‘It's all show business kid
These trials, the whole world, show business…’
- Billy Flynn, Chicago
Whenever I think about our history books and daily news broadcasts, overrun with stories of conquests and invasions, wars, coups, and revolutions, I am reminded of two little mice in a dark laboratory making plans for the night:
- Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?
- The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world!
Military expansionism, mutual deterrence, orchestrated civil unrest… World domination seems to be on every leader’s tongue, and lately, I have decided that I too would like to join in on the fun. I don’t want to take over the whole world, of course. A country will do. It is as good a plan as any for a cold Wednesday night. Having done my research, and without further ado, I give you:
How to Take Over a Country
History has proven the conventional method for conquering a country – storming, pillaging, looting, and raping – messy and ineffective. War costs lives, money, food, time, and runs the inevitable risk of reprisal and opposition; people tend to notice when they are being conquered, and often they do not like it. There must be a more subtle way:
In 123 B.C., a grassroots movement of revolt was brewing within the Roman Empire. Military expansion had spread the government’s resources thin, and the people were hungry and tired of fighting. Rather than quell the unrest with force, popularis politician Gaius Sempronius Gracchus instigated a policy to provide free wheat and expensive circus games to Roman citizens.
It worked! Subdued into passivity by food and entertainment, the people forgot to resist. Three years later Roman poet and satirist Juvenal acridly described the tactic as panem et circenses: bread and circuses.
Centuries later, and with less circuses available on hand, it was with art, garden parties, and five o’clock tea at the Gran Caffé Doney in Via Tornabuoni that Italy’s fascists distracted the 18,000 or so British expatriates in the city of Florence in the years leading up to World War II. Violet Trefusis, one of the English socialites the Italians nicknamed gli Scorpioni, even mentions having an intimate tea with Benito Mussolini himself in her memoir. The Anglo-Florentine infatuation was so great that when Italy did declare war against Great Britain, the expats were caught off guard, literally, in the middle of afternoon tea.
Bread and circuses: ‘a diet of entertainment or political policies on which the masses are fed to keep them happy and docile,’ and distract them from a source of grievance.
Billy Flynn called it ‘the old razzle dazzle,’ and today, governments aren’t the only ones to have caught up on the technique. Thanks to globalization, the liberalization of financial markets, and the privatization of government services, private corporations can now also wield unprecedented power over individual and masses of consumers. Corporations determine what we buy and what we eat, what we read and what we watch, what we think and what route we take to get to work on time. In some ways, the unknown market research analyst in cubicle three knows our preferences and tastes better than our significant others.
We certainly have come a long way from bread and circuses. From a Roman festival that in 107 A.D. lasted 123 days and cost 10,000,000 kilograms of gold, 20,000,000 kilograms of silver, and the lives of 500,000 slaves, 10,000 gladiators, and 11,000 wild animals, we have evolved … to social media. From the revolution that cost Louis XVI his head because the people had no bread … to McDonald’s 1$ double cheeseburger. From East Germany’s Stasi, which employed one full-time spy for every 66 citizens … to Google Street View.
From the Roman Empire to an age of ‘armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence,’ yes we have come a long way. All the way to Utopia. In Utopia, there is no social unrest, our bellies are full and our favorite show is on. In Utopia, ‘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.’ Juvenal called it submission. We prefer the term prosperity, and who cares if we paid for it with individual freedom.
You see, dear reader, it doesn’t take an army to take over a country. It takes dinner and a show.
When Vladimir Lenin laid out his plan for Russia’s transformation, he promised bread, land and peace. In his 1932 electoral campaign, Adolf Hitler boasted that in eight months, his party had brought work and bread to 2.25 million Germans, and he promised more.
What a slippery pair dinner and a show can be.
In Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World,’ a satire of our modern world in which a complacent society is ruled by a manipulative government, the epigraph reads:
'Utopias are attainable. The way of life points towards them. But perhaps a new century will begin, a century in which intellectuals and the educated class will find means of preventing utopias, and we will return to a non-utopian society, which may be less perfect, but will offer more freedom.'
- Nikolai Berdyaev
It will soon be a hundred years since Berdyaev wrote those words in his 1927 essay, ‘The End of Our Time.’ His hopes were not fulfilled, and nothing has changed. Bread and circuses are here to stay.