Benjamin Studebaker

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

Tag: History

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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The Left Case Against Supporting Joe Biden in the General Election

At the Democratic Convention, Bernie Sanders argued that the left should hold its nose and vote for Joe Biden:

The future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake. We must come together to defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president. My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.

My friend Nathan Robinson, at Current Affairs, made a similar argument, claiming that this is our “last chance” to stop Donald Trump, and that we will be “fighting for our lives against an aspiring dictator” if he wins.

This is a grave mistake. Trump, for all his faults, poses no existential threat to the republic. What’s more, Sanders and Robinson are deeply underestimating the damage a Biden presidency will cause. The Republican Party has become what it is because of Democrats like Joe Biden. These Democrats are pushing the Republican Party further and further right, and a Biden presidency will make the Republican Party even more dangerous going forward. Let me show you how it works.

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Against the Stoics, Skeptics, Epicureans, and Buddhists

This is going to be an odd post about Greek philosophy and the contemporary analogues of Greek traditions. Its purpose is threefold. First, I’ll argue that the Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans had similar conceptions of the good life, that this conception closely resembles the conception preferred by Buddhists, and that this conception of the good life is mistaken. Second, I’ll argue that the Stoics and Skeptics both make similar–if opposite–errors with respect to meta-ethics, with the Stoics asserting an unrealistically ambitious epistemology and the Skeptics denying that epistemology without acknowledging less ambitious alternatives. Third, I’ll argue that many contemporary political and moral antagonisms are essentially new versions of the Stoic/Skeptic antagonism, and that there is a popular Epicurean response to this antagonism.

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Cotton is Not What Made the United States Rich

Lately, everyone is arguing that the United States got rich off of cotton. The New York Times recently put out a story arguing that American capitalism “begins on the plantation”. This completely misunderstands the relationship between slave and serf-based agriculture and industrial capitalism. A dominant agricultural industry is not the foundation for industrial success–it is an impediment. Let me show you why…

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