Benjamin Studebaker

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

Tag: Marxism

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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Coronavirus and the Fable of the Bees

Coronavirus puts elected governments in a sticky situation. If they appear to fail to solve the public health crisis, they will lose the next election. If, in the process of solving the public health crisis, they create an economic crisis, they will also lose the next election. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. It all reminds me of Bernard Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees”. Mandeville’s bees live luxurious, decadent lives, and their drive for ever greater pleasures pushes them to build an extraordinarily elaborate economy to keep up with their excesses. One day, a divine intervention rids the bees of their vices, leaving them full of modesty and virtue. But this collapses demand and destroys the bees’ economy, annihilating their living standards. The fable serves to highlight one of the paradoxes of capitalism–the welfare of the poor becomes dependent on the vices of the rich. If the rich stop spending money on frivolous nonsense, the poor lose their jobs and go hungry.

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Liberal Hypocrisies and the Alternatives to Them

All social orders are supported by “legitimation stories”. These are the reasons orders give us to support them, or at least to stay out of their way. Legitimation stories don’t have to be true, but they have to be persuasive. The social order has to create a set of conditions that are similar enough to the stories that we mistake what we have for what we were promised. Legitimation stories are chiefly about “good order”. Order is straightforward–social orders promise to protect us from violence, starvation, instability, and precarity. They promise to make us feel secure. “Good” is less obvious, because “good” tends to mean different things to different people in different contexts. Liberal legitimation stories understand “good” in three senses:

  1. A good order is one in which the subjects of the order are “free” or have “liberty” in some relevant sense.
  2. A good order is one in which the subjects of the order are treated as “equal” to one another in some relevant sense.
  3. A good order is one in which the order “represents” the subjects in some relevant way.
  4. A good order is “dynamic”, it is capable of delivering real change.

The trouble is that terms like “free”, “equal”, and “representative” don’t have stable social meanings. Our understandings of these terms can easily slide out of alignment with the understandings we need to have for legitimation stories to work. If we understand “equality” to mean “a fair distribution of resources” but the liberal order wants us to understand “equality” as “everyone gets to have their say”, the order has to convince us that we’ve misunderstood the meaning of equality. It has to get us to think about it in a whole different way. When gaps open up between the conditions the order produces and our expectations, it is often because the order has lost control over how we understand the words it uses to tell its stories. When this happens, the order appears “hypocritical”–it appears to say one thing and do another, to tell stories it has no intention of realising. That’s what today’s post is about–the liberal order’s hypocrisies.

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The Left Can’t Even Agree on What Politics Is

In helping my undergrads prepare for their exams the last few weeks, I’ve noticed something–one of the major obstacles to successful left-wing organising is the left’s inability to agree on what politics itself is. Different political theorists understand “politics” differently. You can broadly divide conceptions of the political into two realms. Some people think politics is about pursuing the truth and the good, and other people think that politics is about managing disagreement about the truth and the good. Then within those camps you can make further divisions on the basis of what strategy people prefer to use to pursue the good or manage disagreement. Here, let me chart this out for you:

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How Zizek Should Have Responded to Jordan Peterson

If you had the misfortune of suffering through the “debate” between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek, I offer you my solidarity. Peterson and Zizek put on one of the most pathetic displays in the history of intellectuals arguing with each other in public. This was not Foucault versus Chomsky or even Hitchens versus Hitchens. It almost makes the Bill Nye versus Ken Ham debate look good, and that’s really saying something. Peterson and Zizek began with long, 30-minute speeches, ostensibly on the subject of which system is more conducive to human happiness—capitalism or socialism. The two speeches had virtually nothing to do with each other and very little to do with the topic.

You can read the rest of my piece on the Peterson/Zizek debate over at Current Affairs:

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/04/how-zizek-should-have-replied-to-jordan-peterson