Kestrel's Nest

On Bread and Circuses.

... iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli / uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim / imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se / continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, / panem et circenses ...
(Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81)

… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses ...
(Translation by J. P. Toner)

Panem et circenses - the early Roman emperors kept the mass of the Roman citizens on their side by giving them two things - bread and circuses. The bread was ensured by a ready supply of grain from Egypt. The circuses - gladiatorial combats and similar shows - were there to keep the mind of the population off of politics and on to the celebrities of the moment.

Our modern masters have certainly maintained the circuses: we have, in recent times, been regaled successively with a Royal Wedding, a Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics, the Paralympics, and no doubt there will be more to follow. We also have the continuous presence of many-channel television, DVD players, canned music, cinemas, theatres and many other forms of entertainment. And all these things are there to serve the same purpose as the Roman circuses. To keep the minds of the plebs from wandering on to matters that our masters would rather they kept away from - like politics, economics, and the world situation. Idle minds can, after all, make much mischief.

This is one good reason why successive governments have been willing to maintain the TV Licence Fee, to subsidise the Arts, and be generally helpful to the various forms of the media. The media, in turn, have been willing to accommodate the government in ensuring that political protests receive a low-newsworthy status, unless they have been disrupted by violent outbreaks from people with a strong political motive to do just that. (Far be it from me to suggest there may have been agents provocateurs involved.) Have you noticed that the various 'Occupy' protests (and police brutality in suppressing them) have hardly received a mention in the press and on TV news? Whereas the politicians boring and repetitive utterances get star treatment.

But now we have a government that, surprisingly in view of the aforementioned, has withdrawn the sustenance that has fed the various subsidised media. We are now to rely on commerce to supply the funds. And who have we had to sponsor the Olympics? BP - fresh from their attempts to deal with the damage their well did to the Gulf of Mexico: An environmental disaster that has left many people without work as a result of the damage done to the fishing and tourism industries. Dow Chemicals - inheritors of the destruction caused by their subsidiary Union Carbide in Bhopal. People are still being killed and damaged there by the company's refusal to clean up the site. Macdonald's - of 'Supersize Me' fame - their unhealthy snacks have been the only food available, apparently, on Olympic sites. Coca-Cola - their sugar full drinks, or, alternatively, the Diet ones with dubious sugar substitutes, have been readily available on all Olympic sites. Cadbury-Schweppes - once a proud British firm with Quaker roots and now owned by the American food giant Kraft Foods who, incidentally, obtain supplies from Monsanto, the GMO supremo. Have you noticed a declaration on any Kraft or Cadbury products that they may contain genetically modified ingredients? I wonder how they managed to wriggle out of that? But there is a danger in forcing TV &c to seek funding from commerce. Commerce is unlikely to back green issues or to allow criticism of their actions when they breach environmental codes. We have already seen pressure by advertisers on TV companies. Who will have a free voice if commerce takes over the funding completely?

Which brings me to the other side of bread and circuses - the bread. The population of ancient Rome was kept in order by constantly being supplied with food at a reasonable price. So their two needs were met: Sustenance of the body and sustenance of the mind. Keep them happy and they don't make trouble. I believe I've shown our modern masters have provided the entertainment, but what of the food? Since the war successive governments have maintained a cheap food policy. The rise of the supermarket and the price wars between them have successfully depressed the price of food to such an extent that a number of farmers have gone out of business. And two things have been promoted to "help" the farmers. One is genetic modification. Monsanto is the chief proponent. Their idea is to create plants that will resist their herbicides. So the farmer has to buy the seeds and the herbicide from Monsanto, who promise greater yields as a result. The herbicides are dangerous and farm-workers have suffered as a result. The residues left behind are supposed to be safe but have been detected in the crops. No long-term safety tests have been done on these residues, so far as I am aware. We have to take Monsanto on trust! (Hollow laughter) Furthermore, there has been no evidence of higher yields as a result. Monsanto, meanwhile have been buying up seed producers world-wide and now own 25% of world seed production. Worried? I certainly am. The other is "graze-free" animal husbandry. That is a euphemism for keeping beasts unnaturally in sheds in restricted conditions. When will they start to think of keeping people this way? After all it would be much more productive for a person to get out of bed straight to their desk, and back again. Think how much global warming that would save! But I digress. The stresses are beginning to show. Milk producers are up in arms because the price they are being offered is less than that of production. The law is now such that they can't go on strike and pour the milk down the drain. They have to sell it. I will be interested to see how much this year's abnormal weather conditions will affect world prices. The word from several markets is that supply is anticipated to be well down on previous years. When supply is kept greater than demand, prices go down, but when demand exceeds supply, especially by the margins anticipated, prices will undoubtedly rise. The cheap food policy will begin to look a little shaky. There has, in any case, long been known as world population rises exponentially, that, at some point, there will either not be enough food to go round, or no way of distributing it in an efficient or equitable manner. Someone said once there are only three meals, or rather the lack of them, between civilisation and chaos.*

Perhaps this is why we have been getting so many circuses……


* There have been several suggestions as to who said this (or variants) first. They range from Terry Pratchett, or the script of Red Dwarf, to Dumas or Plato. If anyone can pin down the earliest mention I, for one, would be grateful.

© Angela Grant 2012.

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