Benjamin Studebaker

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

Tag: 2020 Unrest

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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A Left Critique of the Current Protests

There are a number of problems with the strategy of the current protest movement. No one seems to be writing about these problems. This is not to say that no one can see them. Many folks have reservations, but stay silent in the hope that the protests will succeed. Others see the problems but fear that pointing them out will attract hostility from fanatics on the internet. The problem is that the strategy is not just sub-optimal–it is counterproductive. It is going to blow up in our faces, and the sooner we face up to that, the better. Here’s why.

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Coronavirus, Rioting, and the Privatization of Morality

A short while ago, we were making political demands on our states, of various kinds. Some of us wanted our governments to do more to stop the spread of the virus and save lives. Some of us wanted our governments to provide more aid, more economic stimulus. But over the last few weeks, we stopped making political demands. We started looking at each other. As governments began re-opening their economies, they tried to make it our responsibility to stop the virus. You are supposed to social distance. You are supposed to wear a mask. In most places, none of this is required by law. In those jurisdictions where the advice has been incorporated into the law, it’s only nominally enforced. But you’re supposed to feel a moral obligation to do these things, and if you don’t do them people will shame you. They’ll yell at you, and maybe they’ll try to use social media to get you fired from your job. The guidelines aren’t enforced by the state–they’re enforced by the people around you. The state doesn’t take responsibility for this informal interpersonal coercion, but it tacitly encourages it. When we’re fighting with each other about whether we should wear masks, we aren’t making demands on the state. If we’re all too busy playing police officer with each other, we won’t have the bandwidth to hold the government to account.

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