Note: I have a new post up at Taki Mag. This is a regular Monday thing until the end of the year. Perhaps I should forgo the usual post here and cross post the Taki post on Monday so people can comment upon it. Let me know.
Critics of modern liberal democracy often repeat Juvenal’s line about the populace being pacified with bread and circuses. In the modern usage it means the public is easily bought off with free stuff and mindless entertainment. While the average guy is watching television sports and adding to his waistline, he does not care that the political class is looting the country. Just as long as he has a steady stream of new products, he is happy to abandon his duties as a citizen.
Juvenal had a different meaning, as he was writing in the second century. He was criticizing the Roman political class for their lack of heroism and virtue. They cared more for holding office than tackling the challenges of the day. They would corrupt the people with free grain and elaborate public spectacles, if that is what it took to win favor and gain power. The ruling class was mortgaging the civic virtue of Rome in order to get short term profit from the political system.
Of course, the culture of liberal democracy forbids the idea of a ruling class, so the blame must always fall on the people for the problems with the rulers. After all, the people picked the office holders. If they are unhappy with the choices, they should find new ones that they prefer. The civic religion of liberal democracy is like a spell cast on even the most jaded. It prevents them from accepting that there is not a democratic solution to the inherent defects of liberal democracy.
The irony is the cynical will often quote de Maistre and say that the people get the government they deserve. This is ironic in several ways. One is that de Maistre was no fan of democracy or popular government. He also meant that a people, as in a biologically connected people, will get the ruling class that reflects their temperament and talents, regardless of the system. This is something that no modern liberal democratic could possibly accept and remain a liberal democrat.
Putting that aside, the problem with the Juvenal quote is that bread and circuses is the only peaceful and predictable solution to the large society problem. Bringing large numbers of people together under a single ruler, whether it is the farce of democracy or the force of a despot, goes against man’s nature. Humans can only know and trust about 150 people at one time. Once a group breaks what is called the Dunbar number, no one person can know everyone well enough to trust them.
The solution long ago was a code, a set of rules for the group. A set of rules to govern relations between all people within the group solved this problem. The members did not have to trust one another or even know one another very well. They just had to trust that the rules made sense for the group and that the people enforcing the rules could be trusted to predictably enforce the rules. The proof of these two pillars of society would be the peace and prosperity of the group.
Of course, once you get to very large groups, like city-states and countries, you end up with lots of dissimilar people in the same society. A large group of related people will come with the habits of mind to make cooperation natural. Have a large diverse group of people and those habits of mind will inevitably conflict. This is the large society problem and we have just two solutions. One is a great mission to focus the public’s attention and the other is bread and circuses.
The great mission or crusade, like a war, comes with an expiry date. You can rally the most diverse and uncooperating people against some crisis. In a war, for example, people put aside their grievances to fight the common enemy. Yankee New England dropped their secession drive, for example, because of the War of 1812. The trouble is, people tire of war and every crisis losses its sense of urgency. Even the communists figured this out eventually.
This is the fork in the road the American ruling class faces now. The pretender Biden also adds the complication of being seen as illegitimate by most people. Many of those people may be glad Trump is gone, at least for now, but they also know that Biden has no business on the throne. He is just a shuffling corpse, animated by players operating in the shadows. Like all pretenders, Biden will be limited by the fact that the rest of the ruling class is looking to exploit him, rather than support him.
Compounding his dilemma is that the people who engineered his ascent to the throne want to start a new cold war with Russia and start a war with Iran. They also seek to impose the Chinese social model on Americans. Speech and movement will be sharply curtailed with the help of the corporate oligarchs. In other words, the new regime tilts heavily toward a holy crusade to rally the people, like a war against the virus and a war against Iran, rather than a new round of bread and circuses.
This is something that was overlooked in the Trump years. After eight years of the dreary preaching of Obama, Trump’s antics were a relief. His style was not everyone’s cup of tea, but he kept things lively. He also focused on the economy, which did rather well until the Covid panic. The stock market doubled in value during his time in office, which is something that matters a lot to people. In other words, Trump gave the people four years of bread and circuses.
Finally, the other dilemma for the Pretender Biden is that he will have Trump out there reminding people of how Biden got on the throne. In the old days, Biden’s first order of business would be to have Trump assassinated. By removing the old ruler, there was no chance for him to return to power. That’s unlikely to happen with Trump, although one cannot rule it out, so Biden will have to operate in the shadow of what many will view as the rightful President.
This is the dilemma facing the Pretender Biden. He cannot go for the bread and circuses route, as that would be a concession to the hated Trump. That means going along with the warmongers and scaremongers. The trouble there is that requires trust and exactly no one trusts a pretender. The only solution may be to forge ahead with a manufactured crisis like a war with Iran and hope the people are gullible enough to fall for it like they did in the Bush years.
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