Bread and circuses

March 21, 2019

If we are fortunate – and I have to count myself as such – then it’s possible to live more or less surrounded by people like oneself, with the same general interests and pleasures, a similar outlook on life, similar political opinions and perhaps religious or spiritual beliefs and practices

While this is very comforting and pleasant, I realise this has given me a rather limited picture of real life.

So, although 34% or so of the British electorate voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago, I’ve only ever had a conversation with one of them. Although I know a few people who are Conservatives (in the political party sense) I don’t have political discussions with them. Most people who I choose to discuss ideas with are as liberal or radical as I am. Thus we elaborate, explore and refine our own fairly narrow set of ideas, without ever being really challenged.

Then I look at the world out there, and read the newspapers (which reflect my own interests and opinions, of course) and it seems to be mayhem all around: crypto-fascists and sexists abound along with climate-change deniers, the super-rich and the arrogant entitled.

Turn all this on its head, and I’m pretty sure one might say the same about lots of other small groups of people, their beliefs and opinions: no contact, no discussion, no change. And yet, at some level, we also have to operate in the belief that most people are decent and well-intentioned, with the interests of themselves, their families, nearest and dearest at heart, just like us: we are all decent, and we are all ignorant and separate and divided from each other.

Partly, this is both necessary and inevitable: we can’t know and care deeply about everyone we see, no matter how we would try; we have to manage and get on with our own daily lives and survival, and inevitably we prioritise our time and attention, as well as our emotions. However, in my darker moments, I realise that there are some in the world who are perfectly happy with this atomisation, people whose interests it serves. Money – lots of it – can be made out of keeping us separated from each other.

Keeping us from understanding each other, through the media and propaganda, keeps divided groups of people who might otherwise find common cause with each other and then attempt – shock, horror – to change things in ways which those currently pulling all the strings might not like.

Divide et impera – divide and conquer – has been a prime mover of the powerful for centuries, millennia, as has panem et circenses – bread and circuses. Keep everyone in separate, manageable small groups and there will be no threats to the existing order of things; keep them well-supplied with things that take their minds off thinking that the system does them no service, and they will be less likely to ask awkward questions. Make survival a challenge for most people so they don’t have time to think about the system that makes it so…

This holds true now: anti-racists are busy demanding certain things, feminists demand different things; workers want this and the middle classes want that; environmentalists tell us that this is the most important thing to address whilst pacifists disagree and foreground something different. And what we must not realise, above all, is that it’s the current economic system that’s at the heart of everything that is unjust, unfair, inequitable, and that must surely be changed and transformed first.

That economic system works really hard to provide the bread and circuses: cheap food and clothing, endless entertainment, social media if you like or need that sort of thing; an ever-changing kaleidoscope of new culinary experiences from all parts of the world, bucket lists of expensive experiences and travels if you like to imagine yourself a cut above the hoi-polloi… it’s all the same thing, in the end: a diversion from what we must not be allowed to look at or think about in detail.

And if the fog-machine of the powerful breaks down, there will be vicious brute force to ensure that everyone knows their place: you only have to look back at British, American, Russian, Chinese history to see that. Again I find myself in the same place: able to see clearly enough what is going on, and what it would be good to change, and no idea at all how an entire species might find out, decide it wants change, and actually change things in a peaceful way so that everyone might share the benefits.

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