Fiddling While the Planet Burns

Despite the concerted dumbing down of the masses over the past 30 years or so, and the almost complete evaporation from public schooling of the classics, from the ancient Roman writers to Chaucer to Shakespeare, most are surely familiar with the image of Emperor Nero ‘fiddling while Rome burns.’ It’s become a byword for corruption and the apathy of the elite that has descended to the level of a cliché—that graveyard where metaphors go to die. Here in Canada we have a Prime Minister dithering while Senate scandals blaze. And an administration that has turned its back on the reality of global climate change even as unprecedented floods hit the PM’s power base of Calgary.

An excellent column by Murray Dobbin in the Rossland Telegraph ( lays bare the ethical vacuum fostered by the business community and how that has infected government. Dobbin zeroes in on the current mania amongst conservative politicos for running government like a business. Fiscal responsibility is one thing, but misunderstanding the difference between public infrastructure and private enterprise reaches a whole new level of obtuseness. I’ve long decried the idiocy of forcing school districts to operate like businesses. Making school boards balance budgets often means cutting at the expense of basic needs like school supplies. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Iglika Ivanova reports on the effect upon BC’s school system, citing a report by John Malcolmson and Bill Bruneau of the Public Education Network Society. Their conclusion: “Our schools operate with inadequate supplies and support.” And surprise, surprise—it’s lower income families who suffer most. An enlightened society understands the need to subsidize public education.

Putting a price tag on our children's education: the 'logic' of capitalism. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Putting a price tag on our children’s education: the ‘logic’ of capitalism. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

You know a civilization is on its way out when it starts chipping away at its own foundations. The wealthy elite may simply see themselves as following ‘manifest destiny,’ obeying the laws of Social Darwinism, or whatever. It’s clear they view themselves as a kind of über race, inherently superior to those struggling life forms below them. One of the 20th century’s richest tycoons, Andrew Carnegie, put it bluntly: “We accept and welcome therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.” (italics mine) The fictional character Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street distilled it even more simply: “Greed is good.”

Forgetting, of course, that greed tends to make people stupid and short-sighted. Not to mention ethically challenged. Dobbin explains how Chicago Law School professors Frank Easterbrook and Daniel Fischel set the tone for today’s amoral business and government elite: “They argued that “it was the duty of managers to violate the law if it was profitable to do so.” This principle was not restricted to minor violations but to all laws governing corporate practice. For these two law profs fraud, corruption, pollution, price-fixing, occupational disease, and bribery were just ‘externalities’ and related fines and penalties should simply be viewed as the ‘costs of doing business.’” This was well exemplified by Canadian media baron Izzy Asper, who once said: “Let commerce rule, not the law.” (Marc Edge, Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company, New Star Books, 2007)

Once again these ‘superior beings’ forget or ignore their own history. One wonders if the renewed fixation with ancient Rome, as in the eponymous mini-series filmed between 2005-2007, reflects the elite’s fascination with systems of imperial exploitation. It takes millions of dollars to create expensive productions like this and the owners of the film and media corporations that create them have a stake in their messaging. Whereas in the past, schools and universities that taught the history of Rome at least provided historical context and some social analysis, the popular medium of film seldom allows for such critical reflection. So once again our elites bask in the reflected glow of ultimate power without learning any of its lessons.

Rome like many ancient empires set the pattern of the rich chipping away at the foundations of their societies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For years now my go-to text on the lessons of the fall of Rome has been British historian George Grant’s excellent The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal. If one were to remove the historical setting, it would read like yesterday’s newspaper. Grant tackles the collapse of empire with admirable subtlety, reading the signs across a broad spectrum. For example, one of the pillars of infrastructure the Roman elite attacked was the middle class. Yet as Grant observes, “Obviously, in a society which had always so largely depended on this class, its destruction contributed very substantially to the Empire’s downfall. For it left a vacuum which nothing could fill, and meant that from now onwards the population consisted mainly of very rich and very poor. …So throughout the last two centuries of the Roman world there was a fearful and ever-increasing loss of personal freedom for all, except the very rich and powerful.” (Grant, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal, Annenberg School of Communications, 1976, pp. 144, 146) Yet here we are 2,000 years later and the elite are gradually eliminating the middle class, while at the same time putting them under constant surveillance and a virtual police state.

I’ve always said that putting merchants in charge of everything is a bad idea. Despite the mythology the business community propagates—how hard-working and enterprising they are—fortunes are made as often by deceit, treachery and outright fraud as by any Protestant work ethic. Think Enron, to name only one example. Patricia Lawson in her excellent article The Wealth Neurosis quotes Jacob Needleman, a philosophy professor at San Francisco State University and author of Money and the Meaning of Life, “Most people who are very wealthy have either inherited money or done something more or less criminal to get it. It is rare to find somebody who is very wealthy and has made it himself without doing something criminal.”

Which brings us back to the bizarre concept of running government like a business. First of all, why would you put characters of such dubious moral character in charge of the nation? As the documentary The Corporation points out, many of these people would qualify as psychopathic if diagnosed by a psychiatrist. No wonder then that we end up with the Canadian fighter jet fiasco, the Senate scandal, the BC Rail scandal, etc. etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Business people clearly are not the ones to understand the basic concept of public infrastructure. That’s why taxes were invented—to pay for things we all need but which are inherently unprofitable, even money-losing, such as public transit, sewers, hospitals, etc. If there isn’t a bumper sticker that reads, My Taxes Support Civilization, there should be.

The world’s wealthy may think they know better but do they learn the lessons of history? Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Even at the micro-management level, decisions based on the government-as-business model translate to disaster. Making schools eliminate basic supplies in order to balance budgets is just one example. Another is the current ‘downloading’ of fiscal responsibility for services from federal and provincial to municipal governments even as transfer payments are cut. As a reporter I have to sit and listen to the travails of poorly paid mayors and councilors struggling to find funds for services from a dwindling pot of money. Listen to Grant, commenting on the late Roman Empire: “The functions of city councilors were very different from what they had been at earlier epochs. At a time when the growing loss of their cities’ autonomy had caused their actual municipal duties to become minimal, they instead found themselves virtually transformed into agents of the central authorities.” (Grant, p. 140) The parallel isn’t quite complete, however. The new reality is of underpaid elected officials—especially in rural communities—doing more and more work to try to shore up an infrastructure crumbling around them. And with fewer and fewer resources.

It’s no surprise that the study of history tends to be de-emphasized as civilizations become progressively more corrupt. The elite have a vested interest in making us forget history. Vainly, perhaps, as a historian I keep hoping people will revisit their history and learn from it. Then again, every empire, every civilization has a trajectory, a life cycle—just like the individual humans within it. They are born, they grow to maturity and achievement, they wane, they die.

I just hope that this time we don’t take the planet with us on our way down.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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2 Responses to Fiddling While the Planet Burns

  1. cr says:

    Art, good article. One note, it’s been a while since I watch the Corporation, but I thought the conclusion was that the legal designation of “Corporation” was the one that would be classified as phycopathic, not the actual directors. Not sure if there’s a difference, but

  2. Yes, good point. However, the psychopathy of the corporation could hardly fail to be transmitted in corporate culture to those who work for one, especially those in the executive.

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