Thursday, January 12, 2017
Political Reality and Useful Lies
With the passing of every new election season, there are likewise renewed pledges from members of the electorate to flee to Canada’s (Ahem) warm embrace. Why conservatives would make the move to a nation proud of its socialized health care is not explained. Yet, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the wake of the opponent’s victory, rarely have any been seen to follow through.
For the ancient Romans however, an oath was not something to take lightly, and when the moment for action arrived they did not backpedal, at least, if the historian Livy is to be believed. Known as the Conflict of the Orders, throughout the early days of the republic, periodically the plebeian poor would down tools and walk out, leaving the patrician rich to make do for themselves, threatening to found their own town on an adjoining hill. The calls of patriotism and duty could not bring them back, even while in the midst of a war, while the people felt cheated by their government.
To take such action was simple at this early date, in large part because the city was young and its population still small. But more importantly, the institution of slavery was still at a nascent stage, not having grown to the industrial proportions that it would under the empire and thus, left plenty of room for the services of a large working class, to use a modern term. As we will see, the institution of slavery will also explain much for the present as well.
The United States has long viewed itself in terms borrowed from classical antiquity. The founders took inspiration, as is well known, from the republic of Rome, and kept the lessons of the past in mind when drafting the laws which would outline our government. The resemblance is striking in many ways. Rome, founded by a king, broke free of its sovereign to form a republic. After several centuries, and increasing success as a military power, that republic became an empire which the struggle to control would lead to a return of absolutist one-man rule. The United States has echoed this course of evolution at a far more rapid pace in every particular — but the last. It seems clear then that, between the founding of Rome and the founding of The United States, there had been a few developments to complicate political discourse.
Above all the most important development was the concept of race. A modern invention unknown in the ancient world, it was conceived by the burgeoning sciences to legitimize the use of slave labor. While today the institution of slavery has been abolished, the concept of race and the economic realities of class, remain. Once again the same tripartite hierarchy has served as a powerful tool of the oligarchs to diffuse the blame and redirect the people’s ire.
In the period before the Civil War, Frederick Douglass remarked:
“The slaveholders…by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black himself…Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers.” Elsewhere he adds to this by stating: “They divided both to conquer each.”
Today it is a tool even more useful now than it was under the protests of the moral opposition because African-Americans have the appearance of liberty and thus give the appearance of ingratitude when they attempt to protest the conditions of their everyday treatment, while their oppressor’s lack the stigma of enforced servitude to shame them.
It may help here to compare and contrast the situation of the late Roman Republic. It is important to remember that the series of civil wars that brought about the rise of Augustus and one-man rule had little to do with the complaints of the people. The average citizen had no qualms with an empire as such, nor with its endless wars, so long as they were successful. The complaint of the average citizen was in regard to political corruption. Since the founding of the republic the ruling class looked disdainfully upon the plebs, and this did not change when the little city-state of Romulus began to collect other nations like some people collect refrigerator magnets.
As the Conflict of the Orders revealed, the people suffered no difficulty in taking action to air their grievances. Enter Caesar. Despised by his own class as an overly ambitious and dangerous demagogue, Caesar was a member of the Populari faction of the Senate, that is, the faction which favored plebeian causes. And he was loved by the people, not only for this but for the vast sums he lavished upon the populace in games and other entertainments. Here, at last, was a man not afraid to share the wealth.
But again, this only helps to bring the present into clearer focus by contrasting it with the past. The succession of civil wars over the hundred years or so before Caesar and those after his assassination were not wars between rich and poor, but conflicts between members of the wealthy elite competing for control. With the concentration of so much wealth and power in one nation, the rise of an oligarch was an inevitability and one that the people were little concerned about so long as they benefited too. A lesson subsequent emperors learned well in the form of free bread and circuses paid for out of the imperial purse ever afterward.
Trump is certainly no Caesar (though he has promised to share the wealth or, oil, that many expected of the Iraq invasion) but America is an empire, and one following the same established path that other empires have taken before. The principal difference I have sought to highlight is that, ironically enough, if the republic has not yet transitioned into an autocracy of old it is perhaps largely due to the modern issues of class and race. With a convenient third party to blame in American life, politicians have skillfully been able to obscure political reality. The Roman plebeians, our ancient counterparts, had no such divisive hierarchy to cloud the issue. Everyone knew how the game was played, there were no illusions as to absolute rights or just where power lay and who wielded it.
The reality is that there is no such thing anymore in American politics as Left or Right, at least not at the level where it matters. Instead, there are only factions seeking power. However, while our forebears may have lacked illusions, America is the land of wishful thinking. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to accept that their nation is an empire. “Peacekeeper” or “World Policeman” are preferable to a term that strikes at the heart of what both parties wish to believe, or at least project. As with race and class, they are now only facts if we wish them so, but facts they remain nonetheless.
In his early history of Rome, Livy recounts another story. In the old days of the mythic republic, the barbarian Gauls made an attempt to enter surreptitiously the Roman Capital by night and take its occupants by surprise. Unnoticed by men or dogs, they roused the honking of the geese sacred to the goddess Juno and kept in her sacred enclosure there. The guards, hearing this call to action, looked to the walls and repulsed the creeping interlopers before they could win the day. Today a new barbarism has laid siege to the citadel of liberty, one that sees conviction as more true than fact, and facts less important than feelings. However, to rewrite an old adage, if it looks like a goose and it sounds like a goose then, ladies and gentlemen, it is a goose, and today the sound of Juno’s gaggle is deafening. Are we listening?