Are we Rome? In spite of the obvious differences, our political systems, and economic system upon which they rest, are as unsustainable as were the republican institutions and Ancient Rome pillage economy, prior to their collapse vis-à-vis the permanent dictatorship, called Empire.
Long-term capitalism or short-term pillage capitalism? Ours is the latter. To the question “and now what?” this system’s answer in the West and East is: “more of the same.” Therefore, concentration of wealth at the expense of growth worsens and inequality increases. At the end of the road, there is money to spare for a miniscule minority and money is lacking—and especially jobs—for the majority. Bridging the social and technological gap, are we Rome?
A lot of money on top, little work below. This model, in addition of being unfair, is “in the long run” unsustainable, as the own capitalism depends on market and consumption. Without work there is no consumption. To maintain it, we need to promote indebtedness. But this solution is also short-term. At the highest levels, the huge concentration of wealth allows for obscene luxury consumption, but this does not suffice to absorb the general needs of the system. At the end of the day, how many pairs of shoes can the 1% of humanity buy? How many 50,000-dollar watches can they wear in one arm? How many well-maintained luxury yachts with “slave” crew can they afford? The famous conspicuous consumption cannot sustain the system.
Profit without growth, wealth without equity, production without enough jobs, a sea of objects that do not find consumers—the system is heading towards creating an unmanageable surplus.
For several decades, globalization allowed for maintaining this unsustainable system, but at the expense of increasing and globalizing its contradictions. Without rival systems that oppose it, late capitalism completes is domain of the planet, but this shining moment is also the beginning of its end. I do not pretend this affirmation of mine to be original. Among economists, the reader will find similar affirmations in the texts of Marx, Schumpeter, and even von Hayek.
In Ancient Rome, historian Sallust (86 BC – 34 BC) stated something similar. According to Sallust, (The Conspiracy of Catilina, De coniuratione Catilinae, 63 BC) the moral fiber of Roman culture was destroyed by the own success of the imperial city and the huge wealth, appetite, and desire for power that followed their conquest of the entire Mediterranean and their most important rivals, such as Cartago. Also today, with a different pillage system we have the same result. Increasingly, in each country, there is an increase in the number of those who are left behind. This is a structural crisis that translates into political resistance, based on economic precariousness and social resentment.
Then, populism comes into play, which for the time being is right-wing populism. But, until when? Right-wing populism stirs the flames of national pride, without changing the economic model or the social structure. We could tackle the system with the same rhetoric weapons that the republican Cicero used against the populist Catilina (Cicero):
Quousque tandem abutere Patientia nostra?
When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience?
Quam diu etiam iste furor tuus nos eludet?
How long is that madness of yours still to mock us?
Quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia?
When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?
Its major impact is political: the weakening, or plain and simple, the destruction of current political system. It is the end of traditional parties, the rise of a severe representation crisis, and its replacement by social movements of contradictory sign.
The representation crisis and the weakening of traditional parties are happening everywhere, from Argentina to Italy, France, England, Germany and the United States. Recent elections in France and Germany and the previsions of next elections in Italy seem to confirm the diagnosis. On the one hand, we find power elites deaf and blind to the social groundswell that is getting ready. On the other hand, we face the emergence of an “international nationalist” as a pseudo replacement. Enough to name it for its grotesque and contradictory aspect to stands out. The expression is a Kantian oxymoron, for those who still remember philosophy classes from high school. Indeed, Immanuel Kant defined the concept of “categorical imperative” as “any proposition that declares and action (or inaction) as necessary.” In his treaty Groundings for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Kant presents different formulations of the categorical imperative. I remember the following. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” It is logically impossible to turn nationalism into universal law. On the subject, I suggest to reflect on the statements given by the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
Worse yet, most important populist leaders are plutocrats. Donald Trump’s populism, that of political leaders of the British Brexit such as Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage, and of many more, is in reality a Pluto-populism. The contradiction is evident: the essence of populism is in the end the redistribution of wealth, unfortunately and many times, in a clientelistic (pork-barrel) manner. This emergent populism combines patronage with the persecution of scapegoats (xenophobia, racism, sexism, and homophobia). Its slogan is that of the Ancient Imperial Rome: panem et circenses (bread and circuses). However, sooner or later, the “people” who name the Pluto-populists will realize the fraud of which it is the victim, when there is no more bread and the circus will not suffice. But the danger exists and is serious. If, as Lord Acton said, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, by stirring nationalism, Pluto-populism is able to trigger the last of the patriotic distractions: war.
The geopolitical publication Stratfor announces a “hot” trimester in the Korean peninsula.
The world lies in suspense while, commanding nuclear forces, two personalities with strong traits of child psychopathology confront. Both, North Korean leader as well as United States president, remind me again of an Ancient Rome characterization. In his youth, general Pompey was famous for his impulsive character and his brutality, traits that earned him the nickname of adolescentulus carnifex (the “butcher teenager”). Today, on one case, the nickname applies to the methods and the young age of Kim Jong-Un. On the other, an old Newyorker, Donald J. Trump, who was never able to outgrow and overcome his childhood pathology. Though each in his own way, both are dynastic leaders, coming from either very wealthy or very powerful families. Pompey, on his part, was educated as a military in his father’s army. Form that time is his motto adulescentulus carnifex because of his insensitivity and cruelty in the battlefield. The comparison with Rome is justified.
So great is the danger and so low we have fallen. As Cicero would say: O tempora, O mores! (Oh, what times! Oh, what behavior!).
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