“Panem et circenses” or “bread and circuses”, observes the Roman satirical poet Juvenal (55-140 AD) are the only remaining cares of a Roman populace which has given up its birthright of political freedom. The life of Juvenal coincided with one of the most eventful periods of Roman history, one in which the weaknesses and failures of the government and the corruption and decadence of society were especially grave and evident . He resents the growing power of the moneyed classes, the traders, and the freedmen and the displacement of traditional Roman centers of power. The government kept the Roman populace happy by distributing free food and staging huge spectacles. Free grain and controlled food prices meant that plebeians could not starve, while free entertainment – such as chariot races and gladiators in amphitheaters and the Circus Maximus – meant that they would not get bored and restless, basically this keeps the plebian mob from rioting.
With the present economic model now discredited, it’s time to devise a new narrative to guide our economies in a way that prevents neoliberalism’s excesses, promotes universal well-being as an economic imperative and ensures nationalism doesn’t once again win the battle of ideas. Between June 2007 and November 2008, working-class Americans lost an estimated average of more than a quarter of their collective net worth – a failure of the governing elites defined by the biggest decline in consumption and investment since the Great Depression. Donald Trump’s appearance on the world stage is accelerating our understanding of the scope of failure of the neoliberal version of globalization and the risks associated with not addressing it. This flags the urgency for structural changes in society that need to be taken in order to overcome social problems, as well as avoid the easy-sounding solutions (surveillance, censorship, control, policing, law and order) of creeping fascism, that are now advanced.
Nobody, looking back at the first two decades of this century, can suggest that the political, economic and financial elites who brought you the euro crisis, the war in Iraq, the Great Recession of 2008, growing inequality and middle-class income stagnation have not made some very serious mistakes, of very enduring consequences, with very startling impunity. A lot of that anger and distrust toward large institutions remains to this day. A common complaint against twenty-first century democracy is that it has lost control of corporate power. Big companies hoard wealth and influence. They fuel inequality. They despoil the planet. They don’t pay their taxes. In the Third World neoliberal reforms produced a politically connected but small nouveau riche, with the majority of the population excluded and increasingly resentful. The transitional governments struggle to reformulate economic policies in a way that delivers meaningful growth to this previously alienated majority.
“Bread, freedom and social justice” was the protest call of Egypt’s Arab Spring. This sentence was coined eight years ago, during the January 25th uprising. One of the many reasons that drove scores of Egyptians to leave their homes and take to the street was the worsening situation for not only the country’s poor, but also a multi-layered middle class which was struggling to make ends meet. Eight hundred and sixty-two innocent souls were killed for seeking change in 2011. More than a quarter of Egypt’s 85-million-strong population currently lives below the poverty line, and many depend on bread subsidies which saw major reform in 2014. Under the new system, families were issued “smart cards” allowing them to buy five loaves per day for each family member. “[It is] a successful policy, it guarantees that those who are in dire need of the subsidized bread, get it,” claims Abdallah Khalil, a legal researcher formerly with the U.N. Development Program.1
Control of the working class, poor, and marginalized has shifted from the dispensing of public services to the use of prisons, and is justified with the argument that the citizenry must take on personal responsibility. Along with an expansion of the prison system, neoliberalism has given rise to a new punitive common sense, which normalizes the economic competitiveness of the neoliberal economy, the insecurities involved in a precarious labor market, and criminalization of poverty. Zero-tolerance policies, which date back to Nixon’s war on drugs in the early 1970s, are now regularly used to control working-class and poor youth throughout our neoliberal society. Law enforcement and school officials compound the matter by implementing zero-tolerance policies in the name of public safety. The result is that minority youth who have been suspended, expelled, or adjudicated in the juvenile justice system will likely be fed into the school-to-prison-pipeline and be further excluded from neoliberal society.
A surplus population under capitalism has a purpose: It exists as a reserve army of the unemployed, which can be mobilized rapidly in periods of economic expansion and as a source of downward pressure on the demands for compensation and safe work conditions made by the employed. Therefore, capital has little incentive to eliminate this surplus population. Today’s US prison system “manages” the devastating social consequences of high-tech capitalism that has lost its hegemonic ability to mobilize its subjects on a “voluntary” basis. A part of the surplus population needs to be sacrificed in a theatrical spectacle in order to keep the working class, the poor, and the threatened middle class complacent and under control. To the extent that identification of the surplus population is racialized, particular groups are targets for social warehousing. The disproportionate overincarceration of black people in the United States – a form of social warehousing – prompted resistance efforts like the Black Lives Matter movement.
More and more are becoming aware of neoliberalism’s nonsense of individual freedom and equality, and its failed promise of prosperity and growth. As the idea of economic growth is slowly being revealed as fabrications for all but a few, anger amongst minorities grows. The cause of the crisis is prescribed as its solution – it aims at installing an even more brutal capitalist system and making people believe that this is necessary. The structural violence of neoliberalism is on track to trigger more than the usual “Twitter mob”. Only the election of a progressive Democratic President, Senate and Congress has a chance to turn the ship around. This is a pretty big lift. To keep the mob from rioting in the streets it is necessary to take a page out of Emperor Augustus’ play book and provide bread and circuses. It is necessary to buy time to develop and implement policies to decrease the gap in common goods.
The Roman Emperor made the spectacle of gladiators and chariot races free to the plebeians. The 21st century circuses are the ITC – information and communications technology – telephone, cellular networks, satellite communication, broadcasting media and the resulting social media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other platforms are free, as is widely known. There’s no cost to register, pop up a profile photo and let the world know what you think. Blogging can be virtually free, as well, if you use a hosted service such as WordPress.com or Blogger. The bubble of distraction that technology builds around us, distracts our attention from the reality of global economies. “Neoliberalism” is simply the ethos of minimal taxes and regulations, and it wraps itself in whatever words or models is most effective at distracting and camouflaging its rotten core. The stimuli competing for your attention, distracts you from unmistakable, unpalatable truth: the moneyed elite who control the politicians view us as expendable resources to be used, abused and discarded.
With ongoing deterioration of the economy, it is becoming clear for stability in the community we need to ensure the availability of bread. Universal basic income (UBI) is an answer – perhaps the answer – to long-term economic stagnation, a trickle-up form of Keynesianism that would stimulate our economy through increased household spending. Moreover, if funded by fees on unproductive activities like pollution and speculation, it would help solve two other deep problems of 21st-century capitalism: climate change and financial instability. And it wouldn’t need to replace or reduce spending on current programs that benefit the poor, a regressive trade-off that conservatives favor but most progressives oppose. If the amount is significant enough it could replace a large part of existing welfare and social programs. A lifelong base income, along with health insurance for all, are the next pieces. The purpose of UBI on the surface is to prevent or reduce poverty and increase equality among citizens, in reality, it is to control the restless mob.
The UBI approach buys time for progressives to reform neoliberal capitalism. The need for a steady income among middle-class Americans and Canadians is accelerating as the labor-market changes. Give poor people cash without conditions attached, and it turns out they use it to buy goods and services as well as improve their lives and increase their future earnings potential. The corporate elites have two reasons to buy in: (1) the poor will not be rioting, (2) this would dovetail with their system of low wages and part-time work. In 1966, Hyman Bookbinder, Assistant Director of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, declared that adequately addressing poverty in the United States would cost more than US$1-trillion. He was not discouraged by this, but instead pointed out that economic growth would make this entirely feasible. It is, he said, simple: “The poor can stop being poor if the rich are willing to become even richer at a slower rate.”2
1 Salma el Shahed (25 Jan 2015) Freedom, bread, dignity: Has Egypt answered Jan. 25 demands?http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/features/2015/01/25/Freedom-bread-dignity-Has-Egypt-answered-Jan-25-demands-.html
2 Evelyn J Forget (08 Oct 2018) Why a Canadian basic income is inevitable. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/commentary/article-why-a-canadian-basic-income-is-inevitable/