These Are the Stakes

These Are the Stakes
Hadrian's Wall, Velella/Public Domain

I've been listening to the British History Podcast by Jamie Jeffers, which is a pretty good pop history-type series that really digs deep into the material—after 390 episodes it's just getting to the Norman conquest. So far I'm just getting into the Anglo-Saxon period after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Apparently historians have moved away from the term "Dark Ages" to describe the post-Roman period in Europe, mostly for good reasons. The Roman Empire was a brutal, authoritarian state that conquered, subjugated, and massacred people by the millions, yet it's romanticized to this day by popular media. Conversely, the following period was not simply slavering unwashed barbarians continually murdering each other for the next 500 years.

That said, it's possible to take this sentiment much too far. On social media one will occasionally see a heated take that post-Roman period was completely fine, and this is just not true. As Jeffers explains in several episodes, Roman Britain experienced the end of imperial rule as a catastrophe—and that was true basically across the board. The empire had a fairly advanced economy with large volumes of trade, and quite advanced technology in many areas, particularly engineering. When it fell apart, most of that economic system went along with it: pottery production, stone construction (not to mention in-floor heating), and large-scale agriculture virtually vanished from Britain, and would not return for hundreds of years. Across Western Europe, populations declined by, very roughly, perhaps 30-40 percent.

To be fair, historians believe European populations were declining before the collapse of Rome, and that decline also had a lot to do with slight changes in climate at the time and an outbreak of plague in the 6th century. Then again, the toll of disease is always worse in a population that is suffering through political chaos and economic collapse.

There are innumerable theories about why the empire fell. But what matters for my purposes is that it did fall, and all the complicated social arrangements—and huge numbers of human lives—that depended on its existence were collateral damage. At bottom, all those factories, buildings, towns, and farms, along with the large populations they supported, depended on politics, and political failure destroyed them.

People have argued about why the western Empire fell for centuries, but its inherent characteristics undoubtedly contributed to the disaster. Three big ones are both obvious and inherent to authoritarian political systems: bad leaders, fragile legitimacy, and succession conflict.

First, anyone with passing knowledge of the history of monarchy is familiar with the problems of unaccountable rulers who go nuts with power—Nero, Caligula, Carracala, and so on. When there are few constraints on a king's power, or those constraints rely on his wisdom and discretion, there is always the temptation of debauchery or gratuitous cruelty—a danger worsened by the cosseted upbringing typical for upcoming monarchs. Somewhat less familiar is the leader who is inept, inert, or a literal child, like Commodus, Tiberius (in his later years) or Valentinian III, but who lives a long time. When a despotic position is filled by someone unable or unwilling to govern, the resulting power vacuum tends to be filled by intriguers or violent conflict. (See also Henry VI.)

Second is naked force being the foundation of political legitimacy, which is inherently unstable. Despite Augustus's canny attempts to disguise the reality of his rule, at bottom he was princeps because he had killed or subdued all his rivals. That principle eventually got loose and mainstreamed, and on many occasions the empire was wracked by fighting between different groups of troops trying to install their favored candidate as emperor.

Third, whenever Roman emperors died, brutal conflict over who would replace them was common—son against son, son against usurper, and so on. Again and again, Rome would be facing some major disaster or another, only for the response to be hamstrung because of the death of an emperor touching off a violent struggle for power. The Crisis of the Third Century featured both this and the prior problems: an emperor assassinated by his own troops, followed by a bitter three-way succession fight that briefly split the empire into pieces.

The fragmented empire in 271

I think most Americans would agree in principle that democratic institutions are better than dictatorship. But I also suspect two decades (at least) of abject misrule has badly sapped our democratic faith. Congress, which is supposed to be the core of the constitutional system, simply does not function outside of emergency situations, and then only barely. As a result, it currently sits at about 20 percent approval, and has not gotten over 50 percent for nearly two decades—right after it voted for the Iraq invasion.

But none of the problems with dictatorship have vanished over the last 1550 years. We see them right now in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has launched a totally idiotic and reckless war of aggression that has wrecked two countries (one of them his own) and greatly raised the risk of nuclear confrontation. Putin is 69 years old, he has been de facto dictator for more than 20 years, he's reportedly increasingly isolated and paranoid, and is manifestly surrounded by toadies who fear to question his decisions. And with no heir apparent, it's an open question who will take the reins when he retires or dies. Even if Putin were to name a successor and they were to take office successfully, under its current dictatorship sooner or later Russia will face a succession crisis (or a revolution). It's just a matter of time.

A democratic republic is much less vulnerable these pitfalls. First, such a system provides a legible and nonviolent decision procedure for determining the next political leadership. Second, popular elections automatically vest the winning party with popular legitimacy. Third, if and when the leadership loses the confidence of the people, the voting procedure can be repeated as necessary. That doesn't make such a system invincible, of course, but it does counter most of the problems with a dictatorship noted above.

So let us consider what might happen should the conservative movement succeed in their attempt to abolish our democratic republic and install themselves in permanent power. Thinking again of Rome, I think it is fair to say that none of the current crop of would-be tyrants are remotely comparable to Augustus or Diocletian, who were ruthless but still among the most competent leaders in history. Instead the GOP is brimming over with imbeciles, propaganda-addled maniacs, sex pests, and/or drug fiends—like some political party composed entirely of the most degenerate Roman emperors assembled over the entire five-century lifespan of the empire.

Elsewhere, the global economic production system is several orders of magnitude more complicated and sophisticated than it was in the 500s. Where the Roman economy depended on trade from Britain to Anatolia, today the entire planet is included, and hundreds of trillions of dollars in wealth is built on that trade. Literally billions of people are kept alive through world trade, advanced industry, and especially mechanized agriculture, all of which depends on daily deliveries and operations.

Whereas Britons in the 500s faced minor climatic variations advancing over decades, today climate change is advancing at a tenfold greater rate, and already biting into human society. Heatwaves, drought, flooding, and other extreme weather events are accelerating across the planet, and are going to get rapidly worse absent extreme policy changes to cut down greenhouse gas emissions that are nowhere on the horizon.

The United States is a declining imperial power, but it is likely to remain the most powerful nation on earth for at least another decade or two. In terms of the number of human lives in the balance, these upcoming decades are the most important in human history. If Donald Trump (or someone like him) is installed as dictator-for-life, as he almost was on January 6, the world is looking down the barrel of quite possibly the worst social and economic collapse in human history. Political conflict, either coming during the next attempted coup or in a succession conflict shortly down the road, will knock out the foundation of the world economy—and accelerating climate disasters will only help the process. Very possibly billions will die.

To me, the oddest thing about the above argument is how little purchase it has on the broad population. I've laid it out for many people, and in almost every instance people have agreed with the argument, and totally failed to react with the level of alarm that would be indicated. This curious failure of confidence will be the subject of my next newsletter.

In the meantime, here are some articles. First, what Volodymyr Zelenskyy can teach Democrats about leadership:

If one wanted an example of the polar opposite of Zelenskyy’s energetic theatricality, the Democratic Party is full to bursting with them. Where he is 44 years old, courageous and both media- and tech-savvy, the party’s leadership is almost entirely in its late 70s and 80s, and seemingly allergic to sweeping, dramatic gestures. And while Democrats are not fighting a war (yet), they are facing an extremist Republican Party that is increasingly bent on overthrowing democracy. The last president tried to overturn the election by force, and it seems ever more clear the GOP will try to finish the job next time.

Republicans are plotting to undermine 2024:

Enough Big Lie Trumpers will surely be nominated to account for the rest of the necessary electoral votes, should they win—especially when we remember the threats of violence levied against most every Republican who refused to go along with Trump’s attempt to cling to power in 2020. Republicans are not known for standing up to conservative extremists, and in any case most of those 2020 officials have since been purged from the party (with a few exceptions like Georgia’s Brian Kemp).


As more Fox and QAnon devotees take the implications of right-wing rhetoric seriously, and as previously fringe beliefs become party dogma, there will be steadily more pressure to embrace yet more extreme views so conservatives can distinguish themselves as true purist hard-liners. I fear that some version of “we must murder our political opponents” will be a Republican campaign slogan very soon.

Cryptocurrency is trash:

Crypto enthusiasts struggle to point to any practical benefit of their technology, especially one that would compensate for the downsides that we’re now seeing. Most clearly, we have internet funny money that constantly seesaws between hyperinflation and hyperdeflation, with both enormous transaction costs and gigantic negative externalities. Then there is this kind of ultra-risky financial speculation that amounts to a recreation of the pre-2008 shadow banking system except much, much worse.

That's it for now. Stay tuned for part II!

Subscribe to Ryan Cooper

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.