What I Think in 2020

by Benjamin Studebaker

Now that the Bernie Sanders movement is comprehensively failing, it is time for those of us who supported it to take a step back and reflect. We can only learn from defeat if we are willing to be honest with ourselves and recognise it as such. This post is more autobiographical than most of what I run here. The aim is to do some hard introspection about how I came to support the Sanders movement and where its downfall leaves me, politically.

My politics can be divided into three major epochs:

  1. The Conventional Democrat Phase (2000-2009)
  2. The Keynesian Epistocrat Phase (2009-2015)
  3. The Berniecrat Phase (2015-2020)

The Conventional Democrat Phase

I first got into politics when I was 8 years old, during the 2000 presidential election. I supported Gore. Initially, my politics were defined in opposition to the Bush administration and chiefly to its foreign policy–the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also opposed the Patriot Act, the Bush tax cuts, and the attempt to privatise Social Security. In the 2004 election, I backed Howard Dean but willingly fell in line behind John Kerry. In 2008, I backed Barack Obama with a lot of enthusiasm.

The 2008 economic crisis began the process of pushing me out of this phase. It shifted my attention from foreign policy to political economy, and I expected Obama to act like FDR and enact a platform of sweeping economic reforms.

Obama didn’t do this. He asked for a stimulus that was too small and abandoned the public option very quickly, without much of a fight. He lost the 2010 midterm election badly, and began making bad compromises with congressional Republicans, agreeing to sequestration, the Budget Control Act of 2011, and even offering to cut Social Security. Early in Obama’s presidency, Paul Krugman tried very hard to get Obama to push for more comprehensive action. I got really into Krugman.

In 2009, I decided to start reading political theory on my own. My high school in Indiana wasn’t assigning me this stuff, and I wanted to get started. I began with Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Marx’s Capital, and Keynes’ General Theory. I was choosing the books on my own, without much guidance from anybody who knew anything. My interpretations were relatively primitive, and I tended to combine the texts together without recognising the tensions between them. I ended up with a strange position, in which capitalism was the problem, Keynesianism was the answer, and some kind of philosopher-king was needed to get there. I had no confidence in capitalism because of 2008, and I had no confidence in democracy because of Bush’s re-election in 2004 and the mid-terms in 2010. I tended to blame voter ignorance for everything and began working on an ideal form of government to overcome democracy’s limitations. I called this “sophiarchism”, or rule by the wise.

The Keynesian Epistocrat Phase

I went to undergrad in 2010, at the University of Warwick. Throughout the Warwick period, I stayed critical of democracy. My BA thesis was on whether democracy was necessarily the best way to realise social justice. In the first year (2010-2011), I was very Hobbesian and liked a really powerful state. In the second year (2011-2012), I read John Stuart Mill and restored some of my lost faith in civil liberties. I was very Millian for a while, attracted to the way Mill combined a commitment to liberty with a commitment to plural voting. During the summer of 2012 (between second and third year), I started this blog. I did not vote in the 2012 presidential election or the 2014 midterm, refusing to reward Obama and the Democrats for the austerity they helped the Republicans inflict during that period.

In my final year at Warwick, during 2012-2013, I took a political theory class that laid the foundation for the shifts in my view that would follow.

I made two big moves in 2013:

  1. I decided that we don’t have free will, and therefore voter ignorance is the result of structural imperatives, not individual choice. This began to shift me out of liberal individualism and toward structural theories. I began trying to stop blaming other people for their faults and incapacities. I consider this an on-going process, one that will probably never end.
  2. I decided that reciprocity has to be the foundation of politically realisable moral systems. Any system in which we are asked to show concern for others without expecting them to return that concern won’t be able to reliably deliver results.

For me, the state became the means by which we create space for reciprocity. The state creates citizens who are willing and able reciprocators, and it protects those citizens from any who are unable or unwilling to reciprocate. Exploitation became my primary enemy–when the state permits exploitation, it fails in its duties to its citizens.

In 2013-2014, I did my MA at University of Chicago. My MA thesis was called “The Return of Depression Politics” in homage to Krugman’s book by a similar title. It argued that rising economic inequality would eventually drive voters to abandon liberal democracy, pursuing redistribution. The elite, to avoid redistribution, would embrace right-wing authoritarianism. This did not signal a return to democracy, though. I remained convinced that if any redistribution occurred, it would be fleeting and swiftly undone. The redistribution that occurred between 1930 and 1980 was undone between 1980 and 2008, and I believed that in due course, any lessons learned would be forgotten and any progress made reversed. The rich would inevitably want to get richer and would forget that redistribution kept the knives at bay, recreating the instability they had used redistribution to escape.

At Chicago, I took a number of courses on individual political theorists, getting the most out of a class on Aristotle’s Politics. I was especially interested in the role leisure and education played in Aristotle’s work. To get the virtues and live the good life, you needed a lot of free time and the education necessary to use the time well, rather than in pursuit of wealth or status. I made the connection that nearly everybody either had no free time or lacked the kind of education Aristotle described, and that this was the result of the structural incentives created by capitalism. I wanted a world in which every person could live the life which Aristotle had promised only to the elite. Keynesianism was never going to be enough to get this done. I started getting back into Marxism, inspired by GA Cohen’s defence of Marx’s theory of history.

In 2014-2015, I spent the year applying to PhD programs. Bernie Sanders began his first run for president. I was initially sceptical, believing he would not break 10% in the primaries. He quickly exceeded that figure. I decided Sanders was worth supporting, and got back into electoral politics. Krugman didn’t come with me, and my last link with liberalism was severed. I thought the problem was that the wrong technocrats were in charge–but there were no good technocrats squirrelled away in universities, waiting to be dusted off. I realised that there was no reliable elite to empower, and I slowly left sophiarchism and epistocracy behind.

The Berniecrat Phase

I was under few illusions when I came back to electoral politics, but it only takes a few. To succeed, Sanders needed to do a lot of really difficult things:

  1. He needed to win the nomination
  2. He needed to win the general election
  3. He needed to clean out the Democratic Party, replacing centrists with his supporters
  4. He needed to win a large number of Senate seats to pass his big ticket reforms

It was unlikely that this would be done across several elections, let alone one. But Sanders was genuinely committing to trying to do it, and he had more support than I anticipated. I decided the American people were not very ideological. They were dissatisfied with the status quo and could be persuaded to support any anti-establishment movement, regardless of its substantive content. I was willing to take a chance on Sanders, even if the odds were against him. There were no other live political possibilities. Prior to Sanders, I had spent the bulk of my time criticising contemporary politics or imagining elaborate regime alternatives. Compared to that, Sanders felt grounded and realistic.

At the same time, I started doing the PhD at Cambridge, and the PhD kept giving me reasons to think this wasn’t going to work. Early in the PhD I spent a lot of time studying the political economy of the 20th century, and it became clear that our situation was very different from the 30s in important respects. In the 30s, communists offered a seemingly credible alternative to capitalism, frightening the rich. International trade collapsed, and World War II empowered states to take much larger roles in their economies. None of these conditions held today. Then, beginning in the 70s, global economic integration pitted states in a cutthroat competition for investment. Refusal to play the game resulted in outsourcing and capital flight. As I continued working on my thesis, it seemed less and less likely that our contemporary legitimacy crisis would produce redistribution. My research began focusing on increasingly dark outcomes, in which democracies fobbed off voters with superficial reforms or rendered them so cynical that they quit the political altogether.

But the United States remains the strongest state in the international system, and I still held out some hope that if Bernie Sanders could capture the Democratic Party, he could unify the federal state and attempt to restructure the global economy.

Two additional problems cropped up that made it increasingly difficult to justify my faith:

  1. It became increasingly clear to me that most of the people playing leading roles in the Sanders movement did not understand political economy. Trade wasn’t playing a significant role in their campaigning or in the public debate they waged online and in the pages of their journals. Many continued to believe that the political strategies of the 20th century could simply be revived, paying no heed to the effects of globalisation. Others framed socialism as an idealist moral project, avoiding the economy altogether.
  2. As I continued to spend time in the university setting, it became obvious that most of the people leading this movement were not ordinary people and they were not interested in acting as trustees for ordinary people. Even when they professed support for left-wing causes, they got involved for the wrong reasons–to promote social issue pet causes, to advance their own careers, and to virtue signal to their peers. Whenever the interests of ordinary folks conflicted with these things, they put themselves first.

In keeping with what I had learned, I tried not to blame these people for their inadequacies, but to look for a structural source. I decided the core problem was a conflict between the professional class–consisting of white-collar workers with college degrees–and what remains of the traditional working class. The professionals were the “house slaves” of capitalism, the workers who were well-treated and consequently could easily be persuaded to support the status quo. The Democratic establishment was useless to ordinary people because it was overrun by professionals. These professionals are economically comfortable. Many prioritise social issues over economic issues or are “socially liberal but economically conservative”. The same thing was occurring within the Sanders movement itself–the professionals who played increasingly large roles in the movement were disinterested in the economy, caring more about Sanders’ position on their pet issues than the issues that matter to most voters. The campaign was becoming McGovernite–it was trying to speak the language of college students, even at the cost of alienating blue collar folks.

In the opening weeks of the 2020 campaign, I tracked Sanders’ results county by county, watching as his performance in rural areas with less educational attainment plummeted. I hoped Sanders would overcome all of this. After his victory in Nevada, I believed he could. It was a beautiful moment.

Then South Carolina happened and Super Tuesday followed. Shaken by the sheer scale of the disaster, I took some time away from the blog. Sanders won’t run again, and there is no one else to take up his mantle. The Democratic Party isn’t going to get captured. Nothing, fundamentally, will change.

2020 and Beyond

Fortunately, while I was doing the PhD and trying to help Bernie, I was also teaching undergraduates. I wanted to be able to teach all the history of political thought papers and offer students the opportunity to do whichever topics interest them. To teach it all, I had to learn it all. I came to appreciate a lot of work I used to hate, and I developed better readings of the work I loved. There are a few key things I learned.

First, there is no unified “people” in politics. There is a fractious multitude, divided by material interests. This means that politics creates the appearance of unity. No unity can exist prior to politics. States sometimes claim to be built around some particular culture–a nation, a language, a religion, an ethnicity, a race, an ideology–but in truth states are power structures designed to get people who are different from each other to cooperate with one another. This cooperation very nearly always contains a level of exploitation. It is not rigorously grounded on reciprocity.

To conceal that exploitation from those who are its victims, the state must craft legitimation stories to persuade its subjects that there is nothing wrong with the exploitative relationships they are stuck in. Modern states accomplish this in two key ways:

  1. States use a variety of vague nonsense concepts–freedom, equality, representation, democracy–to convince people the state is realising important values for them. They do this by defining the nonsense concepts in ways that obscure the exploitation. There’s formal equality of input–everyone gets to vote–but some people are forced to trade their time for the means of subsistence while others are not. There’s freedom of speech, but access to rich education is not free. You can vote for someone to represent you, but no one who would actually defend your interests stands a chance of winning most elections. We have freedom, equality, representation, and democracy in every sense but the senses that matter.
  2. States create a variety of fantasy categories and induce us to identify with them. They then recognise our identities, reflecting the cultural content they generated back at us. States tell us there are discrete essential nations, races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, religions, and ideologies. They tell us these things ought to matter to us. They teach us to care about them. Then they make a performance out of respecting these things, to get us to ignore the exploitative roles we occupy. We don’t want to be defined by our roles, so we willingly participate in these fantasy categories. Whenever we start to get uppity, they pit the fantasy categories against each other to perpetuate division.

Many people are aware of this on some level and don’t like states. Anarchism is endemically popular. But we need states, because without states we can’t trust each other. We’re subjective, embodied beings, stuck in separate skulls with separate stomachs. We have different interests, and our interests often put us in conflict with each other. We can’t know what’s going on in each other’s brains, and language is an imprecise instrument for communicating what we’re thinking and feeling. We don’t even have to lie–we are so careless with our words that we often misrepresent what’s in our minds without meaning to do so. We have so little self-awareness that we don’t even know what we’re feeling, and we can’t even begin to put into words what we find inaccessible within ourselves.

We need states that actually create the conditions for real, sustainable reciprocity, instead of states that perpetuate and conceal exploitative relations behind endless layers of nonsense.

The ancients didn’t conceal exploitation, but they also didn’t get rid of it. The Greeks and Romans didn’t pretend their states delivered freedom, equality, representation, or democracy for all. They didn’t pretend their states represented ostensibly primordial cultural groups. They were straightforwardly grounded on slavery. The slaves created the free time the masters needed to think great thoughts and do great deeds. The slaves were entitled to nothing, and no attempt was made to justify the system to them. The masters received the benefits of citizenship, and in return they made their contributions–a reciprocal arrangement between citizen and state, largely satisfying to both parties.

I like Plato and Aristotle. I like the brutal, honest way they describe politics. A good state is a state where everyone gets the benefits of citizenship promised by Aristotle–free time, and the quality education necessary to think critically about how best to use that time. There is no singular, right answer to that question. The good is like a Platonic Form–it’s not something we can know in full from within a subjective perspective. We are not gods, and our concept of the good will always fall short and always be in need of improvement. We always have to oscillate between action and contemplation, between doing and thinking, so that our action is always improved by our thinking and our thinking is always improved by our action.

We can’t do that when we have no time to think because we are conscripted into the workforce by survival imperatives from a young age. We can’t use our time well when our education system has become an elaborate form of vocational training. We must end work. We must end education that prepares people for work, and restore education that prepares people for life. To do this we must get machines that are so fabulous that it stops making sense for human beings do work. To get those machines we have to stop firms from lowering their labour costs by relocating to countries with poorly regulated labour markets.

During the Berniecrat Phase, I hoped that we would be able to push up labour costs with political integration. We’d get cartels of states, led by left-wing governments, to establish global minimum wages, minimum tax rates, and so on. It is very clear that this isn’t going to happen. There won’t be political integration. The alternative is for the economic integration to be reversed. This cannot be accomplished through electoral politics, because the electoral cost of dismantling economic integration is prohibitive. Political movements will pledge to dismantle this integration, but none will dare do it when their backs are up against the wall. Too many votes at stake. Too risky.

Climate change could do it. Climate change will destabilise large parts of the world. It will devastate international trade. Many states will collapse. The rich states with favourable geography will survive. But they will no longer be able to rely on the poor states to provide cheap labour. The only way to reduce unit labour costs will be automation. Firms will be forced to rapidly accelerate automation technology. The collapse of the international market system will make it possible for left-wing movements to enact reforms without worrying about capital flight. It is impossible to fight climate change without political integration, and it is impossible to get political integration. Climate change will happen.

When I was young, I thought we could come together to beat climate change, to save public services, to raise living standards. I thought the United States and the European Union could move to the left and lead us somewhere better.

They can’t. The cost will be enormous. But someone will get the machines. Someone will get out. And when those machines arrive, there will be a lonely opportunity to do the thing no one has ever been able to do–end exploitation, end slavery. Everything we do today is in preparation for that moment. Only scarcity can give us abundance, for we have rejected every other way.