I’m reading Bruce Robbins’s Upward Mobility and the Common Good and struggling a bit with it. I might be struggling because I misunderstand the argument (lots of subtlety, I think, in part to deal with the nuances of the relationship between capitalism and the state, and the role history does and does not play in the book) or I might be struggling because I flat out disagree (like, if the welfare state is the same as welfare capitalism, why does he continue to work so hard to defend it?).
The book comes from an interesting perspective – – how do we defend institutions such as the welfare state, given the fact that the left and theory (and left theory) usually depends upon the rejection of the state? Foucault, of course, is a target here, because if power is everywhere, it takes away individual responsibility without fostering collective responses, and attacks institutions without allowing us to defend institutions we value (education, etc).
Taking a cue from Good Will Hunting, Robbins argues that one way to defend the welfare state is to circulate responsibility in new ways. Instead of emphasizing individual responsibility (deserving/undeserving poor), emphasize societal responsibility by repeating the mantra, “It’s not your fault.” Such a mantra does not evacuate blame, but rather controls the welfare state and corresponding welfare capitalism from within. In his words: “responsibility needs to be redistributed, not simply evaded. And why blame remains necessary, however difficult. One might say that there is no greater challenge, under welfare capitalism, than learning how to blame well” (96).
But, if Robbins has utterly convincing readings of literature and films to support this point, I kinda think all this work misses the point: the state DOES circulate and redistribute responsibility and blame. And that’s the *whole* reason why it’s messed up. Because the welfare state supposedly exists (tense is really interesting in the book because if the welfare state exists now, it didn’t exist at the time of some of the texts that Robbins reads), and yet, we have not yet done away with individual responsibility. We just make individuals responsible preciously when they need the state the most. The CUNY panel at the Cultural Studies Association conference made this process of distributing responsibility painfully clear, showing how school “choice” rewards wealthy (white) parents for taking responsibility for their kids’ education, but actively criminalizes poor parents of color. And, also an important point of the CUNY panel (sorry I keep calling it this), the major work of the state is prisons. So, it is not simply (as Robbins suggests) upward mobility or prison (as in the case of David Copperfield and Uriah Heep), but upward mobility *and* prison. Because prison is a logic end of the welfare state, and upward mobility for some necessarily means prison for others.
This argument doesn’t give us a way to defend institutions we might care about, but it does give us a better understanding of how institutions work. Because, for me, the whole point is to embrace the motto, “It is your fault.” Just because power circulates, works through relations and not individuals, and is embedded in institutions, etc, does not mean that we are not responsible. We subject ourselves to this power, actively reproduce this power (willingly and unwillingly, consciously and unconsciously), and if this does not make us responsible as individuals (as centered subjects), it certainly does not evacuate the responsibility for our locations within and subjection to systems of power. This type of responsibility cannot be resolved–we cannot necessarily take on this responsibility or address it through action–and yet, evacuating it or erasing it makes it impossible for us to understand the welfare state, and impossible to redistribute responsibility. In the terms of “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” thinking we can redistribute responsibility without confronting our complicity within uneven systems of power is a move to innocence, one that does just as much–if not more–violence as being unable to defend institutions that supposedly protect the public good.