The researcher and writer Helen Thompson once noted in a discussion on Talking Politics podcast at University of Cambridge that it was not the brothers Gracchi who resorted to violence in their populist call for redistribution but the wealthy Senators. The brothers Gracchi were executed one by one for their rallying call, and their successors were generals who fought for land reform only to boost their own power. When populism failed, Caesarism took its place. The centre could not and would not hold — and the Roman Republic’s failure to see this led to its downfall in the Roman Civil War, after which Augustus laid the foundations for peace in the Roman Principate, including by way of land reform, grain redistribution, and political inclusion of the periphery of the Empire in the affairs of the core. The Republic was jingoistic and oligarchical; the Principate, inclusive and monarchical. Democracy ever eluded the Romans, learning from the way the Athenians treated Socrates. Alas, Rome did little better in treating those who followed philosophy with dignity. But at least philosophy can flourish in security, rather than perish in the fires of violent conflict, which is what the Senate’s ‘republican imperialism’ gave rise to.
I see a comparison for our own times — specifically, the origin of this process of regime change in the failure of the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi in lobbying for land redistribution from rich to poor. The Senate killed the brothers, and set in motion the wheels of civil war. Today state violence has evolved, and western democracies pride themselves on the safety of politicians, if not all the time. But states do have selection mechanisms for weeding out challengers to the status quo. These same mechanisms destroyed the foundations of the brothers Gracchi and their populist challenge to Roman oligarchy.
What are these mechanisms in the modern world? In the case of Corbyn and Sanders, a systematic smear campaign to label them as evil and antisemitic — which is absurd for both politicians, given their commitment to universal civil and economic rights, their lifelong stance on justice and nonracism, and their overwhelming rejection of attempts by the right to rewrite twentieth-century history as some kind of Manichean struggle of good westerners fighting evil easterners — served as prelude to some bizarre institutional machinations, echoing the right-wing antisemitic smear campaign against Alfred Dreyfus in the 1890s (which itself served as prelude to the atrocities of the twentieth century).
Corbyn was faced with opposition from MPs of his own party, which majorly opposed his policy platform and institutional restructuring of the old Blairite party. Sanders was faced with opposition from politicians of his own party, such as when Barack Obama made phone-calls to minor candidates to drop out of the race to ease Joe Biden’s victory on Super Tuesday. Panicked columns in the Economist feared a Sanders victory and the Democratic Party oligarchy acted accordingly. Delays in votes reflected deliberate mismanagement of rules and regulations to disadvantage Sanders.
Corbyn was also faced with unfounded attempts to undermine his democratic authority, as private and public media organisations decried his morality and slandered his personality. The right has complained for a long time about the treatment of Trump by the media, but Trump responds in kind, hurling accusations on response. And Trump was democratically elected President. Corbyn only just became Labour Leader, and Sanders only came faintly came close to leading the Democratic Party. The institutions were so oligarchical that these candidates had to be expelled from the race — and in Corbyn’s case his membership was temporarily revoked after electoral defeat. Sanders remains a Senator but is no longer regarded as a threat to the Democratic elites.
The new oligarchy is not the oppression of the Roman people by the Roman senate, but the exploitation of all people and the colonisation of all polities by a rampant market economy and its rapacious oligarchic leaders. The defeat of left populism is functionally akin to the execution of the brothers Gracchi. The consequences of this institutional expulsion of substantial opposition will be as severe today as they were in ancient Rome. May the heavens have mercy. Let light shine in the dark. For dark times, these truly are.