Monday, June 15, 2009

The Lens of History

I’ve been attracted throughout my life to methods of seeing that which is much smaller or much greater than eye can focus. We don’t need tools at our own natural scale. We need not engage in social science to understand our own clan—meaning all the people to whom we are related by blood or marriage. The eyes and ears suffice. When ours was a young family first sinking roots in the United States, we didn’t even need a bank statement to know our net worth. We had a sheaf of treasury notes accumulated during service in the Army, and we could just count the envelopes; and we kept most of the money we earned at the apartment in cash.

Later I learned the power of statistics—and came to admire and value the services of our statistical agencies. Doubtless the greatest humanity has ever produced are resident, right now, right here in the United States. This is not an exaggeration. A start at celebrating them is recorded here, but I haven’t gone beyond an introduction. In any case, there is nothing quite like lenses that will bring the seemingly invisible into focus, and therefore praises to the makers of the Hubble telescope and NASA for putting it up in the sky; and equal praises to honor Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), one of the modern day’s pioneers.

Knowledge dependents on pattern-acquisition, as it were: seeing enough of very large things so that their lawful behavior becomes evident. And in this category I also place mythologies at the exalted and histories at the mundane end of the spectrum. Mythologies sum up the totality of human intuition about the nature of transcendental reality. History is our lens for understanding the immediate arrangements of society writ large.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of posts back, I was looking back at Rome again. I’m now and have always been fascinated by the transition between the republican era and the later monarchical phases, the Roman Empire. It really was monarchical although the Romans did not want to use the word “king.” The imperator was what we call “commander-in-chief,” and I smile a little in noting how that phrase developed legs during the last administration; so did the word “decider.” But never mind that. I would emphasize that the transit of Rome from republic to empire was not some kind of symbolical transformation of the sort our modern media love to engineer and then to detect in what they are pleased to call analysis. No. The transition followed a century of social disturbance beginning around 133 BC and ending in 27 BC. It was a period in which the powerful and moneyed oligarchy that ruled Rome was first challenged in 133 by the election of Tiberius Gracchus, restored to dominance by Sulla (around 82 BC), followed by Caesar’s rise to power after a major civil war (48 BC), and ending with the rise to power of Caesar’s adoptive son, Octavian (later Augustus) in 27 BC.

Worth noting here is that this brief period holds most of the events and the personalities the American public knows about Rome from the movies: Caesar, Cleopatra, Anthony, and Brutus. A few other, later figures appear because they were particularly violent: Caligula, Nero.

Ultimately the battle here was between the moneyed class of large scale ownership (in the Roman context this meant the ownership of land and slaves)—and the people without means or relying on small parcels of land, handicrafts, or shops. The power, when it finally shifted, came to be vested in the state (not the little people), the state controlled by a single person, and that person backed by armed forces of which he was the commander-in-chief, thus imperator. The emperor also held all other meaningful political offices for life. As a tribune-for-life he had absolute veto powers over legislation, as censor-for-life he could order a census or appoint or remove senators, he was princeps of the Senate, meaning “first, most eminent, chief”; from this word we get the later meaning of prince. He was also the pontiff, thus the chief religious officer—butI need not go on. He essentially formulated, proposed, and caused legislation to be passed and then enforced by a bureaucracy consisting principally of his own servants, free and slave. The state had become the sole ruler and the emperor the sole ruler of the state. The Republic of Rome came into being in 509 BC and ended with Caesar in 48—a span of 461 years. The Empire lasted to about 476 AD, thus another five centuries. After the imperial period began, the change in power was never again a collective enterprise. It took place by family arrangement or by violent intervention backed by a military force.

What brought the transition about? The abuse of money-power. In the Roman setting it took the form of vast importation of slaves who displaced and impoverished the ordinary citizen. And in our case? We need but look around.

Let’s use the lens of history to look at our times. Using it suggests that those who say that we’re in an imperial time today are just idly chattering, symbol-mongering. No. We’ll know it when it comes. We’re presently enduring the misrule of a vast moneyed oligarchy. But other illusions need also to be set aside. Those who dream of revolution, whereby the “little people” will finally take power from the forces of capital, should not romantically imagine a process that will end in “direct democracy.” Never. Democracy—the kind we actually value, the kind that is still practiced at the local level of small communities—belongs to a middle stage of civilization, the time when the middle class actually has power. When that class gets shouldered aside by the vast oligarchies that currently rule us, the stage is being set for a century of chaos. That century will be violent—as were the 106 years that separated the tribune Gracchus from the emperor Augustus. After that the vote won’t matter any more. But a kind of order will return. And at the working level—which never really changes—the responsible people will, once again, clear off the rubble, mop up the blood, and get back to doing the necessary.


  1. This forecast does have the ring of truth. Of course, one never sees ones own time with the same... patina that one is able to view the past. This post also highlights the questions we were discussion over the weekend, in such an environment what is a useful course of action... down here at the working level?

    Food for thought.

  2. The working level, yes! That's where life is lived.