Benjamin Studebaker Interview Notes

The Chronic Crisis of American Democracy: The Way is Shut

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ASIN ‏ : ‎ B0BVZ7V4T6
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Palgrave Macmillan (March 17, 2023)
Publication date ‏ : ‎ March 17, 2023
Language ‏ : ‎ English
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Print length ‏ : ‎ 306 pages
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I wrote many blog posts
to support the campaign and I wrote pieces for The Huffington Post
and Current Affair

Podcast host of Political Theory 101 and The Lack

Class War Beyond the Workplace

With the incapacitation of labor organizing, what is the outlook for housing organizing? Rent and mortgage strikes are powerful. See the Glasgow Rent Strikem of 1915:


…lots of questions about language. “McGovernization”… “Liberty” “Equality” etc. This is interesting because while these words hold a lot of power in ideology, they aren’t as important when speaking about particular reforms. Not that they aren’t used in policy, but they are usually questioned and specified.

Money and Funding

The Sanders’ campaign demonstrated the capacity for a popular cause to raise millions of dollars. We know that there is money on the Left. Yet when it comes to the (radical) Left’s organizational funding, there is hardly enough to do some of the most basic organizational things. Let’s talk about this…

Professional Left Recuperation

The Left has been playing this game for a long time. Socialists have consistently offered revolutionaries a rubber room to vent their angst until those revolutionaries burn up their energy, put their heads down, and calmly return to the status quo. This is the role that The Socialist Party played in the United States and elsewhere. Partially, this is because Socialists must collaborate with Liberals at some point. This collaboration always results in subservience of the subversive elements to the lowest common denominator. Benjamin could surely elaborate on the incentive structures that reproduce this pattern over and over again.

The Right’s Obsession with Culture

This is an excellent section that I’ll need to revisit for more pointed questions.

Why Purification Reforms Are Confused with Authoritarianism

Democracies are dynamic. They are adaptable.

This is common to all organizations that do not streamline feedback from the bottom of the hierarchy.

Democracies are credible. They are predictable.

Regulation via civil society helps to maintain general standards for its organizations.

“Credibility is associated with predictability, and dynamism is associated with change. The more dynamic a democracy is, the less credible it is, and the more credible a democracy is, the less dynamic it is.”

I don’t think this is true, actually. I don’t think credibility is actually associated with dynamism. I think it’s associated with public consent. So democracies are both dynamic and credible because they are responsive to feedback from their subject populations. I don’t think predictability is as much of a factor. Accountability, however, is a factor.

There is an assumption here that “democracy” is representative instead of being direct. Representative, in the sense that politicians lead policy changes. Direct, meaning that policy itself is the object of voting. So far, there has been a conspicuous lack of analysis when it comes to direct democracies.

“Then there’s the question of what we mean by “authoritarianism.” When many people worry about authoritarianism, they’re worried about tyranny, about some particular person or branch of government gaining so much discretionary power that they become impossible to stop. But
it’s also possible to have authoritarian systems where no particular person or group of people have much power. In these systems, impersonal incentives supervene upon individuals and groups, compelling them to obey structural imperatives. Impersonal authoritarianism isn’t tyranny, because it doesn’t require a tyrant. It is totalitarian rather than tyrannical.”

Ok, I see where Benjamin is going here, but all institutions function by a division of tasks that harden and become roles to be filled. So he’s minimizing what “totalitarianism” is, which is much worse. A totalitarian system is all-encompassing. It is a system that attempts to regulate all aspects of life. This defines it more than the structural features Benjamin describes here that are shared by institutions in general.

If you are worried about tyranny, you respond to tyranny by decreasing the power of particular individuals and groups. You do this by creating sets of impersonal rules that circumscribe their behavior. This transfers power from particular people to impersonal systems. You combat the
threat of tyranny by making the system stronger than the people who participate in it. Conversely, if you are worried about totalitarianism, you respond to it by increasing the power of individuals and groups to change structural incentives. This means giving them more autonomy from impersonal systems, and that means giving them powers that the system is unable to check. You combat the threat of totalitarianism by weakening the system and strengthening the people who participate in it. This means that in the name of defeating tyranny, we enact reforms that look totalitarian to other people. In the name of defeating totalitarianism, we enact reforms that look tyrannical to other people.

Right, so the above criticism results in this misunderstanding. Actually, the misunderstandings really begin with this absence of thinking about direct democracy. Giving power to the participants is a response to both types of domination that Benjamin is contrasting. There is a blurring of the difference between rule by one (tyranny) and rule by everyone (democracy) here.

Later, as he talks about Trump, Facebook, and the Internet… he suggests that people opposed to internet regulations are worried about totalitarianism. I don’t think this is true, either. I think that people actually think the regulations – or rather, the regulators – are the tyrants in this case. In my observation, people tend to be a bit blind to structural forms of domination. It seems to me that what is going on in this example is actually that people have conflicting opinions about whom should be the tyrant. The real internet nerds (I’m one of them) worry about structural domination and our response is almost always to create different structures: Mastodon, cryptocurrencies, indymedia, etc. However, we’re a rare breed and we tend to suffer from the difficulties of explaining to internet-users why structural features matter so much.

There are many other reasons people like democracy. Some political theorists like democracy because they think it embodies some principle of fairness [45]. Some theorists like democracy because they think it draws on the diffuse knowledge of the whole population [46]. Some theorists like democracy because they think it empowers national “peoples,” enabling their will to be discovered and implemented [47]. Other democratic theorists object to the very idea of the “nation” [48]. All of these theorists support democracy. The fact that they disagree so heavily about why we should support democracy, and on what democracy concretely requires, underlines the reality that we are in a prolonged period of minimal legitimacy.”

Yeah, this tracks. It also makes me wonder why Benjamin is avoiding a discussion of direct democracies. Maybe he’ll get to it later?

Fear of Authoritarian Reforms Makes Gridlock Worse, Encouraging Localism

These movements might be described as “anarchist” or “libertarian.”

oh boy, here we go…

“But our economic problems are irreducibly global in scope. Individual US cities and states cannot change the structural incentives that drive jobs and investment from place to place. They don’t control US trade policy. They cannot negotiate with foreign governments to set minimum standards. It is not easy for them to go their own way on taxes, wages, or regulations.”

This has been a problem since the 19th Century and it is why socialists have created internationals…

“When the federal government cedes ground to the cities and states, it does not strengthen them in any meaningful way—it simply allows them to get into a bidding war with each other over scarce jobs and scarce tax revenue.”


“Oligarchs and corporations therefore have a strong interest in encouraging both the left-anarchist and right-libertarian movements. The more these movements succeed, the harder it is for the federal government to recover any semblance of the dynamism it once possessed.”

Is there any proof of this supposed “interest” from oligarchs and corporations? I have been an anarchist for over 20 years and a member of numerous anarchist organizations. Never have I seen any encouragement from oligarchs and corporations. It is true that the more we succeed, the weaker the federal government becomes. That could suggest to oligarchs and corporations that anarchists may be useful to them. However, anarchists aren’t actually localists. We organize in confederated structures and we do so internationally. We may have chapters or “locals”, but those groups come together into confederated, international structures. Since we are anti-capitalists, it is clear to oligarchs and corporations that encouraging our success means they also lose power. We create counter-economic institutions that directly interfere with their capacity to extract surplus value. Our local manifestations aren’t merely local markets, they are local communes and solidarity economies… and that is only the legal ones. Anarchist bank robbers funding anarchist direct action cells aren’t anything an oligarch or corporation wants to encourage.

It is fair to critique localism for these strategic defects, but don’t blame anarchists for this!

Dream Eating Democracy

“Many of these Americans think they understand the debates surrounding these terms when they have been systematically denied access to large parts of the intellectual tradition.”

probably why he doesn’t know much about anarchist internationalism?


This whole section could be discussed at some length, especially regarding the following:

“For some modern existentialists, we act in bad faith when we allow social norms to stop us from doing what we authentically desire to do. For these theorists, we allow ourselves to be controlled by an internalized guilt, a sense of shame, or a fear of judgment. We act “normal” not because it is what we freely choose but because these feelings have interfered with our ability to be ourselves.”

“Skinner also considers freedom as “self-realization.” For Skinner, self-realization theorists think that human beings share a common human nature, or “essence.” For some theorists, this essence is political. They argue that we need to participate in the political system, to exercise
the full set of political rights associated with citizenship. For others, this essence is spiritual—we are self-realized when we become virtuous people or people with the right kind of relationship with the divine.”

Interesting that my views are a combination of the above two…

“But Skinner points out that there is another kind of freedom. He calls this the “no-dependence” view. When we are dependent on someone or something, we rely on the arbitrary will or power that someone or something possesses. We have to worry that this someone or something might
interfere with our decisions in ways that undermine our interests.
If you are an editor working for The Washington Post, you are aware that Jeff Bezos owns the newspaper. If Jeff Bezos doesn’t like what you. publish, he could fire you. If Jeff Bezos doesn’t like what you tweet, he could fire you. You depend on Jeff Bezos. Awareness of dependence
causes us to self-censor. Even if Jeff Bezos never interferes in your editorial decisions, the fact that you know that you depend on Jeff Bezos to make a living alters your behavior. Even if Jeff Bezos personally reassures you and tells you that you have his full confidence, you will still be affected by the mere fact that he has the power to fire you at any time for any reason.”

I’m very much against a good portion of the views that could be described this way, but not all of them. Interdependence is central to my understanding of human liberty. However, I distinguish dependence from the exploitation of our social vulnerabilities. I think this distinction is important for discussing a variety of downstream consequences.

For example, while I reject the above form of “dependence,” I think this next form is completely necessary:

“If you are married to a person, the way your day goes often depends on how well you’re getting along with your spouse. If you upset your spouse, the day often doesn’t go very well. You might start self-censoring around your spouse to avoid conflict. Even if your spouse explicitly asks
you to be honest and open, you might still be reluctant to say what’s really on your mind, to express what you really want to do.”

Geuss and Hollis’ critique is excellent…


“Liberty became the value associated with the right, and equality became the value associated
with the left.”

“In political theory, we call the theorists who focus on no-dependence and non-domination small-r “republicans.” We call them republicans because they are interested in political concepts that originally developed in the ancient republics of Greece and Rome.”

“Some proponents of the equality/equity distinction don’t mind this. If you have anarchist leanings and want to abolish both the state and the traditional family, the equality of welfare view is useful. Theorists like Wigger and Buch-Hansen consider equity to be central to anarchism [37].
But there are others who want to take the radical edge off of equity. This can be done by framing equity around groups instead of individuals.”


Group Equity

“Theorists like Wigger and Buch-Hansen consider equity to be central to anarchism [37]. But there are others who want to take the radical edge off of equity. This can be done by framing equity around groups instead of individuals.”

Why take that radical edge off??? Ok, I see how that is answered later:

“If this is what equity comes to mean, what can radicals do about it? There is not much they can do. Education theorists often define equity in opposition to equality. If students learn that equality is bad and equity is good, then whoever controls the definition of equity controls the whole
debate. There is no possibility of appealing to alternative understandings of equality, because equality has been boxed out by the conceptual frame taught to undergraduate students. To get a hearing, the alternative views of equality would all have to be reframed as alternative understandings of equity. It would take a lot of time for these reformulations to be injected into the literature. It would take even more time for them to become dominant enough to be taught to undergraduate students. It would take even more time for those undergraduate students to build
successful careers and populate institutions.

In the meantime, the people who want an undemanding, politically convenient concept of equality will not stand idly by. If they’re pushed, they will invent new loaded terms and new loaded conceptual binaries to impose their terms on unsuspecting students. Oligarchs and corporations have money. They’ll use think tanks and grants to pay academics to disseminate their perspectives. They’ll get away with it, because equality is, like liberty, a very vague term. It can mean almost anything. In a society where oligarchs and corporations are powerful, they will tend to succeed in defining vague terms. We cannot use words to overcome power when power is used to define words.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying. But the project is doomed from the start. Radicals will never win the definitional war over equality or liberty. Their hopes sustain the system, and while they are bogged down in these terminological quagmires, the concept of
representation shifts beneath their feet.”


“We don’t have government by delegates or by trustees—we have government by impersonal incentive structures.”

This is a great discussion and breakdown of the notion of “representation”.

“For progressives, America is too diverse to speak meaningfully of a single, shared “American” way. In their view, conservatives can only think of America as a unified whole by ignoring or excluding the parts of the country that don’t fit their vision. For conservatives, America loses
meaning if it is reduced to a patchwork of identity groups. They object to forms of identity they view as divisive or factionalist, because these forms of identity erode national unity.”


“The reality is that as structural incentives become more powerful, elected representatives increasingly behave the same way, regardless of the cultural groups they come from or their attitude to America as an ideal.”

“The delegate and trustee views fit largely within the juridical box. In juridical representation, it’s straightforwardly the case that the represented exist and are part of the process. They can consent, and they have a set of defined interests. In practice, representation is rarely this simple.”

This is how anarchists think about representation… or rather, how they use it.

Obstacles to Restoring Legitimacy by Dream Eating

“Descriptive representation only succeeds in improving the attachment of groups to the polity if most people buy into descriptive representation. Because some people are conservative—in the sense that they prefer forms of symbolic representation that collapse identity group distinctions—descriptive representation is unlikely to produce a new consensus on the meaning of democracy. By the same token, symbolic representation can only succeed if nearly everyone buys into it, and because some people are progressive—and prefer descriptive representation—it is also unlikely to produce a new consensus.”

No Escape

Politics Without Politics

When they are politically deactivated or in despair, Americans retreat from
politics into four primary zones. I call these “the four F’s.” They are:

  1. Faith
  2. Family
  3. Fandoms
  4. Futurism

The American Subaltern