The New Caesars, Part IV
Caesar and the Internet: Something new under the sun.
Today we continue our discussion of the New Caesarism. If you haven’t read the first three parts, you can find them here:
Part III: On the downfall of the Roman Republic
Today I’ll argue that there’s an important connection between the advent of the Internet and the rise of the New Caesars.
Something new under the Sun
Shortly after Trump’s election, the historian Timothy Snyder published a short book about tyranny and the lessons of the 20th century. He gave a passionate series of lectures to accompany the book. Both the book and the lectures are excellent, but he makes an argument that is not, in my view, correct. It’s this one: As all historians know, there is nothing new.
Snyder implores his readers and viewers to study history. He believes the political phenomena we see today would be readily recognized by anyone who does. To study old political patterns, he argues, is to see that the new authoritarianism is just like the old one.
I agree that to understand what’s happening to us, we must study history. Many aspects of the New Caesarism are very familiar. Of course I agree: After all, the title here is the new Caesars. But from time to time, there is something new—hence the new Caesars.
In the 26th century BCE, the Sumerians discovered that they could represent the syllables of their language in cuneiform. That was new. Literacy fundamentally changed the experience of being human. If you have no written language, you have no business agreements beyond the primitive. You have no land deeds, no receipts, no bills, no legal notices. In a strictly oral culture, there’s an upper boundary on the complexity of the society you can build. You have no literature—and you have no written histories. A mid-26th century Sumerian seeking to understand his circumstances by studying history would have discovered there was nothing to study.
Even supposing, however, that he had been able to study the lives and times of his Umm Dabagiya or Eridu ancestors, would this have told him everything he needed to know to understand his own predicament? Not at all. The Sumerian Man was too different—too new—to find all the answers he needed in the past.
At several points in history, something so transformative has happened that people are thereafter still human, of course—they’re born, they live, they suffer; then out, out, brief candle—but they are very different from their ancestors. If a German peasant confused by the tumult of life in 1524 tried to make sense of his times by studying the previous century, he would miss the big picture: The printing press had changed everything. Nothing would ever be the same. The Gutenberg Man was too different—too new—to find the answers he needed in the past.
There have been at least three such inventions in human history: writing, the printing press, and the Internet. We can debate the others. The wheel, the steam engine, electricity—probably they all meet this threshold. The industrial revolution, in toto, clearly changed mankind so greatly that Industrial Man would not have been able to understand what he saw around him by studying the sixteenth or seventeenth century. But inarguably, those three inventions changed the experience of being human so profoundly that after their arrival, the past could no longer tell us what to expect of the future.
The Internet is a genuine revolution in human affairs. We speak constantly of this awesome change in technology, but rarely do we consider its revolutionary political implications. Liberal institutions were not designed with such a thing in mind. Are they compatible with it?
So far, it’s not looking good.
It’s too soon to say what the ultimate effects of the creation and universal adoption of the Internet will be. At this stage of the Printing Revolution, Martin Luther had yet to be born. But we know enough to observe a few things.
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