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Bruce Robbins. Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. ISBN: 978-0691049878. Price: US$35.00.

  • Dan Bivona

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  • Dan Bivona
    Arizona State University

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Bruce Robbins’ new book, Upward Mobility and the Common Good, is a timely, wide-ranging piece of work: timely because, in focusing on the connection between a literary genre, the “upward mobility” narrative, and the rise of the welfare state, it engages with an important conversation in contemporary Victorian Studies; wide-ranging because it offers both intellectual reach and impressive coverage of a great variety of these tales. Robbins discusses Rousseau, Stendhal, Balzac, and Constant (among French writers); Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Horatio Alger, and George Gissing (among the Victorians); and H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw (not too surprisingly), Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, “the Angry Young Men,” Tillie Olsen, Carolyn Steedman, Richard Rodriguez, and Kazuo Ishiguro (among twentieth century writers).

On the face of it, the book asserts a strange conjunction. What does the “upward mobility story,” the literary form that has been traditionally closely associated with bourgeois individualism, have to do with “the common good,” and why would anyone insist on saluting the Horatio Alger tales for teaching welfare state values? To Robbins’ credit, he is able to make a strong case for seeing the link between upward mobility for the individual and the common good while also centering his discussion around major (mainly) literary texts. It is a credit to Robbins’ achievement that one wonders, after reading his book, why anyone would have imagined that upward mobility tales were about anything as simple as individuals pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps (or failing to do so).

Recent treatments of liberalism, particularly in Victorian Studies, have displayed an acute frustration with more than two decades of poststructuralist ironizing of liberal goals and intentions. Sometimes this frustration emerges in the direct form of a too-quick condemnation of the so-called baneful influence of Foucault on the field. Sometimes it takes more indirect forms. Amanda Anderson’s resuscitation of the Victorian ideal of “detachment” (in The Powers of Distance [2001]), Lauren Goodlad’s reclaiming of that hoary Victorian notion, “character” (in Victorian Literature and the Victorian State [2003]), and Daniel S. Malachuk’s rehabilitation of the liberal ideal of “the state” (in Perfection, the State, and Victorian Liberalism [2005]) are recent examples of works that seek to convince modern academic audiences to take Victorian liberal idealism seriously. Robbins’ book has much of value to add to this conversation, even if, as Disraeli and Bismarck might claim with some reason, the welfare state is not exclusively a product of liberal values. If the “welfare state” in the narrow sense did not come into being until the mid-twentieth century (at least in Britain and the United States), its ethical outlines can be glimpsed, nonetheless, in a variety of nineteenth century movements of social improvement ranging from the campaigns for sanitary improvements, to movements to restrict child labor, to abolish slavery and the slave trade, to improve the lot of the poor, and to institute universal public education. For Robbins, the “welfare state” is not an abstract moral or philosophical ideal, nor is its role in social surveillance invariably benign: he is too attentive to its status as a sometimes flawed social and political institution to make that claim. However, what he means by “the welfare state” here is something broader than the historically specific state form that was constructed by the Labour Party after it took power in Britain in 1945. Robbins’ “welfare state” is located somewhere in the territory between an actual political institution and a philosophical and moral ideal bearing some resemblance to Arnold’s perfectionist notion of “the state,” the agency whose job it is to see to it that the individual becomes his “best self.” As Robbins asserts, a contemporary novel like “The Silence of the Lambs is a recent addition to a long and largely hidden tradition of narratives that fill in the missing emotional landscape of life among welfare-state institutions, and that the apparent bleakness of this institutional landscape represents the imperfect historical form that we should expect even the most genuine progress toward social equality to take (6).” Imperfect but also humane.

While it may strike one as counter-intuitive for a critic to read Rousseau’s relationship with Madame de Warens as hinting of a new social role for the welfare state to come, Robbins’ intention– by and large realized here–is to demystify the notion of individual agency inherited from the nineteenth century, to clarify that no one achieves upward mobility without significant help from others. Beginning with a discussion of The Silence of the Lambs, Robbins identifies even the horrid Hannibal Lecter as a “donor” in a Proppian sense: a figure who ultimately assists Clarice Starling to achieve professional advancement. Moreover, the ultimate revelation of Clarice’s “primal” wish –to save the lambs–assigns her a professional, ethical motivation, even if her desire to help combines interested and disinterested professional motives (Robbins 5). In fact, the “donor” figure turns out to be, in Robbins’ reading of all these disparate texts, the figure who enables the protagonist to realize the goals of the welfare state, the character (or “function,” to use Vladimir Propp’s term) who helps the underling to rise. For this reason, Robbins is little interested in sketching out a detailed, historically specific, account of the evolution of the welfare state. Robbins’ welfare state must be seen as both more historically specific, and ideal: the public embodiment of the communal notion that all who apply effort should, through its help, be able to better themselves. As he argues throughout, the welfare state is a “cross-class” project, one in which the interests of the professional class and the poor and needy intersect (Robbins 10).

Robbins convincingly argues that, despite the impersonality of welfare state intervention and the threat that dependence poses to individual autonomy, welfare state interventions ironically enable autonomy, in many of these narratives, and do so democratically precisely because they do so impersonally. In discussing this issue in the work of Carolyn Steedman, Tillie Olsen, and Richard Rodriguez, for example, Robbins notes that the wish to achieve autonomy, to reject dependence, especially on state authority, is, paradoxically, one of the great achievements of welfare state intervention. In his discussion of Carolyn Steedman, he underlines Steedman’s ambivalence about the “health visitor” in 1951 who intervened in her family to ensure that the children were fed orange juice and virol. Steedman comes later to understand this moment of state intervention, not simply as an intrusion on the privacy of the family or a public reminder of their dependence, but rather as a reminder that she “had a right to exist, was worth something” (Quoted in Robbins 162). Robbins notes that these instances, no matter what they feel like at the moment to the characters whose lives are exposed to public inspection, are also manifestations of the noble vocational ideals of professional bureaucrats: no matter how much bad press it has had, impersonality is also a structural feature of bureaucracies dedicated to fairness, an implicit democratic promise that the welfare of all matters–or ought to matter–to the state because the state is dedicated–or ought to be–to the goal of realizing the common good.

While Robbins is surely aware that the implementation of policies to achieve the common good are sometimes beholden to the social solidarity imposed by war, his argument downplays the role of either imperialist sentiment (in the nineteenth century) or mobilization of the civilian population for full-scale world war (in the twentieth century) in the formation of the welfare state. Yet, it should be noted that the experience of two world wars in the twentieth century supplied the ongoing project of the construction of the welfare state with powerful political sanction, endowing its institutions with a visible mission of achieving the “common good” in the face of a “common enemy.” The Britons who survived the German bombing of London in 1940, huddled in the tubes, were the same ones who voted Atlee’s Labour government into power in 1945 in surprising defiance of the widespread expectation that Churchill’s Tories would be victorious at the polls. Likewise, it was the Truman administration in the United States, victorious after using the first atomic weapons in war, which managed for the first time in American history (in 1946) to write into law the requirement that the federal government ensure full employment for all its citizens. This part of the story of the welfare state is clearly not on Robbins’ agenda, yet its absence raises some uncomfortable questions about how common is the welfare state’s dedication to the “common good” and how much the experience of social solidarity at home owes to the antagonism with enemies abroad. However, this is a topic for another day, a different book. Upward Mobility and the Common Good is an original and important treatment of a crucially important topic.