[Marxism] Goldman-Sachs and 1MDB: the discreet stench of the bourgeoisie | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 26 09:54:38 MST 2018

The stench arising from 1MDB is not likely to disappear very soon. It is 
a function of an Empire in decline, much like Nero’s Rome. Instead of 
gladiators, we have NFL games on Sunday. With Rome relying more and more 
on commodities extracted from colonies East and West by captive peoples, 
the inner fiber of Roman society began to rot like a house whose 
foundations had been weakened by years and years of termite infestation. 
Those who hope to reconstruct American democracy on a new social 
democratic footing without replacing that capitalist foundation are just 
conning themselves. We need to speak the truth about the situation we 
face, not sweep it under the rug.


NY Times, Dec. 26, 2018
What the Fall of the Roman Republic Can Teach Us About America
By Yascha Mounk

How Rome Fell Into Tyranny
By Edward J. Watts
Illustrated. 336 pp. Basic Books. $32.

Near the beginning of the third century B.C., the Republic of Rome faced 
an acute threat to its domination of the Italian peninsula. In a series 
of brutal battles, Pyrrhus of Epirus and a fearsome parade of 20 war 
elephants had managed to vanquish Rome’s armies. When Pyrrhus offered 
Rome a comparatively lenient peace treaty, many of its senior statesmen 
were keen to take the deal.

It was, Edward J. Watts shows in “Mortal Republic,” thanks to the 
unrivaled strength of Rome’s political institutions that Pyrrhus’ 
victories ultimately issued in his proverbial defeat. When the Senate 
convened to debate the offer, “an old, blind senator named Appius 
Claudius was carried into the Senate house by his sons.” As the chamber 
fell silent, he stood to chastise his colleagues. “I have,” he said, 
“long thought of the unfortunate state of my eyes as an affliction, but 
now that I hear you debate shameful resolutions which would diminish the 
glory of Rome, I wish that I were not only blind but also deaf.” By 
giving in to Pyrrhus, Claudius warned, the Roman Republic would only 
invite more outside powers to mess with it. Low as the odds of victory 
might be, Rome had no choice but to keep fighting.

Unable to pacify the Roman Republic by treaty, Pyrrhus turned to 
bribery. When Fabricius, a senator widely known to be as poor as he was 
distinguished, arrived to negotiate a prisoner exchange, Pyrrhus offered 
him gold and silver so plentiful it would make him one of the world’s 
richest men. But Fabricius refused. “The Republic of Rome provides those 
who go into public life with everything they need,” he haughtily 
declared. Because even a poor man could accede to the most distinguished 
offices, his reputation was far more important to Fabricius than 
Pyrrhus’ money.

Taken together, Watts shows, these two speeches encapsulate the 
foundations of Rome’s remarkable success. At its inception, “the 
republic provided a legal and political structure that channeled the 
individual energies of Romans in ways that benefited the entire Roman 
commonwealth.” But over the following centuries, that foundation slowly 
weakened, and then rapidly collapsed.

Since the founding fathers explicitly modeled the United States on the 
Roman Republic, a study that investigates the circumstances of its 
demise promises to hold considerable relevance for our own times. As 
Watts puts the point, the principal purpose of his book is to allow 
“readers to better appreciate the serious problems that result both from 
politicians who breach a republic’s political norms and from citizens 
who choose not to punish them for doing so.” Does he accomplish that 
ambitious goal?

In Watts’s telling of the Roman Republic’s agonizing death, slow-moving 
structural transformations gradually sowed the seeds of demise. As the 
population exploded and the economy became ever more sophisticated, the 
growing share of poor citizens started to demand redress. But since the 
institutions of the republic were dominated by patricians who had much 
to lose from measures like land reform, they never fully addressed the 
grievances of ordinary Romans. With popular rage against increasingly 
dysfunctional institutions swelling, ambitious patricians, determined to 
outflank their competitors, began to build a fervent base of support by 
making outsize promises. It was these populares — populists like 
Tiberius Gracchus and his younger brother Gaius — who, in their bid for 
power, first broke some of the republic’s most longstanding norms.

The transformation of Rome’s army compounded the challenge of growing 
inequality. In the early days of the republic, soldiers thought of their 
participation in military service as a civic duty. Commanders hoped to 
win great honors and perhaps to attain higher office. But by the late 
second century B.C., the army had essentially been privatized. 
Commanders knew that the plunder of new lands could garner them vast 
riches. Their soldiers signed up for the ride in the hope of gaining a 
generous allotment of land on which to start a farm. With soldiers 
increasingly loyal to their commanders, and commanders doing whatever it 
took to maximize the prospect of private profit, the Senate was no 
longer in charge.

It took a long time for these tensions to build. But once they reached a 
critical point, Rome’s descent into chaos and dysfunction was 
astonishingly swift.

During the century and a half between the days of Pyrrhus and the rise 
of Tiberius Gracchus, there had not been a single outbreak of 
large-scale political violence. Then Tiberius pushed through land 
reforms in defiance of the Senate’s veto. In the ensuing fracas, he and 
hundreds of his followers were murdered. The taboo on naked power 
politics had been broken, never to recover.

Over the next years, it quickly became normal for populist politicians 
to set aside longstanding norms to accomplish their goals; for military 
commanders to bend the Senate to their will by threatening to occupy 
Rome; and for rival generals to wage war on one another. “Within a 
generation of the first political assassination in Rome, politicians had 
begun to arm their supporters and use the threat of violence to 
influence the votes of assemblies and the election of magistrates. 
Within two generations, Rome fell into civil war.”

If we are to avoid the fate that ultimately befell Rome, Watts cautions, 
it is “vital for all of us to understand how Rome’s republic worked, 
what it achieved and why, after nearly five centuries, its citizens 
ultimately turned away from it and toward the autocracy of Augustus.” In 
a sense, the book fails in this ambition. Especially as it progresses, 
Watts, a professor of history at the University of California at San 
Diego, abandons a careful analysis of the larger trends for a 
blow-by-blow account of the many conflicts that divided the republic in 
the last century of its existence. At times, this endless onslaught of 
calamities — a new violation of some traditional norm, the latest 
commander to threaten an invasion of Rome, one more shift in the 
ever-fragile constellation of power — starts to numb the mind.

But in another sense, the sheer repetitiveness of the calamities that 
befell Rome only serves to underline the book’s most urgent message. If 
we were to make explicit the implicit analogy that runs all the way 
through “Mortal Republic,” we would most likely cast Donald Trump as a 
farcical reincarnation of Tiberius Gracchus. Like the original populist, 
Trump was propelled to power by the all-too-real failures of a political 
system that is unable to curb growing inequality or to mobilize its most 
eminent citizens around a shared conception of the common good. And like 
Gracchus, Trump believes that, because he is acting in the name of the 
dispossessed, he is perfectly justified in shredding the Republic’s 

If that analogy is right, the good news is that Trump will, once the 
history of our own mortal Republic is written, turn out to be a 
relatively minor character. Far from single-handedly destroying our 
political system, he is the transitional figure whose election 
demonstrates the extent to which the failings of our democracy are 
finally starting to take their toll.

The bad news is that the coming decades are unlikely to afford us many 
moments of calm and tranquillity. For though four generations stand 
between Tiberius Gracchus’ violent death and Augustus’ rapid ascent to 
plenipotentiary power, the intervening century was one of virtually 
incessant fear and chaos. If the central analogy that animates “Mortal 
Republic” is correct, the current challenge to America’s political 
system is likely to persist long after its present occupant has left the 
White House.

Yascha Mounk is a lecturer at Harvard University and the author of “The 
People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.”

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