iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli / uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim / imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se / continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, / panem et circenses.
Writing at the time the Roman Empire was reaching its greatest extent, in his Satire X, the Roman poet Juvenal denounced the apathy of the people of Imperial Rome. Instead of the civic virtues of the Republic where the people handed out high office and military command, they were now contented to hope for bread and circuses.
At this point in our own society, where we have abundant wealth and material prosperity, we are also, compared to our immediate forebears, passive and apathetic. Few people, as a proportion of the whole, see any need for civic involvement, whether it is in a political party or in a community group or sporting club. And some, like that recently disgraced state ALP MP, seem to be doing not out of civic duty, but for power and profit, a pathetic form of rent seeking.
We protest less, and we accept what our elected officials say much more. We are becoming like sheep, with our shepherds, as Nietzsche might have warned.
Are we really content, and are we really happy, or have we really reached the point where we do not care? Previous generations cared, but that is because they had skin in the game. World Wars, depressions, conscription, the threat of nuclear annihilation, those were things which threatened previous generations in a very real way. Hence they would get involved in their communities and show civic duty, including getting involved at the grassroots in political parties, community groups, and sporting clubs – the building blocks of civil society.
We rest on what previous generations have created, and we are currently at risk of losing much of that.
Take the political parties. The pandemic means that meetings are no longer possible, and political parties have not yet created rules that permit annual general meetings and internal elections to be held virtually. This plays into the hands of those who control the party machines, who are as interested in actual grassroots involvement as the people in Tammany Hall over a century ago.
The Victorian ALP is an extreme example. Its leaders have acquiesced over many years in practices similar to the Tammany tactics, known as branch stacking. This means that at least a quarter of the current 16,000 members are probably not there for bona fide intentions. The result is that the entire state branch has been placed in administration and the remaining members have been disenfranchised entirely for the next 3 years. Those who have a sense of civic duty are reduced, from active citizens, to passive agents of the party machine.
The Victorian Liberal Party is not much better. It has had some apparent episodes of branch stacking as well in recent years, mostly involving members of various Christian fundamentalist or post-Christian (as I call some American sourced religions from the mid 19th century) congregations. I do not think that the motives of those engineering such membership drives were out of civic duty, but rather out of a desire to wrest control of the party machine, perhaps involving people who might not be most accurately described as ‘liberal’ in their ideas. Nor has the party machine done a very good job of engaging with its current 11,000 members.
These parties were created at the grassroots by people who cared about issues facing the nation. To have them turned into soulless machines controlled by apparatchiks is not a healthy development for our society or democracy – especially at a time where both of these parties have welcomed into their fold with open arms and without scrutiny persons with apparent links to the Chinese Communist Party.
Lockdown also, especially as it stretches on further, threatens the existence of other civic groups, such as sporting clubs and cultural associations. A friend of mine plays hockey each winter. Her hockey competition was suspended a few months ago. When will it resume? I belong to a small Italian cultural group, which tries to hold a couple of activities each year. Right now, even our annual gala dinner at the end of the year is threatened by the lockdown, creating a threat to member engagement.
Creating and building community groups and clubs takes years. Closing them down can take minutes. Just look at the decline of Lawn Bowls clubs around the suburbs in the past thirty years.
The public has for the most part uncritically accepted the need for a lockdown, and placed a lot of trust in their governments. This is the type of society we are now, passive and obedient and uncritical. The debate is not whether lockdown is necessary and whether or not the authority of the state is being misused or not, but whether the lockdown has been handled effectively.
Like the people of Ancient Rome, we have become clients of the state, with Jobkeeper and related ultimately inflationary measures, to keep discontent and disquiet to a minimum. Those aspects of Civil Society which are usually most independent of the state, such as churches and small businesses, have been forced – with barely a whimper – to close down.
Hardly anyone is talking about what all this means for our society going forward.
Some people, mostly economists (and a few amateurs like me), are concerned that the Uber-Keynesian measures being pursued by western governments all over the world, running up titanic and unprecedented deficits and effectively printing money, are going to have major consequences for the financial system and the world economy, to say nothing of our own national economy.
But no one seems to be talking about what the consequences are for the health of Civil Society, at a time when sporting clubs are not competing and the only community groups operating are those who are mostly funded through the largesse of the state apparatus.
Instead, we sit at home, watching our Netflix, and getting our junk food deliveries from Uber Eats, content that the NBN gives us the reliable connections to keep us entertained and fed. This is very similar to various dystopian futures which have been written about or filmed, mostly recently in I, Robot. Is this the kind of future we want for our society?
Bread and Circuses indeed, 21st century style.