History will eat the rich, but unfortunately they’re dragging the rest of us down with them

Brad DeLong has a few words of warning for the rich plutocrats who support Trump and are enjoying the ill-gotten gains of their gigantic tax cut. Pay attention to history, because it really sucks to be rich under a tyranny. You’ve created a machine that sucks wealth upward, and when you’ve got all the money, you become the target.

To be blunt: a social democratic middle-class society is much better society in which to have a large stock of entrepreneurial, inherited, or rent-derived wealth than is a communist society. But it is also a much friendlier society to the wealthy than is a fascist society. And social democracy and fascism—hard or, if you are lucky, soft—are the only options the future will allow: tertium non datur.

The political descendants of the politicians today you support who lead chants of “lock her up“ will be the greatest threat to the liberty, the wealth, and perhaps even the lives of those of your grandchildren and great grandchildren who are plutocrats. Look ahead into the future a little bit. Do not focus on the pile of moolah under your nose.

It did not take long for the breakdown of elite political norms provoked by the desire of the political military plutocrats of the Roman Republic to aggrandize the benefits of the post Hannibal creation of the empire to lead the vultures home to roost. In Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica led a mob of senators into the street, shouting “Now that the consul has betrayed the state, let every man who wishes to uphold the laws follow me!” to murder the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and annul the Lex Sempronia Agraria as too great a distribution of the profits of empire away from the oligarchy. Ten years later Lucius Opimius armed himself with the legal figleaf of the Senatus Consultum Ultimum before murdering Tiberius’s brother Gaius and 3000 of Gaius’s affinity. Thus was the Roman Republic set on to the “why speak of laws? we carry swords” road of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, and Octavian—and that road ended at a place where the wealthy found themselves attainted and executed at the pleasure of the princeps in order to fund bribes to praetorians.

Under the Roman Empire, the way to become the subject of a treason trial wasn’t necessarily to have committed treason — it was to have a big pot of wealth that the Emperor wanted. Look up the law of maiestas. Look up delatores. If we go down that path,the rich are going to have to hide, or face death, disgrace, and most intolerable to you greedy motherfuckers, confiscation of all of your properties by the Top Dog, whoever that is.

We aren’t going to last as long as the Roman Empire, though. One thing about an imperial tyranny where a few authoritarians can lay down an iron law is that it can last quite a long time — 1500 years of bloody imperial Roman history was quite impressive. We’ve added something novel to the mix here in the United States of America: we’ve given all the citizens a megaphone, and every lunatic fringe element is babbling away. The likes of Alex Jones gibbering away incessantly in the background, the transparent propaganda of Fox News hypnotizing the foolish, militias popping up everywhere with ludicrous interpretations of the Constitution, megachurches peddling death cult Christianity — in addition to undermining democracy, the right-wing authoritarians have normalized crazy. Destabilizing the country is what they want, but they’re going to reap what they sow.

You know, I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb, where there was fear of a looming apocalypse everywhere. We thought that what was going to kill us was our dangerous technological brilliance — we were just too dang smart for our own good. We were wrong. It’s our ignorance that is going to destroy us, our contempt for the social sciences and humanities, our dismissal of the importance of history, sociology, and psychology in maintaining a healthy, stable society that people would want to live in. A complex society requires a framework of cooperation and interdependence to survive, and without people who care about how it works and monitors its functioning, it’s susceptible to parasites and exploiters and random wreckers. Ignorance and malice allow a Brexit to happen, or a Trump to get elected, or a Sulla to march on Rome to ‘save the Republic’.


  1. says

    You don’t have to look to the Roman Empire, you can look at Russia, right now. The oligarchs who get on the wrong side of Vlad get their wealth confiscated, and imprisoned, exiled or dead.

    The New Deal happened because there were some plutocrats who were wise enough to envision the alternative. What we need today is a better class of plutocrat, it seems.

  2. anchor says

    @#2cervantes: “What we need today is a better class of plutocrat, it seems.”

    That sounds troublingly similar to how white male privilege knows what’s best for woman and minorities. Don’t worry…daddy long-legs money-bags will fix everything for you.

    And one SHOULD look to the Romans. We should look at as much history as we can. When we don’t, we get things like Russia now. Happens every time.

  3. KG says

    The political descendants of the politicians today you support who lead chants of “lock her up“ will be the greatest threat to the liberty, the wealth, and perhaps even the lives of those of your grandchildren and great grandchildren who are plutocrats. Look ahead into the future a little bit. – Brad De Long

    I doubt they need to look that far ahead. Climate catastrophe is probably only a few decades away, and the Emperor, with the support of the Senate, has decreed that everything possible should be done to exacerbate it. “Eat the rich” may then become more a survival strategy than a slogan. But even sooner, the vast give-away to the elite could have been designed to cause an asset-price bubble dwarfing that of the noughties – inevitably followed by a financial crisis that could make 2007-8, or even 1929, look like a hiccup. Because – what are the corporations and the very rich going to do with all that moolah? Some will be invested abroad, a tiny proportion might actually go into productive activity in the US, but most of it will go into the areas where the last few decades show the real money is to be made – real estate, the share market, and financial speculation – the latter made all the easier and more lucrative by the removal of banking regulations. There will be the usual cries of “This time it’s different!” as the Dow Jones passes 30,000, 40,000, maybe 50,000, and quite possibly a more general feeling of well-being as credit is pushed more and more frantically to the masses will, together with souped-up vote suppression, give the Republicans and Trump – or his successor – victory in 2020. But like all bubbles back to the prototypical South Sea Bubble (and even earlier, Tulipomania), this one will burst. The elite managed to ride out the last crisis, and even used it to consolidate their power – at the cost of reawakening the demons of the Far Right and to a lesser extent, a Real Left. Both are likely to be waiting when the next one comes.

  4. raven says

    You don’t have to look to the Roman Empire, you can look at Russia, right now. The oligarchs who get on the wrong side of Vlad get their wealth confiscated, and imprisoned, exiled or dead.

    Cervantes at #2 already said what I was going to say.
    1. The oligarchies in Russia are desperate to get their money out of Russia.
    That is why they deal with people like Manafort and Trump.
    It isn’t safe there.
    What was stolen once can be stolen again.
    That happens a lot.
    2. It isn’t safe to be an oligarch in Russia either.
    They fight among themselves.
    The losers have a habit of turning up in prison or dead.

  5. raven says

    Russia is fascist for sure.
    More specifically it is what economists call a “limited access” economy.
    This means you have to be a buddy of the political power structure to get anywhere.

    These can be stable. It is after all, a pure Third World model.
    But they don’t go anywhere. It’s one reason why the Third World is…the Third World.

    It’s starting to show in Russia. The place is stagnant and going nowhere.
    And the people are starting to catch on.

  6. raven says

    Khodorkovsky: From Russian Multi-Billionaire to ‘Murderer’?
    Jan 4, 2016 – The once-powerful owner of the Yukos oil company has already spent over 10 years in Russian prisons for alleged fraud, and clearly has no intention of going back to be locked up again. But days before Christmas the Russian Investigative Committee issued an international warrant for his arrest and the …

    This happens a lot.
    Khodorkovsky was once one of the richest men in Russia.
    He then spent 10 years in a Russian prison.
    He is very lucky to still be alive.

    He probably is guilty of fraud.
    OTOH, there isn’t a wealthy person in Russia who probably isn’t guilty of fraud.
    His real crime was having a huge oil company that the State oil company Rosneft wanted.

  7. says

    Speaking of the Roman Republic. This is what Polybius had to say about governments:

    Now the first of these to come into being is monarchy, its growth being natural and unaided; and next arises kingship derived from monarchy by the aid of art and by the correction of defects. Monarchy first changes into its vicious allied form, tyranny; and next, the abolishment of both gives birth to aristocracy. Aristocracy by its very nature degenerates into oligarchy; and when the commons inflamed by anger take vengeance on this government for its unjust rule, democracy comes into being; and in due course the licence and lawlessness of this form of government produces mob-rule to complete the series.

  8. unclefrogy says

    I am seeing the same kinds of things as has already been outlined.
    the thing that might also be considered is that changes seem to be happening at a different rate than it happened in history. As with technology so may be going social history, these kinds of changes do not have generations to happen. When I think of Russia in this context I remember 1917. Does the future have another 1917 moment ahead? I see little evidence that the majority of the people of the US are enamored of authority or that they desire to surrender to some Dear Leader to take care of them. The right reactionary wing have decided they can take control and dominate with the help of the ignorant rabble but I am afraid that they have decided they can ride the tiger, a very dangerous proposition.
    the rest of the world will not wait until we decide what we are going to do,
    neither will the earth.
    uncle frogy

  9. StonedRanger says

    Asking Trump and/or the republicans and their cohorts to read anything, much less history books is the funniest thing Ive heard in a long time. Not going to happen in my lifetime.

  10. says

    “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” –Balzac.
    “Eat the Rich” is a most subversive bumper sticker. It will likely become a fad.

  11. numerobis says

    Another example right now is Saudi Arabia. A new crown prince took over and he’s imprisoning various rich people, letting them out for ransoms of a billion here or there. Some torture and murder is involved.

    I presume the crown prince will soon enough find a bullet in an inconvenient place himself.

    Seems like a terrible place to be powerful.

  12. jack16 says

    There’s a lot of things about Russia that sound pretty good to me. Note the defense expenditure compared to ours. You won’t find it on Fox News.

  13. raven says

    Not sure what your point is about military and GDP
    Forbes: Israel spent around $23 billion on its armed forces in 2014 and SIPRI estimated that this amounted to 5.2 percent of its GDP. Russia has embarked on a huge military spending binge which was estimated to have reached 4.5 percent of its GDP in 2014.Jun 25, 2015

    The USA is 3.5%.
    In terms of relative to GDP the Russians spend more than we do, one of the highest in the world.

  14. busterggi says

    If it sucks to be rich under a tyranny just wait til they see how it sucks to be rich under full anarchy.

    Robespierre, I’ve another one for the block!

  15. methuseus says

    @starfleetdude #13:

    Since then though, Buffett has been honest.

    Well, at least as far as we know he has. How do we know there have been no back room dealings? I’d like to take him at his word, but we’ve taken others at their word and ended up with egg on our face.
    No, I’m not saying I know anything about Buffett, but I’m saying he’s not necessarily a paragon of virtue as some believe. I do believe he is one of the better rich people, but he’s still immorally rich, as PZ has put it in other posts.

  16. brett says

    Buffett’s wealth comes from owning a massive insurance business. I’ve read an explanation of it, although I’m still a little shaky on how that exactly works. But basically, he has a massive pool of funds – a “float” – that he can borrow from at below-market interest rates and invest in his other lines of business as well as other businesses, and that greater “spread” than other investment firms has been the main reason for Berkshire-Hathaway’s success over the years.

    On topic, I wish I was that optimistic, but oligarchy has a persistent way of re-appearing even if individual rich folks go down – even if it takes a generation or two for it to regenerate.

  17. starfleetdude says

    @methuseus #20:

    We can only know what we know, but I do know this about the morality of rich people: only a Sith deals in absolutes.

  18. brutus says

    I’m happy to see acknowledgement of the plurality of things beyond biology that enable a healthy society to function. Even within the domain of biology, there exist so many moving parts and such high complexity that defy human engineering or even much steering we can’t exercise control over very much. Add in all the cultural elements and society becomes quite unmanageable even by enlightened folks. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t extract good lessons and aim toward policies and programs that are helpful rather than hurtful.

  19. DanDare says

    #23 we can disseminate knowledge and perspectives. That causes alignment within a complex system and can improve health of the system. Magical thinking as represented by religion is anathema to that process. Especially so for dogma.