Panem et Circenses

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

The Roman elite’s policy of panem et circenses (“bread and circuses”) was also largely the purpose of deflecting and diverting public attention from this situation through an array of mass entertainments that are often perceived, too, as symptoms of the Empire’s decadence, as well as the breakdown of the Roman Republic and its replacement by caesarism. And I was 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 that such levels of inequality should be concerning is, that 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 they 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, but 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.

It is said that 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 that strange cult movie starring Sean Connery entitled “Zardoz” and in Mike Judge’s movie “Idiocracy“.

Sensing the danger to themselves from this demoralisation and estrangement of the populace, the power elite insulated 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, chose diversionary strategies such as panem et circenses. This involved, 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”

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”.

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”.

13 responses to “Panem et Circenses”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Everyone knows, I think, that a structure that has become top-heavy compared to its base, topples over, and this is the picture of wealth inequality.

    On the other hand, the propaganda system exists in many respects to persuade the opposite — that entrenched wealth is actually the base that supports the overhead — the mass of the disenfranchised or hoi polloi.

    A tale of two cities, as it were.

  2. Dwig says :

    This reminded me of a short book I came across recently: The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival by John Bagot Glubb. It’s perceptive overall, but what struck me is his description of the stages of the rise and fall of great empires. Here’s the stages:
    The Age of Pioneers (outburst)
    The Age of Conquests
    The Age of Commerce
    The Age of Affluence
    The Age of Intellect
    The Age of Decadence.

    One of the symptoms of decadence that he describes is quite similar to what you’ve written above: faced with crises, the people don’t rise to the defense of the nation, but divide into factions and/or focus on diversions.

    By the way, based on the empires he studied, he finds a duration of about 250 years between the initial rise and eventual fall. Let’s see: from 1789, that would put the fall of the US at 2039; hmm.

  3. Steve says :

    After Rosenstock Huessy died in 1973, W.H. Auden wrote this poem as a tribute to him.

    But Time, the Domain of Deeds,
    calls for a complex Grammar
    with many Moods and Tenses,
    and prime the Imperative.
    We are free to choose our paths,
    but choose We must, no matter
    where they lead, and the tales
    we tell of the Past must be true.
    Human Time is a City
    where each inhabitant has
    a political duty
    nobody else can perform,
    made cogent by her motto:

    • Steve says :

      Revolutions do nothing but readjust the equation between heart – power and social order. They come from the open and happen under the open sky. They bring about the Kingdom of God by force, and reach into the infinite in order to reform the finite – Eugene Rosenstock Huessy

  4. InfiniteWarrior says :

    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”.

    Perhaps why some are seeking to “fix” “the system” while others feel compelled to “blow it up” — that last, though, begging the question, “To be replaced by…what, exactly?”

    Those who aren’t interested in defending the status quo — in any way, shape or form — have no real place in said “system” with the possible exception of the “places” they’ve created for themselves, “each according to his gifts,” as it were.

    The present “system” is beyond salvaging or, as David Ehrenfeld put it in The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology:

    It rolls on inexorably, a giant impersonal machine, devouring and processing the world, unstoppable.

    “Giant vampire squid” that it is.

    Well, yes. There it that, but it also effectively has “stopped” itself — in very Blakean fashion — in its own proverbial tracks, and is now flying apart at the rivets while “the (true) ‘world'” has gone right on “growing” (in the spiritual sense), “maturing” and “ripening” in a plethora of other ways, regardless of political entropy and stagnation.

    “Double-movement” and all that.

    Our institutions will be the last to change. ~ Scott Preston

    Aside from being embroidery-worthy. I may actually have that etched on my tombstone. Or not, as I plan to be incinerated.

  5. Benjamin David Steele says :

    This is the kind of thing I like to read. It takes a concrete social issue and explores the deeper implications. How would you connect this to some of your other recent writings, such as about Blake and Gebser? Blake also lived during a revolutionary era and was friends with revolutionaries like Thomas Paine.

    That historical period also so growing inequality, not only of wealth but also in terms of concentration of land and power. I’m thinking of such things as the enclosure movement (not fully completed until the early 19th century) that made most of the population into landless peasants, many having been sent as indentured servants to the colonies. This created a radicalism in the colonies right from the start. The colonists were constantly protesting and revolting for many generations prior to the American Revolution.

    Anyway, I generally agree with your take expressed here. Inequality simultaneously disconnects people, divides the public and disinvests them from society. It also generally stresses people out to the extent that they increasingly act in bizarre ways, often aggressive and motivated by short-term thinking (i.e., reactionary) — see Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder.
    As a side note, some question the claim that early Christians were ever persecuted. Or at least no more persecuted than any other group. I might add that the notion of martyrdom didn’t originate from Christians. The earliest group to seek out Martyrdom was the Stoics. The two groups dressed similarly and were sometimes mistakenly confused. As for actual and proven persecution of Christians, that mostly came from other Christians, even in the Roman Empire.

    Not that changes the basic point you’re making here.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      The “early” anything (and anyone) are persecuted. Okay? That’s why we have the saying, “before his (or her) time.”

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        More at: “at the fore….”

      • Benjamin David Steele says :

        I get what you’re saying. But martyrdom was something specific. It wasn’t only about being persecuted, earlier or later. What made the Stoics unique is that they sought out persecution and even death.

        There is one story about a Stoic. He was talking back to Roman soldiers antagonizing them, probably with the kind of clever wisdom that Jesus liked to throw at people. So, they broke one of his legs. He told them that while they’re at it they might as well break the other too and so they obliged.

        The point is that the Stoics gloried in being indifferent to their bodies. And according to such stories, they seemed to have had some kind of strong faith. They were famous for their fearless challenging of power.

        They had this notion that, even if their bodies could be controlled are harmed by others, their souls were free. This was taking the Roman idea of liberty as not being a slave and turning it on its head. The Stoics turned liberty into an internal state. This went along with a belief in natural law, also inherited by Christians.

        I’m talking about a specific history of ideas and behavior that was different. Many groups were persecuted in the ancient world. But the Stoics stood out as different.

      • Benjamin David Steele says :

        The original point I was making, though, was questioning the claim of “early” altogether. It’s not clear that the early Christians were particularly persecuted, other than the general oppressiveness that all Romans dealt with. There were a few early martyrs, but no evidence of any mass deaths and systematic violence against early Christians. It was really just a side comment I was making. Not that important in itself.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Panem et Circenses – O Society - 20 July, 2019
  2. “Not with a bang but with a whimper.” | Marmalade - 25 July, 2019

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