Panem et Circenses
Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
(Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81)
A friend and I were discussing the phrase “Bread and Circus” over (oddly) lunch. It is typically invoked to chide the public classes for abdicating their role as watchdogs of the ruling classes for the trivialities of food and entertainment. In modern times, this analysis of the public is often trotted out to indict both the public and the corporate structures that provide the radical consumer culture in the United States.
The right likes to imagine that, without the distraction of cable TV and McDonalds to distract them, the population would rise against the tyranny of the state and reduce it to its Constitutional bounds. Those on the left believe that workers, stripped of access to Walmart and NASCAR would finally see corporate evil for what it is and seize, or empower some collective to seize, the means of production. In both cases, the consumer is pointed to as thelynch-pin holding together the unjust system.
The caricature of the idiot consumer is, itself, a convenient misdirection. It cannot be denied that people crave physical comforts and recreation, but most also care about their spouses and children, their neighbors and communities. If that is the full extent of most people’s concerns, so what? Whence the moral obligation to oversee the innumerable laws, statutes and codes created by the modern state? The rulers themselves have no idea what most of the rest of the rulers are doing, how is it reasonable to expect the citizenry to eschew comfort, friends and family to monitor the activities of a cadre of “law makers” protected by lines of soldiers and police?
We are, by our very biology, limited in the scope of people and events we can attend to and care about. This isn’t an indictment of nature, it is irrational to study the workings of distant political structures with an eye to working one’s individual will on the world. Evolution has correctly directed us to be concerned with the people with and places where we interact in the day-to-day. Only the privileged public, with their views of how government should structure society, cannot see that problems are best and most easily solved among neighbors.
And so we can speak of the meta-circus. The misdirection for the self-styled “politically conscious” class. They are pointed towards the masses and told that the people are the problem. All the wars, prisons, ghettos, sickness and poverty are the fault of the politically inactive who would rather watch Jerry Springer than work for real change. All the gross injustices perpetrated by the ruling classes are redirected to an inert public for the anger and scorn of the middle.
The natural tendency of the individual to limit his/her concern to local people and events obviously plays into the hands of distant rulers. But it’s the intellectual mastery of rulers over the privileged-but-not-political (the pribnopols?) that really holds the machine together. The pribnopols must buy into the misdirection of responsibility from the rulers to the masses. Because they do, the politically connected float in a bubble of wealth and power with zero chance of being held accountable or responsible for the misery that they heap on the poor and powerless.
The people are not the problem. Abundant food is not the problem. Creature comfort is not the problem. The problem is that, thousands of miles away, a class of people have appointed themselves war makers, prison wardens, distributors of sustenance and medicine. The problem is not that they distract us with trivialities and thus exist without direction from the people. The problem is that they exist at all.