Sunday, May 01, 2011

Decline and Fall

One of the things I'm reading now on my Kindle is Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", the original written in the 18th century. It's a long story, with plenty of ups and downs, but overall one gets the sense of the decay of governmental institutions and secondarily of society as a whole. I've started thinking about some parallels with current times, not so much anticipating the total collapse of the United States as one might be tempted to propose, but certainly connecting with various ugly aspects of how our governments come about in succession.

I am not intending to be partisan with what I have to say, since to me the most worrisome features of our time affect whoever is in power and simultaneously whoever is not.

If there were some Roman times which seem exemplary, it was when there were monarchs who were simultaneously authoritarian in some way(s), yet saw the value if not need for there to be a diffusion of power, not just to the Roman senate, but also to the people. In those days, much like our own, the power the people enjoyed was a sense of security so that they could be productive, and enjoy the fruits of their labor. When times were good, there none the less came about great envy of various members of the nobility to have themselves elevated to being emperor, Augustus, or Caesar. But then as now power corrupts, and the some of the loudest voices against absolute power were from those who wished that same power for themselves.

If there was anything the Romans excelled at, at least in the early stages of the empire, it was in having a highly developed military machine. At first, the military was made up largely of those who had some ancestral connection to Rome and its central territories, but with time they became increasingly mercenary, with troops replenished with the youth of conquered territories, the creation of soldiering as a career, and these soldiers willing to fight for whoever paid them best. As time went on, more of the wealth of Rome came from pillaging. Agriculture, the main source of value at the time, became more fragile when faced with sequential conquests from barbarians, then recapture by the Roman empire.

And so productivity declined, with the result that the quickest way to riches was to steal from your neighbor. This happened both between the empire and surrounding non-Roman empires, but also internally, where one looked for a way to discredit some noble (or simply assassinate him -- and it might even be someone in your own family) and alleviate him of his wealth.

One might easily argue that assassination became part of the fabric of Roman society, with some Roman emperors lasting only days or weeks before they were killed and replaced by their assassins. The key to survival turned out to be some form of military might, either the "loyal" support of your own Praetorian guards, or the backing of your legion. So various emperors, anticipating real or imagined danger, found temporary safety in exterminating real or imagined enemies. But this loyalty of the troops quite depended on what you were willing to pay your troops, both now and later. Your so-called loyal troops might easily go to the highest bidder now, only to be swayed by some other higher bidder later.

The Roman senate, fearing for their lives, made it a practice to serially hail the new leader while condemning the last. Outside of brief exceptions, any power the senate enjoyed quite evaporated.

Here and Now

We have seen in our time assassinations and attempted assassinations, but my view is that while we have avoided physical bloodshed, we have adopted character assassination as the preferred mode to accomplish the same ends. The same motives are in the background, a mix of power and the riches associated with power, but instead of taking an opponent's approach and reasoning some improvements, it seems more expedient to attack the opponent, in some no-holds-barred attack on their character, their personal lives, their associates, any way to characterize them as evil personified. Afterwards, we elevate someone else to their status, and our opponents assassinate their character in turn.

Just as in Roman times, the reaction of the populace in general is a progressive loss of respect for anyone in the political realm. Yes we can be swayed by our own optimism and hope that this time it will be different, but as we see a series of contemptible politicians come into focus, we can only generalize that contempt for the whole mass of them. And always, the mercenaries, in our time not so much the miltary, but more likely the wealthy, will espouse their loyalty to the highest bidder.

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