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Optimates vs populares: Lucan on Trumpism

by Brett Heino on April 24, 2019

For many observers of American politics, the rise of Donald Trump has been a thoroughly discombobulating experience. A generation of analysts, brought up on a diet of Washington Consensus policies, could be confident that the Republican Party pre-Trump was neoliberal in the strict sense. Such an understanding was abundantly confirmed by the fact that the Republicans were always to be found on the hard edge of issues such as financial deregulation, trade liberalisation, pro-business tax policies and the marginalisation of organised labour. Then came Trump. Suddenly, it seemed as if the political certainties and sensibilities that had formed over decades were thrown out the window. Here was a man who, at the rhetorical level at least, abnegated key planks of the Republican platform. In place of free trade, he threatened (and later delivered) tariffs to protect American jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector. He threatened companies who planned to relocate production to other countries. He railed against the philosophy of free trade, attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdrawing America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In its place, and under the influence of key advisor Steve Bannon, he offered “economic nationalism.” To complete this confusion, Bannon, appearing in an interview on Australian news programme Four Corners, claimed that Trump had prevailed against the Republican establishment in turning the Party ‘more into a worker’s party.’

What do we make of this? How do we understand a political phenomenon whereby a party appears to lurch from its historic path and degenerate into factions? In order to comprehend this modern political economy, we can find a good deal of help from a most unlikely source: Lucan, the Roman poet who authored the magisterial Civil War. This epic poem tells the story of one of the pivotal events in world history – the titanic struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great over the future of the Roman Republic. The irreparable social harm inflicted by this civil strife and Caesar’s triumph resulted in the destruction of the Republic and sowed the seeds for the Principate. Although widely considered incomplete (Lucan was forced to commit suicide after involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero), the text illustrates with touching melancholy and appalling violence the turmoil of a dying society.

Most importantly for our purposes, Lucan explores the causes of this dissolution and the identity of the warring social forces. Amidst a fairly orthodox Stoic account of how overweening greatness inevitably rushes to ruin and luxury corrupts virtues, we find a most interesting passage:

…The nurse of men,

 Poverty, fled. Summoned from round the world

 came each clan’s special plague. They bought up giant

 tracts of land – those once furrowed by Camillus’

 hardy plowshare, that felt old Curius’ shovel –

 for vast estates now worked by foreign tenants.

Here Lucan hits upon one of the core causes of the Roman Republic’s last, and troubled, one hundred years – the latifundia system. Land expropriated by Roman conquest, the ager publicus, was increasingly concentrated in the hands of wealthy Roman politicians and generals. These huge new landed estates were typically worked by slave labour, rather than the free and independent citizen identified as the stalwart of Roman virtue. As this stern Republican backbone was supplanted, the correspondent rise of a propertyless urban mass introduced a new and destabilising influence into Roman politics. Lucan, from an admittedly aristocratic perspective, describes the world this new social force found and helped create:

…By steel one could gain great honor

and overpower his fatherland. The measure of right

was might. Law won popular votes by coercion,

just order was disturbed by consuls and tribunes.

The rods of office were bought, and the people

auctioned off their favor…

Usury ran rampant and interest, greedy for payments,

rose, and trust shattered: many found profit in war.

The attitude the dominant social and political class took to this urban “proletariat” (the term, after all, was derived from a Roman census category referring to those who owned little or no property) informed the central cleavage point in late Republican politics. On one hand were the optimates, conservative aristocrats who insisted on the maintenance of Senatorial authority over instruments of popular power, such as the Plebian Council and the Tribune of the Plebs. Pompey the Great belonged to this faction. Opposed to the optimates were the populares, political leaders and generals who sought to improve the position of the common people, particularly through land reform and grain doles. Although he deeply corrupted it, Julius Caesar was identified as a member of this movement.

Lucan makes no secret as to who he favours in this fractured political landscape. He is full of scorn for historical and contemporary populares figures, such as Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Cinna and most of all Caesar. Whilst he sometimes laments the excesses of opitmate politicians such as Sulla, the hero of Civil War is undoubtedly the stern and uncompromising aristocrat Cato the Younger. Although courageously upright in defence of what he deems “liberty,” he makes it clear just what he means by this term when he eulogises Pompey (who was treacherously killed in Egypt):

Real belief in liberty, with the return of Sulla and Marius,

passed away long ago. With Pompey now removed,

even its figment is dead. Shameless kingship at last,

no pretense of sanction, no Senate as a screen!

Through Cato, Lucan admits more than he means to here. The Senate, as Lucan himself paints in his history of Roman civil strife, had hardly screened the common people from suffering, so who/what is the Senate screening? The answer can only be the conservative patrician families and their class privileges.

For anyone with at least a passing familiarity with American politics, the salience of Lucan’s magnum opus should already be clear. His utility has an echo of Karl Marx’s understanding of history repeating itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Through Lucan, we can gain fresh insights on events in America through understanding that a similar dissolution in political institutions has occurred before. What are the main lessons we can learn?

First, through the small but significant reference to the latifundia system, Lucan highlights a truth that the materialist conception of history has always grasped – that changes in the forces and relations of production can be profoundly destabilising to the extant social structure. Of course the nature of production in ancient Roman society and modern day America is completely different. However, in the latifundia system and contemporary neoliberal capitalism, we see one uncanny resemblance – both revolve around a system of production in which meaningful social work is degraded and corrosive of the political capacities of its agents. In the former, it was the displacement of free citizens by slave labour that was the motive force; in the latter, the creation of toxic forms of labour precarity and unemployment. The affinity between the two is heightened in the case of America, where Trump campaigned on an openly anti-immigrant platform, targeting in particular those nationalities (such as Mexicans) often identified as “job-stealers.”

Second, Lucan shows that, in such a context of disempowerment and disillusion, the battle between conservatives protective of the status quo and populists is often resolved in favour of the latter. Although Lucan is reluctant to give Caesar anything (he routinely depicts Caesar as bloodthirsty, war-mongering and dismissive of established Roman traditions), he nevertheless is forced to concede the dynamism of his persona and the loyalty he is capable of inspiring in his followers. Against this force of nature, Pompey appears tired, worn-out and keen to trade on a legacy of past achievement that no longer animates people in the here and now. Although it is fair to say that Donald Trump is no Julius Caesar, we can see something similar at play within the fabric of the Republican Party, and the American political system more broadly. Trump spoke to a working-class constituency that Republicans traditionally had difficulty reaching. This reality, combined with Trump’s personality, led to a fair amount of dissent within the Republican establishment, with perhaps the most revealing criticism coming from former nominee Mitt Romney, who took a veiled swipe at his ‘demagoguery and populism’. The fact that many of these critics have since fallen into line (e.g. Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Lindsey Graham) reveals both the victory of Trump’s brand of politics and the fact that, faced with the choice, many politicians chose expediency over principle. Indeed, Lucan portrays the latter phenomenon in some detail, exploring how individuals firstly loyal to Pompey or Caesar sometimes find themselves in the employ of the other (often only to betray this newfound alliance at a later date).

Last, through his hero Cato, Lucan gives us a clear, if unwitting, insight into the limitations of an individualistic response to the depredations of a Caesar/Trump figure. Cato is utterly selfless and upright in his dedication to virtue and, through it, the Roman Republic. He declares to Brutus (who would later be a key player in Caesar’s assassination):

As enemy ranks overcame Decius self-sacrificed,

may both armies stab me, let barbarous hordes

aim at me their Rhineland lances, may I be pierced

by every spear and, standing in the middle, take

the blows of the entire war. May this blood redeem

whole peoples, and this sacrifice make good in kind

whatever debt hangs over Romans and their ways.

There is no doubting Cato’s sincerity in this. Lucan displays his personal courage in leading troops through the snake-riddled Libyan desert. The historian Plutarch recounts in graphic detail Cato’s suicide, who refused to live in a world ruled by Caesar (Lucan’s own suicide and the resultant incompleteness of Civil War is almost certainly the reason this episode is omitted from the text). The overarching point, however, is that Caesar did end up ruling the world. Cato’s suicide was as necessary as it was brave. That is to say, something more than an incorruptible sense of individual moral behaviour is necessary if a demagogue is to be stopped. In the United States, we perhaps had an analogous figure in John McCain. Whilst by no means as morally stern and uncompromising as Cato, McCain resembled him in ultimately refusing to trim his sails to the winds of Trump and acting on the basis of a personal set of political convictions (seen most poignantly in his deciding vote against the Republican bill to repeal Obamacare). Such behaviour is commendable. However, through Lucan’s silences as to the efficacy of Cato’s behaviour, and the historical reality that his sacrifice was not enough to ‘redeem’ the Roman people, we can conclude that such actions in and of themselves cannot destroy the kind of politics that Caesar and Trump epitomise.

The question is, if not through personal moral example, how can we fundamentally oppose demagoguery? The answer, ironically, is one that Lucan is incapable of grasping – deepening and intensifying the political life of the broad mass of working people. As a part of the Roman aristocratic elite, Lucan was dismissive of “the mob” whom the populares appealed to. To the extent they ever warrant his attention, ordinary people are shown as forming an amorphous, animalistic mass that is easily bought by Caesar. This is best seen in a passage where Caesar has despatched his lieutenant Curio to Sicily to secure grain supplies:

…what ruse

would best arouse the people’s capricious favour…

he is well aware that the main cause of anger or praise

is the annual grain supply. Only hunger frees cities.

Respect is bought when men in power feed

the lazy mob. Starving masses know no fear.

Caesar operates on the basis of a cynical conception of “the mob,” a conception which Lucan, despite his political differences, wholly subscribes to. The optimates as a group, and Caesar as a debased populares leader, share this fundamental view of the common people; the differences between the two camps comes down to the techniques of power one takes vis-à-vis this group, with the former seeking to exclude them from the extant political process, the latter exploiting their power to break that process. In both cases, however, there is no thought of expanding and deepening institutions for popular political power. Lucan’s Caesar, for all his rhetoric, does not seek to genuinely empower the subaltern classes he supposedly represents; rather, he intends to leverage this support in favour of autocracy. His is an authoritarian populism, a populism without the people.

The parallels to Trump’s America are plain. Like Caesar, Trump does not, and cannot, offer a pathway to a progressive populism that legitimately expands the ambit of popular power. Only through engaging in the latter can a populist politics avoid a pathway that ends in demagoguery. Lucan was incapable of grasping this, held captive by a conservative aristocratic suspicion of the plebeians. Such a suspicion leads to two, dialectically intertwined outcomes – the rule of the demagogue and the suicide (both literal and symbolic) of the virtuous individual. Such a conception goes a good deal of the way in explaining the current state of the Republican Party and US politics. To avoid a modern day Caesarism, it is imperative that we learn from Lucan’s mistake.

Brett Heino
Brett Heino is a Lecturer in the University Technology of Sydney (UTS) Faculty of Law. His research interests include the political economy of law (with a focus on labour law), the structure of post-World War II Australian capitalism and regulation theory

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