the wrong moral revolution


The world is a sad place, a tragic place, but it is not as sad or as tragic as that. In one of the concluding sentences of his book, Barnett writes, “Faith is required to imagine an always elusive humanity, to persevere despite the onslaught of disappointment and the cascade of evidence of humanity’s failings.” But here Barnett gives far, far too little credit to the relief workers with whom, at the beginning of Empire of Humanity, he proclaims he had fallen in love. The grandeur of the humanitarian enterprise lies precisely in its determination to persevere, knowing full well that, too often, it will be able to accomplish tragically little; to persevere, moreover, under no illusions about the cruelties of the world, not because of some faith in progress, as Barnett would have it (the question that haunts him, which is whether that faith is reasonable or not, is actually far less important than he imagines), and not out of compassion, the underlying mot clef to which he continually returns, but rather out of solidarity, a word largely absent from his consideration. It would have been interesting if Barnett had spoken not of humanitarianism but of relief work. Would it have seemed as reasonable to ascribe to relief work the same mystical or, as he would say, transcendent qualities that he attributes to humanitarianism? And would he have remained so persuaded that, when all is said and done, while what relief workers accomplish on the ground is tremendously important, the needs of relief workers are almost as important—and, more crucially from the moralistic perspective that is Barnett’s default position, that to be an aid worker is an ethically exemplary act? Humanitarianism, he writes, “exists to attend to the needs of the giver and not only to those of the receiver,” and its purpose is “intertwined with the desire to demonstrate and create a global spirit.” I am all for self-fulfillment in the workplace but, with the best will in the world, this is ridiculous!

more from David Rieff at The Nation here.