I join these three books because of their common unveiling of who-rules-for-whose-benefit, across cultures and time. Parenti shows an ancient example, the destruction of early Roman Democracy by oligarchic forces. Chomsky illustrates the continuation of plutocracy, or elite rule, in our time, despite and in opposition to the advances of Democracy. Roy provides confirmation that this struggle is international, in this case India.
It was news to me that democracy (a very limited form to be sure) was operant in early Rome. Nor did I know it was demolished when Caesar was killed in 44 B.C. Parenti portrays him as a reformer, limited but still siding with the common people on many issues and being assassinated for his trouble. The prime consequence of the assassination was a civil war that saw the end of democracy for hundreds of years. Democracy had long struggled to supplant monarchy, making an overt return politically unwise. The rulers after Caesar, kings in all but name, took on the title Emperor, coopting the prestige of Caesar by taking his name and ruling Rome, quite undemocratically, for hundreds of years. So today, the Italian media billionaire Bertolucci labors to undo whatever democratic gains he can, yearning I suppose for the good ol’ days when his class ruled without challenge.
Rome’s very limited democracy was hoarded by a ruling class which may have squabbled among its various factions but definitely excluded what they would have called the “rabble”, the common people, ordinary workers, women and slaves. The financial manipulators of the time were fond of a scheme where they would lure less advantaged “citizens” into great debt such that, by law, they could then enslave them. On the other end of this game was the freeing of slaves, also by law, but used primarily to unburden slaveholders of obligations to feed and house those whose working lives were over, due to age or infirmity. The primary concern of this ruling class was to maintain and expand their privileged lifestyles. They objected to, and assassinated, Caesar, claiming that he was ambitious of destroying democracy. Their true motives were as obvious as were those of George Bush’s as he claimed to be spreading democracy. There were few objections to tyranny when their class privileges were not threatened.
Dissidents in Rome faced a pretty brutal and lethal response from the self-appointed “authorities”. In the U.S. today, consequences for dissent are relatively benign, depending on how far you’re willing to push it. Just standing out on the corner with a sign denouncing drone warfare, nothing’s likely to happen beyond the occasional middle finger from passing rightwingers and you might be infiltrated by taxpayer-funded, Constitution-defying spies. Occupy a public space and you face pepper spray and a weekend in jail. Whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning, Snowden and Assange start to feel the effects of riling the beast that pretends to worship freedom. It’s good to keep in mind that this situation where citizens are relatively free to dissent is a hard-fought legacy of citizens who labored in difficult and dangerous times, advancing democracy inch by inch.
In India, the world’s largest Democracy seems firmly in the same hands, or worse. Criticizing the high court can get you jail time, as it did Arundhati Roy. She’d probably still be there if not for her celebrity as a best-selling novelist. According to Roy, leading Indian politicians are, “…either members or admirers of a right-wing, ultra-nationalist Hindu guild which has openly admired Hitler and his methods.” These are the overseers of India’s nuclear weapons. Arch-enemy Pakistan seems no wiser but also blusterous possessors of nukes. And into this tinder-box the U.S, sends incendiary drones as if to assert that we of the west too have learned nothing from the devastating violence of the twentieth century and its pandora’s box of weapons of mass destruction.
As Eckhart Tolle has said about consciousness, “There are many questions but only one answer.” And as Einstein warned many years ago, “With the splitting of the atom everything changed, save our way of thinking. And thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Until we commit fully to non-violent resolution of conflict, with all its implications for justice and environmentally sustainable practice, we sail an accelerating, Armageddonesque trajectory.