Today, a little perspective. There is an old adage that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Now, in 2016, the citizens of the United States are locked in the process of of making choices which will have an immediate impact on their future, but need to look to history for illustrations of how those decisions have impacted earlier civilizations.
In the past three thousand years, there have been quite a number of important civilizations distributed across this planet. For “civilization,” we should think, experiment in societal living. Civilizations coalesce from groups of people who either choose or are coerced into living by a particular set of rules or within a particular social structure. If the rules and the structure can serve to hold the group of people together, a civilization is born, and it grows up, matures, ages and, in time, fades away or is forcibly replaced by another. Coming from a culture whose roots owe more to European history, we tend to focus on five of these great Civilizations: the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, British Empire and the Americans.
Each of these civilizations was replaced, in turn, by another. In the ancient world, guided by ancient technology and of necessity, the slower spread of global change, the first three of these civilizations overlapped to one degree or another, before the Romans emerged as the dominant civilization of the ancient world. After the fall of Rome, which most scholars date to about 476 A.D., the European world slipped into the Dark Ages and did not emerge from them until the Renaissance of the 1300’s. It would be another almost 300 years before the British Empire became the dominant civilization of its time.
For a moment, let’s look at the Roman Empire and its parallels to our own, American Civilization. The question becomes two-fold. What did the Romans give us (what did they do best?) and why did their civilization collapse?
Well, what did the Romans give us? Architecture! Uh, no, that would be the Greeks. Mathematics! No, that would be the Arabs and the Greeks again. Literature! Again, we really trace our literary roots to the Greeks and Homer, Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle. Religion! Afraid not. The Romans lifted their mythology directly from the Greeks and replaced it toward the end of their Civilization with Christianity, lifted directly from the Jews.
So, why should we remember the Romans? What did they do better than anyone else of their era? The answer, in three little letters, is WAR. The Romans were the greatest, most sophisticated and technologically advanced war machine of their time. They spread out across the Mediterranean, the northern tier of Africa, into the Middle East and Turkey, northward through Europe and into the British Isles, overpowering and enslaving everything in their path. And directly on the heels of that war machine came Roman commerce. Think of a great civilization like a beating heart. Raw materials and treasure from the conquered world flowed back to the heart, were transformed into goods and wealth, and a portion of them flowed back out again to the far reaches of the empire. In short, war made possible the opening of business opportunities for the Romans, and those business opportunities enriched the Roman civilization and made the wealthy aristocracy greedier for more, thus promoting more war.
It became an all consuming fire which was unsustainable as the resources of the empire were spread increasingly thin. So, why did the Roman Civilization fall? Here are seven key reasons:
Crumbling Economy – The Romans reliance on constant war had stretched their internal finances to the breaking point. When the expansion into Europe and Eurasia ground to a halt, the treasure making its way back to Rome dried up. As a result, the government levied oppressive and disproportionate taxes on the citizenry, which only served to widen the economic gap between the rich and the poor. The rich, of course, had the wherewithal to try to escape the tax-man, by moving out of Rome into the further ends of the empire, or through their ability to shape the laws of the land through the Senate which they controlled.
Division of Wealth – Increasingly, there developed a wide gap between the wealthy and the lower echelons of society. The wealthy families owned the land and controlled the government, while the merchant class and slave laborers were tasked with the responsibility of being the craftsmen of the empire and the people who kept the wheels of commerce rolling. All of the knowledge of how day to day things were done fell to the merchant class and, when the economy of Rome collapsed, the merchant class disappeared. With them, that knowledge was lost, so much so that at the start of the Renaissance, some 900 years later, people lived among the ruins of the Roman empire, with no idea how any of it had been built.
Crumbling Infrastructure – The constant expansion of the Roman empire necessitated a tremendous investment in infrastructure. Initially, the building of this vast network of roads, bridges, buildings and aqueducts fell to the merchant class and the engineers within that group. In time though, slave laborers from the further reaches of the Empire were brought in as a cheaper maintenance crew. As the infrastructure aged and crumbled, the people tasked with maintaining it lacked the real knowledge of how to do so and it became a self-perpetuating downward spiral. In recent years, archaeologists have come to believe that part of the fall of the Roman Empire could be attributed to poisoning of the people by lead in the drinking water supply, as lead joints were used to hold the aqueducts together.
Division Into Two Partisan Camps – As the Roman empire expanded, Emperor Diocletian effectively divided the Empire into two halves, Western (Europe) and Eastern (the Middle East and Eurasia). Each half had its own, localized government, and the two found that they were incapable of working together to support the greater Empire. The eastern half, based in Constantinople, which did not come to the aid of the western half when they were attacked by the Vandals and Goths, actually survived the collapse of the Empire and carried on for almost another 1000 years before being subsumed by the Ottoman Turks in the 1400s.
Military Overspending – A civilization dependent upon war for its growth needs to maintain that war machine. The Romans directed the greater portion of their treasure toward the outer fringes of the Empire and the maintenance of that machine. But building walls and fortifications and equipping troops can only go so far in terms of creating a viable internal economy. At a certain point, a military organization on constant “watch” becomes the end of the line for the civilization’s finances, without a feedback loop to grow the economy at home.
Government Corruption – As the empire grew in size, it became increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to govern, and the emperors and the Senate became ever more corrupt in their efforts to “get while the getting’s good.” They robbed the coffers of its treasure and set themselves against each other, resulting in a civil war in which the Empire saw no less than 20 emperors in a span of just 75 years.
Rise of Christianity – Today, we portray the Christian religion as an inherently benevolent institution, but during the time of the Romans, it was the interloper. It was the new way of thinking which would supplant the old, replacing traditional values which had supported the civilization for so long. In the case of the Romans, monotheistic Christianity came to replace polytheistic traditional Roman culture, where the emperor was assumed to be, himself, divine. This shift away from the emperor as the exponent of the divine will, allowed many Romans the opportunity to view their leaders in a new light and to see them for the corrupt institution that they had become. Christianity, in the case of Rome, became a focusing element for the oppressed and disenfranchised, and the focus of what we would today call a “grassroots” opposition.
I hope that many of you are already seeing the parallels between the ancient Romans and ourselves. The political discourse in this year’s election cycle is frighteningly on point in describing the United States as a civilization poised to go the way of Rome. Yes, there was a time when the Unites States provided the world with tremendous advances in science and in art, and exemplified a culture of personal freedom which was the envy of the world, so much so that vast waves of immigration to this country resulted.
Today though, ask anyone around the world what it is that the Americans do best and they will tell you, WAR. The United States is the most powerful war machine in the history of the world. In truth, Americans have always been very good at waging war; it seems to be in our DNA. But it wasn’t until the Second World War that we truly embraced the idea that we could reshape our world, to our advantage, through the use of our military.
This coming December 7th will mark the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor which committed us to full participation in the Second World War. In that time, we have changed from a country loathe to enter into war into one quick to seize upon the opportunities war provides. In recent years, former Secretary of State Clinton has even gone on record to say that the war in Iraq, one based on the coercion of the American people by lies about Saddam Hussein’s ownership of weapons of mass destruction and his harboring of terrorist cells, should now be viewed as a “business opportunity.” Is this the Pax Americana?
And at home, what has been the result?
Crumbling Economy – our military involvement in Iraq alone has cost this country more than 1.1 trillion dollars, despite Dick Cheney’s assurances that it would cost about 80 billion. Saddled with this debt and coupled with a generation of economic expansion which has seen huge numbers of jobs sent overseas to the far-flung reaches of our own influence, our economy has been in a tailspin for some fifteen years.
Division of Wealth – In the United States, the top 1% of the population controls more money than the bottom 90% of the populace. The bottom 80% only controls about 7% of the wealth. The gap in monetary holdings between the top 10% and the middle class is a difference of over 1000% and the top 1% own over 1000% more than the top 10%. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The middle (merchant) class is gradually disappearing. And, until the surprising rise of populist political figure Bernie Sanders, the rich have chosen the politicians and the policies on which our government is run. Also, like Ancient Rome, the wealthy, through their control of governmental legislation, have been able to rig the tax system to their favor, putting a greater onus on the middle classes to foot the bills of the country, and widening the gulf between rich and poor in the process.
Crumbling Infrastructure – One side effect of the crumbling economy has been the loss of jobs or the decline of income of millions of tax-paying Americans. With less paid in taxes at a federal, state or local level, there is less money in the coffers to maintain the infrastructure of the country. American cities are crumbling and, like ancient Rome, we are witnessing crises such as the lead water poisoning of Flint, Michigan. Coincidence?
Division Into Two Partisan Camps – The Obama administration has been characterized by the further divisions between the Republicans and the Democrats, to such an extent that each is capable of blocking the efforts of the other to get anything in Washington done. As a result, we have a political divide in this country in which neither side is willing to compromise with the other, a state of stasis is created and nothing changes. Of course, it could be argued that for the individuals in government and the wealthiest Americans who profit under the current system, everything for them is just hunky-dory. Who needs to change that?
Military Overspending – Like the Romans, our civilization has become one which is dependent upon the use of our military as a mechanism for spreading our business interests around the globe. As such, that military must be maintained and upgraded at all times, at considerable expense. Yearly, the United Sates spends some $597.5 billion on the military, four times the amount of the next closest nation (China, at some $145 billion). Also, like the Romans, it could be argued that this expenditure is unsustainable, or certainly that it redirects money away from other areas where the nation could more widely spend it (health care, infrastructure, poverty, education, etc.).
Government Corruption – Perhaps the single most important issue of this campaign season, has focused on the corruption within our government. In recent years, all of our politicians have been held up to the same standard, viewed in the same light, and this is because they have essentially been interchangeable parts in a machine that runs in the same way, no matter who comprises its mechanism. The wealthy individuals, corporations and institutions, like Wall Street, which have chosen, supported, and bank-rolled our candidates for so long, have seen to that. This year, we have seen that institutions like Goldman Sachs have backed both Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz, two very different politicians with different agendas. Why? The simple explanation is that Goldman Sachs stands to benefit in the same way from either of them. They have no care as to who becomes our President, only that their own interests are protected. Corruption, ultimately is about either power or money, and in America, they are one and the same. In years past, we have had the choice of two candidates who have each belonged to the same establishment, with the net result of their terms that their wealthy supporters have continued to prosper while the rest of us have settled into a steady decline. This year, a candidate of the people, Bernie Sanders, has emerged as a new paradigm against which the establishment must be viewed. And to the majority of working Americans, the establishment is not looking too good.
Rise of Christianity – Unlike the Romans, where Christianity was the new model, for us it represents the traditional values. However, what we have seen in recent years in this country among a subset of the voters, is a shift away from the modern form of our Christianity toward an embracing of a more hard-line, arch conservative Christianity. In identifying this group, of course, we mean to indicate the far-right wing of the Republican party, and their intention to recalibrate our culture along a much more constrained line of acceptable behavior. To say that they represent traditional values, one really must look as far back as the Puritans. Christianity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries was considerably more enlightened. There is though, a flip side to this coin. What the rise of Christianity may have meant to the demise of the civilization of ancient Rome, is best expressed in the form of the cultural revolution to which it gave rise. Today, we are witnessing a large group of people within our own society who have chosen to embrace a new model of belief, a cultural revolution centered in the needs of the middle and working classes, and moving away from the established power structures enforced by the wealthy elite. It remains to be seen if this cultural revolution is also unstoppable.
I believe that you can see that there are powerful points of comparison between the cultures of Ancient Rome and the American experiment in democracy. All of us need to be concerned that continuing along the same path that we have been for more than forty years, will result in a better than average chance that our civilization will collapse under the same weight that crushed the Romans. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.” We should all accept that changes are necessary to the continued existence of our culture. Interestingly, though changes do not require that we put the wealthy aristocrats to the sword (though it may come to that). The wealthy power brokers just need to understand that they need to protect their long-term interests by fixing their chronic short-sightedness.
At the outset of this article, I referenced the British Empire as another of the major civilizations. Well, what happened to them? They took a different path. Like the Romans, the British were with most powerful military force of their day and, like the Romans, they colonized the known world. As the saying goes, “The sun never set on the British Empire.” But, unlike the Romans, they came to see the writing on the wall.
They saw that continual military expansion was unsustainable and they asked themselves the question of what was really important to their continued growth. The answer was that it was commerce on a large scale among nations which shared some core common values. So, the British, unlike the French, Belgians, Spanish or Russians, made plans to work their way out of the job of holding so much territory through military force. They were noted for bringing local people into government and teaching them a means by which a nation could be sustained. Money was invested in building trade routes and solidifying partnerships with other countries.
Were they incorruptible angels? Of course not. But when you look to the geopolitical map of the world and see the places which were colonized by the British, they tend to have the more stable government institutions and the better relationships with global economic partners. Perhaps there is something to be learned from history here as well.