Arguments for the Perceived Impending Revival of Imperialism

Or: Find the Emperor

(This node presents an idea I've had for a long time, but its noding has been inspired by slide's Arguments for the Perceived Approaching Meltdown of American Capitalism, which presents an alternative speculation on the future. This node is fairly wildly speculative, and no-one should feel compelled to believe a word I say. I'm not at all sure I believe all of this - but it's worth a think.)

In recent years there have been many criticisms of the capitalist systems by which most of the world's economies - even in China - operate. Since September 11, 2001, these have been accompanied by dire warnings from people on both sides of the anti-capitalist debate to suggest that the collapse of capitalism is, for better or for worse, imminent.

I disagree.

For better or worse, capitalism is pretty safe. Some of its individual practitioners may get hurt - Enron for example - but capitalism (is it seems to me) a hardy weed, capable of springing up anywhere. What's more likely is that the control structures over the top of at least some of this capitalism are going to change into something uncomfortably familiar.

Some of the following ideas are based on a partial and probably partially inaccurate understanding of the development of the Roman Empire. Bear with me - the trends inspiring these observations exist or not independently of my ideas about history repeating itself.

Argument 1: The Single European Currency

Before the governorship of Julius Caesar in Gaul, the domains of the Roman Republic minted their own currencies fairly freely. An example of this (slightly later, but also slightly outside the then bounds of the Empire) would be the Celtic coinage of Tasciovanus minted at St Albans. This meant that traders could trade freely, but relied on the stability of the individual currencies in which they trafficked. Then, as Roman dominion and taxation grew, the denarius, the sesterce and the aureus, as approved by Rome, became standard. This had advantages - traders could rely on fair rates of exchange from York to Jerusalem - but also disadvantages, not least of which was the more or less galloping inflation which was to plague the Empire in later years. The other thing about the single denarius was, to quote Jesus, this: 'Whose is the name and superscription?' The single currency was a tool to distribute the Imperial image, and by implication the Imperial Cult and the Empire itself, to the four corners of the earth.

Fast forward two thousand years, and meet the Euro and the Dollar - two currencies which, between them, consume a vast quantity of the world's money, especially if currencies tied to them are included, such as, until recently, that of Argentina. Needless to say, the Almighty Dollar is already a well-known symbol the world over, and if the Euro survives, it's likely to share those honours. (Why does it say 'New World Order1' in Latin on the Dollar bill?) The introduction of the Euro has heralded calls for a single European tax system, in order to render commerce more equitable between countries within the zone. It is unlikely that these taxes, if introduced, would be implemented according to the somewhat more rigorous democratic standards of the individual member states, but rather by the European Parliament or the 'eurocrats' in Brussels.

Argument 2: Ubi Solitudinem...

They make a desert, and they call it peace. In his 2002 State of the Union Address, George W Bush stated that he perceived an 'Axis of Evil' in the world, including former enemies Iran and Iraq. Aside from the obvious reference to the Axis powers of World War II, the President's remark suggests that the 'peace' brought to Afghanistan may be more liberally distributed in years to come. He has also spoken of 'a war to last a generation'. George W Bush's approval rating is at 80% - a record. Caesar, we recall, gained much of his fortune and his political influence - especially with the all-important military lobby - by insisting on the right to fight long campaigns in Gaul. It seems fairly clear that the present US administration is intent on exporting various aspects of its culture to the ends of the earth, and striking against countries whose present danger to the US is only suspected, but whose past oppression is known. This can only be good news for the arms industry, and for those whose products constitute the so-called culture under export. Until recently, that would have included Enron and WorldCom.

Since the original composition of this essay, the outbreak of Gulf War II has given a certain amount of confirmation to predictions that the Bush administration would be belligerent. Despite the claims of Fox News and the like, Al-Qaida is not based in Baghdad, and the logical jump from the 'war on terrorism' to an invasion of a sovereign state looks decidedly imperialist to many more critical observers outside the United States. Inside the United States, voicing such opinions may make you unpopular. At the time of writing this addendum (April 6, 2003) the United States is in the process of setting up its interim occupation government in Iraq. It remains to be seen how long this 'interim' lasts, and whether it will be the interests of Iraq, or of the USA, which that government defends. As a further note to my snide remarks about Enron and WorldCom above, Halliburton paid a six-figure sum in 'back pay' to vice-president Dick Cheney, and shortly afterward were granted an enormous contract for 'rebuilding' Iraq. When the wastelands of Iraq have been declared 'pacified', no doubt this and other companies will find a great deal to do, and a large profit to be made from the destruction of Iraq by American forces.

Argument 3: Vox populi, vox Dei

The voice of the people is the voice of God. In republican times in Rome, the people were represented by delegates called tribunes, whose representation was based upon their speaking for a specified tribe. The tribunes subsequently became, as did all the former republican officers, ciphers for a mainly plutocratic Empire. In the modern 'West', much has been made of civil rights and equal opportunities, and rightly so. But practices such as affirmative action, together with artificial distinctions from African American to Gay Fiction and American History to Asian implying (or excluding) non-Chinese have led to the movement for equality getting a bad name. The freedom to succeed based on talent rather than race, class or other factors has become undermined by self-interest, just as the trade union movement has been. More and more decisions are taken by unelected bureaucrats to satisfy the whims of pressure groups who do not represent their avowed constituency - think of Muslim extremists here, although they're not presently being placated by anyone much. The logical conclusion to this - which I hope will not be taken - is that people are to be represented not on the grounds of which politicians they approve of, but of which minority group they can be shoe-horned into by ignorant clerks. The motivation of the representatives so selected may be guessed at. Would a black liberal be better represented by a white liberal or a black separatist?

Argument 4: Pecunia non olet

Cash never stinks. In modern politics, as in the days of the Caesars, money leads directly to political influence. Just as Caesar's inclusion of Marcus Licinius Crassus in the First Triumvirate was necessary to secure his financial clout, so Tony Blair needs his cronies and George W Bush his friends in industry. Popularity is still the name of the game, but it's a highly select popularity. Vespasian, who coined the phrase at the top of this section, was merely referring to a tax on sewerage. Modern sources of funding smell rather worse - warplanes, anthrax and its antidotes, electro-shock batons and nuclear reagents.

Argument 5: Multum in parvo

A little goes a long way. Especially if that little is an abusable consulship, or the Supreme Court of the United States of America. Julius Caesar's consulship was blighted by his fellow consul Bibulus, who chose to spend the entire year in office deliberately awaiting an omen that never came, and thus effectively vetoing Caesar's will. Caesar's response was to get the Senate to make him governor of Gaul for two five-year terms. (The normal term was much shorter.) Later, he also got himself declared Life Dictator (a post with a one-year term) - a decision which was to get him killed. The Romans feared Caesar becoming king. His adopted son, Augustus, subsequently became the first Emperor. No doubt the people of Rome had come to wonder what the SPQR on their banners stood for. And now, in the UK the Electoral Commission effectively controls the status of your constituency; in the United States the (unelected) Supreme Court can decide the result of an election without recourse to the will of the people.

Argument 6: For the Ashes of his Fathers...

Like the USA, the Roman Republic had its basis in an anti-monarchist revolution. According to legend, Lucius Junius Brutus had led the revolt which expelled the corrupt king Tarquinius Superbus. The early days of the Republic were looked back to in later times as a golden age of democracy and freedom. The poem by Lord Macaulay quoted at the head of this section and next one is an English version of the Roman traditional poetry about that early era. In it, the political leaders who stand firm against those who would restore the monarchy are shown as being just as much a part of the populace as anyone else. The elderly consul takes up an axe to destroy the bridge the invaders must cross, and the reward of the hero Horatius at the end is a farm. In another story from the early Republic, the statesman Cincinnatus is out ploughing his fields when the elders come to ask him to be dictator. Cincinnatus, by the bye, indirectly gives his name to the American city of Cincinnati. Even as Rome changed from republic to empire, its leaders looked to their forebears for inspiration. It is no coincidence that Marcus Junius Brutus, who conspired to assassinate his friend Julius Caesar for fear that Caesar would become king, traced his ancestry back to the Brutus who had expelled the last king from Rome.

The USA, like the Roman Republic, looks back on its early days with reverence. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln give their names to hundreds of towns, streets and sites across the country. Their images, immediately recognisable, are icons of the ideals they embraced and the nation they fought to create and sustain. As is often the case in times of adversity, the Second World War gave rise to a new generation of state heroes. Particularly notable in this regard is Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose personal failings are usually overlooked by those who look to him as a figurehead of resistance against fascism. Since September 11, 2001, leaders like Tony Blair, Rudolph Giuliani and of course President Bush have invoked Churchill as an example of fortitude in the face of cruelty, extremism and hatred. But like M Junius Brutus and his contemporaries, today's leaders may, wittingly or unwittingly, be presiding over the demise of the democracy they so loudly defend.

Argument 7: ...and the Temples of his Gods

Religion was a powerful force in the Roman Empire. Not because the people were very devout - they weren't - but because it was a sign of middle-class status and favour with the Emperor to hold a priesthood, even if you were only Guardian of the Sacred Bucket. High-ranking priestly positions went to the top dogs. Julius Caesar himself was High Priest (Pontifex Maximus) - a post later assumed by the Emperors. In modern America, religious values are used by the likes of the 700 club to pursue their own agendas - see the note earlier about pressure groups - and religious observance is a sign of status for many leaders, from Tony Blair's flirtations with the Catholic Church to Hamid Karzai's hard-line Islam. The post of Archbishop of Canterbury recently had to be filled, and many expected Mr Blair to manipulate this appointment as he did that of the Bishop of Liverpool - who is one of the candidates. In fact, the Times newspaper leaked the favoured nomination in advance, leading to some highly undemocratic lobbying by extremist groups. The PM chose the candidate that Rupert Murdoch's press said he would. That candidate was immediately photographed by The Sun endorsing the Simpsons - all Murdoch properties.

Argument 8: Panem et Circenses

Bread and circuses kept the citizens of Rome amused. Conspicuous consumption, though not necessarily seen as being in good taste, was a popular way for the upper classes - usually syonymous with heads of companies, etc - to demonstrate their alleged superiority. The circus and amphitheatre, on the other hand, were great popular entertainments, shared by rich and poor alike, due to clever seat pricing. The Circus Maximus - the main racing track - could seat 250,000 - more than most football stadia today. But the Flavian Amphitheatre - known to us as the Colosseum - was the more infamous scene of entertainment. Gladiators and wild beasts fought to the death on the arena's sand on a regular basis for the titillation of the crowds. Not everyone approved, but there was general support for the spectacle. Nero, at an earlier arena, used to throw lottery tickets and other valuables into the crowd, so that he could watch the public fight one another.

Nowadays, with the development of the mass media, we're able to enjoy Big Brother, Survivor, Jackass and other sophisticated forms of amusement in the comfort of our own homes. The people are indeed kept amused by bread and circuses. The blood-sport nature of reality TV should not be overlooked. Although the intention may not be to harm the participants, nevertheless, the exposure they receive can be very harmful. The first person to be evicted from a reality TV show, on Sweden's Expedition Robinson (the model for Survivor) killed himself not long after his return to Sweden. Despite this, the format has been enthusiastically exported to (and subsequently by) the United States. And in an impressive return to form, a video recently went on the market entitled 'Bumfight' which features the, er, edifying spectacle of members of the public (tramps, to be exact) fighting each other.

The 'bread' aspect of Bread and Circuses is important too. In 69 AD, Vespasian was able to defeat his rival for the Imperium, Vitellius, by occupying the ports of North Africa from which the millions of tons of grain needed to feed Rome were shipped. It was always true of Rome, and particularly so in the century or more in which it became a true empire, that the territories it conquered were exploited to feed the huge appetite of the City itself. In a time when most countries were tribal lands with populations numbered in hundreds of thousands at most, metropolitan Rome alone housed well over a million, fed by a grain dole which was guaranteed by each succeeding emperor.

These days, the industrialised world is confident of its own ability to produce enough grain to keep people fed, to the extent of subsidising its own farmers to keep doing so. However, whereas advances in farming techniques can provide wealthy nations with large supplies of food, nothing can significantly increase the amount of available fossil fuels, on which those very nations (and indeed, their farmers) rely for power. Throughout the twentieth century, and especially in recent years, the availability of oil has been a significant motivation for political and military conflict. While it is not necessarily fair to repeat the often-used accusation that most wars in the Middle East are about oil, the generalisation does reflect something of the truth. When retreating Iraqi forces torched the oil wells of Kuwait in 1991, they were making a gesture that showed a belief in the importance of the 'black gold' to both sides in the conflict. The terrorist attack in October 2002 on a French oil tanker off Yemen, and the perceived connection between George W Bush's oil company links and his interest in attacking Iraq both underscore this theme. Oil is the lifeblood of the American empire, and control of oil is necessary for it to maintain its status and the lifestyles of its citizens.

Argument 9: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who watches the watchers? The Office of Homeland Security is a massive entity, and it seems accountable only to President Bush himself. Combined with the extensive snooping powers proposed (and freqeuntly put off) in both the UK and the US, this agency represents both a tremendous tool for fighting terrorism, and a good way to spy on innocent citizens. As in the Joseph McCarthy era, American patriotism is at a high, and loyalty to the Union is being emphasised at the expense of individual expression. Similar security networks enabled Roman emperors like Caligula and Nero to pick on people they felt opposed them, and to root out dissent of all kinds. Whilst we can hope that the OHS is used for ensuring the safety of people everywhere, there exists the risk that it will also be used to infringe people's rights and impose a set view of patriotism on Americans. John Poindexter's work at the Information Awareness Office is a similarly threat to the privacy and personal security of individual Americans (and others).

Argument 10: Lingua Franca

As the Roman Republic mutated into an Empire, the 'free tongue' of Latin overtook Greek as the language of commerce, intellectual discourse and diplomacy. It developed technical vocabularies, and a famously esoteric set of abbreviations and acronyms, used on everything from personal letters to monumental inscriptions. One of the most lasting legacies of Rome's four-hundred year dominion was the use of Latin for all practical purposes. Their Byzantine successors in Constantinople and their spiritual heirs in the Roman Catholic church perpetuated the usage, and although French and English were to make gains early on, Latin remained the Common Tongue for a thousand years after the original empire had vanished. French, Italian, Romanian, Portugese, Castilian and numerous other languages derive directly from this wide usage of Latin. Even today, so much of the world's knowledge and cultural heritage is encoded in this apparently dead language that it is taught not only as a philological curiosity but as a tool to understanding two millennia of history.

But now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, English is the language that is spoken everywhere. Like Latin, it is rich in specialised vocabulary, poetic and literary flexibility, and terse abbreviations for all purposes. Without a language academy, new ideas are able to be adopted and described very rapidly. But equally, the ideas and concepts which are spread by the use of a common language are likely to be those of the largest nation where it is spoken. American English spelling effectively stops at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but its tropes, euphemisms, slang expressions and allusions go right the hell on into Europe. Scandals are awarded names ending in -gate in reference to Watergate; the British may be shaky on the Second Amendment, but they've all heard of the Fifth; you can bet your bottom dollar that ball-park figures, home runs and donuts with no 'dough' are making themselves at home in the English of Australians, New Zealanders and Brits alike. And all this cultural traffic not only marginalises other languages (much to the dismay of a would-be Swedish speaker like me) but makes it easier for the ideas and ideals of the dominant nation to permeate the societies of those who learn the universal language.

Argument 11: Let me have men about me that are fat

Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights. The system of civil service in the United States ensures that administrative as well as policy functions of all arms of government are headed by the partisans of the sitting President. The current administration is particularly interesting for its close entwinement with the Project for the New American Century, an organisation which presses for an increase in the United States' already extreme defence spending. It also seeks to place American foreign policy in the uncomfortable role of defending and promoting distinctively American interests and values, while involving itself closely in the political lives of other, independent nations. As the definition of 'American values' necessarily differs from era to era and administration to administration, what this principle in fact means is the imposition, to some extent, of the political views of the sitting American president on his foreign allies - and, of course, on his enemies. The current adventure in Iraq can be seen as the fruition of such a policy, as can the use of American economic influence to derail the full acceptance of the International Criminal Court.

Oolong says 'Impending?'

Of course, I could just be speculating wildly and inaccurately. Indulge me, and keep a close eye on the world stage.

1: Literally 'new order of the ages', in fact, but why let something like Latin grammar get in the way of a good conspiracy theory?

So Writeups That Represent The Authors' Opinion As Universal Fact Are Bad, hmm? That's good, because I don't. I saw the same softlink at the bottom of slide's WU too, and that doesn't either. Just because you don't follow the suggested connections in this WU doesn't mean I tried to make you.

Yes! Everything is clear! These Arguments for the Perceived Impending Invasion of Earth by Atomic-Powered Killbots from Planet X are the solution to all our political problems!

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