How we finally tip into 'bread and circuses' authoritarianism

How we finally tip into 'bread and circuses' authoritarianism
© The Hill Illustration

It would be immoral and economically disastrous for Congress not to extend the $600 per week payments to the unemployed under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program (FPUC). Millions of sidelined workers would be pushed to financial ruin when the current program ends this month, taking large parts of the economy with them as their spending dries up. And yet, like a Greek tragedy, Congress’s extension of the program may be the act that finally tips us into a long-predicted “bread and circuses” authoritarianism similar to that of the late Roman Empire. 

The satirist Juvenal used the phrase to capture emperors’ cynical approach to keeping citizens from being engaged and meddling in affairs of state. Doles of bread kept citizens complacent; circuses kept them distracted. At least since Neil Postman’s prescient “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” published in 1985, we have been aware of the distracting media circus part of the equation. The subsequent takeover of culture by reality TV and then social media made these warnings seem understated if anything. But missing has been the bread dole part of the equation.

Republicans had been the hedge against a truly dependency-creating dole with their longstanding and at times perhaps excessive opposition to so-called entitlement programs. However, the combination of Trump’s takeover of the GOP and the pandemic has reversed many Republicans’ fundamental opposition to social safety nets — whether on grounds of “personal responsibility,” the principle of small government or an aversion to expanding deficits. The door is now wide open for the dole part of the bread and circuses construct to be realized.

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Such an environment is, of course, the underlying premise for dystopic fiction, from “Brave New World” to “The Hunger Games.” The question is what chain of precise events sets up the premise. Much fiction hand-waves how the premise comes to be.

While historical comparisons are imperfect, a short tour of the Roman experience is instructive. Citizenship was of central importance. As in Greece, and even indeed as in the early United States, not every person was a citizen. At the same time, the citizens taken together as a body politic was a potent symbol. “SPQR” –Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (the Senate and People of Rome) – appeared on all manner of artifacts to identify “Rome.” 

As the Republic expanded beyond the Italian peninsula, its economy changed, as most agricultural and craft work moved out to the provinces. The latifundia system of concentrated ownership of large plantations in the provinces, worked by peasants and slaves, displaced many small landholders and freemen who then went to the cities for work. Citizens in Rome with no land or position could no longer support themselves, and a regular dole of grain was distributed to them. 

The government found it necessary to placate citizens. The dole expanded from grain to bread, and then to other staples, even as the number of recipients increased with growing unemployment. Consuls, and then emperors, came to fear the economic calamity and revolts that would occur if the dole were cut back.

Narcissistic emperors built authoritarian cults of personality, in part by handing out favors. But each could also count on rallying citizens with the chest thumping superiority of “SPQR” over “barbarians” within and without the borders of Rome. Soon there was no pretense that jobs or land would come back to idled citizens in Rome proper. Entertainment spiraled downward into can’t-look-away spectacles culminating in gladiatorial mortal combat. Ironically, the third century Edict of Caracalla granted all men within the Empire’s provinces full citizenship. 

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Today, necessary responses to the pandemic enable the Trump administration to impose a bread and circuses authoritarianism rooted in the dislocations of globalization. Calls to “make America great again” and preserve our “heritage” are similar to Roman emperors’ invocation of SPQR. Reality TV and the increasing audacity of stunts on social media provide addictive can’t-look-away spectacle. Workers idled by the pandemic lockdowns are anxious and have time on their hands. This has fueled both the massive protests sparked by appropriate anger over the killing of George Floyd and spiking levels of entertainment consumption. To avert an economic meltdown, Congress authorized the Paycheck Protection Program and the FPUC. 

But with the virus surging and some states reversing re-openings, there will be no significant near-term economic recovery. Companies that might have reorganized will now dissolve, extinguishing any hope of rehiring workers. And a return to lockdowns will only make things worse. 

Thus, Congress will indeed have to extend the FPUC. It will reach deeper into the working population than anything since Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. But, as opposed to that program, FPUC keeps workers sidelined and dependent on a dysfunctional Congress and capricious White House. And with proposals for universal minimum income entering mainstream politics in the last few years, it is possible that something like the FPUC will become permanent. Additionally, the Trump administration’s announcement of a $2 billion contract with pharmaceutical companies to deliver 100 million doses of a vaccine by the end of the year – to be distributed for free to Americans – underscores the extent to which political leaders will make citizens dependent on their whims and largess, while blunting opposition.

All of this provides the foundation for “law and order” authoritarianism facilitated by modern bread and circuses. Leaders and citizens become co-dependent on each other in a Faustian bargain that requires government to support and entertain the populace in exchange for effectively blind loyalty. Those who are not with the program are demonized and cast out. Just because old dystopic warnings have not been realized yet doesn’t mean they won’t. We become numb to them at our peril. 

Sean M. O’Connor is a professor of law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. Professor O’Connor researches legal, economic and political history and is author of the forthcoming book “The Means of Innovation.”