Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Commodus Americanus | The Z Blog

 Note: The Monday Taki post is up. Not related to the topic of the day, but a topic that is I pray Allah will make more important every day. The Sunday podcast is up behind the green door and it is mostly about the moral crisis of this age.

There is an old expression, “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”, that has haunted powerful people since forever. A variation on this is “The first generation makes it. The second generation maintains it and the third generation blows it”. While not an iron law of the universe, it is an observation that has held up over time. Whether it is business empires or political empires, the work of the great man somehow turns into a curse that plagues the lives of his descendents.

The funny thing about this bit of reality is that it is well known and many very smart people have tried to come up with a solution, but the problem remains. In the business world, expert planners work with business owners to help them mitigate this disaster, but only about 10% of family business make it to the grandchildren. The trust system was designed with this in mind. The grandchildren will never amount to much, but at least they will have an allowance to sustain them.

It is fair to say that popular forms of government were invented to address the problem of private rule going sour by the third generation. Caesar Augustus was the great founder of the empire. Tiberius Caesar Augustus was solid, but he suffered from the predictable maladies of every second generation ruler. Caligula is arguably Rome’s most famous lunatic. Of course, we have Claudius, an interregnum of sorts, before we get to Nero, who was literally the end of the line.

The promise of popular government is the elites are in a competition with one another to run the society. The people get to pick the winner, based on their interests. This way the great man does not hand control over to his disinterested son and his disinterested son does not leave things to a maniac. Every generation gets to figure out who is the most fit to rule society. The theory takes the natural hierarchy of society and allows it to keep renewing itself through merit. That is the theory.

Reality seems to be that old adage at the start. We see this with the current ruling classes of the West. They are looking like Commodus, the heir to the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last of the five good emperors. Unlike his father, Commodus was much more interested in spectacle and what we would today call bourgeoise degeneracy. It was his excessive self-indulgences and reckless disregard for order that brought an end to the Pax Romana.

Commodus is a good emperor to study when thinking about what is happening with the managerial elite of the American empire. When you look around at this elite, you see a lot of people like Commodus. They were born into privilege, dotted on by parents who dreamed big dreams for them. They came into the world expecting the world to comport to their desires. Most important, you see that appropriation of authority that was never earned, but passed down from the prior generation.

The news currently tells us that we are on the brink of war with Russia over Ukraine and one of the best minds on the job for the Biden team is Jake Sullivan. There is nothing in his resume that says he should be running a hot dog stand, but he has been told his whole life he is fit to rule, so he believes it. Victoria Nulland is another member of the foreign policy brain trust. Her career is best described as one disaster after another, but she was born for the role in every sense.

Look around at the elected class and you see the same pattern. There are no men who went from the middle class to elected office on their own merit. In fact, it is hard to find anyone in national politics who has ever had a job. No one in the leadership of both parties has a line for “private sector” in his resume. The reason for that is they have never done productive work. Instead, like our old friend Commodus, they were groomed from birth to take up positions in the ruling class.

Taken as a whole, the Commodus comparison becomes clear. Marcus Aurelius never would have set foot in the Coliseum, but his feckless son thought himself as Rome’s first entertainer, so he spent a lot of time performing. Our current ruling class looks more like carny folk than the men who built the empire. This is where you see the other comparison to Commodus. Like the doomed emperor, our ruling class cannot stop indulging its increasingly deranged whims.

Historical analogies are never perfect. They only serve as a starting point for understanding the present or the past. One is the fixed understanding while the other side of the analogy is the thing you want to analyze. We know what we need to know about Commodus and many other men like him. He is a familiar type in history because he was part of that long observed phenomenon at the start. This observation was famously applied to civilizations by Oswald Spengler.

What this suggest about the current age is that there is not much that can be done to arrest this cycle once it has begun. The transformation of the American republic into an empire in the 19th century, despite maintaining the republican pretentions, meant that this period was as inevitable as the seasons. That old republican competition was replaced by an imperial selection system, which inevitably results in a generation more interested in being elite than doing the work of an elite.

The question, of course, is what comes next. Rome never returned to its republican nature, but centuries of empire erased it from the collective memory. Depending upon how you mark the beginning, the American empire has been around for no more than a century and less than half that if you use the Cold War as the beginning. Further, most people in the empire think popular government is the only moral choice. In this way, America is more like Athens than Rome.

Again, Commodus may provide some short term answers. Once he proclaimed himself a living god and renamed the city Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana, it became clear he had to go, so he was assassinated. This set off a power struggle, a period known as the Year of Five Emperors. Septimius Severus was eventually able to defeat the various factions and claim control of the empire. The Severin dynasty was short-lived, however, and was followed by The Crisis of the Third Century.

In other words, the correction to the generational decline was a housecleaning of the elite in a period of turmoil. If you date the start of the American empire to Gettysburg, then this means a series of crisis until North American returns to its natural divisions that have been there since the Founding. If you date the empire to the middle of the last century, then maybe the end is a return to mid-century normalcy. Regardless of your preferred future, all paths lead through a crisis.

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