Panem et Circenses, the modern day “Bread and Circuses”

“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

– Satire X of the Roman satirist and poet Juvenal (circa 100 AD ).

But really, how much has changed? It started with a conversation over the pyramids, then the feats of the Roman Empire. How much easier, my friend argued, would it of been to establish an empire given a subject slave population. Clearly, beside the labour efficiencies, having a subdued population is an asset. It makes political manoeuvring easier, legislative changes and the opinion of the minority becomes that of the majority.

The Roman understood much, but one thing they understood well was human nature. They knew that with two things – bread and circuses – they could subdue a population psychologically. Instead of civic or governance excellence, they could win over a population through entertainment and food. Building on that argument, they could even get a population to forget its ails and daily hardship.

However, the phrase foreshadows a far more dark future than a simple life built around pursuing food and entertainment. It bodes for a future where people begin to vote for the group that can provide the most food and entertainment. Voting changes from an platform based decision, to a short-sighted demand for sustenance to satisfy a populations appetite. As famous American author Robert Heinlein said, “Once the monkeys learn they can vote themselves bananas, they’ll never climb another tree.”

I can’t help but see this trend today. Almost 2,000 years ago, the ruling authorities realized that buy giving the masses entertainment and food (circuses and bread), they could pacify them, executing on what would become a long-lasting political strategy. Today, we see the same. Food is abundant and cheap (see any fast food restaurant for its close to one dollar menu). Entertainment is also abundance and cheap (cable television, movies, YouTube). Is this trend, like human nature, immutable?

That brings me to the major argument of this post. Firstly, have we moved from physical slavery (whereas one would be ‘owned’), to psychological slavery (whereas one is bound by a psychological addiction to food and entertainment, to a point where a lifestyle change would be impossible). To take it one step further (and perhaps even more depressing), is psychological slavery more effective than physical slavery, and an evolutionary control tactic of the ruling class?

The first argument, that there has been an evolution from physical to psychological is, in my humble opinion, quite evident. Firstly, the language people use indicates some form of subservience to their habits. “I have to go home and watch my show”, “I have it recording so I can watch it when I get home”, “Sorry, I can’t do anything this weekend, I am going to a concert”, etc. etc. (I don’t mean to limit entertainment to television, as it is much more encompassing, it just serves as an excellent top of mind reminder). Food is much the same, as the abundance of cheap fast-food in North America has allowed everyone to eat out several times a week. The two (food and entertainment) are also closely woven together. Everyone likes to eat while watching television or a movie. The apex of many weekends is spent going to dinner and a movie.

However, to pay for these habits, one must work (obviously). But, by engaging in these habits in our free time, one has little time left to devote to study or advancement. If one could make more money, one could work less to get the same utility (i.e. you would only have to work two hours to cover the cost of dinner and a movie vs. the previous four hours). However, since all free time is already devoted to entertainment, there is no time to progress. Thus its a chicken or egg paradox. If I made more money, I could spend less time working to cover the cost of my entertainment, and spend more time growing, which would lead to even less time being spent covering entertainment costs, and more time growing, etc. etc. However, that usually does not happen.

The second argument is psychological slavery more effective that physical slavery is again in my opinion, a resounding yes.

Where the physical requires a presence (to keep the slave population subdued), investment, and has an increasing marginal cost (the larger the slave population gets, the harder it is to control them, especially as the slave population usually increases exponentially to the ruling population). However, in psychological slavery, the medium is fully scalable. It does not matter if one or one million people are involved, as they go to the source (vs. in a physical situation where the source asserts its control over the population).

The Roman games were the first dry run of this transformation. By putting on one show, the cost was fixed, no matter how many people attended. They were able to reach a large number of people with entertainment and food, winning them over, without any kind of physical threat. By becoming the bread basket and entertainment of a nation, they gained ultimate control – dependence.

This post feels like it has been all over the place – perhaps because it has. I wanted to get across my thoughts on the psychological control over the masses that exists today. Their dependence on movies, television, music, food and other forms of entertainment, and the entitlement it has bred.

Even after we have taught monkeys they can vote themselves bananas, lets hope that a few want to climb the trees.



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