Friday, January 3, 2014

Isocrates and us or “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”

 “When I was a boy, being rich was considered so secure and honorable that almost everyone pretended he owned more property than he actually did possess, because he wanted to enjoy the prestige it gave.  Now, on the other hand, one has to defend oneself against being rich as if it were the worst of crimes… for it has become far more dangerous to give the impression of being well-to-do than to commit open crime; criminals are let off altogether or given trivial punishments, but the rich are ruined utterly.  More men have been deprived of their property than have paid the penalty of their misdeeds.”

This was the Greek, Isocrates, writing I guess in the early 4th Century BC.  The thing is, if de Ste. Croix is correct in his analysis in The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World,  Isocrates wrote these words during a time when, in fact, economic inequality was growing in much of the Greek world.  The demos was on the defensive; the oligarchic sector was (correctly) realizing that their interests were better served by supporting outside imperialists like Phillip II of Macedon (and his successors), who would permit them free reign to squeeze the local peasantry, as long as they eschewed outright political ambition beyond the local level, but would be very suspicious of the potential for a popular uprising by hoi polloi.  And, in fact, under, first, the Macedonian kings, and later the Romans, the last vestiges of democracy were stamped out, opening the world to more and more vicious exploitation of the poor and middling by the uber-rich, until finally the Emperors Diocletian and others basically enserfed the entire population below the economic and political elite.  Economic, and political, inequality in the late Roman Empire reached a level that we, in our still relatively open societies, can barely conceive.

The thing that bothers me about the Isocrates quote I opened with is that it seems so modern.  We again find ourselves subject to “poor me” complaints from the rich, fuming, for example, that they pay the lion’s share of income taxes (but taking as a natural right their claim to an even more disproportionate share of the fruits of economic production), and decrying the slender benefits allotted to the “undeserving” poor; calling for us to be tough on crime (while we imprison, in the U.S. more of our population than any other country in the world, and more black men than were slaves  before the Civil War), and for tax cuts for the “creators” of (mostly non-existent) Mac-jobs.  So, while financial markets soar post-depression, we cut unemployment benefits and food stamps in time for Christmas, and produce movies in which criticism of the excesses of the corrupt ruling class is so muted that members of that class can cheer at screenings, while critics on the left complain, in effect, that the director is praising with faint “damns”.

And I think:  It’s been 2400 years.  Why are we still fighting the same fight?