Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How Close Are We to the End Times?

A piece on the future as it gradually unwraps for our view on, “Growth is the Problem,” by Chris Hedges (link), prompted Brigitte to wonder what the social conditions were like in Rome just before the Roman Empire collapsed. Good question—but really a trick question. Arguably we have not yet reached that stage in civilization matching the end of Rome. That began around about the time of Diocletian (244-311 AD) when that emperor partitioned the Roman Empire in 295 AD. In our times, in the United States, we’re still waiting, as it were, for that decisive marker, the crossing of the Rubicon (49 BC)—the first clear sign that the end of the Republic has arrived. But let us take a look at what led up to that.

In 494 BC the Roman Republic was just 15 years old when a general strike, as we would call it today—they called it the Secession of the Plebs—signaled a period known as the Conflict of the Orders, thus between the Patricians (call them the oligarchy of the wealthy) and the Plebeians (call them the common people, more recently the 99%, more recently yet, the 47%). The first consul of the republic, one Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis, behaved so harshly that the common people left the city en masse and repaired to one of the hills of Rome (Mons Sacer), and effectively shut down the economy. This resulted in the creation of the representatives (tribunes) of the people. The first Secession of the Plebs was followed by others in 449, 445, 342, and 287 BC. Hence the Conflict of the Orders was said to extend 494-287, a period of 207 years. But, in fact, that conflict never really ended until the Roman Empire dawned  with Octavian’s ascension to the throne in 27 BC.

The formation of the Plebeian Council, which elected tribunes, became functionally similar to a lower house. In fact it was more powerful, eventually, than the Senate of Rome. It came to represent what today we’d call the Left—and its principal strategy was income redistribution, its secondary but closely related strategy was distribution of power—to its own members and to the lesser nobility, the equites or knights. Income in the Roman context was land. Land to be distributed was land conquered by Roman armies.

Concerning land, it was the emblem of the franchise itself. Land-owning plebeians were entitled to vote—and also obliged to serve in the military. The Romans were straightforward realists. Material power was political power. The abstract notion of individual liberty had not yet dawned. We have to thank Christianity for that.

The end-times of the Republic really began in the second century BC when the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius Gracchus (162-133 BC) and Gaius Graccchus (154-121 BC) both tribunes, passed laws distributing land to the plebs; both were murdered in the convulsions that resulted. Despite such setbacks in detail—and the Senate was oblige to accept some of the reforms voted into place to avoid massive conflagrations—the Plebs gradually gained more and more power in Rome. Its tribunes would eventually hold the Consulship and the Censorship and acquired seats in the Senate itself.

At the same time—and such is real life—periods of crack-down appeared, most notably during the right-wing dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC). But the impulse set in motion by the first Secession of the Plebs continued right on after Sulla’s death and produced, first, Caesar and then the caesars.

The historical path described here is one beginning with the dictatorial monarch, in this case Lucius Lavinius Superbus (535-496 BC), to the arising of Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD). Augustus, known as Octavian before he took power, hailed from the equestrian branch of a plebeian family—but he had been raised to patrician rank by adoption by Julius Caesar. (That, by the way, tells you how the poor (plebeian), grown wealthy (equestrian), could be enlisted in the ranks of the nobility (patrician) by adoption. In our pre-democratic times the method was to marry a wealthy daughter into the nobility.) Between those two monarchs lay a period of 482 years during which an oligarchy ruled, was gradually weakened, and totalitarianism became possible again.

Now for those who dream of reestablishing the old-fashioned patrician rule over the masses, all I can say is—dream on. And those who dream of the ultimate victory of the 99 percent, they’re also just dreaming. When the left finally wins, what follows then is military rule. Want to secure your long term future? Join the Army. If we follow anything like the Roman pattern, we are now still in the midst of the battle between the patricians and the plebs. We’ve clocked 236 years from the establishment of our own republic. If the same pattern holds, the crossing of the Rubicon will take place circa 2236—and then roughly another 300++ years of empire are waiting before the end times even begin. Now, of course, the two situations have major dissimilarities. For instance. We’ll have run out of fossil fuels when the next century begins. And that may speed things up a little…
My illustrative emblem, the icon of the Roman Empire, comes from Wikipedia (link). The acronym stands for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (“The Senate and People of Rome”).

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