The Politics of Debt Can Strangle a Society, Just Look at What Happened to Rome

Photograph Source: Bryan Alexander – CC BY 2.0

For the democratically ambitious, an obvious issue to focus on is debt. And I’m not talking about government debt, which is certainly part of the problem, but debt across the whole societal spectrum – corporate, personal, and government. At this point, one is tempted to throw out a bunch of numbers to make the case, but that’s not helpful. America is basically an innumerate culture. We’re not good at gleaning a plot from numbers, a social ignorance useful for a culture dominated and defined by money changers. Just be assured, all this debt says something, nothing good.

Creating massive amounts of debt is always the final and ultimately futile attempt of continuing a no longer viable status quo. In our case, the status quo is euphemistically known as the “American Dream” – the industrial, militaristic, resource intensive, hyper-consumptive, post-World War II American lifestyle. Every year for a half-century now, despite the massive rise of debt, the Dream increasingly moves beyond the grasp of an ever greater number of Americans and America itself.

Excessive debt gradually becomes its own tyrant, the past rules exclusively, trampling on the future. A most relevant historical lesson is the Roman republic. In the last century of the republic’s five hundred year run, a debt drenched culture became a dominant political issue. Importantly, just as with the US today, debt was not a cause, but a symptom of a changed political economy. Once the economically distributed yeoman farm republic conquered the Mediterranean, the numerous independent small farms were gradually consolidated into a small number of massive slave plantations. Cheap goods poured in from across the sea, wealth concentrating in ever fewer hands. The Roman citizenry left the countryside and congregated in Rome.

In his exceptional history of the Roman republic, The Greatness and Decline of Rome (1909), Guglielmo Ferrero writes of the republic’s last century, “An increasing percentage of the nation abandoned labor in the fields for commerce, money-lending and speculation.” All fueled by debt. Funnily enough, with the established currency of silver and gold coins in constant shortage, debt paper, known as Syngrapha, was so copious, it became used as currency, predating modern bank-debt money by two-thousand years.

Ferrero continues,

“The desperate competition for wealth in which all Italy was engaged had ended, as it seems that such competition always will end, in a gigantic accumulation of vested interests which needed nothing less than a revolution, a cataclysm, to break down. Enormous loans had been contracted at exorbitant rates of interest for the improvement of agriculture and industry or the promotion of a high standard of comfort and culture. These debts were steadily accumulating and debtors could place little hope in legislative assistance, and would soon be forced to meet their claims by their own efforts. When this point was reached the liquidation of this immense mass of debt would automatically follow. …many upper class families might still manage to keep afloat by playing off their creditors and reducing their scale of living. Not so the middle class. The houses they had built and the slaves they had bought and trained with so much care during the last twenty years would pass into the hands of a small group of capitalist creditors, and with them would disappear the industrious and intelligent bourgeoisie which had been slowly formed during the last half century.” –  Call it the death of the “Roman Dream.”

Ferrero concludes,

“The fate of this class depended entirely upon the solution of the problem of debt; and this solution could only be achieved by one of those revolutionary strokes which recur periodically in the history of nations. There was no other way out.”

After four hundred years of nonviolent internal politics, violence plagued the republic’s last century. Roman blood liberally painted the streets, a vicious battle waged between the oligarchs of wealth. These were the factions James Madison warned about at America’s founding. Of course today, no good American with eight, twelve, sixteen, or god save us, seventeen plus years of American education would know Madison had the Romans in mind, or at this point, that Madison had ever warned about factions.

The republic’s violent demise was not a fight between the top and bottom. The historically infamous Roman proletariat, politically enfranchised and economically disenfranchised, sought only state sponsored food, housing and entertainment. They became manipulated urban rubes, exploited by the various oligarch factions. The perpetual democratic political struggle between the plebs and patricians that defined much of the republic’s political history, and to which Machiavelli attributed the republic’s dynamism, ended with the republic’s fall.

In the republic’s last decade, Caesar would march his troops into Rome promising debtor relief, though debt destruction proved too radical even for the newly titled, dictator in perpetuum. Perpetuity proved not too long and after Caesar’s bloody end, it would be his adopted son Octavian and his partners in the Second Triumvirate, Antony and Lepidus, who fecklessly dealt with the debt issue. Not in any interest of the republic, but in their own quests for power. The Second Triumvirate proscribed – a public roll call for the killing and confiscation of the wealth of all listed – a good chunk of the Roman oligarchy, destroying many debts owed. As tempting a solution this might seem today, as one of my nieces states, “I got a list,” the mass spilling of Roman blood failed in all ways to provide any necessary reform. Quite the opposite, ten years after this proscription, the republic itself was dead, the Princeps hailed, the age of emperors began.

Just as in Roman times, the debt problem in the US is a symptom, not the disease itself. Simple debt destruction without an accompanying extensive reform of the political economy is doomed to failure. Such reform of America’s political economy needs to start with another obvious, not simply ignored, but actively denied reality, conquering America’s oil addiction. Over a century ago, Mr. Rockefeller bestowed upon Americans the right to profligately waste oil, a right fundamental to the American Dream. The global oil industry once printed money, but in recent years grows ever deeply indebted. The most notable and recent example, the ridiculously marketed and ballyhooed “shale revolution.” An unparalleled exercise in debt creation attempting to continue a no longer viable American car culture, and it isn’t  viable in electrified form either.

The shale debt did provide some unintentional and little understood irony from the last president of our deadly, though quite comical neo-patrician party. You remember, the president who flooded the banks’ vaults with money as a reward for their debt fraud. Jail’s for little people, not bankers. Announcing his candidacy in 2007, he eloquently proclaimed, “Let’s be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil.” Eight years and hundreds of billions of shale debt later, listing his accomplishments in his last State of the Union address, the president quipped with a nod and wink, “Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad either.” I guess he was just referring to the tyranny of price.

Incredulously thinking things will be different, the US just elected another president. America 2021, masters of avoiding the obvious. If you do happen to have any democratic notions, start a conversation with your family, friends, co-workers and ask what can be done about all the debt, begin with how America can cut oil use and restructure the economy. You might find you have a lot more in common with your electronically marketed political opponents than our corrupt, dysfunctional, eminently greedy, corporate oligarch politics wants you to believe. There I go, stating the obvious.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.