13 August 2011

Of Gracchi, Gross Domestic Product and Growing Unrest

Looking at the riots in the UK and (earlier this year) Greece, I have to say that I am reminded of Rome in the final days of the Republic. The gulf between rich and poor was growing ever wider, more and more people were dispossessed even as the wealthiest patricians grew ever richer. A revolution was stirring and two brothers, the Gracchi, hoped to ride it by leveraging the power of the plebes to effect change. They were each in turn murdered by a patrician class determined to preserve its power. Within another century, the Republic was swept away in favor of empire and the aspirations of plebes were dashed for another couple of thousand years. In short, there was a revolution and it was successful: it was a revolution by the ruling class to ensure their power would be cemented for a very long time to come. And it worked.

In the early 20th century, the 'plebes' tried again. This time they were successful. And that turned out even worse! We got three generations of mind-numbing, soul-crushing, oppressive dictatorships in the name (but scarcely to the credit or benefit of) the working classes. So revolution from the bottom up was just as helpful as from the top down.*

So perhaps instead of revolutions from either direction, we could perhaps have the wisdom to see the telltale signs of growing disaffection and take rational, reasonable, measured steps to stave off any radical moves from the top or from the bottom? Maybe Western governments need to take the British and Greek riots as wake-up calls and address the underlying causes of discontent . Across the developed world, people are fed up with the working and middle classes having to bail out and pay the price for what is increasingly looking like an oligarchic kakistocracy.

And as far as telltale signs go, how is the looting the poor in London committed different from the looting the banks did of that (and my) country? They were bailed out by everyone (poor included) while their executives were receiving huge bonuses and while the politicians who were supposed to be regulating them were at best absent, at worst complicit. If that's not looting, what is? Why is that morally better than smashing a window and grabbing a TV? My point is not to condone the rioting. It was wrong, period. But I just don't think it was that much morally worse than what the patrician class was already doing (and the riots caused a lot less monetary damage than the bailouts). But how many of those bankers went to jail? Again, I am not - REPEAT NOT - condoning the riots and their violence and destruction. I merely question the wisdom of our society's decision to condemn them while accepting other, equally immoral acts.

I do not say this to rabble-rouse. I am no Bolshevik or revolutionary for any class of people. I mean this as a warning sign: if we kill the Gracchi OR the czars, either way the story ends in blood and tears.

*This is of course a gross oversimplification, but what do you want? It's a blog and I summed it up in two paragraphs!

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