The Gods Will Have Blood – or – the Autosarcophagarch’s Dilemma

by John Holbo on September 14, 2013

Or tea, as the case may be.

Really, it couldn’t be happening to a nicer guy. Also, this.

‘The revolution will eat its children’. But it’s interesting to think why autosarcophagarchy – that is, rule by self-cannibals – should be such a typical form of revolutionary decline. (Do you like my new word? I think I’ll teach it to my daughter.)

There’s shouldn’t be a problem in principle with being an idealist – i.e. having some vision of what an ideal state would be like that is radically at odds with actually existing reality. Whether it be True Communism or True Conservatism or what have you. Practicing revolutionaries should be able to talk the 1st best talk while walking the 2nd best walk. But there is, I suppose, something inherently maddening about that position, both to the one who assumes it and for spectators. The distance between real and ideal is so great that the practical negotiation of it can never look like an expression of what you have been talking about it, hence can’t look like prudent trimming. So it can’t help looking like rank hypocrisy to enemies and vile betrayal to friends.

This is accentuated by the rhetoric of naturalness that goes with utopianism. ‘Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.’ Or in Obamacare, as the case may be. If the desirable state of affairs is so natural, and the actual state of affairs so horrible, it really seems the rickety structure ought to fall over if you push it. So therefore you ought to do so.

Of course, the case is a bit more complicated when the Robespierres in question were only ever recreational Robespierres to begin with. Napoleons of Notting Hill, not Napoleons. But the dynamic is much the same. (But you are bored with me quoting G. K. Chesterton, so I’ll cut it out.)



Steve Williams 09.14.13 at 6:47 am

To be fair, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to need to be a massive concern for him when he’s crushing said primary opponent by nearly 50 points in the polls, and will also breeze past the Dem in the general. Reports of Mitch McConnell’s demise are greatly overstated.


John Holbo 09.14.13 at 7:29 am

Yes, that’s quite true. But it’s still remarkable that he’s being primaried from the right over Obamacare.


Random Lurker 09.14.13 at 8:10 am

I just want to say that the title of this post is awesome.


John Holbo 09.14.13 at 8:24 am

Thank you kindly. “The Autosarcophagarch’s Dilemma” should clearly be written by Robert Ludlum and Gene Wolfe. Unless it’s actually a cookbook, in which case all bets are off.


david 09.14.13 at 8:44 am

The first is Silliness–the silliness of the doctrinaire. It is nothing strange to discover this in movements which have passed somewhat suddenly from the phase of midnight high-flown talk into the field of action. We do not distinguish, at first, between the color of the rhetoric with which we have won a people’s assent and the dull substance of the truth of our message. There is nothing insincere in the transition. Words ought to be a little wild–for they are the assault of thoughts upon the unthinking. But when the seats of power and authority have been attained, there should be no more poetic license.

We have, therefore, to count the cost down to the penny which our rhetoric has despised. An experimental society has need to be far more efficient than an old-established one, if it is to survive safely. It will need all its economic margin for its own proper purposes, and can afford to give nothing away to soft-headedness or doctrinaire impracticability. When a doctrinaire proceeds to action, he must, so to speak, forget his doctrine. For those who in action remember the letter will probably lose what they are seeking…


John Holbo 09.14.13 at 8:59 am

That’s a good one, david!


between4walls 09.14.13 at 6:46 pm

“The Gods Will Have Blood” as a translation of “Les Dieux ont soif” has always annoyed me- the original anecdote in Camille Desmoulins’ Le Vieux Cordelier was about a Spaniard asking the Aztecs why they do human sacrifice and receiving the understated reply, “The gods are thirsty.”

The lurid “the gods will have blood” is rather different in tone.


stubydoo 09.14.13 at 7:16 pm

McConnell is not the type of revolutionary liable to get eaten by the revolution. He’s entirely willing to shed any principle for the sake of expediency. In other words, he’s Talleyrand, not Robespierre.


roger gathman 09.14.13 at 10:39 pm

I don’t think McConnell was a revolutionary, or a tea bagger -he was a go along conservative who saw how weak Obama and the dem leadership was in 2009-2010 – because he remembered the Dems from 1980 to 2010. The dem slogan could have been taken from Kerry’s mouth: I was against it before I was for it. You can’t expect a revolution from a bowl of oatmeal – or even, as Dem voters have found out, even slightly liberal policies from Dems forgetting campaign promises.
But the teabaggers have been wholly admirable in their focus. They will eat their own – because they aren’t really their own. I remember the neo-liberal crowd, after Obama was elected, writing faux solemn bits about how the GOP was now done for a generation. Matt Yglesias was particularly egregious in this respect, but there was a lot of “GOP soulsearching” thumbsuckers floating about. Even at the time I thought that was as nonsensical as the Bush administration’s notion that Iraq would be a cakewalk, and for the same reason – a lack of any feeling for history. And sure enough, the Dems produced a stimulus that, as a percentage of the Gdp, was less than Bush’s stimulus in 2001, and then produced Romney care. It was to laugh. Along with the pivot to deficit reduction.
So, I’d re-read what has been going on with McConnell. Rather than the revolution eating their own, the revolution eats those who think the revolution is a stunt that they can use and then discard. Another election year is coming up, and given the polls I’d say so far the GOP has a very very good chance of winning the Senate, and the Dems have no chance of winning the House. From the revolutionaries point of view, the ultra strategy has paid off handsomely. I’ll believe the revolutionaries are eating their own when they turn against Ted Cruz.
It does seem to me that you can chart a certain liberal guilt in the way the Tea Party is depicted by liberal commentators. Because what they are seeing is a minority that, by refusing to compromise, has changed the very stakes of the game. Meanwhile, since Reagan’s era, compromise first has been the big liberal slogan. Endorse de-regulation. Compromise about the Iraq war. Endorse Simpson-Bowles. It used to be bi-partisanship was a friendly word for selling out your promises, and elections were about thundering about the mock threat posed by the opposition party to which you would cave after the election was over. But these revolutionaries hold the politicos to a higher standard. Good for them.


John Holbo 09.15.13 at 1:57 am

I was actually imagining him as Auberon Quin, from Chesterton. He did it for a joke, but then it took hold of him and he ended up standing in the rubble. Unhurt, of course.


Barry 09.15.13 at 10:11 pm

I’m seconding Roger. When you look at Fall ’08, the GOP was in shambles, having failed at so many things, and then had taken the country into catastrophe.

Can you imagine the Democratic Party after similar circumstances?
(IMHO, you’d have to take the Carter administration, add an actual lost war, break the economy worse than it was in 1980, and through in beaucoup corruption).


John Holbo 09.15.13 at 11:55 pm

“It does seem to me that you can chart a certain liberal guilt in the way the Tea Party is depicted by liberal commentators. Because what they are seeing is a minority that, by refusing to compromise, has changed the very stakes of the game. ”

I wouldn’t say guilt, but grudging admiration, yes.


Doug M. 09.16.13 at 10:50 am

Adding a me2 to Steve W. and Roger.

John, Kentucky hasn’t sent a Democrat to the US Senate since 1992. And challenging a healthy, well-funded five-term incumbent in a state where he’s reasonably popular is a steep, steep uphill climb.

— Reality check: how many incumbent Senators have been successfully primaried in the last decade? Out of 330+ elections, I count four: Lieberman in CT, Murkowski in AK, Bennett in UT, and Lugar in IN. And of those four, two (Lieberman and Murkowski) bounced back to win the general. So, we’re talking a successful primary rate of *less than one percent*. And all four of those were against Senators who were much more vulnerable than Mitch McConnell.

Doug M.


Doug M. 09.16.13 at 1:27 pm

Digging, I can come up with one more: Arlen Specter (PA) in 2010. And that’s it for the last decade. (Bob Smith in NH was in the 2002 cycle, just over a decade ago. He lost to John Sununu, who lost in turn to Jeanne Shaheen in 2008.)

Doug M.


John Holbo 09.16.13 at 1:48 pm

All this is perfectly reasonable and well-taken, Doug M. The post was a bit much, mostly because I fell in love with my neologism. I was mostly struck by the oddity of the right-wing hating McConnell over Obamacare, not by the actual likelihood of him being taken down.


ajay 09.16.13 at 1:50 pm

how many incumbent Senators have been successfully primaried in the last decade? Out of 330+ elections, I count four: Lieberman in CT, Murkowski in AK, Bennett in UT, and Lugar in IN. And of those four, two (Lieberman and Murkowski) bounced back to win the general. So, we’re talking a successful primary rate of *less than one percent*

The denominator should be “how many were primaried”, not “how many elections have there been”. Some of those elections will have been for open seats, because the senator will be stepping down (retiring or moving to another job). Senators only serve an average of 12 years. A lot of them will have been unopposed in the primary. (Some, like John Thune, unopposed in the general as well.)


Doug M. 09.16.13 at 2:11 pm

@ajay, strictly speaking it should be “how many primaries against incumbents” versus “how many total races with incumbents running for re-election”, since races for open seats are a very different dynamic. Being unopposed in the primary certainly counts for our purposes, since we’re trying to determine whether Senators should lie awake nights worrying about a primary challenge.

Doing a very fast skim, it looks like the last 10 years / 5 cycles have seen about 130 races with incumbents. Five of those lost to primary challenges; two (Lieberman, Murkowski) won the general anyway, while three (Bennett, Lugar, Specter) lost their seats.

So, 3/130 or about 2.5%. Higher, but still pretty low.

Doug M.


Doug M. 09.16.13 at 2:12 pm

@John, oh I know how that goes. A good neologism has a power all its own.

Doug M.


Doug M. 09.16.13 at 2:19 pm

now, if you want to argue that Senators should be nervous anyway, you could go digging for another dataset: Senators who survived a serious primary challenge but lost their seat in the general, at least partly because of said primary challenge.

Unfortunately, this one is really hard to parse, because how can you tell whether the challenge caused the eventual defeat? For instance, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas had to fend off a strong challenger, and this probably hurt her in the general, but, honestly, she was probably toast anyway. (She lost the general by 21 points.) On t’other hand, Lincoln Chafee’s 2006 loss in Rhode Island probably was thanks to a very fierce primary challenge from a more conservative candidate, which dragged him much further to the right than he wanted to go.

That said, I’d guess that the total number in this group, over the last decade, is fingers-of-one hand.

Doug M.


roger gathman 09.16.13 at 3:41 pm

As a coda – in the old days, when the revolution ate its children, the Dantons and Saint Justs among them did not have the option of retiring to some lobbying firm and pulling down the 750 per year plus limo. Or at least Carlyle, in his history of the French Revolution, never mentioned this. If Mitch Mcconnell were to be actually defeated, the poor old guy would have to lick the bite marks on his wounds on K street, bringing in more in one year than I will make in my lifetimel. Now, admittedly, this is a horrible fate and something to be pointed out to children, but somehow it puts a twist on the ironic twist that makes it all sorta non-ironic and generally fucked up.


roger gathman 09.16.13 at 3:50 pm

to coda my coda – I’ve always thought that the one thing that could have saved the Dems from the moderate right fate they’ve embraced would have been if Tom Delay had succeeded with the K street project. You remember when the former House Speaker made a real effort to purge democrats from the ranks of the lobbyists in the 00s? Bush’s patriot act, his tax cuts, his war on Iraq, all were opposed tepidly if at all by the Dems – but they rose as one man to oppose the horrible K Street project. My god, turning off the gravy spigot – it was enough to make one foreswear public service! Unfortunately, Tom Delay did not succeed. With the results we see today.


gordon 09.17.13 at 12:41 am

Hey, maybe the Americans will have another civil war! Will Putin be able to keep a straight face when he goes to the UN to suggest intervention on humanitarian grounds? And when the Chinese then stand up to suggest the US put its weapons of mass destruction under international control, will they be able to repress a giggle?

I’ve got the popcorn all ready!

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