Benjamin Studebaker

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

Tag: History

Why Every President Tries to Make Nice With Russia and Why It Never Works

One of the things I find odd about the way the press is covering the Trump/Putin relationship is how devoid of context and historical memory it is. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, four new presidents have come to power, and each has tried to create a good relationship with Russia. Bill Clinton was briefly successful, but the way Clinton used his success poisoned the well and made it very difficult for his successors to replicate his performance. Today I’ll tell you the story of how America has tried to turn Russia into an ally and why this effort has yet to succeed.

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Why Rebellions and Revolutions Don’t Work Very Well

Throughout the history of civilization, there have been people who have been tasked with providing the necessities of life–growing the food, collecting resources, making the tools, and so on. There have also been people who don’t do this kind of work, who instead have lots of free time. These people have free time because other people provide their necessities for them. In this sense, the first group of people serves the second. The precise social mechanic governing this service has shifted over the years. In the early days, the first group of people were slaves of the second group. Slavery was an astounding social invention–it made it possible for some of us to have large amounts of free time, and we used that free time to do art and science and high politics. But slavery only worked by denying the vast majority of people access to that free time. It precipitated largescale inequality. This made it difficult to sustain. The slaves were unhappy, and unhappy slaves are unproductive. The slaveowners eventually discovered a secret–happy slaves are more productive than unhappy slaves. And to make the slaves happy, you had to tell them a story about how they were free. Into this space steps capitalism, and the employer-employee relationship. You are free to work for any master–but you must work for one, or you won’t earn enough to make a living. The masters have pooled the slaves and shared them, and told the slaves this makes them free. And for the most part, the slaves buy it. Except when they don’t. This piece is about that.

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The Supreme Court is Gripped by an Unsustainable Conception of Individual Freedom

Today the Supreme Court voted, 5-4, to enable public sector workers to unilaterally withhold contributions from their unions. Justices Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Thomas, and Kennedy were in the majority, with Kagan, Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Breyer in dissent. The principle guiding the majority’s decision is simple and intuitively appealing. When workers pay unions dues, those unions use that money to fund political speech. Individual workers may not agree with the union’s speech acts, and therefore compelling them to pay dues ties their employment to their willingness to espouse a particular kind of political speech with their wallets. The court argues that requiring workers to make certain kinds of political speech acts with their wallets to retain employment violates their free speech rights. The argument is internally valid–it makes sense, given a particular conception of individual freedom. The trouble is that this conception of individual freedom is destabilising the labour market in a politically dangerous way, and in consistently choosing to interpret this principle in this way the court is threatening the legitimacy of the state.

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The British Academic Strike is a Crucial Struggle that Must Be Won: Part III, Union Strength

The University and College Union (UCU)–Britain’s trade union for academics–has gone on strike. The strike is about the University Superannuation Scheme (USS)’s decision to switch academics from “defined benefit” pension plans to “defined contribution” plans. As a PhD student at Cambridge I write this piece at home, having skipped a couple events I really wanted to go to today, because this strike is so important, both to academia and to the cause of working people more generally. My hope is that I can explain the strike to those who don’t know much about it and defend it to any who doubt its necessity.

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Don’t Fear Trump–Fear the Next Republican President

I’ve long argued that the Democratic Party needs to use its time in the wilderness to remake itself so it can pursue and deliver real benefits for poor and working class voters and be seen to do so in its campaigns. This remaking necessarily requires a period of disunity and chaos within the Democratic Party–central questions about what being a Democrat is for need to be asked, and different people will and should give different answers. Those differences should be resolved in blood-soaked primaries. But I’m increasingly concerned it’s not going to happen–too many Democrats seem to believe that the party needs to unify at all costs to present the strongest possible electoral challenge to Trump in 2018 and 2020. This is a dangerous misreading of the historical situation. The biggest threat to the United States is not the Trump presidency–it is the next Republican presidency, or perhaps the one after that. Let me explain…

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