Saturday, January 19, 2013

Future Shock and the decline of Rome.

Caesar's heir, Augustus, 'Octavian.'
“Future shock is a condition of distress and disorientation brought on by the inability to cope with rapid societal and technological change.”

In the general sense it applies more to groups of people.

Individuals may exhibit symptoms of future shock in varying degrees. The older person, who never owned a computer in their life and has no idea of what a social network is, may be simply overwhelmed by a request for something as simple as an e-mail address. They may not want to bother with online banking, preferring instead to dress, get in the car, drive uptown and stand in a line rather than cope with the relatively simple task of going online and paying a bill.

My father saw no need to own a computer and had no idea of what people do on the internet. And yet everyone who reads this article is reading it online.

He could no longer comprehend the world around him.

Everyone knows that the Roman Empire declined and fell. As for why that happened, the generally accepted version is that Rome could no longer throw back the barbarian hordes from the surrounding areas.

I've never read anything that gave a clear explanation of how the Roman economy worked. But then, I’ve never read anything that gave a clear and undisputed explanation of how our own economy works. The assumption is that the Roman economy must have worked because the Roman state, republic or Empire, existed. Our economy is based on a lot of disputed theories—we have right-wing and left-wing economists, after all, but something must have worked!

Somehow it must have worked, and somehow everything must have been paid for, and perhaps when the state could no longer meet its obligations, a natural decline occurred.

But a study by soil agronomists might argue that the Romans depleted their topsoil and could no longer raise enough tax revenues for that reason. There was no longer a big enough surplus.

Military men might argue that the barbarians who conquered Rome had learned much by experience, and upgraded their own military tactics and strategy.

Moralists would argue that Roman society became morally lax, and I suppose some would argue that when the state ceased to exist for the benefit of the individual, and began to exist for the benefit of a plutocracy, or aristocracy, there was less incentive for non-empowered individuals to support it with their own blood and treasure in the name of collective security among equals.

One of the basic theses of Gibbon’s classic, ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ is that Christianity was a major cause of the fall of Rome. The Church was a state within a state. It disputed for power and influence within the state. With the rise of monasticism and celibacy, vast numbers of able-bodied men and women were simply unavailable to engage in politics and business. The number of men who could be recruited into the Imperial armies fell drastically. And they didn’t pay taxes, either.

Individually, these are all necessarily theories, and flawed ones at that. Collectively they represent a dialogue on the fall of Rome that continues to this day and it will go on far into the future.

But here’s something to think about.

Julius Caesar knew the Republic was finished. And he saw no hope, no solution for its woes. Whether he overthrew the Republic in order to save it or to establish a hereditary monarchy, I suppose we’ll never know. Caesar had an ego, this much is self-evident. It is also possible that history may have misjudged his motives. None of that is really important. What is important is the questions that we ask.

What was the problem that he perceived?

Political deadlock. Politics was totally corrupt. The triumph of the special interest groups over the common weal, the good of all, (something which will always be under dispute anyway.) There were two groups with political power in the state. The first group was the senatorial class, who owned vast holdings of land. The other group was politically astute, educated, but had no nobility, i.e., no land and no great wealth. In order to obtain the highest honours of the land, in order to wield power and therefore acquire wealth, they had to come up with policies to persuade the voters to vote them into office, give them power, and trust to the outcome.

The lobbyists controlled the purse strings. They even supported upstarts, those of a sort who told them what they wanted to hear. Caesar owed millions to Crassus. There was only one way he could repay Crassus, and that was to support Crassus’ own ambitions. Crassus didn’t give a shit for the common man, while Caesar at least saw their usefulness, however cynically he may have applied that. Caesar might have had more noble aspirations, but Crassus was a completely corrupt individual.

Both groups feared and courted that most ephemeral of things, the Roman populace, who had no political power, had no representation in the traditional system, and yet represented a potent force. Caesar was a genius at propaganda, controlled an army and was popular across class boundaries.

The mob held the Capitol and the Senate hostage by their very unpredictability, but also the fact that they could be manipulated. The mob, the rabble, was feared, to the extent that they were bought off with ‘bread and circuses.’

Because they were feared, they were courted. They were consulted, and their prejudices respected, even inflamed.

Because a riot is an ugly thing to see, however useful if applied in the right time and place, and for the right purposes. The trick was not to let your opponents get control of the mob.

Over the course of time, small landowners inevitably ran into trouble, quickly being bought out by more fortunate neighbours.

Over the course of time, the senatorial class and their political supporters ‘engrossed’ all of the available resources and political power. I think Caesar was aware of this trend and its implications for the future.

Nothing useful would be done unless it was of some direct and fairly short-term profit to the aristocracy. He saw that the continuing aggrandizement and gratification of that class was no longer in the best interest of the state, no matter whether it was a republic or a monarchy.

Rome was founded by a small band of equals, who were also equally poor. Rome’s prosperity was initially based on conquest, but the circle of conquest eventually became unprofitable to the Roman state and therefore its citizens. At that point, the only thing that could keep it going and give it direction was arbitrary power, wielded by one man with no need to consult the wishes of others. And compared to the Greeks, the Romans were morally upright. That moral laxness came with increasing prosperity. If power corrupts, then wealth must also, for the two go hand in hand.

Because the Roman state had evolved both politically and technologically, arguably in terms of its economy as well as socially, over the course of its existence, Caesar had to confront and deal with what was essentially a kind of ‘future shock.’

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