Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Ides of March: reviewing progress

In Shakespeare’s play, as Julius Caesar approaches the forum he spots the soothsayer who has warned him against the Ides of March, and calls out mockingly:

‘The Ides of March are come.’

To which the soothsayer replies, ‘Aye, Caesar, but not gone.’

Given that we know what’s about to happen inside the Senate building, I think that line qualifies as the most sinister in Shakespeare.

Well, the Ides of March are come again. 2056 years ago today Julius Caesar was struck down by a group of die-hard Roman aristocrats, who left him to bleed out at the foot of the statue of his great enemy Pompey. 

If only he'd listened
It’s worth pausing a moment to ask how far we’ve come in those two millennia.

Caesar’s enemies were Senators, as he was, in other words members of the elite of Rome who exercised all power over the nascent Empire, thanks to their colossal wealth. Around them, the mass of Romans struggled to get through the day, finding work where they could, begging where they couldn’t, all in order to live in conditions inconceivably miserable to their wealthy masters, when they could make a living at all.

By being an outstandingly talented manipulator of the sentiments of those masses, whose support he skilfully bought, and at the same time a highly successful general who could command the total loyalty of his soldiers, Caesar was making a formidable, to some apparently unstoppable, bid for total power on his own. His adversaries decided that the only way to hang on to their own share of authority, was to kill him. The rest is a bloody body on the floor of the Senate.

Today, in many countries, wealth still often combines with control of the army to support power. Look at the Assads in Syria, revealed in their e-mails to be spending on interior decorations sums of money it would take their citizens several years to earn, while they turn heavy artillery on those same citizens when they try to change that arrangement.

In the wealthier nations, military strength is not these days a factor in determining who will rule us. Nor, fortunately, do we tend to decide the fate of our leaders by assassination. Wealth, on the other hand, remains inseparable from power: the US election this autumn is set to be the most expensive in history. And the unscrupulous and wealthy still use manipulation of the masses and purchase of our support to get and hold onto political power.

So on this Ides of March, looking back to that distant one 2056 years ago, what should the report card read? 

How about ‘has made some significant improvements but still has a long way to go; a serious increase in effort is needed if expectations are ever to be fulfilled’?

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