To explain Jeremy Corbyn you might say he’s a cross between Citizen Smith and your second favourite woodwork teacher. Baseball, to those of you who’ve not had the pleasure, is rounders on steroids. We make sense of the unfamiliar by comparing it to what we know. When it comes understanding our society and its politics we understand it by comparing it to the past. For most of us in Britain that means searching for analogies only in the twentieth century and especially in Nazi Germany because that’s just about all the history we are taught at school. This is a problem because it leaves us with a limited set of mental tools with which to grasp what’s going on.
Donald Trump’s candidacy is good example of this. Because of his racism and authoritarian leanings we compare him to Hitler, but Hitler was committed to an evil ideology and a radically different form of government, while Trump isn’t clearly committed to anything. We know that Trump is not another Hitler but we’re left with a nagging sense that he represents a novel threat to our political order, while not being able to explain why. The riots in England in 2011 were checked against our understanding of class conflict drawn from the twentieth century and it was concluded that as the rioters weren’t sworn to a particular ideology their actions could be dismissed as mere criminality, as if the willingness of so many to attack and pillage their fellow citizens, absent political theory, does not register as a threat to the stability of society.
The fall of the Roman Republic offers a different perspective on how a democracy, accustomed to peaceful transfers of power and the rule of law can devolve into tyranny. Rome in the late second century BC was rapidly expanding its dominion over the Mediterranean. Service in the legions, which had once been the patriotic duty of property holders defending their homeland, had become something more like a public-private partnership. Now the legionaries were the poorest romans, not the richest, and they fought in wars of conquest, their allegiance bought by the generals who won them plunder and spoils.
The wealth of conquest was accrued by a tiny elite who used it to swallow up smaller estates and freeholdings, the Italians who once worked those lands were replaced by slaves, and the reductions in labour costs made the rich more richer still. The tides of money flowing to the political elite who appointed generals and provincial governors, made political office a requirement for roman nobles who wished to retain their elite status and with the stakes thus raised, bribery of electors reached unprecedented levels.
Meanwhile, the now landless poor, displaced from the workforce by the expansion of slavery, flooded into Rome, helping to create an atmosphere of unrest such that the elites, who had never been so rich, had also never been so fearful. The Gracchi brothers were the first to harness this mob anger to a political project. They were both killed by conservatives, but a generation later Marius would emulate their methods, using a network of partisans to kill and intimidate his opponents. Once of those opponents, Sulla, raised the stakes further by marching his legions on Rome, prosecuting a bloody purge of Marius’ supporters and having himself proclaimed dictator for life. Sulla was a conservative, who thought he was protecting republican institutions against Marius’ use of popular anger to gain political power, but of course he was merely demonstrating the fragile nature of those institutions in the face of men with swords.
As the Republic hastened towards its demise any attempt to address the very real material grievances of Rome’s poor were viewed as the wielding of mob anger as a weapon against the property rights of noble romans. Thus Caesar’s attempts at land redistribution provoked fear amongst his fellow senators. When as proconsul Caesar conquered Gaul, making himself rich, glorious and beloved by thousands of soldiers, that fear turned to terror. Caesar wanted immunity from prosecution on his return to Rome, immunity he needed because like every other consul in recent history he was flagrantly guilty of electoral fraud. The senate refused, determined to stop the man who had matched their lust for power.
Caesar crossed the Rubicon with a single legion, about five thousand men. It was a gamble that there was so little support for the corrupt oligarchy amongst the people they pretended to serve that he could sweep them aside. It paid off.
We can only understand the present by comparing it to the past. The fall of the Roman Republic did not come about because of autocratic ideology, nor was it a ‘class struggle’ in the sense of pitting rich against poor. It was a fight between members of an elite who wielded popular anger as a weapon in their quests for personal gain. Its institutions were swept aside not because of revulsion at their corruption but because not enough people cared enough to defend them. It’s a reminder that while we’re scouring the gutter for fascist bogeymen, we should keep a look out for ten ton trucks of inequality, alienation and sleaze.