Rome, the greatest ancient world power, owed its rise to a frugal, self-sacrificing peasantry that sent its sons into military service – except the eldest one, who remained on the farm. Indeed, at the beginning of its surprising ascendency, Rome could boast of a great abundance of children – the demographic sine-qua-non for its expansion. But the imperial successes, especially the victory over Carthage, which opened up northern Africa to the Romans as an almost limitless granary, undermined the strength of the Italic peasantry. The imported grain was so cheap that it was soon no longer able to hold its own against this competition. In contrast, the two hundred or so superrich Roman families owed their staggering wealth precisely to the fact that they had outsourced the supply base at the expense of their compatriots. At the same time, they had built a military-industrial complex to permanently fortify their rule not only in the conquered territories but also against the increasingly disenfranchised masses, whom they had deprived of their economic subsistence. The outward sign of this historic betrayal by the ruling elite became manifest in a most conspicuous way. “Proles” – the most cherished wealth of peasants and the nation, who had provided the demographic basis for Rome’s rise to a world power had degenerated into despossessed “proles” – in other words, into superfluous human material.
In the face of such a painful social division
Rome had to suffer much more than just a popular a movement like Occupy Wallstreet. A civil war pitted the elite against the disenfranchised masses. The problem was the immense concentration of wealth and power in a few hands together with the powerlessness and impoverishment of the broad population. During the civil wars ravaging Rome before the final abdication of the Republic, wealth was temporarily suppressed in an extremely drastic manner. In the course of so-called “proscriptions” not only the material wealth was confiscated, but the heads of its owners were cut off as well. However, even this drastic action was not able to save the Republic from capitalist economics and the destruction of civil liberties. In hindsight the reasons seems evident: The outsourcing of production and the slave economy were objectively cheaper, and the military-industrial complex proved to be the most effective means of holding the giant empire together.
We know how the Civil War ended,
it led from the Republic to the Roman Empire. The masses helped a dictatorship to power, which acquired divine attributes in order to be able to destroy civil liberties in the name of God. But a price had to be paid for their loss, and for the further duration of the capitalist system. It consisted in an (almost) unconditional basic income and tittytainment for the masses carried out at state expense. Citizens had no longer a say in public matters, but they were now fed by the state and bloodily entertained and intimidated in the infamous Roman way. In the second century, this arrangement worked so well that Edward Gibbon could even call this period one of the happier times in human history. It was, however, a happiness that proved fragile from the very start. In their relentless pursuit of individual wealth and personal power, the elite first abandoned solidarity with their countrymen, then most remaining values and morals. In particular, the mores of the highest greatest families appeared so scandalous that religious communities such as those of the Christians saw in them the prime cause of all corruption. This departure from all previously held values affected procreation. Especially in the richest families, the absence of children became the rule, as inheritance seemed better secured in the hands of slaves, to be replaced at any moment, than in the hands of one’s own, usually rather rebellious offspring. But that was by no means all. When values get sacrificed to mammon, even truth loses its value. Towards the end of the Republic, fake news emerged – a great statesman and thinker like Cicero, who still stubbornly defended truth, was murdered by the henchmen of Antonius.
The parallel with the events in the United States of America
seems evident. Since the present-day electorate can only decide between candidates sponsored by capital for the extraordinarily costly election campaigns, it is in fact the one-percent money and power elite that operates the preliminary choice of presidential candidates. In this way, democracy, has largely turned into a facade even in the United States. I use the word “largely” on purpose, because democracy has, of course, always been a rather fluid concept. Apart from very small communities or religious sects, it has never been realized in a pure form anywhere on out globe, but this should not prevent us from recognizing great differences between the states that call themselves “democratic. There is no doubt that today’s United States of America still allow its citizens a far greater say in public matters and much more freedom of expression than either the People’s Republic of China or Putin`s Russia.
Nevertheless, I see the present-day U.S.
as having reached a point that is oppressively analogous to Rome’s departure from the Republic. Donald Trump has made as little secret of his contempt for democracy and for truth as he has of his admiration for dictators of the kind of Kim Jong Un or for autocrats like Vladimir Putin. This unfortunate president certainly had the will to stage a coup d’état – he merely lacked the intellectual means and the stamina to do so. If after inciting his followers to break the law, he had brought the necessary organizational talent and perseverance into play (which he lacked both), January 6 could have well turned out a success for him. Anyway, once forty percent of a nation’s population no longer believes in the prevailing system, then its collapse is possible at any time.
For we should have no illusions:
The masses of the United States are revolting against current conditions for the same reason as the masses of Rome at the end of the Republic. Their labor and livelihood was outsourced because it can be produced more cheaply abroad – in this way more and more Americans saw their living standard reduced to Third World level. For the prosperity of their own population – that is their education, health and jobs – the “elite” of the one top one percent is no longer willing to undergo any sacrifices nor do they make any investments in the rotting infrastructure. The rich no longer invest money in their own country when they can get higher returns in China. The American elite betrays its own country just as did its Roman counterpart 2000 years ago. It is the glaring contrast between public poverty and concentrated private wealth that destabilizes modern America and brought Donald Trump to power (notwithstanding the fact that he himself figures as an embodiment of that evil).
Would it be theoretically conceivable that Joe Biden
or his subsequent successors turn the tide by taking decisive action against rising social inequality and mass discontent? The prescriptions for doing so abound on the left as well as on the right and, of course, in academia. The fact that a man like Trump was able to become president at all is, after all, primarily due to the rising discontent of the masses. Both camps even agree on some of the measures that should be taken. First of all, outsourced production (to China and other countries) would have to be brought back home; second, the rich would have to invest in the U.S. instead of China; third, the many wars the U.S. is waging abroad would have to be ended and money-guzzling military bases reduced. Not only Donald Trump voiced this intention, but that is what Bernie Sanders wants and all those who would prefer to lock the country up to the outside world and put an end to America’s costly global involvement. No wonder the impoverished masses and the stumbling middle class were perfectly happy with Trump’s slogan “America First.” Those who see their previous standard of living dwindling look for a savior, regardless of whether or not he achieves that goal democratically.
We know that in ancient Rome
none of these projects was realized, although the alternatives were as clear to the intellectuals of that time as they are to their successors today. The empire eventually perished from irreconcilable social antagonisms. Demographically bled dry, it was overrun and conquered in the fifth century by the child-rich hordes of the so-called barbarians.
Can a similar development be expected for the United States,
when their world empire begins to dissolve? This is a question that preoccupies the world. I think, however, that no example, not even the Roman one, can force the answer on us. History rhymes, but it need not repeat itself.
On the other hand, the course of history does not depend solely on the good intentions of the people shaping it. There are external conditions that restrict the human freedom of action. It is these barriers that make it highly likely that Joe Biden will not really stop the dismantling of American democracy. Even if a Bernie Sanders came to power, I don’t think he would be capable of doing so.
These external limits to good intentions
are due to the existence of competing nations – especially their military presence – combined with an accelerating depletion of those raw materials that no state can do without if it wants to guarantee its population the accustomed material standard of living. The development of modern technology in the military as well as in the civilian sphere cannot do without raw materials from other regions of the world – that is true even for Vladimir Putin’s giant empire, which is so richly blessed with raw materials. Competition for the exploitation of the remaining resources therefore enjoys the same high priority among the superpowers as it does among all economically emerging nations. The race for dwindling raw materials is decided by economic means (those paying more will get more) and by military power – often by both ways at the same time. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the struggle for resources has become increasingly intense, as entire continents (Africa and large parts of Asia), which previously enjoyed a largely self-sufficient, albeit poor, lifestyle, now demand for themselves the same civilizational prosperity as the states of the West. In this global race, isolation is no longer an option, since it is only possible at the price of freezing one’s own development while being technologically overtaken. This is precisely why the U.S. is so much afraid of China.
But if seclusion is out of the question for the U.S.,
and if, furthermore, the military-industrial complex is indispensable to maintain its status as superpower; if, moreover, large-scale capitalist enterprises continue to prove as economically efficient as they were in ancient Rome, and the technical devices of daily use can be produced much more cheaply in other regions (such as China), so that a large-scale revival of the U.S.’s own industries is out of the question, then the likelihood is that the United States will follow Rome in sacrificing more and more freedom and democracy to economic efficiency. The material prerequisites and ideological justifications for this procedure are already in place. Instead of providing the masses now rendered superfluous within the economy with work and self-esteem, they will be satisfied – as they were two thousand years ago – with a (more or less) unconditional basic survival income and a hefty dose of tittytainment. Autocrats of the kind of Donald Trump will then establish a kind of modern emperorship, as it already exists under Xi Jinping in China and under Putin in Russia.
So, TINA remains our last word –
there is no alternative? Yes and no. As long as the world is consumed in the race for riches and power, where the great powers impose the laws of action on each other and on the rest of the world, things cannot be expected to change. A farewell to capitalism, the prevention of climate change and a better society are out of the question, because anyone trying to realize these goals will pay for his courage with dependence and, finally with vassalage or even destruction. Europe only needs to look back into its long history of colonization. None of the many militarily inferior states could hope that its Christian foes would reward them for having presenting their left cheek after being beaten on the right. They were simply subdued and exploited. Therefore, the race itself must end before we can hope for a better world.