Since Bruce Robbins's UpwardMobilityandtheCommonGood:TowardaLiteraryHistoryoftheWelfareState deals with the novel, readers will rightly place it next to Lukacs and more recent historians and theoreticians of the genre. Critically, however, I believe it is also important to place Robbins in the tradition of Northrop Frye's efforts to establish a separate science of literature and so to legitimate such knowledge and practice as essential to how society understands its own practices and self-creations. Like Frye, Robbins embraces the critical task of establishing once more the fact that literature, especially the novel, does work within a society that both exposes social processes and psychological drives and creates the institutions they need and desire. Frye organized his anatomy around a set of interlocking hermeneutical and structural levels and modes that attempted to embrace all imaginative literary forms. Robbins has a more precise focus: the inter-relations among erotic and displaced erotic desires and drives; the class formations and reformations of capitalist, especially bourgeois, liberal societies; and the emergent formation of the welfare state as the mechanism that meets the often implied and expressed aspirations and obligations of such formations.
Central to Robbins's work is an embrace of professional work and social place. He finds the stories of upward mobility essential both to organizing his own tale of developing modern forms of relation and state power, and to defending the idea that the professions are perhaps the key mode of rising in the stories and worlds he discusses. Robbins does not work comparatively, even though he treats the literatures of several nations and periods. Rather, the materials he gathers and analyzes illustrate a very complicated set of points about modernity, the chances of the market, the needs—sexual, economic, and social—it produces. Throughout he emphasizes the efforts of individuals, by means of their writings, to bring into being the conditions for and actual existence of the ideals and institutions the welfare state offers to meet the often painful conditions of aspiration within liberal capitalism.
Robbins has a substantial political agenda in this book, as he has had through most of his career—to oppose the anarchism that anti-statist politics and critical theory have often advocated. While he makes clear that the welfare state is far from his ideal of political organization, he also makes a good case that its diminishment has had disastrous human consequences, consequences that have provoked him to write this book. Unlike various forms of utopianism, which seems to find its modern roots either in Messianism or a misprision of Frye, Robbins's book eschews the satirical and often cynical or skeptical elements of utopianism's critical functions in order to apprehend and point out the transformative possibilities inherent in text, experience, knowledge, and institutions. In his hands, critical practices thus become part of the necessary imaginative actions of struggling peoples whose desires at their best appear in visions of a transformed collective world. A defense of literature becomes, then, a defense of criticism and an illustration of its value as a necessary profession.