Cui Bono? American Beneficiaries

“In order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation,” wrote George Orwell in 1937. This simple observation forms the basis for Bruce Robbins’s impressive new book, The Beneficiary (Duke UP, 2017). Robbins is interested in what he calls “the discourse of the beneficiary,” in which those who benefit from global inequalities explain to other privileged consumers that their comforts and commodities indirectly cause great harm to people in other countries—that they are in some way responsible for foreign poverty.

Since this realization comes about with the rise of global capitalism, its expression only begins to be discernible in the works of eighteenth-century writers such as Adam Smith. And it is only with twentieth-century figures such as Orwell that this zero-sum game between haves and have-nots in separate nations becomes a somewhat common notion.

I found this work to be particularly valuable for thinking about antebellum American literature. In “Man the Reformer,” a lecture offered to the Mechanics’ Apprentices’ Library Association in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson reflects on the “derelictions and abuses” rampant in commercial trade. But he doesn’t think that anyone is innocent. “We are all implicated of course in this charge,” he maintains. “It is only necessary to ask a few questions as to the progress of the articles of commerce from the fields where they grew, to our houses, to become aware that we eat and drink and wear perjury and fraud in a hundred commodities.” This is a systemic problem, not merely the result of a few unscrupulous actors. “Every body partakes,” he adds, “yet none feels himself accountable.”

Robbins calls this “commodity recognition”—the becoming aware of the complex histories of our commodities’ productions. (What really goes into your cup of coffee?) This recognition was clearly a terrible problem for Emerson, forcing him to consider the ethics of a complete withdrawal from civil society. And while he doesn’t go quite this far (though his acolyte Thoreau perhaps did), he advocated for “a certain rigor and privation” in one’s habits in order to discourage “the taste for luxury.” There may be a moral impetus to adopt a bread-and-water diet.

Ultimately, Emerson preached continual consideration: “We must clear ourselves each one by the interrogation, whether we have earned our bread to-day by the hearty contribution of our energies to the common benefit; and we must not cease to tend to the correction of flagrant wrongs, by laying one stone aright every day.” In other words, work hard to make sure that everyone is a beneficiary.

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