The Roman Empire maintained strong top down control. The Empire came into contact with the religious beliefs of major cultures, and was happy to assimilate any deities they encountered. With the passing of the Roman Republic into an Imperial system, the nature of the Roman religion expanded to include the Emperor themselves. The Imperial cult that developed was inseparable from Roman deities. This included a top down favoritism of the Roman gods, which began with the emperor and trickled down, if only feebly, to the lowest of society. The divinized emperor was seated in splendor at the high point of the patronage system, and he distributed power and privilege down the system. Rites and ceremonies integrating patriotism and religion legitimized this trickle down system. Christians were persecuted for refusing to recognize this imperial divinity.
When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it had the power to suppress dissention and heretics, and organize wealth. The church took on the authoritarian qualities of the Roman imperial culture – a powerful central hierarchy, a judicial system to enforce obedience from church members and its effective enforcement formalized rituals and institutionalized sacraments, a defense against any divergence from accepted ideology. Richard Tarnas noted, “against a growing number of sects and doctrines, leading early Christians concluded that the beliefs of the faithful must be established, disseminated, and sustained by an authoritarian church structure.” With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Catholic Church was the only organized force in Western Europe.1
The Catholic Church wielded extreme power and influence during the medieval period, shaping the social, cultural, and political fabric of peasant life in Europe. Additionally, the church played an important role in determining a peasant’s economic fate. Although the church itself was exempt from paying taxes, peasants were responsible for paying approximately ten percent of their earnings (either in cash or goods) in taxes to the church—known as tithes. The church threatened that the failure to pay tithes would result in the damnation of one’s soul. People were too scared not to pay tithes despite the difficulties it meant for them.
The system of law and order throughout medieval Europe reflected the extremely strict and rigid social structure of the period. Those in authority used fear and the threat of severe punishment as a tool with which to control the peasantry, who overwhelmingly outnumbered them. The Medieval church was seen by the people of the medieval ages as terrifying and scary due to the power and wealth that the church had and owned. The church during the middle ages was very intimidating and peasants had reasons to fear such as crime and punishment. A woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg, circa 1530, entitled A Question to a Mintmaker, illustrated the three causes of inflation: the Pope and sale of indulgences, the minting of debased coinage, and cheating by merchants.2
The politics of fear is when leaders (or candidates for leadership) use fear as a driving or motivating factor for the people, to get them to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. It’s banking on the fact that presenting people with an alleged threat to their well-being will elicit a powerful emotional response that can override reason and prevent a critical assessment of these policies. As author Mark Vernon has noted “… the politics of fear plays on an assumption that people cannot bear the uncertainties associated with [risk]. Politics then becomes a question of who can better deliver an illusion of control.”3
Thirty years after Reagan’s re-election in 1984 the economic theory that claims cutting the taxes of the rich will provide jobs for the rest of society has become the dominant economic theory. To ensure the policy of minimal taxes and regulations remains unchanged the oligarchs control what you think through proxies who control the information and communication supporting deregulation of the government and the environment, and through their lobbyists who influence what most of your politicians believe. Through this mechanism the oligarchs perpetuate the fear of change – if taxes are raised on the rich unemployment will rise and existing jobs will disappear. Also everyone should fear environmental regulations, as they will cost economic growth and jobs. However, this policy of minimal taxes and government continues to create a growing income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society – removing social mobility for most of society.
In Canada, when you ask Conservative cabinet members about health care, or the public finances there’s now a common answer: Jihadi terrorists are out to get us. The politics of fear has created a threat to Canadians’ rights. The amalgamation of the Progressive Conservative Party with the Reform Party created the federal Conservative Party, a political party that has fear of change. Prime Minister Harper’s conservative government is harnessing citizens’ fear during debate on the anti-terror law. This legislation would allow police to go well beyond collecting of intelligence and, lacking checks and balances, could be used against lawful dissenters and legitimate protesters – including environmental and aboriginal activists. In the Conservative war on terror the first casualty is freedom.
The Fifth Ecumenical Lateran Council was called by Pope Julius II and sat for 12 sessions from 1512 to 1517. The last seven sessions of the council were presided over by Leo X. One hundred and twenty bishops and representatives of Kings and Princes met to consider the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church. The sessions made declarations on many issues that included money, power sharing, book publishing and condemning a philosophical standpoint. Specific decisions included such things as provisions to raise money to fight the Turks and abolishing the Pragmatic Sanction in France (which had limited the authority of the Pope over the church within France) and a decree legalizing the charitable pawnshops the Franciscans had been establishing. In addition, the council ratified the censorship of books introduced earlier by Alexander VI, and condemned the Averroist philosophy of neo-Aristotelians.
Martin Luther’s promulgation of the 95 theses in response to the abuses of the church occurred just seven months after the close of the Fifth Ecumenical Lateran Council. The attack on the sale of indulgences had a direct bearing on the economic interests of the Fuggers, a German family who had built up a fortune by banking and trading. They were the richest family in Europe during the 16th century. Only with credit from Fugger was Albert of Mainz able to buy himself worldly and church offices repaid with income from the sale of indulgences by the preacher Tetzel. It was in Fugger’s house in Augsburg that the papal legate Cajetan met with Luther in 1518 to try silence this critic who was impacting Fugger’s investments. Luther had the courage to challenge the status quo and demand change! In less than fifty years after Luther had posted his 95 theses against indulgences Protestant reformers had established original systems of Christian doctrine and new churches in opposition to the Church of Rome.4
During the first decade of the 16th century Nicolaus Copernicus developed his own celestial model of a heliocentric planetary system. Around 1514, he shared his findings with close friends in a small manuscript, the Commentariolus, which was circulated but never printed. Copernicus’ publication On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres was not published until after he died (in 1543) in order for him to avoid being persecuted by the Church. The theory posed a fundamental threat to the entire existing Christian framework cosmology, theology and mortality. The power of the church would be cast into question or destroyed all together by the new theory. The successful challenge to the entire system of ancient authority required a complete change in man’s philosophical conception of the universe. Copernicus’ work laid the framework for thinking differently that occurred during the 17th century – known as ‘the Copernican Revolution’.
In the last week of January 2015, business leaders and politicians gathered in Davos, Switzerland, to size up the challenges facing the global economy at the World Economic Forum. At the heart of forum agenda was a theme entitled ‘The New Global Context’. For five days 2500 delegates met and discussed the effects of political, economic and social uncertainty on future policy making. The theme of the 2015 meeting was to ‘reflect the period of profound political, economic, social and technological change that the world has entered, which has the potential to end the era of economic integration and international partnership that began in 1989’. Apologists defend the series of lavish parties noting the importance of a meeting place where the world’s top decision makers can share ideas and future plans with their global counterparts. From the meeting there is widespread international consensus on the need to develop new and improved growth and development models while little in the way of concrete policy guidance emerged.
Occupy Wall Street, the name given to a protest movement that started in Sept 2011, challenges the excesses of the corporations in general, and in particular, a government controlled by corporate money and the growing income gap between the very wealthy and the rest in society. Oxfam attended the 2015 World Economic Forum and pointed out in 2015 that the world’s richest 80 billionaires own the equivalent of what the poorest 3.5 billion people posses. In 2010, it took 388 billionaires. After the 2008 recession, it was the top 1% who got all the benefits of growth stimulated by government subsidies, while the bottom 90% grew poorer. George Soros claims the main benefits from the recent move to print more money to stimulate the European economy will be the rich – in fact, expect the action to increase divergence between the rich and the poor. We need the courage to think differently and challenge directly the systems, which we know to be unjust. For change to occur it requires the outrage of millions of voters around the world to push world leaders to act.
1Horsman, Greg. (2011) The Narcissist’s Vocation and the Economic Debacle. p 52.
2 “Indulgence.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indulgence
3 Whitehead, John. (10 Jan 2012) The Politics of Fear in America: A Nation at War With Itself. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-w-whitehead/politics-of-fear-america_b_1922963.html
4 Horsman, Greg. (2011) The Narcissist’s Vocation and the Economic Debacle. p 8, 78, 79.