We often stand in the shadow of Rome. It is almost impossible to resist evoking her when discussing contemporary politics or economics. Many elegant parallels have been drawn, which are mostly poetic and figurative, between modernity and the unwinding of the Republic. It is typical for pessimist-bourgeois historians to dwell on the history of Rome and drag their energetic society into lethargy and despair.
Many despair when thinking about Deutsche Bank and the world economy, and they are justified in their anxiety. The ammunition has been spent in response to the great recession. The interest rates cannot be lowered further, increasing liquidity in a meaningful way is not possible, and national governments have borrowed to their limits. The revolver is smoking, but the mad bear is still closing in. All that await our leaders are the frenzied clicking of an empty revolver, and the looming shadow. The potential for Deutsche Bank to become a second Lehman, for Germany to bail it out after a decade of failed policy in P.I.I.G.S. — exposing themselves as the vindictive Pharisees they are — would be so grotesquely hypocritical and grasping that it would almost be impossible to enjoy.
The possibility of a debt-deflationary spiral dragging Western economies into oblivion has generated much consternation in the halls of power. This is not new.1 I will begin by briefly outlining the Debt Deflationary crisis in the Late Roman Republic and the structural causes of it, the significance of these recurrent crises in the unwinding of the Republic, and its lessons for modernity.
The Roman economy of the 1st century B.C. was balanced on a small group of individuals, and the vast material inequality that existed between the oligarchs and the masses lead to social and economic fragility. This fragility would lead to the collapse of the Republic’s economy, social institutions, and ultimately itself. The oligarchy amassed huge swathes of land.2 They not only owned land in the Italian peninsular; huge estates in Anatolia and Greece were also accumulated, producing a class of oligarchs that owned land in both Roman and Eastern-Vassal provinces. This explains how the Italian peninsular retained large holdings of Capital while running an immense trade deficit. The Roman provinces imported food and commodities; however, trade was almost entirely insignificant. Plunder flowed into Rome from the subjugated peoples and after the reconquest of the east by Pompey, the Roman state’s revenue increased by thirty five million denarii. Cicero described this as the nervos esse rei publicæ.3Indeed, the revenue generated from the east was the source of permanent income for the Roman state.
Perhaps the most significant factor to consider is the interest rate disparity in the Republic, and the prevalence of margin speculation among elites. The rates of interest on the Italian peninsular rested at about 6%, while the interest rates in Anatolia were volatile and could be up to 48%.4 Naturally, the oligarchs of Rome, which were nearly all of them speculators, lent on margin in Anatolia with money borrowed in Rome. And so a fragile web of liabilities was spun across the Ægean. The glut of land, and relatively low prices drove many to speculate; however, one disruption could send tremors across the entire web.
Another development worth mentioning is the abnegation of the guardianship of the Aegean sea by Rome. For trade to occur, there must exist a naval power willing to police the oceans. In recent times the Royal Navy and the United States Navy have occupied this role. In the second century before Christ, Rhodes had established itself as the protector of trade in the Aegean. By the first century, Rome had almost entirely undermined this guardianship, but had neglected their duty to defend merchants from the east. This disrupted the flow of goods from the east to the west, including plunder.5 Piracy was commonplace, and added to the fragility of an already fragile economic network.
Although the Social war disrupted the peninsular considerably, which began the crisis in 86 B.C., it was the First Mithridatic War that would land the decisive blow to the Republic. When Mithridates VI invaded Cappadocia and occupied Anatolia, Greek cities rose up in rebellion and the east suffered generalised devastation. Some “hundred thousand Latin residents” in the East were massacred,6 which became known as the infamous “Asiatic Vespers.”
The Roman exchange collapsed. Creditors could not collect interest, which had been lent on the margin, and the Italian creditors (of the creditors) were bankrupt. Trade was impossible and shareholders received no interest on their investments. Agricultural production stagnated, cattle breeding ceased, taxes could not be collected. Rome suffered a painful debt-deflation crisis that lasted until 91 B.C.. Rome vacillated between stagnation and crises until the Augustan-era and wide spread debt relief. It is no hyperbole to say that these crises drove the Republic into Empire, from the Lex Valeria in 82 B.C. to the eventual ascension of Augustus. Great Republican ideals can be imperceptibly erased when the elites are more concerned with squabbling among themselves in naked self interest. When a crisis occurs, the state realises that their institutions are no stronger than hollow grass in the wind. When the masses lose the stability of their necessities, they turn to the institutions of the state for resolution, failing that, they submit to men of power. Again today we know an indolent mass, contributing nothing, and undermining the unity and institutions of the state. Coriolanus reflects:7
Whoever gave that counsel, to give forth
the corn o’ the storehouse gratis, as ’twas used
sometime in Greece,–
Well, well, no more of that.
Though there the people had more absolute power,
I say, they nourish’d disobedience, fed
the ruin of the state.
Why, shall the people give
one that speaks thus their voice?
I’ll give my reasons,
more worthier than their voices. They know the corn
was not our recompense, resting well assured
that ne’er did service for’t: being press’d to the war,
even when the navel of the state was touch’d,
they would not thread the gates. This kind of service
did not deserve corn gratis. Being i’ the war
their mutinies and revolts, wherein they show’d
most valour, spoke not for them: the accusation
which they have often made against the senate,
all cause unborn, could never be the motive
of our so frank donation. Well, what then?
How shall this bisson multitude digest
the senate’s courtesy? Let deeds express
what’s like to be their words: “We did request it;
we are the greater poll, and in true fear
they gave us our demands.” Thus we debase
the nature of our seats and make the rabble
call our cares fears; which will in time
break ope the locks o’ the senate and bring in
the crows to peck the eagles.
It is often assumed that Oswald Spengler‘s age of Cæsarism was overcome in the 20th century. In my view this is to take the idea of Cæsar too literally. Corporate personhood means that, in financial and accounting terms, corporations are treated as individuals. We may enter an age of Empire, but it will likely be a corporate empire. The only potential for the age of Cæsarism to realise itself is if corporate interests smother political will, and snuff out the flame of nationhood. Hitler, Mussolini, and even Stalin were the fathers of their nation. Perhaps abusive, but they did not pursue their positions in order to accumulate a vast personal wealth. Many of the communist revolutionaries that became dictators amassed fortunes from corrupt dealings, but this was largely incidental and opportunistic. When they conspired in stuffy garages and basements they saw themselves as being actors in a great ideological struggle. We must do the same. They viewed their actions from the eyes of imagined future generations. The naked self interest of the Cæsar is to be found, not in the ideological struggle of the 20th century, but alarmingly, in the emerging corporate imperium of the 21st.
When I was in London a few months ago, I walked past a McDonald’s. Now outside this McDonald’s were three flags: the European Flag, the Union Jack, and a flag of the Golden Arches. “Good Lord,” I thought, “this is an embassy!” I remember my father recounting to me his travels in Morocco, trekking out of a sweltering desert and coming across a Mcdonald’s. It has the same architecture across the globe, the same flag, and an anthem with three words. These financial and corporate institutions are like states within states. Many of these international corporates ensure there is an identical corporate culture in every country they are operating in.
The debt webs between modern developed nations is startlingly similar to that of the late Roman Republic. As opposed to the triumvirate of Crassus, Cæsar, and Pompey, Europe is at the mercy of the troika: the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. Deutsche Bank, Lehman, and the other international banks have been acting like Roman oligarchs over the past decades and the parallels are almost too painful to consider. Our declining birth rates could also be compared to Rome’s, the corruption, the migrant crisis, the debt, the chasm between rich and poor. Dwelling on these breeds only pessimism.
The products of modernity can be used to overcome these failings. Augustinian Rome mostly lacked the means of overcoming these failings, in our case it is a lack of will preventing us. I am optimistic that our society can will its own revival. The world is more interconnected than ever, which is demonstrated by West Coast Reactionaries and other online reactionary movements, and this is giving voice to ideas that would have otherwise been suppressed or ignored. If enough young men are exposed to our ideas, we will see a revival. Every video, article, essay; every provocation, every attack on the bourgeois soft Left; is a triumph. Speaking to an audience of a few thousand, or a few hundred — even speaking to yourself in your room! — is a triumph.
Information travels at a speed that was inconceivable two hundred years ago, let alone two thousand years ago. Although the dissolution of political hierarchies into networks, and the empowerment of the individual is a cause of deep pessimism among those inclined to reaction, it can lend itself to the development of a certain primus inter pares. A new society is possible. A society forged in the dynamism of modernity, built on natural law, and energetic enough that it can overcome the pessimistic “inevitabilities” of bourgeois pontifications. Leave the shadow of Rome and step into the light of destiny!
1. See the debt-deflation of the American Great Depression. I recommend reading Fisher’s Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions, 1933. Interestingly, it was Fisher that predicted that the stock market had reached a “permanently high plateau” a few weeks before the great crash. Almost all of his interesting work was written in the 1930s, and all of it was a repudiation of his fallacious bourgeois economics.
2. Aron Acemoglu and J.A. Robins, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Crown Publishers, 2012, pg. 160-162
4. E.J. Jonkers, Social and economic commentary on Cicero’s De imperio Cn. Pompei, Brill, 1959, pg. 27-28
5. ibid., pg. 11
6. H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe, Arnold, 1935, pg. 69
7. Coriolanus III, i, 113-139
C. T. Barlow, The Roman Government and the Roman Economy, 92–80 B.C, 1980.
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, 2011