As Faustian culture moves further along the path of civilisation, Spengler predicted that we should start to see a dynamic he called Caesarism in politics. By this he meant the rise of populist demagogues representing the interests of the public against the capitalists and their allies in the public bureaucracy. In the last post, I noted the ascendancy of law over honour in modern society. One of the drivers for this is the benefit that capitalists derive from excessive laws which both further their interests directly if the law is written in their favour and indirectly by creating a large administrative (and therefore financial) barrier to entry which prevents competition in the marketplace. An excess of laws is to the advantage of the capitalist class and the mandarins who administer the laws. This alliance between capitalists and the public bureaucracy is called the “elites” in modern parlance. Thus, the WEF meeting taking place in Davos at the moment includes billionaires, politicians and bureaucrats from various countries.
Caesarism breaks this dynamic. It sees the rise of charismatic rulers who win support from the public by counteracting the power of the elites. The Caesar achieves this by appealing to something higher than law and financial interest. It’s the promise of a return to an honour-based system but not one that has grown up organically in the culture phase of the cycle. Rather, it’s a facsimile of real culture. Trump and his Make America Great Again is a paradigm example of Caesarism. So, in its own way, was the Brexit vote in Britain.
For all kinds of reasons, the appearance of Caesarism in Australia seemed incredibly unlikely prior to corona. And yet corona, probably quite by accident, ended up looking an awful lot like Caesarism. One of the weirder things that I heard right at the start of corona was the phrase “the virus is real but the economy is not.” Setting aside the truth of this statement, it reveals something that is a cornerstone of the drive to Caesarism; namely the denigration of the bourgeois status quo. The economy is not real. This represents a desire: I want society to stand for something more than money. That is what the Caesar promises and he doesn’t mind how he goes about getting it. In Australia during corona, we saw police brutality, radical government intervention in civil society and a complete disregard of the financial ramifications of the measures. This was arguably a textbook example of Caesarism with Victoria’s “Dictator” Dan Andrews leading the way.
It’s one of those ironies of history that corona was a blow to Trump’s populism in the US while in Australia it manifested as exactly the kind of authoritarianism that Trump’s opponents had warned the orange man would enact on the US public. Prior to corona, Australia seemed like the last place you’d expect Caesarism to manifest. Australian politics had been a snoozefest for decades. The only interesting things to happen have been Prime Ministers getting stabbed in the back by their party. Australians are cynical of politicians and this is part of an overall cultural aversion to high achievers known as Tall Poppies Syndrome. The Australian economy also lacks the dynamism of the US which means that the capitalists here have little internal competition and therefore less need to pursue political agendas against each other. The last time we saw the capitalists directly intervene in democracy was when the Gillard government attempted to levy a mining tax. Meanwhile, Australia’s place in the inner circle of the US empire has given a stability to our foreign affairs with just the occasional need to send a small number of soldiers to futile wars overseas. All of these factors mitigate against the need for Caesarism and made the corona response such a surprise.
Now that Caesarism seems back on the agenda in Australia, especially with the prospect of economic upheavels ahead, it’s worth looking at other examples of Caesarism within Australian political history to see if these might give us some clue of how it might manifest here in the years and decades ahead.
The Great Depression was obviously a time of stress on the political system. Australia was still working out its new federal arrangements internally while also being tied to the British Empire financially and politically. Thus, when Britain dropped the gold standard this had a huge deflationary effect on the Australian currency and politicians here had to also drop the gold standard to depreciate the Australian dollar and get exports to rise. Meanwhile, the individual states held significant power which reduced the ability of the federal government to mount a coordinated strategy to deal with the economic problems. To give an idea of how little coordination there was, different states still used different railway gauges at the time meaning trains had to stop at the borders and everybody would get off and walk across to get on a different train to continue the journey.
The then Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, set out to deal with these issues and one of the outcomes of The Great Depression was greater centralisation of power in the federal government. This process of centralisation has continued ever since and is part of the reason why corona came as such a shock. Australians woke to realise that, not only did state governments still exist, but they could do things like shut the border and prevent you from seeing your family or stop you from travelling more than 5kms from your house. Who knew?
Back in The Depression, states had far more power than they do now and that power meant the ability to challenge the federal government. That’s exactly what New South Wales Premier, Jack Lang, was happy to do and this culminated in a constitutional crisis that saw him eventually removed by the Governor of the State in 1932. In terms of Caesarism, it should be noted that Lang was not challenging the capitalist system. Far from it. In fact, he was advocating for Keynesianism at a time when that was not the dominant economic ideology. Although he would lose the battle at the time, his kind of economic policies would later become the standard way of dealing with economic downturns. We saw this most recently with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s helicopter money during the GFC. Corona represents another example. Although we are nearing the end of the Keynesian paradigm now that debt is at levels that are clearly never going to be repaid.
What was relevant about Lang was the extent to which he was prepared to go to achieve his aims. This included using the machinery of state government to defy the federal. At one point, he even withdraw all state money from government bank accounts and stored the cash at the Trades Hall, thereby ensuring the federal government could not get access to it (this is a strategy individuals would do well to consider in the time ahead). After his removal from power, it was noted by government insiders that Lang had even considered placing the Governor under arrest. This could likely have resulted in the Australian army being sent in to take over the state of New South Wales.
It’s this transition from law to brute force, or at least the threat of force, that is a hallmark of Caesarism because the Caesar represents a return of The Warrior archetype against the capitalist. The use of force brings to mind another episode from state politics, one which is relevant to recent global events.
Joh Bjelke-Peterson, aka The Hillbilly Dictator, was certainly a proto-Caesar. In 1971, the South African rugby team was touring Australia at the height of the anti-apartheid protests here. Bjelke-Peterson decided to declare a month-long state of emergency for the sole purpose of quelling the expected protests. That’s right. Justin Trudeau is not the first to think of that tactic. Of course, Bjelke-Peterson’s politics were the opposite of Trudeau’s. The point is not the ends but the means that are available to a potential Caesar and one of them is declaring states of emergency where none exists (of course, there are far more famous and historically important examples of this idea).
Bjelke-Peterson also practiced a tactic of Caesarism that was adopted by the Victorian State Premier during corona i.e. the daily press conference. Bjelke-Peterson referred to it as “feeding the chooks”. The media needs stories and a politician is in a position to give them something easy to write about. Trump did something similar during his presidential run by hijacking the media to ensure that he was the main focus of the daily news, although that was less like feeding the chooks and more like feeding the spawn of Satan.
Bjelke-Peterson was the opponent of another charismatic leader who pushed the boundaries of what the constitution would allow, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam won an election and then convinced the Governor-General to break with convention and swear him and his deputy leader in before the full count of the election had been completed. There followed a two week period called the “duumvirate” where the government consisted of just two men. During this time, Whitlam put into action a host of measures that didn’t require parliamentary approval, thereby acting in a quasi-authoritarian fashion. This was just the beginning of the troubles and he would later join Jack Lang as the only two leaders to be removed by Governors-General in the short history of Australian politics.
The Bjelke-Peterson/Whitlam rivalry was another round in the ongoing battle between the states and the federal government. Whitlam was in favour of radical constitutional reform that would concentrate more power at the federal level while Bjelke-Peterson explicitly campaigned for state rights against the “communism” of federal Labor. Other examples of this were the fact that Western Australia actually voted to secede from the federation in 1933. The only reason the secession didn’t go ahead was because the British government refused to push the matter stating it did not have the legal right to do so. Meanwhile, the issue of secession has arisen several times in Tasmanian politics too.
Mostly the feds have won such battles and usurped power at the hands of the states and yet that trend was reversed during the Scott Morrison Prime Ministership in a fashion that is still very strange and might be Morrison’s most lasting legacy. For both the bushfire emergency and corona, Morrison let the states run the show. On the one hand, this makes sense as the states have responsibility for most of the emergency services response. Yet, during corona, Morrison gave states responsibility for quarantine which was legally a federal duty as well as letting the state Premiers walk all over him at the national cabinet. Morrison could have used those crises in the same way past federal leaders had to increase the powers of the federal government and yet he refused to do so. This cost him politically while also allowing the rise of mini-Caesars at the state level. All of a sudden, state politics is relevant again when for decades it had been the B-grade movie of Australian political life.
This very brief survey gives us an outline of how Caesarism could manifest in the Australian context. It might occur at the state or federal level and, in fact, one may lead to the other. At one point, Bjelke-Peterson was considering a run for Prime Minister. Until now, the constitution has held any would-be Ceasars in check. But it’s not hard to imagine it faltering under more extreme circumstances. There is also the question of constitutional change which is back on the agenda now with a new government. That could open up the system to new vulnerabilities. In short, there is nothing about the Australian system of government that is likely to inhibit Caesarism any more than other countries.
The big question for Caesarism in the Australian context is what values a would-be populist demagogue can invoke to garner support. Trump and Brexit both ran on anti-globalist nationalism which makes sense in both of those countries. It makes far less sense in Australia for a number of reasons. Firstly, we have been among the most eager proponents of globalisation and, unlike the middle classes of Britain and the US, our middle class has benefitted from globalisation (or at least didn’t go backward). Secondly, our geographic position does not lend itself to national rivalries with other countries in the way that Britain has with other European nations, for example. Thirdly, nationalism is problematic in Australia due to its historical roots in the White Australia policy. It’s worth pointing out that the White Australia policy was supported mostly by the Labor Party as a way to guarantee the earnings and conditions of the working class. The abandonment of the working class by Labor in the 90s was partly a capitulation to the multi-national corporations and institutions who run globalist capitalism. For these reasons and more, neither major political party in Australia is the natural breeding ground of a Caesar in the sense of fighting back against global capital.
In Spenglerian terms, Australia was founded during the civilisational period of the Faustian culture. Thus, the Langs, the Bjelke-Petersons and the Whitlams were all working on variations of the bourgeois project. The age of Caesarism is when that project gets torn up and replaced by an appeal to “higher” values. One way this might play out in Europe is a resumption of military conflict. But this is highly unlikely to be relevant to Australia unless China turns belligerent.
So, it’s still very difficult to see how Caesarism could come to Australia. Much depends on how fast the bottom falls out of the US empire and what the ramifications are for global trade. If things turn out well and trade with Asia continues, it may very well be that Australia’s mineral and agricultural wealth enables the continuation of a bourgeois society here long after Europe and the US have moved into the phase of Caesarism. Australia might remain a relic of times past; a weird little European outpost in the south pacific upholding a tradition that has gone extinct. If things go less well, it could be that Australia will have an existential crisis to go alongside an economic one.