And Brutus is an honorable man

I read Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral – “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” – in school. It did not register.

Years later I came across this recording of Damian Lewis’ on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It gives me chills every time I watch it.

The versions by Marlon Brando (1953) and Charlton Heston (1970) are different and all the better for it.

Before you get too weepy eyed for Caesar, read Michael Kulikowski’s, “A Very Bad Man.” Caesar famous conquest of Gaul was a genocide, with perhaps up to a million killed.

Gun sales up in the US

The United States is a special place.

From a 3rd September piece in the Financial Times by Matthew Rocco:

Gun sales have historically trended upwards during presidential election years, as buyers hedge against potential action in Washington to tighten restrictions on sales. Demand has also risen this year in response to civil unrest in major US cities this summer, as well as uncertainty related to the pandemic and the economic turmoil that ensued, industry executives have said.

“Of course, there’s some portion of the surge that’s related to gun control regulation fears, but . . . a large portion of the demand is driven by folks who are just fearful of their personal protection and safety, starting with the pandemic and moving on to the civil unrest,” Mr Smith said.

In the face of societal breakdown and distrust, armed self-reliance is individually rational but collectively irrational; an accelerating and self-fulfilling prophecy.

This should be read alongside the increasing tendency of people to be armed at protests and the recent shooting of three people, 2 fatally, by an armed 17-year old at protests in Kenosha.

Source Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

November 2020

I remember where I was when Donald Trump’ won. I had spent most of the day at work refreshing 538’s live tracker, initially in a corner where I would not be noticed, later with my manager hovering anxiously over me; she was from New York. By 5pm it had become clear Hilary was in a lot of trouble and a group of us gathered in a bar to watch the end.

We had been arguing about the possibility of a Trump victory in my house for months. None of us liked him, but we were divided about the long term ramifications of a Trump Presidency. I took the position that a victory, while catastrophic, might be the shock the Democratic Party needed to reconnect with its progressive tradition. I had been stung by Bernie’s loss and the impression that the party had done everything in its power to undermine him. My housemates, closer to the political center, thought my position was irresponsible or suspect.

I have since changed my mind. My position in 2016 was rooted in a cocktail of Marxian crisis theory and Liberal optimism that I now doubt.


Marxian crisis theory made two important contributions to my thinking. First, that crises were an inevitable part of capitalist society. This has many uncontroversial variations; few economists would argue recessions can be avoided perpetually; Keynesians accept that capitalism is not perfectly self-governing and state intervention is sometimes necessary; Schumpeter’s famous ‘Creative Destruction,’ was a reworking of Marxian theory.

The Marxian twist comes in understanding these crises as a necessary part of society’s progression. Marxists thought societies progressed through similar stages, from Slavery, to Feudalism, to Capitalism, and finally to Socialism and Communism. Since this trajectory is a positive one, with a desirable end point, it gives crises a positive tinge; crises are not unfortunate mistakes in need of urgent repair, but forces puling history in a positive direction. Accordingly, the appropriate response might not be stabilisation, adjustments, and a return to normal.

This belief had tragic consequences in Weimar Germany, when the Social Democrats permitted social breakdown in the hope it would hurry the inevitable transition to socialism. Instead, they opened the door to Hitler.

(If teleological thinking like this sounds absurd, consider, do you think countries develop in clear stages from agriculture, through basic and advanced manufacturing, perhaps along the way becoming liberal democracies? This incredibly common view of development, modernization theory, is just Marxist stages sin Marx. For a simple overview, and a more academic one.)

Now, I was never a Marxist, but I would have accepted that:

  • Crises were inevitable
  • They were the necessary building blocks for social progress

This tangled with the optimism instinctual to the Global North’s most privileged. The idea that progress was an independent force moving ever upwards seemed validated by the political triumphalism and technological bullishness that overshadowed my youth. The world had problems, but they could be overcome with the right combination of technology, effort, and cooperation.

All in all, it was easy to see how that could predispose me to taking a sanguine view of a Trump Presidency.


I no longer hold this position. Another four years of Trump will be catastrophic. In part this is because several of these assumptions have changed:

I no longer subscribe to a teleological view of history of progress. History is not going anywhere and straight lines are an optical illusion produced by hindsight. ‘Contingency’ sits at the heart of my intellectual toolkit today; it was absent in 2016.

Having now seen two major crises up close I am deeply skeptical of deterministic accounts of change, the simple arithmetic of status quo + crisis = change. Crises may open doors. but specific configurations of forces are required to step through them, and it is far from certain they exist today. The status quo inertia is enormous and the counter-revolution is well-armed; the Bundesbank’s representative on the ECB is already calling for debt reduction:

Most importantly, I underestimated the fragility of democratic institutions. I maintain that things are not as bad as they seem, and four more years of Trump might only continue the rather embarrassing decline of American prestige. Institutions could bounce back, but they might not, or only do so incompletely; four years of stacking have already skewed the US judicial system for a generation. I no longer feel comfortable playing Russian Roulette.

On claims of Fascism

It is commonplace to warn of Fascism. Here is ex-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich on Twitter two days ago:

I have my doubts about the accuracy of these comparisons. Consider the following interview with a historian of Hitler’s first 100 days:

To put it somewhat bluntly:  If fascism was offensive and future-oriented, and basically confident and optimistic, right-wing populism today is defensive, embattled and nostalgic. Back then, fascism and Nazism attracted young people, students and intellectuals in a way that right-wing populism today simply does not. In Germany in 1933, the most National Socialist institution was the university.

Authoritarianism today is not the ideological competitor Fascism was, nor can it call upon the paramilitary violence common to that period.

This might seem pedantic niggling in light of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, but if the label fails basic historical tests it ends up legitimizing Trump’s outrages by making the accusations seem hysterical. It also distracts attention from the real risks, like a close election being litigated in a stacked judicial system.


I remain an optimist about the strength of US democratic institutions and culture – as creaking as they are today. We are not yet in Weimar Germany. I hope I don’t live to regret my optimism.

The fundamental premise(s) of our age

From a discussion at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference between the US and the UK about what was to be done about rising Japan.

It could not be denied that they were a growing nation who had industriously exploited their own territory and needed room to expand. They were refused outlets in ‘any white country,’ in Seiberia and in Africa. Where were they to turn? ‘They had to go somewhere.’ Balfour did not question this fundamental premise of the age. Dynamic populations needed space into which to expand.

The Deluge‘ by Adam Tooze

What is so enjoyable about Tooze’s history is how it forces the reader to take the assumptions and beliefs of historical figures seriously. In doing so he shakes off the inevitability with which events can appear in retrospect and shows history full of contingency.

A similar point is made at a more profound level in a wonderful review piece in the LRB on the ontology of history. In short the author argues that historians should abide by the truth standards of the world’s they study:

an ontological turn would require historians to abide by very precise truth standards, albeit those of the particular worlds they are studying, not those of our own Western modernity

He uses the example of the supernatural in Ancient Greece. Instead of starting from our own assumptions about the supernatural and assuming that the Ancient Greeks were easily duped, saw their gods as symbolic entities or were cynical believers, we must imagine:

If one of us was approached by what appeared to be a god, chances are that we would want to carry out a few reality checks, so we tend to imagine the Athenians would have too. But perhaps we should consider more closely what the world would have to be like such that episodes of this sort didn’t appear silly or insipidly metaphorical.

The question is what are the fundamental beliefs of our time? As a starting point, some of the differences with Ancient Greece:

the oppositions public/private, nature/culture and sacred/secular, or the idea that the material world is objective, or that the primary way to understand human beings is as distinct individual entities rather than as transient parts of bigger entities such as ‘the family’, ‘the inhabitants of Athens’ or ‘the people’.