Sunday, August 7, 2011

Panem et circenses, bread and circuses

Decimus Junius Juvenalis, better known as Juvenal, an ancient Roman writer who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., wrote bitter satires about the Rome of his time. Bread and circuses, "panem et circenses" in Latin, referred to the free distribution of food and violent gladiator contests held in the Coliseum, as well as the chariot races of the Circus Maximum. It points to a period during the decline of the Roman Empire when Romans had lost the capacity to rule themselves, distracted by mindless entertainment provided by a dictatorial sham of a government.

We are living, in the decline of the “Pax Americana,’ (surely a satirical term coined by those who would involve us in ever more war and police actions throughout the planet), in a time of mindless entertainment and personal pleasure. As in those times deplored by Juvenal, we bow to authority without a second thought, with no concern for ethics or for the consequences of our imperial arrogance on the world before us and beyond us. We seek, and our government provides, short-term solutions to long-term problems, and in the end, we pay the price.

One of the basic strains in the ‘music’ that makes up our common undertaking is the war against labor. Workers fought and died to make the eight hour work day a staple. Through the long years of corporate-paid thugs breaking up protest and killing activists, the gains of the labor movement heralded an unprecedented time of workers' rights in this country and throughout the world. Because of the Haymarket affair in Chicago during the 1860's, when workers throughout the country held a general strike and were beaten and killed to prevent their joint organization, the greater part of the world celebrates Labor Day on May 1st. Every other country celebrates International Working Woman’s Day on March 8th, again because of the activities of working women, especially young immigrant girls, in New York and other places, seeking an end to employer abuse.

But in our video-game and giant entertainment world (panem et circenses), when more and more people are coming out of schools ‘functionally illiterate,” we have little time for the concerns or protection of labor, or for the lessons of history. Employers then and now fund and engage in atrocities. After all, then, cheap labor was available in the next boatload of desperate immigrants. These days we can always play the immigration tag game. Years later, families such as the Bush family would fund Nazi atrocities. But the populace, engrossed in its games, fails to notice how workers' hard-won right to bargain is suppressed, here and abroad, how capital, unfettered and frontier-less, now rules the world, whereas workers have gone back to subsistence mode.

Alas, after a hard day at work and play, the people must sleep.

No comments: