Saturday, September 24, 2011

17th September 2011

Too big not to fail

Commentators bang on endlessly about the desirability of a ‘global world’, with every economy linked seamlessly to every other. But when it goes wrong, as it has done in the last three years, the painful consequences are equally global. Ask the Romans.

The Roman empire stretched from Britain to Iraq and from the Rhine-Danube to the northern edges of the Sahara desert. At its largest extent (c. ad 117) it probably comprised about 50 to 60 million people and covered 2.5 million square miles. When Rome took over a province, the local elites continued to run the show, as they had always done, but now under the ultimate jurisdiction of Rome’s governor and his remarkably small staff. The one fixed condition was that Rome got its taxes and could station its army there, when needed (in fact, only Britain required a constant legionary presence). Otherwise Rome applied no unitary control. It was up to the governor to lay down the ground-rules. Not even Rome’s legal system was imposed, let alone its coinage, or anything else.

But even under such a loosely centralised regime, the consequence, intended or not, of 700 years of Roman provincial government was a prosperous economic network stretching across the whole empire: flag-makers from Syria worked for the Roman army in South Shields; high-quality pottery from southern Gaul found its way to Africa, Spain, Italy, Britain, Germany and Denmark; and as ice-cap pollution levels show, metal-working (lead, copper and silver) was on a scale to be matched only from the 16th century onwards.

But in the fifth century the empire in the West collapsed. Germanic tribes, harried by Huns, poured into Europe, and Rome was unable to stop them. They established their own kingdoms, taxes stayed local and Rome, starved of money to pay its army, could no longer enforce its authority. The wider consequence was the complete breakdown of the empire-wide economic links that had brought such prosperity to the West. This dramatic economic collapse lasted some 200 years.

As we too are now finding, the bigger the structure, the more catastrophic and wide-ranging the disaster when it all caves in.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

As Greeks howl for other people’s money and the EU coughs up, both should reflect on Aristophanes’ comedy Wealth (Ploutos), which pinpointed the mind-sets 2,400 years ago.

Chremylus, a poor man, brings home a blind man, who turns out to be the god Wealth. Blinded by Zeus so that he cannot distinguish the good man from the bad, he bestows riches on the bad alone (a typical Greek take on life). Chremylus restores his sight at the shrine of Asclepius and returns home to find his cistern full of olive oil and his crockery turned to gold and silver. The rest of the play is taken up with the amusing consequences, e.g. a starving Hermes complains everyone is so rich they no longer offer the gods sacrifices, and is found a job in the kitchen. It culminates in the decision to instal Wealth in the state treasury on the Acropolis: every modern Greek’s fantasy.

Aristophanes, however, is not that simple-minded. In the course of the play, Poverty, a hideous old woman, makes an entrance. Mocked and reviled, she argues that poverty turns men into lean, implacable fighters, not fat, gouty ones like the rich; bestows wisdom, not a lust for power; and nurtures justice, not anti-democratic criminality. Many a poor Greek, eyeing hybristic Athenian toffs, would have agreed. Further, if everyone has millions, who will do the work to produce the goods that the wealthy require, let alone luxuries like ‘pillows, carpets and perfume’? Chremylus responds with a tirade about the miseries of poverty, but Poverty accuses him of describing beggary, a very different thing.

What Poverty is describing is the state of simple, honest self-sufficiency, the lot to which most ancient Greeks felt they could aspire. Chremylus agrees there is some truth in this but ends defiantly ‘You won’t persuade me, even if you persuade me’, and Poverty is driven out.

If Greeks could now aspire to such self-sufficiency, that would help. As it is, they scream for cash, and the fat, gouty, power-mad, anti-democratic EU supinely shells it out. Much more of this and it will not be long before they are both reduced to beggary – with millions of others.

3rd September 2011

If the Libyans really do want to move from forty-two years of tyranny to a western-style ‘democracy’, i.e. an elective oligarchy, they will need a friendly tyrant to help them make the transition. In his Politics, Aristotle offers some top tips on the subject.

Aristotle distinguished two sorts of turannos: one who, knowing that the people hated him, rendered them incapable of moving against him (Gaddafi), and the other who manoeuvred to make the people unwilling to move against him. The former protected his rule by three main strategies: (i) stamping out anyone with any independence of mind or spirit, (ii) ensuring no one had any trust or confidence in anyone else, and (iii) depriving his subjects of the chance of building up a power base. So he kept the people leaderless, obsequious, uneducated, disassociated, poor, working and under a constant watchful eye

The alternative tyrant, Aristotle went on, wished no less to maintain his power over those who did and did not want to be ruled by him – ‘his permanent, fundamental principle’ – but did so by different means: (i) he appeared more like a responsible manager of a household than a tyrant, (ii) he led a life of moderation, as a trustee of public resources, and (iii) he embraced men of drive and ability so that they did not feel they could do better under a different regime. By the same token, he took care that his subjects did not feel ill-used by him, because such people did not spare themselves. Here Aristotle quotes the fifth century BC philosopher Heraclitus: ‘Anger is a difficult enemy: he buys with his life’. Finally, (iv) he did all in his power to keep both rich and poor onside and reconciled to him and to each other. In this way, Aristotle concluded, the alternative tyrant ensured that he ruled over ‘better men, because they are not reduced to impotent submission’, and therefore had a chance of staying in power for longer.

Aristotle strongly disapproved of tyrants. But if one was necessary, he thought it an improvement that he should be ‘not wicked, but only half-wicked’.