Rome's Last Citizen by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni. Biography of Cato the Younger, written by a pair of political journalists rather than historians.
Cato was a Roman politician, famously austere and uncorrupt, a devotee of Stoic philosophy, a member of the Optimate faction, who attempted to defend the Republic against the upcoming Empire threatened by Pompey and Julius Caesar.
The book's angle is to primarily look at Cato in terms of political strategy. The authors start out with Cato's influence on George Washington, particularly through a now-forgotten play that Washington staged at Valley Forge. They discern in Cato the first instance of a now-familiar political type: someone who adopts the pose of an authentic, incorrupt, traditionalist and uses that role to gain moral authority.
If so, this role appears to be a political tightrope. A politician who aims strictly for moral purity finds it very difficult to achieve anything, since only by allying with the impure can anything be done. This may have been especially true in the political setup of the Roman republic, which deliberately made it easy to deadlock decisions: there were two Consuls (the highest office) who could veto each other, and the Tribunes of the Plebs could veto laws.
The authors are sometimes admiring, but sometimes critical. They point out occasions when Cato softened his principles in the interests of family and friends, and times when he was possibly too uncompromising. Two examples of the latter stand out, when Cato refused to brook a marriage alliance with Pompey which could have helped him against Caesar, and when Cato allowed the inept Metellus Scipio to take command of the Republican army (Scipio had a marginally higher political rank, having been Consul), rather than try to take power himself.
As always with counterfactuals, we can never know how these would have played out. Cato might have used Pompey to preserve the Republic... or Pompey might have used the opportunity to take over. Cato might have led the army to victory... or divided it into factions if others opposed him, or lost to Caesar himself.
When the Republican army lost, Cato famously committed suicide, though Caesar would probably have let him live. The conspiritors who later assassinated Caesar included many of Cato's circle, and some see this as a posthumous revenge.
I think the authors are a little too critical of Cato sometimes. They complain that he tried to battle corruption as an individual without reforming the system, but it's not at all clear that this was possible in the Roman system. It's possible that his walking of the principle/compromise tightrope was unbalanced, but we can never really know to which side.
Also it's not clear if he was as calculating as they assume. When he expanded the corn dole to the poor, they assume this was a reluctant concession; but he did spend time with ordinary legionaries and have a base among the proletariat: it could also have been a sincere measure. The authors backgrounds, in politics rather than history, may in some ways be a weakness: I wonder if here they're projecting the attitudes of modern-day conservatism onto the past.
In some ways though, their attitude is a strength. They provide a compelling account of the politics of ancient Rome that's fascinating to modern readers: historians who write about it sometimes leave us bogged down in details and a blizzard of identical names.
Overall, a compelling biography of a vital historical figure. Well worth reading .
What I'm Reading Part Of
As part of the anarchism thing, I read part of The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution by Burnett Bolleton. This period is often used as an example of how anarchism has worked in the real world. Around 1936 there was a "social revolution" in which the state essentially ceased to function, and workers took over in large parts of Spain. The CNT union was anarcho-syndicalist, heavily influenced by an internal group of anarchists called the FAI. For a couple of years in the area around Catalonia there was a functioning anarcho-syndicalist economy. However, it didn't last. The CNT was forced into ever more compromises: taking up official roles in the regional, then national government, putting the militias under military discipline; which caused conflict with their activists. The anarchist faction was outmanoeuvred by Communist rivals within the Republic. Eventually the Communists beat the anarchists, and then the Fascists beat the Communists.
There are some interesting accounts of how anarcho-syndicalism worked, and where it failed. Modern anarchists understandably tend to idealize the period a bit. It is an important example showing that anarcho-syndicalism did basically work. Farms got tended, barbers cut hair, factories made stuff, exports got exported and imports got imported at CNT-controlled ports.
There were however a lot of problems, though some can be blamed on revolutionary chaos and the wider war. There was a certain amount of violence and vigil ante justice. There were a number of economic problems. The popular expropriations of property didn't just involve big businesses and big landlords, but small businesses and smallholders, who were decidedly unhappy about it. Some fled, some resisted, more reluctantly acquiesced but seized the first chances they got to side with rivals to the anarchists.
Amongst the economic problems was a failure of the CNT to take control of many banks: being hostile to finance, the rival UGC union tended to take them over instead. This left collectivized businesses very short of capital when they needed it. Sometimes harvests were not gathered efficiently when workers were in doubt about whether they could keep their work. The expropriations followed the principle that whoever worked the land got to keep the land: this was great for tenant farmers and sharecroppers, but bad for hired labourers who were left out of the process.
The anarchist militias were fine at urban skirmishes, but failed badly in large-scale warfare against hierarchical armies. They did badly at coordinating large movements, and suffered from inter-unit rivalry and poor tactics.
Also this collective-minded anarchism is a far cry from the individualism espoused by most modern anarchists. Village councils wielded a lot of control over villagers. The CNT generally centralized production in the larger facilities, and controlled distribution networks effectively forcing producers to join.
Extracts. the word "libertarian" means "anarcho-syndicalist", not its current political meaning.
Although no hard and fast rules were observed in establishing libertarian communism, the procedure was more or less the same everywhere. A CNT-FAI committee was set up in each locality where the new regime was instituted. This committee not only exercised legislative and executive powers, but also administered justice. One of its first acts was to abolish private trade and to collectivize the soil of the rich, and often that of the poor, as well as farm buildings, machinery, livestock, and transport. Except in rare cases, barbers, bakers, carpenters, sandalmakers, doctors, dentists, teachers, blacksmiths, and tailors also came under the collective system. Stocks of food and clothing and other necessities were concentrated in a communal depot under the control of the local committee, and the church, if not rendered useless by fire, was converted into a storehouse, dining hall, café, workshop, school, garage, or barracks. In many communities money for internal use was abolished because the Anarchists believed that “money and power are diabolical philters that turn a man into a wolf, into a rabid enemy, instead of into a brother.” “Here in Fraga [a small town in Aragon], you can throw bank notes into the street,” ran an article in a libertarian paper, “and no one will take any notice. Rockefeller, if you were to come to Fraga with your entire bank account you would not be able to buy a cup of coffee. Money, your God and your servant, has been abolished here, and the people are happy.” In libertarian communities where money was suppressed, wages were paid in coupons, the scale being determined by the size of the family. “The characteristic of the majority of the CNT collectives,” wrote a foreign observer, “is the family wage. Wages are paid according to the needs of the members and not according to the labor performed by each worker.” Locally produced goods such as bread, wine, and olive oil were distributed freely if abundant, while other articles could be obtained with coupons at the communal depot. Surplus goods were exchanged with other Anarchist towns and villages; money was used only for transactions with communities that had not adopted the new systemI concentrated on the anarchist sections: it's a long book on a conflict of labyrinthine complexity. Overall, glad I read the bits I did, not sure I could get through the whole thing.
What I'm Watching
Saw Fifties smuggler movie Moonfleet. Pretty entertaining. Directed by Fritz Lang for some reason, which means some atmospheric shots like a terrifying stone angel in a churchyard.
Socioeconomics. How to raise Americans' wages. Capital in the 21st century. US cities that raised minimum wage didn't see rise in unemployment. Who needs a boss? Caring too much is the curse of the working classes. The overprotected kid. The voluntarism fantasy.
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