Cassandra Speaks

25 06 2009

Among the lessons of history is that no hegemony lasts forever – or even for very long in many cases. If we examine the turbulent story of the fall of empires, we often find that it was not the extension of power that necessarily had the most important consequences, but the manner of withdrawal from that power. In the case of Rome, that withdrawal was a forced and bloody process lasting over a century that left western civilization in abject ruins – a devastation from which Europe would not recover for centuries.

The rapid and relatively peaceful dissolution of the British Empire was quite a different affair. It resulted essentially from policy – the decision by the British that they simply could not afford the cost and did not want to expend the necessary effort any longer. The British Empire left a rich and useful legacy to many of its subject peoples but it also left behind the terrible consequences of arrogance, short-sightedness and selfishness. Most especially, the manner of its leaving India can now be seen to have been catastrophic. Tired of umpiring the endless bickering of the leaders of India’s contending political parties regarding the form a post-imperial state should take, the British announced they were leaving in 1949, regardless of what the native politicians decided or failed to decide. The result was the partition and the appalling blood bath that followed. Tens of thousands died in the virtual civil war that erupted between Hindus and Muslims, once the imperial authority was no longer there. Today, we are facing the possible collapse of Pakistan in the face of the insurgency of Muslim fanatics coupled with the terrifying question of what will become of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. (One is reminded of the collapse of Roman Britain during the fifty years or so that followed the withdrawal of the legions. Fortunately, there was no nuclear arsenal for the Picts, Danes and Saxons to capture.) Did the British Empire have alternatives? Of course they did. For one, they could have created two Indias instead of an India and a Pakistan – a republic consisting of the territories administered directly by the Raj and a federation of the princely states. These states had an ancient history and many had an integrated population of Muslims and Hindus. Had this course been taken, we would not today face the dangerous situation of an unstable Pakistan.

We could examine many additional examples of imperial withdrawal and repeatedly observe the consequences of haste, panic, failure to face reality and lack of planning. In these examples, we can find lessons perhaps applicable to the situation of the United States today. Chiefly, these failures result from an inability to face reality. No doubt, right up to the very moment the barbarian hoards breached the walls of Rome, its citizens were unable to consider such a development as possible. For 800 years, Rome had stood inviolable. It’s way of life seemed eternal and who could imagine it would vanish in a moment? On August 23, 410, the citizens of Rome lived secure in their homes and occupations, under a rule of law and custom developed over centuries as the pinnacle of western civilization. On August 24th, it was at the mercy of Alaric and the Goth Hoard and nothing would ever be the same again.

While this transition no doubt seemed abrupt to the ordinary citizens of that time, it was not, of course, a development that fell from the blue like a bolt of lightning. The foundations of the Roman world had been decaying for a good century or more. Historians have been occupied ever since with analysis of why this collapse, so pivotal in western history, took place and agreement on at least the outlines of the contributory problems may be considered general. Some of these problems were not ones we share today with Rome – such as the Roman failure to establish an orderly system for the transfer of supreme authority from one generation to the next. There are however, certain primary problems we do indeed share. Perhaps chief among these is the indisputable fact that the Roman Empire lived well beyond its means. In doing so, it created a military/political/social construct that became indispensable but which in fact could not be sustained by the surplus wealth of Rome’s GNP. At its height of power, Rome maintained a standing army of somewhere between 400,000 and half a million men. In addition, there was a separate administrative/professional class, a priest class and an ownership class – all non-productive mouths to be fed from the surplus wealth (wealth produced in excess of that which is required to keep the actual producers alive.) On top of this was a vast program of public works and a dole that sustained a significant part of the population. We would not see such a top-heavy system again until our own modern times. In evaluating the sustainability of the Roman system, we must recall that Rome was a labor intensive, agricultural society whose agricultural methods were not even as efficient as those to come in the medieval period and in fact produced large scale environmental deterioration (they didn’t rotate crops, for one thing.)

Governments can get away with this sort of economic 3 card monte a lot longer than private citizens can. Governments can issue specie, for one big reason. The temptation to just print or coin more money to solve immediate problems is as old as money itself. Money is, however, essentially only a symbol of the nation’s actual negotiable wealth – its surplus product. As with a person who has been living on credit cards, sooner or later the money chickens must come home to roost. Even a cursory examination of the United States’ balance sheets clearly shows that we are doing the same thing the Romans did and with, not surprisingly, the same result. The United States is hopelessly bankrupt and is now in a period of denial, much the same as in Rome’s late history – a denial in which we are abetted by our creditors who fear our collapse will be their own as well. Sooner or later, debts must and will be settled – either by repayment, negotiated settlement, seizure of assets or by the death of the indebted (it is an axiom that death clears all debts and if you doubt this applies to nations, just ask the various banks who still have, tucked away in dusty vaults, Imperial Russian Railway bonds.) Barney Frank, of the House Banking Committee, when asked if the vast sums in treasury notes held by China could ever be repaid, replied simply “no,” – an unusually clear and concise evaluation, rare indeed from a government official. U.S. currency is in fact without actual value and is a fiction sustained only by our terror of the inevitable consequences of collapse. It cannot be redeemed in precious metals nor does it represent surplus wealth, of which we have none.

How did this situation come to be? In part because of another problem we share with Rome – the sociopathic nature of the ruling class. In Dear And Glorious Physician, Taylor Caldwell quotes a Third Century Roman senator she names Carvilius Ulpian: “the senate is a closed corporation of scoundrels who think only of army contracts for their blanket factories…and what is the middle class but oxen to draw the chariots of the senators as we provide bread and circuses for the motley mobs of Rome?” Ulpian goes on to reflect on the vast subsidies paid to “allies” who would turn on Rome in an instant if the gold stopped flowing, the venality of the rich and the dubious loyalty of the generals.
Wherein is the difference between those ancient Roman aristocrats, thinking of nothing more than their own immediate advantage and the hugely over-paid CEOs of today’s multi-national corporations who have stripped the United States of its capacity to manufacture goods (surplus wealth) by shipping the manufacturing process to third world nations, thus temporarily improving their profit margin while creating an economically enslaved working class in countries lacking the worker rights and protections built up here at home? The exploitation and utter lack of social responsibility this industrial transition represents can only be characterized as sociopathic.

Such generality of unenlightened self-interest has not been true of all societies. It was not true of the British Empire at its height. It was not true of the Roman Republic. It was clearly true of the ruling class of Ancien Regime France and with results too well known to comment on. It is just as clearly true of a large part of the ruling/wealth management class of this country today. We all know the classic definition of insanity – repeating the same process but expecting different results. By this definition, the wealth rulers of our nation, if they know anything at all of history, can only be classified as dangerously insane. On August 24th, 410, the aristocrats of Rome suddenly discovered that all of their vast, personal wealth, their estates, their palaces, their legions of slaves, meant nothing when the barbarians burst through the city gates. The Wall Street executive, on his way home to Darien or flying to Aspen for the weekend or enjoying a lunch at 21 that costs more than a school teacher in Nigeria makes in a year (if the teacher is lucky enough to get paid at all), would smile at such an analogy and ask “where are the hoards that threaten our gates?” To this we can only reply “it is a global village you know – have you glanced at the starving masses of the third world lately? It is getting worse every day. How long will it be before they press upon our way of life and where are the resources needed to sustain our defense? You sold them for ‘a mess of potage,’ and we are naked before our enemies.”

The problems we share with the late Roman Empire go well beyond the economy. As imperial deterioration progressed, Rome responded by becoming ever less tolerant of diversity. Inflexibility in matters of religion, morality and philosophy produce a brittle society that can only respond to stress by increased inflexibility until the breaking point is inevitably reached. We can observe a classic and extreme example of this unfolding today in North Korea and another in Iran and can only wonder when and in what form the breakage will take place. We hear frequent hysterical charges leveled today by our own country’s ultra-conservative religious wing that such things as the prevalence of homosexuality and the practice of witchcraft brought down the Roman Empire. Such nonsense reveals an utter ignorance of history. In fact, when Rome was at its most tolerant and libertine, that is when its power was strongest. As the empire aged and weakened, rulers such as Constantine and Theodosius attempted to force unified religion (Christianity) and strict moral codes upon the populace in the ostensible hope of stopping the decay. The decay had nothing to do with either paganism or sexual behavior but those were simple, visible issues that could be set up as straw men to create the impression of a rulership that was in charge and dealing with the problems when in fact, the problems were systemic, at the very core of Rome’s social, political and economic organization and could not be dealt with without a fundamental restructuring which was well beyond the capability of either the rulers or the society at large.

As in the last centuries of the empire, we too are confronting the rise of racial and religious extremists whose loyalty to their own dogma far surpasses their loyalty to the state. Christian Reconstructionists, White Power advocates, secessionists and a plethora of gun nuts and fanatics of various stripes become increasingly active, dangerous and even, lately – murderous. Likewise, the rise of Christianity and the attendant, often bitter and violent schismatic conflicts as well as conflicts with the old pagan establishment tore apart the empire’s fabric of allegiance. Racism too played a role in Rome, as the ingrained prejudice against anyone of germanic extraction prevented some very able men, Stilicho for example, from ascending to the ultimate power they might have used so well.

“Far flung, our navies melt away, on dune and headland sinks the fire…” (Recessional, Rudyard Kipling.) We are now observing the limits of power. By involving ourselves in a horrendously expensive adventure in Iraq we have made a mistake similar to that of the various fourth and Fifth Century Roman generals whose personal desire for aggrandizement caused repeated attempts to usurp the throne. In the century and a half preceding Constantine the Great, approximately 80 generals were, at various times and places, proclaimed emperor by their troops. Between 247 and 270 there were 30 such attempted usurpations. The relationship between these disturbances and our adventure in Iraq rests in the huge expenditure of men and treasure consequently necessary to protect or advance the state’s security – an expenditure having nothing to do with the real security of the state against external dangers and necessitated only by the inflamed egos and power-madness of the men involved. Just as the later emperors, having expended so much of their resources on battling internecine conflict and having exhausted the capability of the working classes to pay taxes, ultimately found themselves unable to sustain the frontiers, so do we find we have little with which to confront the growing dangers in Pakistan and North Korea and nothing at all for the terrible humanitarian crises in Africa. Were China or Russia to become belligerent, what precisely could we now do about it? Our land forces are clearly exhausted. The forced extensions of tours of duty, justified by tissue thin legalities, are reminiscent of similar though more brutal practices employed when the armies of Rome began to run short of recruits. The result – young people viewed the army as a form of slavery to be avoided at all costs. The extent of this is shown by imperial proclamations of severe punishment for youths who amputated their thumbs so that they became ineligible for service because they could no longer hold a weapon.

Today, outside of the officer class, our army is largely composed of people from the lowest socio-economic strata who have joined largely for pecuniary reasons. We have exhausted this mercenary force in conflicts that have no bearing on genuine national security and have run up a phenomenal debt in doing so. Will the day come when we cannot meet the payroll even with the play money that now serves our system? It did for Rome. The historian Eugippius recorded the last days of the last surviving unit of the Roman frontier armies, a detachment at Castra Batava on the Danube, which in 482, sent some men to Italy to obtain the final payroll they would ever hope to receive. Nothing awaited them in Ravenna or Rome but ghosts. Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor, had been deposed ten years before. The Empire of The West had gone down into the depths of history and was silent.

In the lower hall of the Princeton University Art Museum is a long row of portrait busts of ancient Romans. They were clearly men of consequence in their day, though now we no longer know who most of them were. In the stillness of the museum, with only a little imagination, the visitor can hear those men speaking across the millennia. “Be careful,” they whisper, “Rome was, and is no longer. You are, but for how much longer? Learn from our mistakes if you can. If you cannot, there is more room on this shelf, but have your artists carve your names on your busts. Otherwise, when they are dug from the ruins, no one will know who you were.”




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