Benjamin Studebaker

Yet Another Attempt to Make the World a Better Place by Writing Things

Category: Politics

How to Be Excellent

I have a new piece out for Psyche on excellence in Plato and Aristotle. You can read it here:

https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-become-excellent-with-tips-from-plato-and-aristotle

I was really happy to be able to give proper emphasis to the background social conditions that play such a large role in Plato and Aristotle’s work. Many popularizations of ancient philosophy take too many of their cues from the Stoics, presenting virtue as attainable in a vacuum.

How to be excellent | Psyche

The Dilemma Over How to Reproduce the Elite

I’ve been reading Edward Watts’ book, The Final Pagan Generation. Watts focuses on Roman elites born during the reign of Constantine in the 310s. These Romans were born when paganism was still dominant in the empire, and they died near the end of the century, when pagan temples were being ripped down and destroyed. Christianity slowly crept through the empire between the 310s and the 390s, but even pagan Roman elites did very little about it. Why? Trying to oppose Christianization could result in loss of imperial favor. It was a risky career move. But it goes further than this. Roman elites relied on patronage networks. These patronage networks were predicated on exchanges of favors. When these elites began their careers, there was broad toleration of both paganism and Christianity. The religious division had not yet become the primary marker of political identity. Consequently, elite patronage networks often contained both Christians and pagans, and this meant that pagan Roman elites often owed favors to Christian elites and vice versa. During the reign of Julian, the last pagan emperor, pagan elites often defended their Christian friends from Julian’s effort to purge the Roman school system of Christian teachers. The Christian teachers were part of the elite network, and individual pagan elites felt a loyalty to their network that was more powerful than religious identity. They owed their positions to the patronage system and they put the patronage system first. In the United States, we have made an effort to eliminate patronage systems in favor of ostensibly fair, impersonal, meritocratic mechanisms. But while our system of elite reproduction differs from Rome’s, we have not fully eliminated the role of interpersonal ties in elite reproduction. I want to suggest that our system of elite reproduction is caught between the old patronage model and a more impersonal, technocratic model. Both the old and new models have some disturbing features, and this keeps us from fully embracing one or the other. But in trying to balance the two models together, we have created a system of elite reproduction that is too opaque to function properly.

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Are Declassed Professionals in the United States like Surplus Song Dynasty Civil Servants?

I’ve been reading Youngmin Kim’s A History of Chinese Political Thought. In one of his chapters, he argues that during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), a peculiar kind of “metaphysical republicanism” took root. As the Chinese population increased, the Song state struggled to create enough jobs in the state bureaucracy to accommodate larger and larger numbers of educated young men. Unable to pursue political power through the conventional pathways, these young men invented a new kind of political theory to make sense of their positions (or lack thereof). Kim’s description of this theory is eerily reminiscent of the kind of thinking that has become increasingly popular among what I like to call the “fallen” professionals–people with university degrees who have been unable to secure stable, prestigious positions within the power structure.

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Misreadings of Marcuse and the Confused Cancel Culture Debate

Recently, Matt Taibbi wrote a piece blaming Herbert Marcuse for the condition of the American left. Separately, Nathan Robinson was pushed out by The Guardian over a joke tweet criticizing the United States for providing military aid to Israel. Robinson and Taibbi have been on opposite sides in the debate over whether “cancel culture” is a problem for the left. Despite this episode with The Guardian, Robinson continues to deny that the left has a cancelling problem, while Taibbi not only maintains that this problem exists but lays the blame for it at the feet of Marcuse. I think both sides are missing something, and I want to try to mediate.

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American Democracy is in No Imminent Danger

In 2014, I finished an MA thesis at the University of Chicago. In that thesis, I argued that as economic inequality increased, American politics would return to the sharp political divisions of the 1930s, with both left-wing and right-wing radical movements popping up all over the place. Recently, I finished a PhD thesis at the University of Cambridge. In that thesis, I argued that while economic inequality does cause legitimation problems, those problems are fundamentally different in kind from the problems of the 1930s. I reversed my position from 2014, and I did so even as most people in the American media and intelligentsia arrived at the position which I formerly held. If I stuck by my old position from 2014, it would be advantageous to my career development. There is increasingly a lot of appetite for expert accounts which play up the threat Donald Trump poses to democracy. Any well-credentialed political theorist or political scientist who can compellingly tell stories about executive coups from the 20th century and draw parallels to Trump can now sell many books without much trouble. The issue is that these parallels are rubbish. Here’s why.

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