Rome Traded Freedom for Autocracy. What Will America Decide?
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Rome Traded Freedom for Autocracy. What Will America Decide?


“Two things only the people anxiously desire — bread and circuses.”

Rome was not built in a day. And while the might of the empire pinnacled, the gulf between the rich and the poor widened. When the empire started stretching its geographical boundaries, the rulers found it cheaper to build the cities, and its infrastructure using the slaves it had acquired by conquest. As cheap labor put Roman citizens out of work, unemployment increased. And with unemployment came hunger and other problems associated with it. Crime in society increased and so did poverty and ill health.

The Caesars took cognizance of the problem, and to tackle it created part-time jobs, subsidized housing, and distributed free grain. But they also knew that the citizens needed not just free packages, they also needed to be kept busy. They knew very well that “a people that yawns is ripe for revolt.” So, they added holidays, organized gladiator games, public executions, and chariot races. Disgusted, the satirist Juvenal accused his fellow citizens of selling out for bribes of “bread and circuses.”

Two centuries later Rome was gone.

Rome’s is a classic case which shows that a society where employment is scarce, available jobs are taken up by cheap migrant labor, and where entertainment becomes a means to deviate people from their problems, decline is evident.

Americans’ addiction to entertainment is similar to Rome’s addiction to circuses. We spend much of our time watching nonsense on TV or playing mindless games on consoles. To add to all of it, there is the internet, which to put mildly, is no less than an addiction amongst the youth. In fact, according to a Nielsen report, American adults on an average spend more than 5 hours daily watching TV, which adds up to 77 hours in a year or more than 2 months in a year. TV watching keeps people at home, instead of marching in the streets.

When entertainment dominates society, it changes not just its culture but also reshapes the economy, usually for the worse, as is evident from Rome’s fate. In the decade leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, the only major industry other than health care that consistently showed strong real growth was that of consumer electronics like TV, computers and gaming consoles.

So, the question that begs an answer is who really benefits from the sales of these consumer electronics. It is certainly not the US as most of these products, as we all very well know, are not manufactured in the US. If they were manufactured in the US, it would have helped with the job problem, but that certainly is not the case. Cheap labor from Asian economies is eating into these jobs. So, while those Asian economies are booming, we and our children are eternally on a job lookout.

No empire is eternal is what history has taught us, whether it be the glorious Roman empire with its mesmerizing amphitheaters or the mighty British empire, an empire so huge that it was said that the Sun never sets over it. An empire lives only as long as its citizens want it. Power has always lied with the people, and not with Caesars, Tsars, Maharajas, Emperors, Queens or Presidents. The day citizens decide in favor of a regime change, that change will eventually happen. It is for the citizens to choose between the stability of autocratic rule or the chaos of a broken republic. When democracy leads to chaos, the stability of an autocratic rule might entice many. So, are there similarities between the current state of affairs in the US and those during the waning years of the Roman empire? Are Americans today being diverted from the real issues using the political policy of “Bread and Circuses”? Let’s analyze.

“While the might of the empire pinnacled, the gulf between the rich and the poor widened.”

 Does America not face a similar situation now? Yes, according to a CNBC report US income inequality continues to grow. A paper published in the Economic Policy Institute showed that the top 1 percent of families in the United States made more than 25 times what families in the bottom 99 percent did. The CNBC report points that “between the years 2009 to 2015, the incomes of those in the top 1 percent grew faster than the incomes of the bottom 99 percent in 43 states and the District of Columbia. In nine states, the income growth of the top 1 percent was half or more of all income growth in that time period.” However, this was not always the case. From 1928 until 1973, the share of income held by the top 1 percent declined in nearly every state.

“Rising inequality affects virtually every part of the country, not just large urban areas or financial centers,” said Estelle Sommeiller, a socio-economist at the Institute for Research in Economics and Social Sciences in France. “It’s a persistent problem throughout the country — in big cities and small towns, in all 50 states.”

“Slaves acquired by conquest built the infrastructure and took away most of the jobs from the Roman citizens.”

Are migrant workers not involved in the construction industry, and are they not taking away the farming jobs too? The US is no longer the manufacturing behemoth it once was, most of the manufacturing has already shifted to Asia. The lucrative IT industry jobs are also being taken away from migrants from other countries. The job opportunities for Americans are slowly fading away.

“As cheap labor put Roman citizens out of work, unemployment increased. And with unemployment came homelessness, hunger and other problems associated with it.”

The problem of homelessness was highlighted by BBC in an article it published in Nv 2018. The article titled ‘Homeless in US: A deepening crisis on the streets of America’ stated that homeless people seem to be almost everywhere, in places old and new, no age spared. Sleeping on cardboard or bare ground, the homeless come together under bridges and trees, their belongings in plastic bags symbolizing lives on the move.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 550,000 people are homeless on a single night across the US.

"A high homeless situation is not a good [sign], especially when you're the richest country," Joseph Gordon, a homeless living on the streets of Portland said. "There's very little hope. It's a dire situation."

Hunger is another problem that affects millions of Americans. Research from the USDA found that 14.9% of American households were food insecure during at least some of 2011, with 5.7% suffering from very low food security. A study found that in 2011 16.7 million children lived in food-insecure households, about 35% more than 2007 levels.

“The Caesars added holidays, organized gladiator games, public executions, and chariot races.”

Does the US government not spend funds on stadiums? Does the government not run lotteries festering the hopes of the masses for a quick path from rags to riches? According to Brookings, an American research group, “All together, the federal government has subsidized newly constructed or majorly renovated professional sports stadiums to the tune of $3.2 billion federal taxpayer dollars since 2000.” 

State lotteries have become a significant source of revenue for states, raising $17.6 billion in profits for state budgets in the 2009 fiscal year (FY) with 11 states collecting more revenue from their state lottery than from their state corporate income tax during FY2009.

The problems that plague the US are many. But problems get solved only when they are discussed and shared with all parties interested. However, the American government, and its propaganda arm—the mainstream media is trying to hide its deficiencies and trying to deviate people from the real issues. However, what they don’t realize is that they cannot erect a wall and keep people from seeing what is going around. People, when they come out from their homes will see the homeless; when they go to buy groceries, they will feel the pinch of higher prices; they will see their near and dear ones losing jobs to migrant workers; then they will ask questions. What they then decide remains to be seen: the stability of autocratic rule or the chaos of a broken republic. After all, we have all been sold for “bread and circuses.”

Author: Pradeep Banerjee