An American Napoleon
How does America adjust to a world with no growth?
“The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity…From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”
There is some truth to the notion that history is governed by power laws—only a few inflection points define the course of the world. Thomas Carlyle’s now infamous Great Man theory posits that some of us are born with god-given talents and these great leaders arise in moments of crisis. Yet, should we succumb to our fate if we lose the genetic lottery and accept that we cannot change destiny?
In recent years, academics have deconstructed Carlyle’s theory because it doesn’t account for our environment, which plays more than a significant role in our success. Talent, for the critic, does not enter into the equation. In this gray area, there is a compromise: the extent of a leader’s genius is hidden until their environment allows them to flourish, letting them reach their full potential at last. In any case, hero-worship is essential: this “Consecration of Valor,” as Carlyle put it, is nevertheless a constant in all ages. These stories are foundational to the human spirit.
There is perhaps no better example of such latent genius than Napoleon. As he buried the ancién regime and conquered Europe, he quipped to Ségur, “I have dethroned no one. I found the crown in the gutter. I picked it up, and the People put it on my head.”
Napoleon came of age when France was built out of bricks and he left it carved out of marble. Certainly, at the time, many felt that Napoleon, against all odds, orchestrated these series of neverending triumphs and changes. History itself appeared to be moving in sync with the force of his iron hand. But doesn’t that underplay the role of his environment in shaping his success? Timing is key; the macroeconomic landscape sets the stage for heroism. Caesar needed the eroding Roman Republic just as much as the Republic needed him.
As it were, the Jacobins’ destruction of all established social structure led to the unintended rise of Napoleon. We may find ourselves in wholly uncharted territory as a result of such immoderate men. The conditions in modern America—rampant unemployment, political polarization, and stagnant growth in non-technological fields—appear to be laying the groundwork for such a story once again. If, as many of us believe, polarization could lead to revolution, should we hold our breath waiting for another benevolent revolutionary? A figure in the Napoleonic mold?
This time is different from past eras because, on the bumpy road of history, the technological apocalypse through biowarfare, cheaper atomic weapons, or even a malevolent AGI beckons us with a false step. As covid has demonstrated, the road to calamity might not even require a misstep. The absence of choice is identical to a negative choice, and not solving these issues implies their arrival sooner or later.
Citizens want the sweeping reforms that only absolute power can promise but shun the return of such power itself. Will the people choose their governor wisely?
Napoleon’s journey could help us ask the previously neglected question of whether or not America can handle another civil war without a Lincoln at its helm.
Soldier, Priest, and God
It’s a symptom of postmodernity that we reflect on the few inopportune moments and indiscretions that tinge Bonaparte’s otherwise glamorous life. His grande Armée’s retreat from Russia’s Alexandre I, the ill-fated Battle of Waterloo against Britain’s Admiral Nelson, and most infamously, the courtship of his adulterous wife Josephine. We comfort ourselves with these surface level quips to avoid the nuanced mythos about Bonaparte’s life. Napoleon’s core legacy is thus enshrined in his eponymous complex—not in his genius.
People forget that power does not permit a vacuum. Someone always steps up to take charge. In the time preceding the French Revolution, the monarchy played a significant role in exalting the cult of the hero; unbeknownst to them, it was because their power was fraying at the edges.
The slow but steady progress into secularism created an opportunity for motivated individuals to gather influence. There were two reasons for this: First, cheap printing became increasingly pervasive and, second, culture shifted from the exaltation of the monarchy toward these heroes across the first and second estates. In hindsight, it was Napoleon, another monarch, who was the culmination of the enlightenment, the first leader of the renaissance, who turned the world on its head across the fields of science, religion, and philosophy.
Philip Dwyer describes the context thusly:
“The French had been accustomed to worshipping a canon of ‘great men’, including philosophes like Voltaire and Rousseau, and generals like Condé, Turenne, Luxembourg, and Saxe. . . In the second half of the eighteenth century, these ‘great men’ increasingly took the place previously occupied by kings and saints. . . History, in other terms, was becoming national and any man who had carried out great acts, indeed just about anyone of any notoriety, could aspire to public recognition.”
It is in this frame that we should consider Napoleon. Even a passing glance of the centuries thereafter would show that Europe, and the world, is marked with his imprint. The Napoleonic code transformed perception of individual freedom across personal and property rights and started the progressive reforms that characterize our globalized age. His protean nature allowed him to scale the Enlightenment reforms of meritocracy, industrial efficiency along with secular education, and truthful financing. If there was any individual who could champion the Enlightenment, it was Napoleon.
All that’s solid melts into air
“We have done with the romance of the Revolution, we must now commence its history.”
Invoking Bonaparte’s name requires a call-back to the origins of the French revolution—they are married. Louis XVI’s France had structural issues contemporary historians consider impossible to have overcome: staggering levels of debt, immigration, and centralized wealth threatened the foundational elements of society.
Jean Jaurès, an original member of the French Socialist party, wrote at the time:
“There was not one action in rural life that did not require the peasants to pay a ransom. . . Feudal rights thus extended their clutches over every force of nature, everything that grew, moved, breathed; the rivers with their fish, the fire burning in the oven to bake the peasant’s poor bread mixed with oats and barley, the wind that turned the mill for grinding corn, the wine spurting from the press, the game that emerged from the forests or high pastures to ravage vegetable plots and fields.”
French peasants were thrust into remarkable destitution throughout the course of the 18th century. Migrants, similar in many respects to their descendants with H1B immigration status, could work in cities if they gave up their privacy and dignity: they had to carry their documents on them at all times while the royal police hawkishly stalked them in and out of their homes. The story is the same for H1B visa holders—if a company decides to terminate one’s employment status, the immigrant is deported. This creates a system of indentured servitude akin to that of the French serf centuries ago.
Cultivators rented farmland from their lords of which they had to supply the cattle and seed—to participate in the economy, they were marshalled into lifelong debt slavery. That mirrors the plight of our younger generations who are burdened with the ever-increasing prices of healthcare, education, and rent required to find a job in America’s productive areas.
So the period preceding the new order carried with it unprecedented levels of inequality and social stratification much like in our times. Jaurès’ voice echoes the conditions we’re witnessing: it is best to demarcate workers into those who are in the technology industry and those who are not. This split is especially precarious for those in the middle, the gig workers, who are subject to the worst of both worlds. The stock market is divorced from the broader economy and to be neither a financier nor a CEO in the post-coronavirus world is a recipe for disaster.
Hence, we should not be surprised that these conditions fuel the riots, and revolutionary sentiment in the 18th century and today.
With more than 40 million out of work, the upheaval in America is just beginning. This matches past booms and busts, which wrought financial calamity. However, something has changed beyond the horizon of political polarization—the very lives of the people are at stake. Unchecked riots and the failure of the medical state has destroyed the people’s faith in structure: the resistance is growing and has since ensued in riots across the country.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once said, “Culture is the root of politics and religion is the root of culture,” More than race, the rioters believe a wholly atheist religion of what Thomas Piketty has called “participatory socialism” whereby western nations have “a universal right to education and a capital endowment, free circulation of people, and de facto virtual abolition of borders.”
Socialism only works with a five-year plan: growth is a must in order for progressive policies to succeed. What voters misunderstand is that with a shrinking worldwide demographic, 20th century capitalism has been left in the dark ages. We cannot indefinitely expect developing nations to consume our goods nor we can imagine that acceleration of technological prowess will save us. The resistance is slowly coming to terms with the incompatibility of their hopes and the foundational tenets of neoliberalism: stagnant wages, free trade, and open borders. The manichean battle between the US and China is the first scrimmage of our deflationary world.
Where can we look to for answers? The French Revolution gives us an insight into the future. Despite the futility, people will nevertheless continue to burn and pillage believing that we can mistakenly return to a 20th century golden age of growth. When that energy fades away, our systems will be shattered; take, for instance, California’s failed bureaucracy—the rich and poor alike are abandoning the state because of excessive regulation and taxation of which the benefits are nowhere to be seen. California’s leaders don’t believe the state’s financial prosperity will continue: this is the reason for their egregious wealth tax on the super-rich, thereby avoiding the central issue entirely.
Citizens are not asking for disarray; in fact, they would prefer the order and stability that follows runaway growth. In the coming years, economic deceleration will reshape our political systems and reconstruct our beliefs: does western liberal democracy work in a deflationary world? As the pie grows ever-smaller, is it not a competition between us and them: an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth?
If that’s the case, we will place our faith in a leader that can generate order and stability, peace and prosperity, and carry us to new heights: we will seek an American Napoleon.
note: this piece was originally published on Athwart Magazine. Link.