Panem et Circenses

by Scott Preston edited by O Society July 20, 2019

Historians will often point out grotesque levels of inequality are implicated in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the end of the Greco-Roman Civilisation. They also warn we are about to repeat history once more.

Let ’em wonder

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The Roman elite’s policy of panem et circenses (“bread and circuses”) is largely for the purpose of deflecting and diverting public attention from this situation through an array of mass entertainments often perceived, too, as symptoms of the Empire’s decadence, as well as the breakdown of the Roman Republic and its replacement by Caesarism.

I am reminded again of all this by new Bloomberg report on “New Inequality Numbers”. So, we will discuss today why this really, really matters, because almost every social problem we face today hinges on this.

The most important reason such levels of inequality are concerning is those who see their share and their stake in the commonwealth steadily declining and eroding have no reason to feel any affinity for it, and no reason to defend it. Feeling increasingly excluded, people therefore become increasingly demoralised and estranged from it, and so lose the sense of being stakeholders in the enterprise, if we want to use a contemporary idiom for this.

Not only did Rome’s own legions begin to rebel against the Caesars and the Empire, Romans couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for defending it when the definitive crises did arrive. The term “citizen of Rome” simply lost much in meaning and sense of value.

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It is said upon his deathbed in Hippo, Augustine could simultaneously hear the roaring of the crowd at the games in the arena and the clamour of battle outside the city’s walls that foretold its doom. Some may think it was just a case of the citizen’s myopia and hubris and fantasies of invincibility, but perhaps there was in this a large dose of complete apathy to the city’s fate.

There is also something of this in a strange cult movie starring Sean Connery entitled “Zardoz” and in Mike Judge’s movie “Idiocracy“.

I wish I was like you
Easily amused
Find my nest of salt
Everything’s my fault

Sensing the danger to themselves from this demoralisation and estrangement of the populace, the power elite insulate themselves (today’s “gated communities”) and instead of moving to rectify the malaise, or to make any great sacrifices themselves for the sake of the commonwealth, choose diversionary strategies such as panem et circenses.

This involves, too, the persecution and scapegoating of the Christians, who indeed, with their radical egalitarian religion that did not discriminate between citizen, proletarian, plebeian or slave, did represent a danger to the Roman elite.

Hence Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Of course, as the history of Christianity reveals, this radical egalitarian spirit of early Christianity was co-opted by the same “powers of this dark world”, which some historians of Christianity pin on the controversial (and likely fraudulent) “Donation of Constantine”

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History tends to repeat itself in rather uncanny ways for “post-historic Man”, and likewise today — what better way for the power elite to insulate themselves and deflect attention from the malaise of growing inequality than getting the proles, the plebes, the aliens, and the slaves fighting among themselves for the scraps that fall from the masters’ tables? (or what we today call “trickle down”, which is the Newspeak of today because the fact is it’s all trickle up).

Entrenched wealth and the flows of “dark money” are connected of course, but so is the damnable problem of getting society to act on the problems of climate change, which is pretty much our contemporary form of “the barbarian at the gate”. No need to belabour the point, I think, that entrenched wealth and dark money are behind much of the climate change denialism and its disinformation campaigns, as well as financing a great deal of the Islamophobic propaganda industry or race-baiting.

Not only has a great deal of entrenched wealth been gained at the expense of the Earth and the environment, but it relies on the maintenance of the status quo to preserve itself. So, many of our contemporary social crises can be traced back to increasing wealth inequalities and various efforts to conserve entrenched wealth, or what is sometimes referred to as “oligarchy” or “plutocracy” or “plutonomy”.

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I do not often read analyses of social inequalities that address this aspect of it — that a large group of people who feel that they no longer have any effective stake or a just share in a particular system of economic or social relations aren’t going to feel any obligation to defend that system when it faces a crisis, or any sense even of belonging within it. That’s effectively what we call “alienation” or “estrangement” or “anomie”, or the sense of “homelessness”.

In many respects, the whole propaganda industry (which is pretty much what it is — an industry) exists not to “expose”, but to disguise and deflect attention from the reality of power relations, and there’s no lack of people who will sacrifice their own long-term interests for the short-term gains of dark money or other perks, which is another aspect of the sickness of “post-historic man”.

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