranger to guilt and shame, doubted that those were feelings out of which anything valuable could be built. Yet he did not come up with an alternative vocabulary to deal with the complications of thinking that poverty and prosperity are results of the same system. His usefulness to us today lies in the challenge he left behind. Now that so many of us have come to think along similar lines, to feel with acute discomfort our acquiescence in a state of affairs that we would also like to abolish, we would like to know what sort of acting or even speaking might begin to be adequate to our geopolitical situation.
The Beneficiary does not pretend to answer this question. What it tries to do, with pained awareness of its own inadequacy, is to define and historicize the problem. It should help to know, for example, that Orwell’s “you acquiesce in it” is part of a longer rhetorical history going back at least to the traditional origins of humanitarianism in the 18th century. It does not seem to be common knowledge that concern for the suffering of distant others included concern for the labor that went into the new commodities that were suddenly appearing in European homes. Who knew, for example, that misogynous attacks on female consumers of luxury goods from abroad contributed to abolitionist calls for a boycott on slave-grown sugar, and thus also contributed to an incipient awareness of global economic injustice?
What I call “the discourse of the beneficiary” is defined by denunciations or namings of global economic injustice that 1) are addressed to beneficiaries of that injustice and 2) are spoken by a fellow beneficiary. In defining this object of investigation, the book seeks also to defend the dignity of appeals to the (relatively, globally) powerful by others who are also (relatively, globally) powerful. It does so even if (as the book also argues) the speech that results does not fall into established categories. The discourse of the beneficiary, I argue, cannot be described either as quite humanitarian or as quite political. We usually think of political speech as addressing the victims of an injustice, who might be expected to rise up against it, and exhorting them to take action. The discourse of the beneficiary addresses itself to those who benefit from the injustice, who therefore might be expected not to rise up against it. It assumes (perhaps too charitably) that those who benefit—the powerful, not the powerless—are nonetheless capable of rising up against it.
But if this discourse is not quite political, neither is it precisely humanitarian. Humanitarianism, as I understand it, appeals to the sentiments of a disinterested spectator; it does not encourage that heavier weight of moral responsibility that comes with acknowledging that the victim’s suffering is a result of the life the spectator is living. My book assumes that the beneficiary, whose self-interest would seem to entail maintaining that life, might also have an interest in abandoning it. In making this assumption, I try to point toward an as yet unarticulated zone where politics (assumed to stop at the nation’s borders) might combine with humanitarianism (allowed free rein in the zone outside those borders) to produce a politically aware humanitarianism 2.0. It’s my hope that this self-critical body of thinking can help inform the increasingly self-critical philanthropy now in operation. The current refugee crisis, in which both the US and Europe have so largely ignored their own responsibility for the peoples forced from their homes, is only one of many where we desperately need all the conceptual help we can get.
Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Beneficiary (Duke, 2017). His other books include Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012), Upward Mobility and the Common Good (2007), Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), and Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (1993). He has edited Intellectuals: Aesthetics, Politics, Academics (1990) and The Phantom Public Sphere (1993). His essays have appeared in n+1, The Nation, Public Books, the London Review of Books, and the LA Review of Books. A collection of essays entitled Cosmopolitanisms, co-edited with Paulo Horta, came out from NYU Press in July 2017.