The Vanity of the Billionaires: Circuses and no Bread

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Rome was a republic until between 40 and 27 BCE, when the generals overthrew it. Military dictator Gaius Octavius put the nail in the coffin when he made himself Augustus Caesar on the latter date. The later satirist Juvenal, to whom we owe the phrase ‘bread and circuses,’ is clear that it was the transition away from the republic that required the bribing of the plebeian class in this way. He says it used to be they were bribed for their votes, but with the coming of dictatorship they had to be provided bread to keep them from rioting and cruel public spectacles to divert their attention from the reigning tyranny.

The US government offers a little bread in the form of welfare, but not much and much less than it used to. Most working people haven’t recovered from 2008. Mostly nowadays we are being offered circuses by the billionaires who now rule us.

Whereas in the old days it was the gladiators who were torn limb from limb to satisfy the bloodlust of the masses, in today’s America other sorts of diversions are on offer.

The pressing issues facing what’s left of the republic (I guess we are in year 41 — you have to count backward in this analogy) are these:

1. Our tax code is allowing 3 million mega-rich to take home 20% of the country’s yearly income (since the 3 million include children, it is probably actually 1 million adults that get the one-fifth of everything Americans earn annually). Tax policy could be used to redistribute that wealth over time, but it has been so blunted that it is useless. So if we have a hundred people in a circle, and we distribute a thousand bananas in this unequal way, Person Number One, let us say, the Billionaire, will get 200 bananas out of the 1,000. That should leave 8 apiece for the other 99, but Person Number Two, the multimillionaire, gets another 100. Some of the other 98 will only get 1 banana. A lot of the rest of the people will only get that black part at the bottom of the skin. And if you do it that way every year the Billionaire, will end up with piles of bananas and the people with the black pieces at the bottom never will get even one banana.

Tax policy produces the class structure over time. In the 1950s, the top 1% owned about 25% of the privately held wealth in the US. Now it is close to 40%. What changed is mostly the tax structure. Inequality is measured by the gini coefficient. High economic inequality is bad for the economy. Rich people only need so many refrigerators, and if the masses can’t afford a refrigerator, the then refrigerator factories close and the workers lose their jobs and it all spirals down. Having just a few people with big piles of money doesn’t make the economy work well, it shuts it down.

2. Worse, a high degree of inequality ruins democracy. We ordinary mortals who count our annual income in thousands of dollars can’t compete with people with billions of dollars to buy campaign ads and campaign workers etc. Some crazy rich people have even proposed that they should have more than one vote, because they are “stakeholders” in America in a way the rest of us are not. With Citizens United and other laws and rulings, we can’t even trace who is the puppet master behind the campaign funding.

3. Climate change via spewing carbon dioxide into the the atmosphere.

4. a crisis of educational spending.

5. A crisis of basic infrastructure.

But none of these subjects is being broached anymore, now that the crowd-sourced Bernie Sanders has been sidelined. Hillary Clinton, worth a paltry few tens of millions, depends on a handful of billionaires for her campaign funding, and her policies are shaped by them (she waxed indignant at the very thought in the primaries, but who was she fooling?)

Trump has fewer billionaires (he doesn’t have none yet), but needs fewer because he probably is at least almost one himself.

But if the billionaire oligarchs won’t any longer give out bread, they will gleefully supply circuses. And since the news is itself corporate, they win both ways– they keep the mind of the public off important crises that might cause them to end up with a smaller share of the national pie, and they make money off of higher viewership of their diverting media.

So Juvenal tells the story of Sejanus, the head of the emperor’s imperial guard, who becomes so popular with the mob that they are ready to make him caesar. But abruptly the emperor Tiberius becomes suspicious of the power he had amassed and has him executed in 31 CE, and then the crowd suddenly can’t remember his name.

We have lots of victims to throw to the lions in the media. The poor women who were assaulted are now one by one being brought into the arena, where gladiator Trump is trying to eviscerate them. The old alarms about the threat of the Persian hordes in the East still works, though the Parthians are long forgotten.

Anything to avoid talking about the issues above. The mobs around Trump are mostly riled by the very inequality and injustice and lack of government services that he is campaigning to worsen, but have been fooled into thinking he is a populist by his swagger. And of course the Clinton campaign is inadvertently the beneficiary of these circuses as well, since otherwise its relationship to Wall Street and other centers of power and wealth would be headlines.

Juvenal remarked,

“And would you like to be courted like Sejanus? To be as rich as he was? To bestow on one man the ivory chairs of office, appoint another to the command of armies, and be counted guardian of a Prince seated on the narrow ledge of Capri with his herd of Chaldaean astrologers? You would like, no doubt, to have Centurions, Cohorts, and Illustrious 14 Knights at your call, and to possess a camp of your own? Why should you not? Even those who don’t want to kill anybody would like to have the power to do it. But what grandeur, what high fortune, are worth the having if the joy is overbalanced by the calamities they bring with them? Would you rather choose to wear the bordered robe of the man now being dragged along the streets, or to be a magnate at Fidenae or Gabii, adjudicating upon weights, or smashing vessels of short measure, as a thread-bare Aedile at deserted Ulubrae? You admit, then, that Sejanus did not know what things were to be desired; for in coveting excessive honours, and seeking excessive wealth, he was but building up the many stories of a lofty tower whence the fall would be the greater, and the crash of headlong ruin more terrific.”

The operator of a circus, in an oligarchy can abruptly himself become the circus. The next Tiberius can always become Sejanus (wait for it).

But that won’t put food on the table of the plebeians, it will just be one more diversion from the decadence and penury into which we are descending.


Related video:

The Ring of Fire: “What’s Missing From 2016 Election? Discussion About Real Issues”

22 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    Some days your work is just pure pleasure to read.

    Today is one of them.

    A discussion of the descent of the Roman Republic to become an Empire that eventually elected its Emperors by acclamation of the Praetorian Guard

    The Empire eventually fell when the Rhine froze over and the Germans on their ponies came West

    In the same manner as the rise of the Praetorian Guard the Ayyubid Empire passed to its Mamluk slaves and the Janissaries, some of the best troops in Europe eventually got into Turkish politics contributing to the decline of that empire.

    The same seems to be happening in the US with appointment of the President now by acclamation of the Praetorian Press.

    The US is fucked, maybe not right away but eventually.

  2. “No Issues, No Politics”

    Political enunciation remains an enigma as long as it is considered from the standpoint of information transfer. It remains as unintelligible as religious talk. The paper explores the specificty of this regime and especially the strange link it has with the canonical definition of enunciation in linguistics and semiotics. The
    ‘political circle’ is reconstituted and thus also the reasons why a ‘transparent’ or ‘rational’political speech act destroys the very conditions of group formation

    This is a 2003 article by the French polymath Bruno Latour. The phrase, No Issues, No Politics, comes from work by Noortje Marres.

    What if we Talked Politics a Little?

    Could it be possible to forget political speech?

    The idea can be formulated simply: by attempting to explain politics in terms of something else, we might have lost its specificity and have consequently forgotten to maintain its own dynamics, letting it fall into disuse. To retrieve the invaluable effectiveness of political talk, we need to start with the idea that, as Margaret Thatcher so forcefully put it, ‘society doesn’t exist’. If it does not exist, we have to make it exist, but in order to do so we need the means to do so. Politics is one of those means.

    The recent resurrection of Gabriel Tarde allows a sharper contrast between two diametrically opposed types of sociology: that which assumes that the problem of the constitution of society has been solved, and that which studies the fragile and temporary construction of social aggregates. The former, a Contemporary Political Theory, 2003, 2, (143–164) r 2003 Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 1470-8914/03 $15.00 link to descendant of Emile Durkheim, uses social explanations to explain why some political forms of coordination are so sturdy. I call this type ‘sociology of the social’. The latter type I call ‘sociology of association’ or ‘of translation’. When political sociology sets out to explain politics through society, it renders politics superficial and replaceable. By contrast, when the other political sociology strives to explain the very existence of social aggregates through political discourse, that discourse immediately becomes irreplaceable. In the former instance, if we were to lose politics we would not lose much; in the latter, we would lose all means of social articulation F at least for all the associations in which the ‘us’ and ‘they’ is in question.

    Bruno is not an easy read. Here is a recent book on Bruno’s political philosophy by Graham Harman

    “Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political”

  3. It was indeed the conflict between rich and poor that fractured the Roman republic. For some 600 years the republic had managed these tensions by adapting its structures, mostly internally, like the introduction of tribunes of the people with authority to override the Senate. Machiavelli proposes that constitutional flexibility was the reason the republic lasted so long, flexibility exercised from the strength of the united plebs. While Rome had only a citizen army the Senate could be, and often was, forced to negotiate. Once that was changed to a standing army, however, their leverage disappeared. Ironically it was Gaius Marius, the people’s leader, voted by them seven times Consul, whose ‘reforms’ to the army brought Rome to the slippery slope that led to the end of the republic. It was the legions that raised Caesar and, after Nero, came to appoint his successors. That could not have happened with a citizen army because the citizen army was the people. Parallels can never be exact but the end of conscription can perhaps be seen as such a loss of leverage; remember the social climate and debate at the time of the Vietnam war?

  4. Actually Juan the plebes were already rioting during the “republic”, and Rome had to take extra-constitutional measures at times to end it. In fact, there is much debate among scholars in my specific field of Roman history as to why the Roman republic fell – there are plenty of theories. One suggestion is that the republic had been in a state of chaos for some time (the situation was already bad enough that violent civil strife broke out in 133 BC). Rome stumbled through a series of crises but normal government, with some exceptions, continued. But during this time (and really even before 133 BC) the Romans saw a gradual collapse of public virtue. Commitment to the commonwealth grew ever more tenuous among the people at large, many of whom had been impoverished by the rise of “big agriculture” in Italy itself (and the importation of slave labor, which further degraded small farm life in Italy, but I digress).

    The really bad bad move was opening up the army to men of no property standing. Generals could bribe them with monetary rewards and land in exchange for political support. Instead of loyalty to the state cults of personality arose and political support shifted to those generals who had the cash to dispense to their veterans in exchange for their support at the ballot box (open bribery during elections did not hurt either, nor did the occasional roughing up of political opponents [Caesar hired gangs of thugs to drive his political opponents away from electoral assemblies]). The corrupt system stumbled on for decades until Julius Caesar crashed the whole thing down.

    Caesar has been much on my mind these days, thanks in part to the absurd candidacy of the Tiny Fingered Orange Menace, and has me rethinking this whole subject. Rome may well have stumbled on as a republic. Rules had been violated before Caesar, and extra-constitutional measures (such as the extraordinary commands of Pompey and his predecessor Marius) had been taken before. But Caesar broke the rules – spoken and unspoken, on a breath-taking scale and at a breath-taking pace (his conquest of Gaul was remarkably aggressive EVEN BY ROMAN STANDARDS [no pun intended!]), including a Blitzkrieg against Rome itself, making himself perpetual dictator, breaking into the state treasury, disrespect for the dignity of Rome’s political traditions, obtaining divine honors, and packing the legislative branch of Rome’s government with hand picked men. No one could keep up (sound familiar?), and the republic was exposed as a fragile shell (also frighteningly familiar).

    But the Romans had a damned good excuse for the rise of a dictatorship, to wit: both the people and political class were exhausted by a century of civil strife (absorb that – A CENTURY!), and utterly demoralized. Rome was a subsistence economy, most people lived on the edge, and civil strife was disruptive of an already personally precarious situation for many. Tacitus says Augustus absorbed the powers of the people, the laws, and the senate, into the person of the emperor, all the while maintaining the façade of a free state, and many were welcoming of it. This is what the founders feared in 1787 – moral collapse, venality, a people growing (to quote Adams) “less steady, spirited, and virtuous”, until you end up with a “basket of deplorables”. And yes, wealth inequality contributed mightily to all of this – both for Rome and for us; my comments are already probably over long, but Athens is perhaps the best example of this. The basis for their democracy was equality under the law, but it was also based on making economic circumstances for the Athenian polis at large better or at least possible for a larger share of its citizens, and they consciously understood this (see, e.g., Plutarch’s Life of Solon and Perikles’ funeral oration via Thucydides).

    And some addenda on Sejanus: He actually was never that popular, but he was feared. He successfully convinced Tiberius (never popular because of his reclusive, scholarly temperament) to retire permanently to Capri in 26 CE, and thereby controlled access to him. Tiberius didn’t really like to rule (he tried to give the senate greater autonomy, but Augustus, a micro-manager if there ever was one, had instilled it with a sense of obsequiousness towards the emperor), and so handed things over to Sejanus, his praetorian praefect. Sejanus, really Richard III in a toga, proceeded to plot against Tiberius, seducing Tiberius’ niece Livillla, murdering his son, Drusus, and persecuting any member of the imperial family who had a claim to the throne (Caligula somehow squeaked through that one!). How his plot to overthrow Tiberius was discovered is a mystery – it may have been a woman of the imperial court, Tiberius’ sister-in-law Antonia, who divulged it, but this, too, is one of the great mysteries of Roman history. Undisputedly though, few were sad to see this Vladimir Putin a la 30 AD go.

  5. Nor is there any discussion about Russia,whether to bomb it or not, atomic bombs included.

  6. One of my all-time favorite TV shows is the 12-part series adaptation of the Robert Graves novel I Claudius. The title character is played by the great Derek Jacobi. I watched it when it first aired way back in the day and never forgot it. Sejanus is a major character in a couple of episodes as they chart his rise and grisly fall. It was during the Bush 43 regime that a lot of people were saying we were starting to look like Weimar Germany and I would say no it is more like the early Roman Empire as depicted in I Claudius. Finally a couple years ago I bought a copy. It’s well worth watching and vastly entertaining in its own perverse, sardonic way.

  7. Modern “circuses” are more destructive than those of ancient Rome in that they are laced with lies that endure for a long time – in some cases, a lifetime. The memory of a fight to the death in a Roman coliseum might have lasted a few days, but the propaganda fed to children about our nation being indivisible with liberty and justice for all sticks with them well into adulthood. Or, how about our noble founding fathers and their virtues and wisdom untarnished by the degradation of their slaves?

  8. Climate change, children’s issues, inequality, infrastructure, are all topics I’ve heard in Clinton speeches just to name a few you touched on…not sure if you have even listened to her.

    • Probably of those who heard this woman speak on these topics few listened to her for the same reason they tune out Barack Obama – a belief their words are just that – words to fit some opportune moment but with a short shelf life.

  9. One good description of how things came to be this way is found in the book Who Stole the American Dream by Hedrick Smith. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz lays out the dangers in his book The Price of Inequality.

  10. Mike Judge produced an interesting movie named Idiocracy, a movie that predicts a time in the future when US is ruled by a former wrestling champion (Trump promoted Wrestlemania.) Watching the Trump rallies I think of this movie often.

    As for the fall of Rome, I think Trump, being the star who can abuse any woman he wants, is more the like the emperor Caligula.

  11. Arnold Toynbee noted in A Study of History several modes of Roman decline that parallel that of the US. After the early federal era, the declining “creative minority” idolized democratic institutions and promoted compromise, but with the decline of external threats lost the will for cooperation between regions, resulting in the Civil War. The political class that replaced the founders failed by “idolization of the …institution,” by the “intoxication of victory” (WWII and the collapse of the USSR), and by bouts of ignorant and selfish militarism (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, et al). It also failed to prevent the dominance of democratic institutions and mass media by economic power, so that these came to be controlled by business bullies who equate virtue with wealth, however ill gotten, and actively promote the moral decay that finally causes collapse.

    Like Rome, a dominant minority of the wealthy and their adherents faces a growing proletariat and “external proletariats” among the Islamic states, China, South America, and Africa which in future stages will exceed its military and economic power.

  12. And all this wonderful writing without mention of Cicero. The silver-tongued devil who was the bane of Latin III students 50 years ago, he erased the line separating the interests of the optimates, especially landlords and grain merchants, and the interests of the Republic. One could argue that Cicero’s rhetoric emboldened his faction, making Caesar not only possible but perhaps inevitable.

    I fear the evolution of the Democratic Party from its pre-Democratic Leadership Council more proletarian orientation has paved the way for the rise of the Trump-demagogue. His large numbers of alienated heavily armed followers, unified by their sense of betrayal by the elites and devotion to their misunderstanding of the Second Amendment, are nothing short of frightening. All they lack is a real leader (not an empty-suit self promoter) capable of organizing them.

  13. The American voters are tired of wars and war-like interventions (principally in the Middle East) and inconveniently were desirous, in their majority, of a candidate who shared their antipathy for such costly (for us), calamitous (for them), and repercussive (for both) actions. In other words, they were most loath to elect an establishment-type Republican (the example of Bush II still being so repellent) and almost equally loath to elect a similarly establishmentarian Democrat (Obama’s elitist economic-priorities and continued interventionism abroad being an educative disappointment); some looked, perhaps more wisely, for a solution in socialist senator Bernie Sanders, others, certainly more foolishly, in the mediatically-magnetic magnate Donald Trump. In any case, it appears the media, along with the DNC, had pre-decided that Sanders, by the solipsistic reality of not being Hillary Clinton, would not be the Democratic presidential candidate. This very same media was sought, and assumed to offer no resistance, by the Democratic party to make and elevate a Republican “Pied Piper” candidate, who would lead the Republican presidential race off a cliff into populist extremity (besmirching by association the stance against imperial interventionism along the way) and definite presidential unelectability. The result is that the candidate considered best able by the security and defense (i.e. imperial-defense) establishment to continue and extend America’s defense of its global imperial centrality will be elected president having already been pre-selected by the aforesaid elite and its media servitors. Leaving the anticipatory question: Was there any democracy at all? Or had the ‘pre-deciding’ risen to the level of material and technical pre-ordaining of electoral results?

  14. Of course everything becomes so corrupted that reality is ignored until it forces itself on the situation. Cue the Visigoths.
    One question: Are the Hillary voters having buyers remorse yet. She’s not even in office and already a storm of scandal. Unbelievably Trump is still a contender and no wonder, look who he’s running against.
    A whole bunch of people should be embarrassed.

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