cross-posted at polticsofselfishness.com
In 49 B.C. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and installed himself as an emperor in all but name, with the support of his garrisons and the enthusiastic embrace of Rome’s hard-scrabble plebeians who, deprived of opportunities for meaningful work, had been anesthetized by a program of bread and circuses. The Roman Republic then began its long, slow, inevitable decline.
But unmistakable signs of dry-rot had existed long before, as the patrician class continued to amass disproportionate wealth and power, and as Rome transformed itself from a prosperous city-state, whose wealth was derived from trade and agriculture, into an imperial power that extended the reaches of its empire throughout Europe, East Asia and North Africa and came to depend for its upkeep upon plunder and quick fixes.
By the time Rome was sacked in 410 and 455 A.D., by Alaric and Genseric respectively, Rome’s death knell was formally sounded. As Rome withered and died, it was too impoverished to bring its far-flung legions home. Many of those legionnaires were then slaughtered by the barbarians, while the fortunate survivors mingled and intermarried into the local population. As the Glory that was Rome faded into the Middle Ages, the Pax Romana was replaced in Western Europe by the gated communities of that era - castles surrounded by moats and protected by private armies that were unable to stem the mounting violence.
Subsequent historians have attributed Rome’s demise to a number of causes. Among those were political instability and the excessive costs incurred in maintaining an empire, particularly as the western part of the empire produced and exported less and less but spent lavishly on imports from the east. In addition, over time, Rome’s extensive network of roads - which linked its widely dispersed citizens together and provided easy access to resources and enabled the speedy transport of its legions - was allowed to decay. Also, as the population of those who were deemed to be entitled to the benefits of Roman citizenship declined, “guest workers” increasingly populated the ranks of the legions and increasing poverty caused many plebeians to sell themselves into slavery.
Historical analogies are rarely precise and, given the speed at which military weapons can be launched and forces can be dispatched, along with modern communications and transport, it is unlikely that any great power in the world today will ever be permitted to decline as slowly as did Rome over a four to five hundred year period. It is more likely that any such collapse will be sudden and catastrophic as financial markets implode and chaos overwhelms the public order.
Such a possible scenario casts into stark relief recent economic and political developments in the U.S. In a report released by the Brookings Institute last year, Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, as part of The Hamilton Project (“A Record Decline in Government Jobs: Implications for the Economy and America's Workforce”) documented a continuing, precipitous decline in the number of public sector jobs as total government employment at the state, local, and federal employment decreased by more 580,000 jobs between 2009 and 2012.
The authors noted that “As State and local governments, faced with tough choices imposed by the confluence of balanced-budget requirements, falling tax revenues, and greater demand for public services, have been forced to lay off teachers, police officers, and other workers.”
As a consequence, to cite only one example, in 2011, Greenstone and Looney reported that there were more than 220,000 fewer teachers in America’s classrooms than in 2009, “a reduction accounting for nearly forty percent of the decrease in public-sector jobs during this period. This decline in the number of teachers increased the student-teacher ratio by 5.9 percent.”
As state and local governments increasingly struggle to meet their legal and financial obligations, at the federal level sequestration will continue to gut the number public sector jobs and the availability of public services, and will deprive millions of American adults and their children of needed nutritional programs, access to public health care, police protection, and quality education. The inability to hire engineers, to repair crumbling bridges, roads, railways and to dredge waterways will further signal this country’s decline. In addition, the lay-offs of safety and environmental inspectors, financial regulators and consumer protection agents will result in citizens suffering exposure to unsafe, dangerous and deadly products, as incidents of pollution-caused illnesses, tainted or adulterated food products, defective, shoddy consumer products, and financial fraud and irregularities are likely to increase exponentially.
Here in the U.S. the 1%, aided by their captive media and the GOP, stridently oppose government regulation and investment in the public sector, and volubly advocate further privatization. Without a scintilla of empirical evidence, they insist that the market place, when unfettered by onerous regulations and left to its own devices, allocates goods and services more efficiently and becomes the engine of a broad-based prosperity.
Since the advent of the Reagan era, the data has belied that argument, which is based upon an almost theological commitment to the discredited economic beliefs of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. As Isaiah Berlin noted, “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep."Anyone who doubts the validity of that observation needs only to ponder the present plight of Detroit or the struggles now faced by the population of Clinton, Ohio, that Robert Putnam describes in this past Sunday’s article on inequality in The New York Times,entitled “Crumbling American Dreams.”
The documentary film Detropia graphically illustrates the price that this country and the children of the middle class are now paying because we have permitted, in the name of privatization and free enterprise, the public sector to implode and its employees to be demonized, our manufacturing base to be dismantled, unions to be crushed, and jobs to be out-sourced in return for an unrestrained flood of cheap, often subsidized imported goods and products. As a consequence, we have allowed ourselves to become a virtual colony of China and other exported-driven countries while Wall Street, after converting the U.S. into a low-wage, service economy, is the tail that is permitted to wag the dog.
In Detropia, George McGregor, an official from the United Auto Workers, desperately tries to protect his members from extreme pay cuts demanded by companies such as American Axle. Its management, before it moved all of its manufacturing jobs to Mexico, informed McGregor in negotiations that it didn’t care whether or not his UAW members enjoyed a living-wage.
Tommy Stephens, a bar owner and former teacher - who is the film’s most memorable person - laments the demise of the middle class Detroit in which he grew up. He ruminates about the loss of hope and opportunity as the middle class descends into poverty. At the end, he observes that the middle class has played an indispensable role in the development of capitalism: it has served as a buffer that protected the wealthy elite and their possessions from the vengeance of the poor. Without that buffer of hope and opportunity, Stephens ruefully predicts that people will be left with no other option but to revolt.
Privatization is the enemy of civil society and contrary to every precept of social justice.The poet Hesiod describes the dwelling place of Thanatos, the demon personification of the underworld in Greek mythology: "And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful gods.The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and the sea's broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him is pitiless as bronze: whomso- ever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods."
Is the pitiless spirit that Hesiod describes an augury of our collective future? Mounting evidence suggests that effects of privatization, if not reversed, will continue to draw this country into a death-spiral from which it will become ever more difficult to extricate ourselves.