Mailbag No. 6
You Ask, I answer
This is the sixth mailbag post, which I will do every month or so. If you’re a paid subscriber, just respond to this email or leave a comment on a post and I’ll try my best to answer your questions. Indicate somewhere that it’s for the mailbag so I can find it. If I don’t answer, it doesn’t mean I thought your question was bad, just that I didn’t feel I had a thoughtful response.
For the mailbag, can you write about your ideas around Caesarism? Do you feel like it's new to America; does it tie into the global right wing resurgence; is it only a right wing phenomenon?
Okay, Caesarism, let’s see. — Like others, I use and abuse this concept because it’s very vague and plastic, but I think we can reconstruct an intelligible meaning and then try to apply it to the present. The obvious referent is to Julius Caesar and the type of rule he instituted or attempted to institute, i.e. a turn to personal, autocratic rule in a context where some kind of republican or communal governance once predominated. Of course, in ancient Rome there weren’t really self-consciously constructed political ideologies like we have in the modern era. Julius Caesar and his successors certainly had ideas and disseminated propaganda about what they were doing but they never really systematically developed a political philosophy for themselves.
As you might expect, Caesarism as a term was born in that age of ideologies, the 19th century, like so many other of the -isms. It is usually invoked to describe a form of politics that includes both some sort of popular acclaim and democratic legitimacy—as Caesar had patronized the plebeian order as a counter-weight to the power of the aristocracy—as well as a charismatic leader and an authoritarian state. As befits the name, military conquest or at least the trappings of military glory are often connected with with it.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime is often identified as Caesarist. Indeed, he openly identified himself with Caesar and the Empire. But although sometimes people speak of “Bonapartism” as well, Napoleon was a bit of an anti-ideological ruler in many ways. He felt that the extremes of the Revolution had to be moderated through his own pragmatic capacity to balance the various interests in society. He represented a regime of personal hyper-competence. It had some of the monarchical trappings of the Old Regime but was also to be rational, with an updated legal code, bureaucracy, and, especially, an efficient and modern army. Again, there is something synthetic going on here: just as Caesarism represents a combination of the principles of monarchy and democracy, it also represents a bridge between the old order and the new. You can root this in the ancient origin of the term, as the rule of the Caesars was at once an innovation as the only possible way to keep the massive Empire intact and a throwback to the pre-Republican age of the Roman monarchy. It’s interesting to note that in light of this that the Roman emperors did not start calling themselves “Rex” again, but invented a new series of titles and kept many of the Republican institutions going, at least for appearances sake.
Let’s quickly look at two prominent uses of Caesarism as a political term, one on the Right and the other on the Left. In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler predicted Caesarism was the next step after democracy. Democracy for Spengler was dominated by money and the market, but Caesarism would mark the return of “blood” and politics: “After a long triumph of world-city economy over political creative force, the political side of life manifests itself after all as the stronger of the two. The sword is victorious over the money, the master-will subdues again the plunderer-will.” A charismatic individual, the Caesar in question, would usher in this new era. Combined with his idea of “Prussian Socialism”— solidarity of the national political community over all class distinction— this has an obviously unpleasant redolence. Usually when used positively by the Right, Caesarism means something like Spengler’s sense: a charismatic individual who will restore national greatness by force of will. If we think of fascism is a species, perhaps we can think of Caesarism as a genus, a higher-order and more generic concept that contains it. This brings me to my next example.
In the Prison Notebooks, written while he was in fascist prison and trying to figure what happened, Gramsci also attempted to develop a concept of Caesarism. Caesarism was one possible outcome of the “organic crisis” or “crisis of hegemony,” when there was a rift between society and its political leadership and no one to fill the vacuum: “When the crisis does not find this organic solution, but that of the charismatic leader, it means that a static equilibrium exists (whose actors may be disparate, but in which the decisive one is the immaturity of the progressive forces) ; it means that no group, neither the conservatives nor the progressives, has the strength for victory, and that even the conservative group needs a master.” According to Gramsci, Caesarism could be either progressive or reactionary:
Caesarism-although it always expresses the particular solution in which a great personality is entrusted with the task of "arbitration" over a historico-political situation characterised by an equilibrium of forces heading towards catastrophe-does not in all cases have the same historical significance. There can be both progressive and reactionary forms of Caesarism; the exact significance of each form can, in the last analysis, 'be reconstructed only through concrete history, and not by means of any sociological rule of thumb. Caesarism is progressive when its intervention helps the progressive force to triumph, albeit with its victory tempered by certain compromises and limitations. It is reactionary when its intervention helps the reactionary force to triumph-in this case too with certain compromises and limitations, which have, however, a different value, extent, and significance than in the former. Caesar and Napoleon I are examples of progressive Caesarism, Napoleon III and Bismarck of reactionary Caesarism.
Gramsci also makes some other very interesting remarks about modern Caesarism, namely that it is often more based on the police than the military. Of particular interest to me is his characterization of the Dreyfus affair as the stifling of a reactionary Caesarism by the progressive parts of the ruling class:
A very important historical episode from this point of view is the so-called Dreyfus affair in France. This too belongs to the present series of observations, not because it led to "Caesarism", indeed precisely for the opposite reason: because it prevented the advent of a Caesarism in gestation, of a clearly reactionary nature. Nevertheless, the Dreyfus movement is characteristic, since it was a case in which elements of the dominant social bloc itself thwarted the Caesarism of the most reactionary part of that same bloc.
One can think of 2016 race Trump as an instance of reactionary Caesarism. A lot of the “populist” phenomena around the world can be thought in the same way as representing an attempt, through a charismatic individual and associated movement, to break a political and social deadlock. Can this be left-wing or progressive? Gramsci thought Napoleon was an example of a more progressive Caesarism. I guess it could happen: you could imagine a kind of moderately woke center-left General come to power on a program of technocratic competence and strong arm a green economy into existence. I don’t see it on the horizon, though.
I would like to know if you have any thoughts on a possible connection between contrarianism and fascism? Maybe not specifically fascism, but authoritarianism in general. I also wonder if there is any link to eccentricity and dandyish aesthetics, as contrarians also seem to wish to stand out not just in their politics, but also in the way they express themselves.
Thanks in advance!
You’re welcome, Daphne. Well, it’s a little difficult to speak in the abstract about any particular type of behavior or character trait lending itself to a particular type of politics. Historical fascism attracted all sorts of people, from the totally psychotic to the frighteningly normal. We often think of fascism as the totalitarian obliteration of pluralism, but fascist movements and regimes were pluralistic in their own way: they had to provide niches for many different types of people of wildly varying interests and social backgrounds. But I think I see what you are getting at and there are some interesting remarks to be made about this.
Many of the earliest figures that one might call proto-fascist were anti-Dreyfusard intellectuals who emerged out of a kind of bohemian literary demimonde in Paris. Many were dandies and affected aristocratic airs, sporting monocles and canes. Some were actual members of the aristocracy, albeit become adrift rogues rather than old, stable landlords. As Philip Nord writes in his terrific book The Politics of Resentment, this new antisemitic journalism was a way to “relaunch the flagging careers” of café-fixtures who had not made it or who had fallen on hard times. Anti-Dreyfusism was a kind of alliance between high society and the socially ambitious but marginal. Nord again:
The eclipse of the boulevard culture brought disappointment to journalists and littérateurs whatever their position in the old hierarchy of success. The marginals could never hope to rise in a world of shrinking opportunities. As for the successful, the emergence of new cultural hierarchies devalued their achievement. They were equally victims of a profound cultural change. The old world, of course, did not vanish noiselessly but made a supreme effort in anti-Dreyfusard Nationalism to postpone defeat.
Many of the people most attracted to Fascism, especially early on, were disappointed bohemians and frustrated artists and intellectuals. Some of the earliest Italian Fascists were part of the Futurist artistic movement. The Nazis were famously derided as “armed bohemians” by one Weimar journalist. As Michael Mann writes, “Fascism was a movement of the lesser intelligentsia.” I’ve written a lot in the past about Curzio Malaparte, the writer who used his Fascist party membership as a means to social climb. Then there’s the case of the French fascist author Robert Brasillach:
Brasillach’s characterized himself as an “anarchofascist,” which sounds about as contradictory as can be. He was self-consciously Bohemian, preferring to pal around in a non-comformist milieu—"“Even as a journalist, Brasillach was always a member of a group, of a gang, to use his term, more or less Bohemian in out look and bound together by a common attitude of separateness from society and its oppressive norms.” While supporting the Nazi occupation, he wrote about the need for ironic detachment, the willingness to express individual liberty and flaunt norms. “What was at stake, to him, was the right to lead the eccentric, capricious life. Liberty meant the right to recognize nothing as sacred and to spare no one the criticism that was thought to be merited. The right to scoff, to jeer, was the foundation of all liberty…”
It’s not quite correct to say all these people were second-raters or using fascism as a means to shore up a lack of talent. The sad fact is that Fascism, especially in Italy, attracted a lot of first-rate talents. And the Left also attracts its own fair share of artists and bohemian types, so perhaps it’s not entirely correct to make this an essential characteristic of fascism. But with that being said, maybe we can see something similar going on today among self-described bohemians in downtown New York who using the frisson of reactionary poses to touch up fading glamor.