U-M Professor David Potter looks at history and politics to understand radical change in his new book, "Disruption"


David Potter and his book Disruption

“How do things change?” asks David Potter, a University of Michigan professor, in his new book, Disruption

This question is the basis for his in-depth examination of five groundbreaking periods in history: Christianity’s growth, the rise of Islam, the Protestant Reformation, popular sovereignty, and the political theorists Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer. The five chapters collectively span thousands of years and Potter sews together history, biography, and political thought to illustrate how ideas disrupt existing beliefs and structures. 

This kind of radical change, according to Potter, arises from fringe ideas that go against the existing state of affairs with a thought leader at the forefront. Many centuries ago, political structures that are foundational to government as we know it now had yet to be defined. For example, amid the rise of Islam when Ali ibn Abi Talib, a relative of the prophet Muhammad, was assassinated in 661, Potter writes:

The central issue in the civil war that ended with Ali’s death was the qualification for leadership. Piety, it was generally agreed, was still crucial. But what else?

Governments and people in charge spent years and wars arguing this question. Potter focuses on how certain disruptive ideas took hold. 

Much later in the 18th century, the concept that the people should be able to determine law grew through thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Potter delineates parallels between the American and French revolutions in regard to the political ideas outlined by people like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Thomas Paine. Potter writes, “The idea that citizen rights were essential to the existence of the nation would prove to be the greatest inheritance of the two revolutions.”

Again, people and political theory influence and affect the organization of government. 

In the last chapter on Marx and Spencer and an epilogue dated January 6, 2021, Disruption moves into more recent history, including Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Donald Trump. When there are divisions and collapses of institutions, Potter points out: 

In times of crisis, people will react to the immediate challenge rather than the long term; if something sounds plausible it can become possible.

The question also becomes whether the ideas that gain traction will cause positive change or not. 

Potter corresponded with Pulp to answer questions about his book and work. 

Q: Tell us about yourself and your work. How did you come to be a professor of Greek and Roman history at the University of Michigan?
A: The Department of Classical Studies at Michigan has a long tradition of supporting scholarship that is a bit outside the mainstream. When I came to Michigan, I was working on what prophetic texts could tell us about the way people thought about their government. These were some pretty weird things, but the project was a pretty good fit with colleagues at that time. These were people like Ludwig Koenen, one of his generation’s most talented students of Greek papyri, who was working on a new papyrus about the life of the third-century AD prophet, Mani, and Bruce Frier, who was reshaping the way we study ancient populations and Roman law. After I arrived, I began to teach a number of large lecture courses, especially courses on the history of sport, which developed strong comparative aspects—especially the course which is split between ancient and modern sport—which helped me enormously when I started thinking about my book on disruption. But I had also worked a lot on periods of transition in antiquity, especially the third-century CE, and on transitional figures such as the emperor Constantine who figures in Disruption, and the empress Theodora, the actress who became empress in the sixth-century CE. My teaching and research have always fed off each other, and this book is a reflection of that dialogue.

Q: What made you decide to write about disruption?
A: My interest in writing the book was sparked by the riot in Charlottesville and then some experiences we had on this campus: a visit by Charles Murray that was deeply divisive and the prospect of a visit by Richard Spencer. The fact we had a president who was suggesting that destructive and disruptive figures like Spencer and Murray should be taken seriously made me wonder how we had become so badly divided, and where we could be headed. And, of course, it was not just the situation in this country. Brexit, the result of another movement that was based on lies and fueled by incompetence, was ongoing, and we were seeing the rise of “populist” parties in the EU, all of which threaten the established order. So why was this happening, why had people lost faith in their political institutions to serve their interests? I’ve always believed that one of the most important things we learn from history is how to use the past to help us think about the present. 

Q: Disruption covers a great amount of time. How did you go about researching for writing the book? 
A: Thanks to my teaching over the years, I had been doing work on each of the areas that I cover in the book. A course I teach on ancient warfare draws on theories developed in the study of early modern Europe, one of my sport courses dealt with social Darwinism and the Nazi Olympics, and the first two case studies are set toward the end of antiquity in areas where I have long been working. That said, each chapter is its own research project, and I did get some very good advice from colleagues along the way. One of the things I enjoy about research is the constant dialogue with colleagues, and knowing that the final result will not look like the initial plan of the volume. I’m also lucky that I have a wonderful wife who puts up with my various fascinations, which is hard going when those result in Stalin joining us at the breakfast table.

Q: How did you decide which five historical disruptions and radical changes to profile?
A: I was looking for periods which resulted in change that was so radical that a society could not go back, and in which radical thought had shaped the transition. There are not a lot of such periods in history—but the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity was certainly one of them. Christianity was very much a fringe intellectual movement before Constantine. The rise of Islam elevated the thought of a radical preacher to the ideological core of a state that replaced a political order that was 700 years old. In the case of the Protestant Reformation, we see how a once vibrant intellectual movement—Christianity—had ossified in its western European form into a very conservative, intensely self-serving institution. Luther set in motion changes that brought down the established order and opened the door to all sorts of new thinking. His own teaching about grace was in and of itself very radical; his use of the new technology of printing created a court of public opinion that simply hadn’t existed. In all three of these cases, what we also see is a very narrow, highly disciplined leadership group.

I think it is fair to say that the Protestant Reformation created the environment for the development of the political theories which underlie the fourth chapter. The idea that government depends upon the agreement of the governed was a radical idea in the 1770s and 1780s, but the differing outcomes of the French and American revolutions gave me a chance to explore the reasons why not all disruptions have a positive long-term outcome. Our successful disrupters in the past were all able to build a new middle ground. That was also true for the framers of the U.S. Constitution, but it wasn’t true in France. In the last chapter, it’s fair to say that Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, the father of Social Darwinism, were figures whose ideas took shape outside the intellectual mainstream, and that the horrific disruptions of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Nazism, movements whose leadership came from well outside the political and intellectual mainstream, are still shaping the world in which we live.

Q: As I read about disruption from the rise of Christianity and Islam to eras like the establishment of popular sovereignty, it struck me how politics and government resembling what’s familiar today had yet to be developed. Ideas that we now rely on were being debated, in some cases not all that long ago. Was it unsettling or encouraging to examine how much society and politics have evolved? 
A: It is, of course, very encouraging to know that there is an arc of progress we have followed. At the same time, I think we can also see that some of the behaviors that led to these disruptions—especially failures of imagination at the center of political institutions—are common occurrences over time. One thing I do hope that readers take away from the book is how some really bad ideas morph into new forms and are still with us—eugenics as a source of anti-immigrant rhetoric for instance. One thing that we can see is that progress is something that arises from dialogue and that another constant is our drive to better understand the world around us by modeling the ideal way that societies can function.

Q: The topics mentioned in your epilogue come close to home with the discussion of recent politics in the United States and the global pandemic. You write, “Disruptions first and foremost serve the ends of the disrupters.” What other lessons do you think people should take from the case studies in the book going forward? 
A: A crucial point that I hope people see is that disruption stems from failure to recognize that institutions are not functioning as intended. The fact that lies—whether they be about a vaccine that should free us from a deadly disease, about the outcome of the last presidential campaign, or a riot that we could all watch for ourselves—are so prevalent in public life is a sign that people have lost faith in central institutions. We face a huge challenge in rebuilding civil discourse, and to rein in the economic forces that have shattered people’s faith in the future. The vision of Jeff Bezos playing games in space while Amazon workers are operating under very difficult conditions is powerful a symbol of the inequity that challenges today’s social and political order. Government needs to recapture the ability to govern for the people rather than for the large donor. Right now, the very people who preach the virtues of their disruptions are the ones who have gained the most by wrecking economic equity and finding ways to ensure that their activities will not be regulated. Government needs to take responsibility for rebuilding the social contract that is essential for a functioning democracy.

Q: For people interested in reading more on these topics, what do you recommend? 
A: Three books that are very important for the present are, I think, Bruce Schneier's Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, Stephanie Zuboff's The Age of tech, and Enzo Traverso's The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right (tr. D. Broder), on populist nationalism. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die: What History Reveals about our Future is a very important book about the guardrails of contemporary democracy, as I think is Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 and Stephen Kotkin's Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, on what happens when a political system is dominated by falsehood. For our own history with eugenics, Adam Cohen's Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck is a terrific, if horrifying, read. Moving backward in time for a terrific study of where other bad ideas come from, there is Dan Edelstein's The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, & the French Revolution and Jeremy D. Popkin's A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution. Moving further back, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s books on the Reformation, Thomas Cranmer: A Life and Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life, are terrific as is Elizabeth L. Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. I hope people will also find that my books on Constantine and Theodora are as accessible as I like to think they are (Constantine the Emperor and Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint).

Q: You’re a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study this next year. What will your time at the IAS involve? 
A: Before I wrote Disruption, I wrote The Origin of Empire on the failure of the Roman democracy and the rise of the Roman imperial system—that was one disruption too far for the new book— in which I argued that the Roman state surrendered its basic functions to what were essentially large-scale private corporations until two of those corporations dominated the state and then went to war with each other. I’m going to pick up that theme with a detailed examination of the career of the man who ultimately destroyed the Roman democracy, Julius Caesar. The Institute is an extraordinary interdisciplinary community and I am sure that by the end of the year, I’ll have encountered ways of looking at the subject that I’m not seeing now.

Q: Tell us more about the Julius Caesar and Roman democracy book. 
A: This is a book that is still taking shape within the outline of my last answer, but there’s a lot more we can know about Caesar if we stop taking him at his word—he was an exceptionally capable liar—and start asking what the point of the image he created for himself was. The way a person shapes his or her image tells us a lot about the way they see the world. There’s an enormous body of very fine scholarship to deal with, but I think the angle of the corporatization of political power is one that can yield more results and help us rethink a lot of the evidence. This is a process I’ve started with some articles on Caesar’s writings, and I think I can draw on the work I’ve done on disruption to tell the story in a way that will be very relevant to our own times. We certainly see the progressive loss of faith in central institutions and some highly disciplined groups dedicated to advancing their own interests which they will assert are identical with the public good. I also find Caesar an inherently fascinating person who was wickedly bright and had a sense of humor.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.