Current Affairs

Mike Duncan on History, Revolutions, and the Future

The past was a lot messier than we tend to imagine, and the future does not look promising.

Few people have done more to make history interesting and accessible to the layperson as Mike Duncan. A wildly successful podcaster and New York Times-bestselling author, he’s tackled topics ranging across space and time. Current Affairs was lucky enough to get him on our podcast for an interview with editors Lyta Gold and Sparky Abraham. If you missed it the first time around, here’s the perfect opportunity to see what Duncan has to say about how history can help us understand the present—and perhaps what comes next, as well.

The following transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Lyta Gold 

Hey Bird Feed, this is Lyta Gold, your amusements and managing editor. I’m joined by Sparky Abraham, our finance editor. 

Sparky Abraham 

Hello everyone. 

LG 

Today we have an extremely special guest. We’re super excited about this guest because Sparky and I are huge geeks, and we’ve been fans of this guy for a long time. It’s Mike Duncan who’s joining us. 

Mike Duncan 

Hello. 

LG 

You may know Mike from a couple of podcasts. There was one called The History of Rome, which is finished up and is excellent and really, really worth getting back to. There’s one going on right now called Revolutions, which is thrilling. It’s amazing. It starts from the English Revolution, and has gotten as far as the Russian Revolution—but we did the French one on the way, Haitian, Mexican, the whole thing. It’s incredible. There’s also a book out called The Storm Before the Storm, which is about the Roman Republic. And it’s fantastic. Thanks, Mike, for joining us. 

MD 

Thank you for having me. 

LG 

So, we wanted to talk mostly about the Revolutions podcast, because it’s the one that we’re both really, really obsessed with right now.

MD 

Me too.

LG 

Haha, I can tell. This is great. I mean, it’s such a deep dive into these very specific details, these specific chunks of history, but it’s really easy to follow, and it’s just a really incredible work of popular history. The first question I want to start with is: why did you pick revolutions as a topic?

MD 

It goes back to my first loves in history. When I was a teenager, I got really into the American Revolution. This is in, let us say, the mid ‘90s. I also got really into the Russian Revolution, and it was one of the first time periods that I really honed in on and fell in love with. I did a lot of reading when I was 16, 17, 18 years old about the Russian Revolution. So, it’s cool that I’m finally able to talk about the Russian Revolution in the capacity that I’m talking about it now, because it’s one of my first loves.

But then I wound up moving on to ancient history. I spent so much time doing The History of Rome and so much time studying the ancient Mediterranean world, that when I finished up The History of Rome, I didn’t want to be typecast as just an ancient historian or just able to do one particular set of time. So, I wanted to move into the modern world, and I wanted to move into some different topics. 

I was kicking around ideas that I might possibly have, and eventually landed on this notion of covering different revolutions in discrete seasons, to move through them. And the idea too was that it would be a shorter project than The History of Rome, because each one of these would be 12 or 15 episodes long, and then it would be about three years is how long I had mapped it out now. Of course it wound up being longer than The History of Rome was—this is how I run my career, apparently. And whatever next project I do, I will no doubt say I want it to be shorter than Revolutions, and then it will actually be probably twice as long, and it will take me 20 years to do. But that is what it is. 

LG 

And your background—you’re not an academic, really. You don’t have a PhD in history, right?  

MD 

Correct. I’m a grad school dropout.

LG 

That’s very cool. We’re very much in favor of that.

MD 

So my degree was political science with a minor in philosophy. And then my concentration for political science was political theory. What I was actually studying in school was a lot of political theory. And that necessitated all of this study of political events and political history. I mean, if you’re going to learn Plato and Aristotle, you have to learn about the Greek city-states. And if you’re going to study Cicero and Seneca, you have got to learn about the Roman Empire. If you’re going to study Machiavelli, you have got to study the Roman Empire. It’s all of the piece. 

So, when I came out of school, what turned out being the thing that I most wanted to keep going with was the history part of it. I kept wanting to teach myself about the who, what, and when of history because I had spent so much on the theory part of it. I wanted to get re-grounded on what actually happened, what these people were actually talking about. And so that is how I wound up carrying it forward.

LG 

One of the reasons that we’re so cranky about academic history is that it tends to be very siloed. It’s not universally true, but it’s often very siloed from popular education, and it’s these very little JSTOR articles about a very specific topic and that kind of thing. I mean, you’re playing a really important role in popular education. Do you see that as being part of a trend?  

There are other history podcasts, I know—like the History of Byzantium, which started up after you stopped The History of Rome, and it’s a really fun podcast too. This does seem like it’s becoming a bit of a trend. It’s a really fun way to teach history and a really fun way to absorb it for people at home who are just interested amateurs, who aren’t in school studying and don’t have JSTOR access.

MD 

There are two aspects of this. The first is the relationship between the academy—the universities—and the academics, who are, most of the time, just talking to each other. That’s part of what they want to be doing: talking to each other about very specialized things. And then there has always been a place for popularizers. Even though podcasting didn’t exist 50 years ago, there’s always been a popularizing tradition. There have always been people out there who want to fill in that role between what is going on in the universities, and what the general public is actually able to learn. 

And I think that’s my job—to facilitate the transfer of information from often-dry sources, like those JSTOR articles, which I read because I enjoy them. I actually enjoy reading those articles. But the general public isn’t going to enjoy reading those articles, and they aren’t written for the general public. So what I can do is take all of that information that I’m really interested in and convey it to the people, and that’s a part of a longstanding tradition. I believe that it’s a good thing for society, for people, for citizens, to know as much history as possible. I think it makes us better, more well-rounded people. 

I mean, people should also learn music, and people should also learn about art, and there are many things people should learn about. But I do think that history is one of those things that people should really have inside of them. To have a sense of how long humans have been at this. To have an idea of the kinds of events and personalities and trends that have happened before us. Why our society is actually running the way it is. It didn’t just appear like this, unless you want to get into really deep philosophy and say, “The entire universe was invented five minutes ago and we all just arrived here,” which I do not think is true. I actually do think that there was some kind of history that backs all of this up. 

But if you study the history, you’ll understand your own present society much better. So, I think all of that is good, and I think I’m in that tradition of popularizing it. And then the podcasting part of it: it’s a new medium. It’s a new technology. It’s a great way for people to access this information because reading a book does take your whole physical body, in a way. You can’t walk around reading—you see people walking around reading books, I don’t quite know how they do it—and then if you are going to watch a TV show, if you’re going to watch a documentary, you have to sit and watch the screen. But you can listen to a podcast when you’re crammed into a subway. You can listen to a podcast while you’re driving your car. You can listen to it while you’re doing chores. There are many different places that you can take audio-only content. And if you are the kind of person who’s sitting there saying, “Gosh, I don’t know a lot about history,” I can go, “Find these podcasts.”  

And during these mundane, often terrible parts of our days—like when you’re doing chores, and commuting, or exercise, nobody likes doing any of these things—we can turn those periods of time into learning opportunities. And so, podcasting as a medium, I think, has served the popularization of history and the popularization of many different more academic fields in general. I think it’s been a great addition to how we interact with each other.

LG 

I listen to you when I’m cooking.

MD

Perfect. I listen to podcasts when I do dishes.

SA 

There’s this interesting thing in the Revolutions podcast, especially, but also in The History of Rome: what you’re talking about is really the apex of politicalness. Right? You’re talking about revolutions. It doesn’t get much more political, divisive, whatever. This is not some kind of dry, neutral history. 

But one of the features, I think, of your podcast that is really interesting is that you have a lot of fans across the political spectrum. I imagine that takes some work to try to present this stuff in a way that is not…  I mean, I don’t know; how do you do that? Is this an intentional thing that you are doing? And I also want to ask if you’re willing to talk about your personal politics, although I know that every side of Twitter has a project of projecting their own politics on to you. How do you deal with this?

MD 

I will probably be cagey about my own political beliefs. 

SA 

Yeah, that’s fine.

LG

Yeah, yeah.

MD 

I will say, however, that when the MAGA people find me, they are profoundly disappointed. Especially coming out of The History of Rome, because there are lots of people that do listen to The History of Rome, and ancient history, classical history, is something that is often appropriated. There’s a colonization project amongst, let us say, proto-, crypto-, and out-and-out fascists, to use the Roman Empire to their own political advantage in the modern world. And so they’ll listen to The History of Rome and they’ll be like, “This is great, this guy must be one of us.”  

And they find my Twitter feed, and they’re like, “Oh my god, he is one of them.”  So, at a minimum, if you were talking to a MAGA person, I am one of them, not one of us. Now, when it comes to actually presenting this material, my focus  has been to focus on the who, and the what, and the when. Point being, that as long as I focus on the actual concrete events, I’m on pretty safe ground in being able to present it in something resembling an objective way. 

What I think has often been lacking, and this goes back to what I feel like my role is here in the popularization of history, is that people often lack a kind of barebones narrative of what happened. People know a lot about the French Revolution, or they think they know a lot about the French Revolution, or they have an interpretation of how the French Revolution dips into world history, or how it should be interpreted. But then if you actually start poking them a little bit about the details of what actually happened during the French Revolution, who did what when, that is a part that starts to get real fuzzy for people. 

So what I’m hoping to provide here is that narrative of who and what and when. Like when you see, for example, guillotine memes going around on Twitter, this is often because people have a basic understanding of the French Revolution. You have these revolutionaries who rose up, and they rounded up the aristocrats, the bad people who had done all the bad things during the ancien régime, and they chopped their heads off, and this must be a good thing. But when you actually get into what the Reign of Terror was, and who the victims of the Reign of Terror wound up being, it is not usually the case that it is some hateful aristocrat who had the crimes of history, the blood of history, on their hands. Those people all fled to the Netherlands, and then to England, or to Germany, or to Austria, most of those people actually survived the French Revolution. 

The people who were killed were mostly peasants in the June Days uprising, it was federalists who had risen up in revolt against Paris because they simply disagreed with the course of revolution after the Committee of Public Safety took over. These are just facts. And as long as I’m presenting what happened, I think I can pretty much walk the line. Having said that, I’m never going to be able to avoid my own bias, and it’s clear who I can be sympathetic to and who I am not—I am not sympathetic to Metternich, for example. 

LG

I did notice that. 

MD 

I do want to, as much as possible, empathize with whoever it is that I’m talking about so I can try to understand their perspective on the world. Why is this person behaving the way that they are behaving? What is their motivation? What are they trying to get out of this particular moment?  

And one other thing that I think I have done well on this front, and I’m doing this with the Russian Revolution—I’m forcing myself to do this—is when we know how the revolution turned out, then we start to back up and write a straight-line history of the event knowing how it is going to end. 

But let’s just stay in the French Revolution, people were banging into each other in 1790, 1791— they don’t know that 1793 is going to be what it was. They don’t know about Thermidor, they don’t know about Bonaparte. History is usually a mess of people whose motivations are running into each other. And as long as you can stick to trying to explain each person’s motivations from their own perspective, then I think you can listen to it without being like, “Oh, this just Marxist analysis,” or, “He’s just some reactionary scumbag who is trying to say that Robespierre was the devil.” 

SA 

So, I think you started to answer this, but I think one response to what you are saying is: well, yes, but that’s what every historian thinks that they are doing. Right? I guess that is not true, some historians think they are doing a political project. But I think that a lot of what you see when you are talking about history as a political project is that it’s all about which people you choose as being important and which events you choose and whose motivations you get into and whose motivations you do not. Is there a particular way that you deal with that? I mean, one possibility is that you just do as many people and things as you possibly can, and that’s why you have such long and excellent and in-depth seasons.

MD 

Sure. I do acknowledge that I’m coming from some kind of liberal bias here, because if we’re talking about liberal civil rights, I am going to be on the side of the liberal civil rights as opposed to the perpetuation of feudal ignorance and despotism, for example. Because I’m coming out of this, I’m a white guy from Seattle, Washington in the 21st century, so the society that I grew up with is going to inform my worldview on all those fronts. And I do agree that there are probably people out there that just listened to that last answer that I gave about trying to present something resembling an objective chronology of information and just rolling their eyes and saying, “Well, this guy is absolutely full of shit because nobody can actually do that.”  And I actually agree with that. 

But, and as you just said, as long as you keep moving around and talking about it from the perspective of Louis XVI and then from the perspective of Robespierre, and from the perspective of Lafayette, you can cover most of your bases. Or look at what I’m doing right with the Russian Revolution. As we go through it, I’m going to be constantly hopping between the perspectives of the anarchists, of the socialist revolutionaries, of the SRs, and then the left SRs, and the right SRs. Then I’m going to be talking about it from the perspective of the Bolsheviks, and the Mensheviks, and I’m going to be talking about it from the perspective of Nicholas and the czars. Then, the nationalities are going to come into it, like what Polish nationalists think about all this. 

So again, I think that it’s not a matter of ever believing that you can step away from yourself or step away from history to create something that’s objective, but you can bounce around enough. And if you empathize enough with the various actors, then, as you have noticed, I have fans from many different political backgrounds who can listen to the show and not be turned off about it, or think that I’m just advancing one particular point of view. 

SA 

Yeah. And I did not mean that as a criticism, I think you do it really well. I mean, probably my favorite season so far is the Mexican Revolution season, and one of my favorite parts of that is that I had the sense, “Oh, I know about the Mexican Revolution.” I have the people who I understand as being important and who I agree with or disagree with. And you just blew that up—the Mexican Revolution season just blew up that universe and introduced me to so many new people and perspectives and situations that I had no idea about. And it made me think about the events from their viewpoint, instead of working backwards.

MD 

That is one thing that I do think—because I do keep this in the forefront of my mind—the people in history don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Actually, one of my favorite episodes that I ever wrote was in the Haitian Revolution…  I am now, of course, blanking on the title of this episode even though I’m saying it is one of my favorite episodes.

LG 

There have been a lot of episodes, to be fair to you. 

MD 

I think it was 1794 or 1795, when there was this pause in the middle of this conflagration that was the Haitian Revolution, and there were five different ways that it could have gone. It could have gone to some of Louverture’s way, it could have gone André Redouté’s way, it could have been that the British actually wound up conquering San Doming and reimposing slavery and San Doming becomes a British colony, or it could have re-fallen to the French and gone back to being French, but then it’s going to be under Napoleon’s rule. 

So, I just spent an entire episode talking through the different ways that this could have actually gone. And yes, it went this one way where Toussaint Louverture winds up victorious, but there was nothing that said that it was going to have to be that way. And certainly nobody knew it at the time. You know, it’s not like Toussaint Louverture is going around with a magical “W” over his head that stands for “winner.” Nobody knows that he’s going to be the winner in the end. So, always keeping that in the forefront of my mind does help keep things grounded, I think, in a really healthy way. 

SA 

I mean it also makes it, I do not know, maybe Lyta you can weigh in on this too. And also, I find it very–

LG 

Terrifying. 

SA

It’s relatable because we, in the present day, also don’t know what’s going to happen, and taking this approach makes it clear that the position that we are often in is really similar to the position of people at previous points in history. It makes this stuff feel less like disconnected history that leads inexorably to this moment and more like, “Holy shit, it’s always been a mess, and things can kind of happen at any time.”

MD 

Right, that is 100 percent true. Anything could happen at any time, and we have no ability to predict it. I mean, one of the things that is very noticeable about studying all of these revolutions is that nobody has ever successfully predicted a revolution. There have been a few times where a coup or some kind of uprising has worked, but was the French revolution planned? No, it was just a huge, unfolding series of accidents that people then were able to hop on board with and steer certain ways for a certain amount of time. But that has really been one of the themes of all of these episodes about revolutions: nobody sees them coming, and then they erupt, and then they unfold. There is no guiding hand here, it does not exist. 

LG 

And when I’m listening, I tend to oscillate really widely between hope and despair, because there are all of these different groups of people who. A lot of them have good intentions and they’re working toward good things, and then here’s the way that all of these things just go wrong and don’t work out, and people end up killing each other over extremely silly differences of opinion. 

MD 

Right. Or that you start hoping to accomplish something, and then it’s a bit by bit thing, where everyday you do a small course correction and a small course correction and you do something in that day for that moment that you feel like you have to do. And then the next thing you know, you’re completely turned upside down, and the opposite of where you even wanted to start. I think that is going to happen with Lenin quite a bit. What those guys thought they were up to in the 1890s is not where they wound up in 1920. 

SA 

It’s really relatable, which I think is how you know that’s right. Because as you’re describing this process or this experience, it’s like, “Oh yeah, that is kind of what my work life felt like this week.” You have a project and you have got to just make adjustments as you go to correct things, and then suddenly you end up somewhere completely different. I feel like this is just a universal fact of life. 

MD 

It is very much just the human condition. 

SA 

You mean the people in history are people? That’s crazy. 

LG

Yeah, you really do a great job of avoiding the great man of history thing. And you also do a great job of avoiding seeing people as these masses that just move with these—I guess it would be kind of a Marxist perspective—very specific interests, and then this group of people does this thing because they have these interests. That’s something that you’ve really done a good job of avoiding, and I really appreciate that.  

MD 

Well I appreciate that. That’s something that popped up with The History of Rome when I got started. When you’re dealing with the Roman Empire, and you’re dealing with the sources from the Roman Empire, I’m constantly talking about history about kings, emperors, and popes. That sort of vein. And I’m talking about Aurelian did this, and Aurelian did that, and Diocletian did this, and Diocletian did that, and it can appear, at times, to be great man history. 

I hoped that it did not, because I think that it’s not so much great men do great things that change the world, so much as these are human beings who are close to the levers of power, and the decisions that they make do in fact have a rather large impact on the societies within which they live. 

One of the formative books that I ever read was the March of Folly. The basic thesis of that is four case studies about how mistakes lead to history unfolding the way that it does, far more than just some brilliant work of a genius.  I mean, even a lot of Napoleon’s career is built around mistakes and luck far more than him having some genius plan and pulling it off. So, I do believe that there is human agency inside of the unfolding of history. I do like what Marx said: that history is made by men, but they do not decide—I botched the quote—but they do not decide the circumstances within which they make their history. I think when you come into the world, all of human history has happened before you, so you can’t just go off and do whatever you want. But I do believe that human agency does play a role in history. 

SA 

I think we wanted to ask you about some broader lessons or commonalities that you’ve drawn out between revolutions. I think that one of the ones in particular that I wanted to ask about is: it seemed like, at least in the earlier seasons, sovereign debt was a large driver of a lot of this stuff–  

LG 

Sparky is a debt guy. 

SA 

I mean, I’m a personal debt guy, not a sovereign debt guy. 

LG 

But you’re a guy who cares about debt. 

SA 

I do care about debt, that is true. I guess I wanted to get your view on that. And also, it plays interestingly into this modern monetary theory debate that are going on right—which, of course, is about what it means for the United States to have debt as a sovereign, which is of course a very different situation from what it meant for the king of France to have debt as sovereign. But I wondered, have you thought about that at all?  How does this connect? 

MD 

My answer to that is: having done Revolutions, it makes me want to go back and get a master’s degree in finance with a particular interest in the history of banking. I am truly not 100 percent qualified to answer some of these questions. But what I do know is that it has far less to do with out-and-out debt or the size of the debt or what kind of deficits you are running, as it does with confidence in the regime. There’s a very famous thing where the debt load that Louis XIV left upon his death was greater than the debt load that was facing Louis XVI in 1786, when they said, “Sir, the monarchy is broke. We cannot get any more money.” And the reason they could not get any more money is because the bankers in Paris would not lend them any more money. 

The regime, back in the early 1700s, was able to continue to draw loans and pay its debt and get back on its feet, in a way that Louis XV couldn’t—even though, in objective nominal terms, it was a lower debt load than Louis XIV had left. And so it comes down to both: how confident people are in the regime’s future ability to pay back these debts, and then also, is there a clique of bankers who think that they can use this to their advantage? What was going on with Louis XVI—and also what was going on, for example, with Charles I in England when he went off and started the Bishops’ War—is that the guys who had the money realized that they could use this to leverage the monarchy to their own personal, political advantage. 

So, I think a lot of the debt crisis, as such in 1786 and 1787, was not just some act of God or some objective fact of finance or economics so much as a group of people, possibly surrounding the Duc d’Orléans and Jacques Necker, who said to themselves, “Hey, we’ve actually got ourselves a way to maybe leverage the Bourbons out of power and bring in the Orléans. And if we can get the Duc d’Orléans in on the throne, then he’s going to want to bring in a British-style constitutional monarchy, which is going to elevate landowning and banking class into some kind of parliament where now we’re going to be able to call the shots.” And the Duc d’Orléans is happy with that because he just wants to go watch racing and gamble.

So, I do think that there is a connection between debt and the finances of an empire or a kingdom or a republic. But there are political aspects to it, and political motivations to how that objective financial situation then leads to a revolution. Because there are plenty of times where these same sorts of problems pertain, but there’s nobody out there who is looking for it to be something that they can play to their political advantage. 

SA 

That sounds like a very MMT type answer to me, which is that sovereign debt is basically a question of power and confidence. But somebody who knows more can correct me on Twitter, I’m sure.

MD 

What I will say to these people—especially when it comes to current events and modern financing of modern states—that is well, not just above my paygrade, but somewhere on another planet. It’s not an issue of where I am in the org chart, it’s a completely different set of people. But I can analyze it from a historical, political perspective, and everything I said I do believe in. So, if that puts me on some side of some debate that I don’t know anything about, hi friends and hi new enemies that I’ve just made, I guess. Apparently, I’ve just made a lot of friends and enemies at the same time trying to answer why it is that Louis XVI went down when he did.  

SA 

We will see.

MD 

And Charles I, and soon to be Nicholas. And you know, you get into 1848, and it’s exactly the same scene. After the “hungry ‘40s,” there were a variety of debt crises in all of these little German kingdoms. It happened in Prussia, it happened in France, it happened down in Italy. What the banking class is saying to the sovereigns is, “If you don’t call the parliament, we’re not going to give you any more money.”

Why do you want parliament involved? Partly you want a parliament involved because they tax themselves at a higher rate than just the despotic regime often does. When the British started taxing themselves in the latter 1600s, suddenly their tax tripled after they came out of the Stuart dynasty. So, the resources that they were going to be able to marshal with the parliament in place was far greater than just with some rickety autocrat, which is another observation I can make and has probably just made me enemies and friends simultaneously. 

LG 

You have to look out for those guys. It’s interesting to talk about debt because we just had, in 2008, a large, sudden debt crisis. And it’s looming, it could happen again at any time. Even predicting the Silicon Valley bubble is going to burst at any point, and then it could be this huge problem. 

So, that’s the question. Have things changed so much since the Russian Revolution? I mean, we still have a lot of the same trends. That’s something that I really notice when I’m listening to these various revolutions—some issues are passe now, but a lot of things are really familiar.

There’s a silly debate going on right now about whether the professional managerial class has revolutionary class consciousness. Like, not even joking, that is a real debate that leftists are having. And so, what I’m trying to figure out, is time a flat circle? Are there going to be more revolutions? Or have larger social structures changed too much to really have them anymore? Or will we just have revolutions in a different style? 

SA 

Wait, are you asking if it’s the end of history, Lyta?

LG 

Yeah, I’m asking if we’re going to see these patterns of the revolutions that Mike has talked so much about, or are they going to just be different?

MD 

No, I think that is a fair question. My answer, of course, to “have we reached the end of history?” is no. 

LG 

I wasn’t really–

MD 

But that was not actually the question, and I do understand that. For the record, history has not ended. Probably the greatest meme that I have seen going around in the last year or two is Moe throwing Barney out of the bar. It’s Francis Fukuyama throwing history out of the bar, and then he turns around, and history is back at the bar. 

But it’s a worthwhile question: are revolutions in the future going to look like revolutions in the past?  Especially if you say that what we understand as “revolution,” the archetypical picture that you have in your head of what a revolution looks like, really gets going after what we would consider to be the Renaissance. You have the Dutch overthrowing the Spanish rule, and then you move very quickly into the English Civil Wars as a revolution. I consider those to be a revolutionary event, and I find it odd that revisionists managed to talk themselves into the English Civil Wars as not being a revolutionary event. That was a weird thing that happened in the ‘80s. 

But they now do play out in a very certain way. And that has been going on for, let’s say, 500 years. Five hundred years is not that grand a chunk of human history. It’s a chunk, but not an enormous amount. And if you talk to geologists or you talk to physicists, it’s like no time at all, it’s a little sliver of a fingernail. I do believe that there will continue to be revolutionary upheavals for the foreseeable future, for the next couple hundred years. I don’t think that things have changed so much that we will not continue to get the same kind of recurrent challenges from below to various existing regimes. 

I think that we’re watching it happen right now. I mean, you just flip on… well, do not flip on the TV, I don’t know why I told anybody to turn on the TV to try to get news. You guys don’t work in TV, right? 

LG 

Oh god, no.

MD 

Okay. Alright. So we’re not offended. Do not turn on the TV to get news, guys. Stick to Facebook. 

LG 

A reliable source.

MD 

Oh man, we’re doomed. No, the point being is that in Hong Kong, in Chile—I’m here in Paris, and we have the gilets jaunes thing that just came through—there are mass protests, there are people staging revolutionary challenges, there are disaffected elites who would like to see various regimes overthrown and are happy to finance and underwrite various challenges to various regimes. I think, unfortunately, what is actually driving a lot of this is not “liberty and justice for all” kinds of movements. 

What we are seeing right now is the return of ethnonationalist populism. It’s one of the major drivers if you’re talking about groups of individuals who are ready to steamroll over what we would consider to be the legitimate state apparatus of any given state—the people who are looking to just throw it all overboard to install their own vision of what a state ought to look like. A lot of that is being driven from the populist right rather than the working class left. Especially in the United States of America, which is why I would be skeptical to the point of being pessimistic about any kind of left-wing revolution ever succeeding in the U.S. I do not think that the country is primed for it in any way. It is far more primed for authoritarian fascism than it is for left-wing communism.

LG 

Great. Our listeners are going to love that. 

MD 

I’m Mr. Happy Fun Guy over here. But there are some people who will say that because of technology, the state now has weapons and technological abilities at their disposal that would make what we use to think of as a revolution impossible. I don’t think that is the case. 

Most of the time, when you’re talking about if a revolution from below succeeds or doesn’t succeed, it has very little to do with whether or not the sovereign can bring full force to bear. Like Charles X or Louis Philippe I or Napoleon III could have rolled out cannon after cannon, after cannon of grapeshot. Right? They could’ve just blasted these people into submission. They did with the commune. 

But the difference here isn’t “do you have the technological ability to murder tons and tons of people in order to suppress a revolution,” but do you have the will to do it? Many, many people do not. I mean, this is Auschwitz stuff, this is On War stuff. The object is not to necessarily just destroy your enemy’s forces, it’s to destroy the will of your enemy to mobilize those forces. 

Because you can blow up every single tank, and every single plane, and take out every single gun, but if you’ve left your enemy with the will to keep fighting, they’ll figure out a way to pick up sticks and rocks and rebuild themselves and come back at you. 

SA

Ah, see American foreign policy. 

MD 

Yes. So, it’s not so much about removing your opponent’s ability—and this is true in war and in revolution—it’s not so much about the sovereign that is going to be overthrown or not overthrown, it’s not about whether or not they can marshal forces to napalm an entire city, it’s whether or not they are going to do it.

SA

Another aspect of this is the period of time in which these events are happening is relatively short in terms of human history. There are these particular dynamics. But there’s also the case that these revolutions take a long time. Right? There is something that you really need in terms of historical perspective. If you were to try to do a season on the French Revolution in the 1860s, it wouldn’t have worked. The Paris Commune really seems like a continuation of the French Revolution in a way that we just don’t know what is going to happen yet. Plus, you just have to talk about the CIA a lot for anything after Russia. 

MD 

Right. That’s true, speaking of history being driven by mistakes rather than out-and-out genius. One of the things getting back to what I think my purpose here is, what my role is as a popularizer of history, is if you take the French Revolution, people say, “Oh, yeah. I know the French Revolution. The monarchy went broke, so they called the Estates General, then the Bastille came down. Then they chopped the king’s head off, and then Napoleon. And that took some amount of time. Maybe a couple of years to get from one end of that to the other.”  

I mean, there are probably people out there that don’t even realize that Louis XVI was not beheaded at the end of 1789. You just think that it all must have taken place, as you said, in some very short amount of time. That a revolution is a very discrete, quick, violent event. When, in point of fact, the French Revolution was something that went on for 10 or 15 years, depending on where you want to mark the beginning and the end. And if you’re sitting around in 1790 and 1791 (let’s say you are, for example, Marquis de Lafayette—you can look for my book Hero of Two Worlds coming out in August 2021) there was every single reason to think that in 1790 and 1791 that the French Revolution, as such, was six months in the past. It was eight months in the past, nine months in the past, now a year ago. 

As it turns out, they were practically still in the beginning of the revolution, far from it being in the rearview mirror. So, to your point, I think when we look around at what is happening these days, it is impossible to ever plant your flag on something and say, “Oh, well that was the end of that,” or “This is the beginning of that.” I think that we, in our own times—I speak even as a historian who has some experience with looking for places to plant flags and divide—say, “Oh, this is when it started, and this is when it ended, and this epoch divides from this epoch.” Even in the modern world, we have no ability to figure that stuff out. 

I remember when Barack Obama was elected president, that was basically the end of racial divisiveness in the United States, and we were now launching a new ship of a multiracial democracy that was going to sail into the sunny waters. That is it, we’re in post-racial America. We did it! We came out of World War II, we had the Civil Rights Movement, and this is the end of all of that. And it turns out that that was not the end of anything. It just restarted something that has been an ongoing conflict in American history since the very beginning.

LG 

Not again to be accused of saying the “end of history,” but it does seem like one of the big differences now is this factor of climate change, and that that does seem to put a time limit on everything. How do you think that it’s going to affect revolutionary movements? 

MD 

So, when I talk about this stuff, I often talk about what future historians are going to say about such and such an event. This is like a game that I like to play. It’s a fun experiment more than anything else. And I, just in conversations with my wife and with friends, you always have to talk about, “OK, are we talking about climate change division or non-climate change division?”

Because you can talk about non-climate change division history unfolding as it does. But yes, it is becoming increasingly pointless, really, to talk about what the next 50 to 100 years are going to look like unless you are talking about climate change. And I am somebody who believes that climate change is real. I would like to say for the record that I think it is happening, and that I think that humans did it. I know that I am really going out on a limb here. I have made some more enemies here today.

SA 

Yeah, all of our extremely right-wing climate change-denying Current Affairs listeners. The ones who love to listen to the libertarian socialists. 

MD 

So, I think it’s happening, I think it’s going on. I have two kids, they’re seven and four. I’m not thrilled with the world that they are about to have to live through. I think that what we are going to see is much closer to Rome’s “Crisis of the Third Century” period, which was a huge moment of state breakdown.

I do actually think there was a climate shift aspect to what happened in the third century. I do have some suspicion, though I have not actually investigated this fully, that there was some kind of climate shift event that happened around 200 A.D. Because the Han Chinese, the Parthian Empire—which was running Persia at the time, which gave way then to the Sassanid Empire—and the Roman Empire, as it had existed before the Crisis of the Third Century, all dealt with very similar state collapses, and much of it was brought on by shifting of people. The shifts happened because, “We used to be able to grow wheat here, and we can’t grow wheat here anymore.” There are diseases that start getting introduced into this. 

I think that one of the other great fears, which is entirely legitimate on top of climate change, is that we’ve been pumping ourselves full of antibiotics for the last 50 years. We already know that there are drug-resistant super viruses out there and bacteria out there that can race through the population. We’re basically talking about The Stand. So, those things can and do happen in human history. Looking forward, I am not entirely optimistic about what this is going to mean for us. 

I think that there are two ways that we can approach this as human beings. One of them you can already see manifesting itself, and it is this right-wing xenophobic populist nationalism that is going to try to say, “Nobody can come here. Wherever we are, we are going to be a people.” This is happening in France, this is happening everywhere. “We have to lock it down. We have to build walls. We have to keep people out. We have to say, ‘No, we are going to protect this historical culture that we have. Whatever our identity is, our imagined national identity, we have to protect it at all costs.’” And if everybody goes rigid, then I think that that is going to lead to a lot of conflict and violence. I think that is a very natural progression. 

The other thing that we could do is if we loosened up a little bit and said, “Ok, things are going to change. Things are going to move around. People are going to have to live in different areas.” We can accuse the people who are mass migrating out of Florida. We can call them the new Okies, right? The people from Florida are going to be in settlement zones in 50 years. We know this. Do we accept them and reconstitute our societies to build something and keep building something to protect people from climate change and disease? Or do we try to go rigid and maintain what we have, and build the equivalent of sea walls around everything?  

I would hope that we would lighten up a little bit, but again, I’m not very optimistic about it. Especially when you can already see how much panic is sparked by just little, teeny changes—they’re talking about refugees from Honduras and Central America being like the Goths. They are not the Goths. 

LG 

Different outfits. They don’t wear black. 

MD 

They don’t even speak the same language. So how can they be the Goths? But truly, when you look at how much people from a different area can be demonized so easily for the smallest things, that when this shit actually gets real, I think that is only going to blow up even further. But I do think that there is an alternative. I do think there is an alternative strategy for dealing with all of this that will maybe see us come through it.  

SA

Is there a historical precedent for that alternative?

MD 

The Roman Empire survived the Crisis of the Third Century.

SA

Oh, yeah. Okay.

MD 

Maybe I’ll write a book about it called The Restoration of the World: Rome and the Crisis of the Third Century. Look for it in like 2024. Not that I don’t have the next 15 years planned out. I have got to get everything out of me before the flood waters come open and swamp us, and we get picked up by the monks of Leibowitz. 

LG 

That is a great book, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Sparky, is this our most terrifying episode ever?  It’s pretty close.

SA

It’s pretty close. In terms of conflict, I would say our immigration episodes with Brianna are probably our most depressing. We’re not even getting close to that.  

LG

Yeah. But just in terms of terror…

SA

I’m curious to ask our podcast host, Pete Davis, whether he thinks Mike Duncan is a prophet, a mystic, or a sage. But I think, in any case, this is bad news.

MD 

Prophet, a mystic, or a sage? Or a bullshit artist who is really just looking to sell you razors, and I’m just a hoax? I don’t know any of this stuff, I’m just in it for the razor blade money. 

SA

This is the downfall of the prophet, mystic, and the sage theory, is that it does not deal well with people who are just full of shit. 

MD 

The thing I do get accused of, though, sometimes on Twitter, is that people think that I doomsay because either I enjoy it on a psychological level, or I think it plays well to an audience. People have accused me of being a doomsayer. I’m not, for the record. But they’re like, “This is the greatest time in human history to be alive.”  

And there’s a lot of truth to that, but that doesn’t mean things are just going to… Pollyanna is the one who doesn’t think anything is going to go wrong, right? 

LG

Yep.

SA

Yeah.

LG 

Also, Steven Pinker.

SA

Yeah, you get Pinkered.

MD 

Yes. I do think that there are some Pollyanna-ish tendencies out there, especially among the tech bro elite who think that this is just going to keep being great forever. But those guys, those guys think that they are going to interface with Fibernetics and upload their consciousness to a cloud and beam themselves to Mars so they don’t actually have to worry about any of this stuff. Although, they have got compounds in New Zealand. 

LG 

And extremely stupid looking trucks to drive to them. 

MD

Right.

LG 

Do you see much reason for hope? I mean, you said that there’s an alternative. Do you think it’s remotely likely that we’ll move more toward an open borders, more accepting society? What do you think would cause that? 

MD 

So, I do have some hope, okay. Because I think kids are all right. This is a thing that I do actually believe. There’s a generation who has, let us say, been in power for a significant period of our lives who should probably be relinquishing power by now. I won’t name this specific group or this generation, you may have heard of them. We will leave them nameless, for the moment. But these are my parents, and I love them dearly. I’m a , whatever, an elder millennial of the Oregon Trail generation.

SA

Oh, I love the Oregon Trail. That’s a great term. 

MD 

So, what’s my hope? My hope is that society won’t be so rigidly admitted to protecting a deadend path against what’s going to be inevitable for us to do in the next century or so. You do mass surveys with the kids who are 14, 15, 16 years old and they’re baffled about homophobia, about racism, about trans issues, about immigration issues. They’re baffled by all of this stuff. They just can’t quite wrap their heads around why it’s so important. 

And if you look at the United States, I do think that there is a growing acceptance of pluralistic democracy being a good thing that people approve of. I think you can actually look at any of the polls today and find quite a bit more support out there in the general population for these sorts of open-minded, welcoming, and accepting policies. The rigid, postural, conflict-driven policies of the Republican Party currently represents a shrinking minority of political opinion. And that’s part of their entire political strategy, when it comes to voter suppression, when it comes to how they want to manipulate the Senate. They need to manipulate the greater power that rural whites have inside of the American electorate, compared to other groups of people who live in cities or the suburbs.

The Republican Party knows for itself  that it’s representing a shrinking demographic. So, there’s some hope that if something resembling a democratic backlash—a small “d” democratic backlash—can happen and finally swamp the ship and send the modern Republican Party to the bottom of the fucking sea, then maybe we can have something that is good in the future. 

However, they’ve been quite successful at holding onto the levers of power at all costs and forcing through policies that are not actually that popular—that are in fact quite unpopular and are not representative of what the citizens of the United States of America actually want. So, I think that there is some hope in the demographics. I think there is some hope in the population. I think there is some hope among the younger generation. And I would be thrilled, just thrilled, to look back at all of this and be like, “God, you were really depressed, weren’t you?”  

I would prefer my doomsaying could come for naught.

LG 

Well, that’s the funny thing about being in the middle of a historical event–you have no idea how it’s going to turn out.

MD 

But I very clearly just laid out something that I would like to happen. Just got to be cagey about my politics. I do think the modern Republican Party should be sunk to the bottom of the ocean. 

SA 

You’re not going to say abolish the Senate, but we’ll say abolish the Senate. 

MD 

Yeah. I mean it’s really difficult to justify the Senate. If you’re into, again, small “d” democracy, or you’re a small “d” democratic individual, which I consider myself to be, the degree to which the Republican Party is embracing anti-democratic talking points is really, really, really, something. 

They’re saying that it’s good that the president received three million fewer votes than his opponent, and that is what the Founders wanted because they were afraid of democracy. It’s like: what you’re saying right now is that we’re still going to have an election, but the person who gets fewer votes wins, and that’s good?  

I just do not get the argument except that they want their Supreme Court seats, so they’ll say anything. And you know, we want our Supreme Court seats too, but—  

LG

Because we want to save people from the estates. But they, of course, would make the same argument, I’m sure. 

MD 

And that brings us back to what’s going to be depressing about the future. Even if you have that democratic—again, small “d” democratic—swamping of the current Republican Party, and you have the Democrats take the presidency and the House and the Senate and start turning bills into laws and start doing all of these things to address the major issues of our time, they’re going to wind up on the doorstep of the Supreme Court or the federal judiciary that has been packed for a generation with right-wing judges out of Federalist Society. They’re just going to strike it all down as unconstitutional, and then where are we going to be?  

LG

Pack the court with more justices. it might be the only solution, which we have written an article about in Current Affairs

MD

OK. 

SA

Several, even. 

LG

Yeah, that’s true. 

SA

I’m on the 64 justices kick right now.

LG

Why 64? 

SA

I think if we’re going to have a Supreme Court, it’s just a nice number. 

LG

But shouldn’t it be an odd number?

MD

It’s the number of squares on a chessboard.

SA

Yeah. It’s also a perfect square, kind of, yeah.

LG

But shouldn’t it be an odd number for tie breakers?

SA

No, no. They’re not all going to decide everything. 

MD

Right. It’s like what they do in the Ninth Circuit.

LG

OK, you rotate people in.

MD

Yeah, you have seven people working on this, and then five people over here, and 13 over here. But then inevitably there’s going to be nine wise old ones who have the final, final, final say.

SA

Right. 

LG

The final boss. 

MD

Yeah, the final boss. 

LG

Alright, it sounds reasonable. We’ll just do that. We’ll be fine. 

SA

That’ll solve everything.

MD

God, I feel terrible. 

SA

We’re supposed to be the hopeful leftist podcast. What are we doing here, Lyta? 

MD

It’s clearly me, come on. I always find myself in this situation, because people want to talk to me about history, and you just see people go ashen faced by the time I’m done talking to them.

LG

I think it’s important, even though we’re the hopeful leftist podcast, to be realistic about the challenges that we face. And I don’t think that we gain anything from hiding from that.

MD

I haven’t ever written this up, but I do have something resembling a manifesto for a new society in my head, that I think would be really important. I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands after Revolutions, and at some point I don’t know exactly what I am going to do with myself. 

But this idea that we can just hunker down behind walls and hope for the best is, I think, at best, so horrifyingly bad. We have to abandon that mentality entirely. We have got to be water. We can’t be rock. 

See, obviously I haven’t even written it. I don’t even have my metaphors worked out right. 

LG

Certainly interested to read it when it’s done. 

SA

Be Water: A Case for Open Borders

MD

Let’s Blow Up the Camp of the Saints, by Mike Duncan. Something like that.

LG

Again, extremely interested in reading that. 

SA

Can we get the interview for this on the books now?

MD

There’s a guy who hands out Camp of the Saints as something that people ought to read. And this guy is making immigration policy in the United States of America. 

LG

Disturbing. 

MD

Offensive does not even begin to capture it. 

LG

Yeah, Stephen Miller has to—I’m not going to make a guillotine joke, because it’s not appropriate—but he has got to go. 

MD

He should never have a moment’s peace in public ever again, I think.

LG

I agree. 

MD

I think that’s the minimum. 

SA

That’s a nice prescriptive statement. Of course, if American history has taught us anything, we’re going to be dealing with him for the next 30 to 40 years, continually recycling into circles and everybody acting as if he’s fun and has never done anything wrong. 

MD

Yeah, what will be really fun is in like 20 years, when everything has gotten much, much, much worse, and then even Stephen Miller is like, “Wait, I don’t like this.” And then we are going to be like, “Oh, Stephen Miller is good now.” 

SA

Right. #Resistance hero. 

MD

People like us will be sitting there like, “Why is Stephen Miller good now?” He is not good now. Because we all watched this happen, with the previous administration. G. Gordon Liddy is Oliver North just being rehabilitated as a fine statesman.

LG

George W. Bush. Somehow it’s all forgotten. 

SA

Everybody is going to make the statements about Trump that the Democrats now make about Reagan. Like, “Oh, even Reagan said this.” 

LG

Well, that’s depressing.

SA

Well, a little off topic, and a little depressing, and also out of time, I think.

LG

We really appreciate you joining us, though, and going to these dark places with us.

MD

Yeah. Was I successfully cagey about my political opinions? I do not think I was. 

SA

As you said, the Twitter speculation is like, is Mike Duncan a liberal or a leftist?  And I think you’ve maintained your veil on that. 

MD

Oh, thank you. 

LG

But we really know, don’t we?  Anyway, thank you so much for joining us. 

MD

Thanks for having me.

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