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Panem et Circenses: The insidious nature of social decline

By Cameron Leckie - posted Friday, 5 August 2011

…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…From the works of Latin author Juvenal, Book 4, Satire X

As the Western Roman Empire declined the historical record shows that many approaches were taken with the hope of arresting the decline; devaluing the currency by reducing the quantity of silver in coins, increasing the size and reach of the bureaucracy and increasing taxation to pay for the costs of empire. These changes occurred against a backdrop of increasing threats, both internal and external, during a decline that lasted for several centuries.   

With modern industrial society bumbling along from one crisis to the next, perhaps it is time that we used history, rather than misguided economic theories, as a guide to meeting both current and future challenges. Of course history never repeats itself exactly, but as suggested by Mark Twain, it certainly rhymes. An examination of the decline of the Roman Empire and our current circumstances would indicate that in many ways we are repeating their mistakes, in particular our addiction to bread and circuses over a realistic appraisal of industrial society’s current predicament.


Juvenal’s Satire X, sometimes known as The Vanity of Human Wishes is famous for Panem et Circenses or in English Bread and Circuses. Juvenal was lamenting the frivolous nature of his compatriots and their preference for having their short term wants and desires met over the far more important, but less enticing, notions of responsibility and civic duty. In effect Juvenal was discussing discounting and the tendency of humans to discount the future at a far higher rate than the present. Whilst in Roman times, bread and circuses had a literal meaning (such as the provision of the grain dole to citizens and gladiator games); today’s version of bread and circuses is far more insidious. The results however are likely to be much the same, namely a prolonged period of decline.

Whether deliberately or not, bread and circuses is the doctrine by which government, business and media supported whether wittingly or not, by the population at large operate. Contemporary culture is defined by this notion, our children are indoctrinated in this way of thinking from a very young age and it has the very real potential and is very likely to bring us unstuck. We don’t have to look too far abroad to see the end result of this cultural malaise and we would be foolish to think that Australia will be immune to its consequences.

The circus, or entertainment in current parlance, is all pervasive. I enjoy a game of footy as much as anyone but when we elevate the importance of sport, reality TV or any other form of entertainment above their actual importance to society, when the antics of its characters become more important to the masses than say, the source of our long term oil supplies or the impact of the end of the largest credit expansion in world history, then something has seriously gone awry.

While in Australia the state generally doesn’t dole out bread, at least not directly, it certainly doles out plenty to keep the masses happy. Of course it is perfectly reasonable in a wealthy nation like Australia that there is a safety net for people and families that are not so well off or suffer some misfortune. The problem begins when society as a whole becomes dependent upon handouts. Unfortunately we as a nation have let ourselves get to the point where far too many of us are dependent upon such handouts. Such dependency is no doubt but a byproduct of the dominant globalised economic model that puts profit before people but unfortunately just as the doling of bread didn’t stop the decline of the Roman Empire, nor will the doling of welfare in all its various forms stop the decline of industrial society.

Unfortunately perhaps, and despite Juvenal’s lament, the doctrine of bread and circuses works tolerably well. At least for most of the time! The Vanity of Human Wishes was written several centuries before the eventual demise of the Western Roman Empire. The highly coupled nature of our global economy suggests however that the decline of industrial civilisation, particularly the initial stages, will occur far more rapidly than that of the Roman Empire.

Despite this, it seems that the masses only seem motivated enough to voice their concerns in a coherent fashion when their supply of ‘bread’ is threatened. Whilst many issues contributed to triggering the Arab Spring, a strong argument could be made that the rising cost of food and energy was a significant factor. For example in Egypt, where some 40 per cent of the population live on less than $2 a day, perhaps the increase in food prices of some 17 per cent was what triggered that country's revolution.


In the Australian context, the federal government’s proposed carbon tax appears too many that it will threaten their supply of ‘bread.’ The result of course is a political backlash against the government. The carbon tax provides an interesting case study in how misguided the bread and circuses doctrine can be. Both sides of politics are attempting to sell the circus, in this case the continuance of the party that is industrial civilisation, while attempting to address but one of the defining challenges of our time. Because the carbon tax will have an adverse effect on the peoples’ hip pocket, Labor’s plan is to compensate most everyone in some form. The Coalition’s plan aims to avoid impacting upon the hip pocket at all. Thus the debate seems to have bogged down over ‘cost of living’ pressures, without actually questioning why these exist

Maybe because its not as catchy as ‘toxic tax’ or ‘clean energy future,’ or maybe because it takes more than a 10 second media grab to explain, or maybe its acknowledgement would render many of our dreams and aspirations false, but the carbon tax debate (along with most other contemporary political debate) needs to be reframed using just three words: declining marginal returns.

Declining marginal returns can be observed in virtually every facet of industrial society. A prime and contemporary example is the role of debt. Debt, used wisely, such as in the building of a factory or railway line, can reap huge returns. However when used to fund social welfare programs, speculation on real estate or military adventurism, the return on investment not only declines and in many cases can be negative for society. Arguably declining marginal returns on investment in complexity is the root cause of many of the crises affecting the global economy today. 

Regrettably for those with a vested interest in continuing the industrial civilisation party, you cannot defeat declining marginal returns through new technology, increased bureaucracy, the market or any other of our traditional problem solving techniques, all of which just happen to be key aspects of the government’s proposed carbon tax. The only practical way to address declining marginal returns, other than collapse (which according to Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, is a mathematical probability once a society gets to this point) is to radically simplify the organisation of our society.

Of course such a radical simplification of society is heretical to a society indoctrinated by bread and circuses and one that kneels at the altar of the market and technology. Such a radical simplification is also an enormous undertaking that would involve dismantling, or significantly downsizing much of what we now take for granted, whether that is our financial system, bureaucracies or the consumption of goods and services. In short such a radical simplification of society would require us to accept lower levels of perceived, if not actual wealth, at least in the terms that wealth is currently defined. The upside is that our society might just give itself the opportunity to sustain itself over the long term. There is little evidence however, either contemporary or historically, to suggest that we as a society would voluntarily make the changes necessary to avoid a prolonged period of decline.

It is oft said that a society gets the government that it deserves. Rephrasing this, if we as a nation fail to forgo the bread and circuses approach then perhaps a prolonged period of potentially very nasty decline is what we deserve. This for Australia, a nation which nature has provided untold riches in so many ways, is nothing but a great shame!  

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About the Author

Cameron Leckie has a Bachelor Science and a Graduate Diploma in Education. Employment experience includes a range of management positions both in Australia and overseas in the telecommunications industry. He is a member of the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO Australia). Since finding out about peak oil in 2005, he has written extensively on the topic and in particular, its impact on the aviation industry.

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