The Decline and Fall of the Western Empire

Why the West is over and why it can’t be saved

Image credit: Cripplegate

These days I frequently wonder how it must have felt to have been an astute observer living somewhere in the Roman Empire around 250 AD. Just like today, all the obvious signs were present yet few seemed to grasp their significance. Rome still appeared strong, as far as most people were concerned life appeared to be proceeding much as it always had, and every morning the sun rose in the sky in a comfortingly predictable manner as if to say “things will always be this way.”

Rome had transitioned from Republic to Empire with hardly a ripple. There was still a Senate, even if it was now merely an assembly for rubber-stamping the dictats of the Emperor. For as far back as anyone could remember (and that meant at least as far back as last Dies Joves, around the forth hora of the afternoon…) Rome had been the dominant military power. Its provinces were vast and its influence even vaster.

And yet…

Rome had rotted away from the inside. The illusion of greatness was still present but the reality was profoundly different. Rome was like a rotten egg: the shell seemed fine but all within was a putrid disgusting morass.

For centuries, avaricious Roman aristocrats had bought appointments as tax-gatherers to the provinces. This gave them a few years in which to amass enormous fortunes by impoverishing the farmers upon which Rome utterly depended for its survival. For centuries, Roman legions had waged wars on the fringes of the Empire so that pampered ignorant citizens far from the realities of combat could stuff their faces with delicacies and gape open-mouthed at spectacles performed in vast amphitheaters.

Roman law, which had been one of the world’s first attempts at creating a structure to accommodate the needs of the majority of citizens, had long since become merely the means by which lawyers could enrich themselves by ensuring the victory of whoever had the deepest pockets.

Although every few generations by mere chance a moderately competent Emperor would take the throne, the more usual occurrence was an Emperor who was incompetent, vainglorious, and utterly unfit for office.

As circumstances deteriorated, the powerful sought to promote narratives that insulated them from the consequences of their own venality and incompetence. Cynicism and short-term opportunism became the defining characteristics of life in the late Empire, while the masses turned to vacuous entertainments and became ever-more reliant on official handouts of grain.

We humans are very like the anecdotal frog in the pot of water. If the temperature rises slowly enough we notice nothing at all, and by the time the first perturbations begin to ripple across the surface it’s too late: we’ve adjusted to the idea that being boiled alive is perfectly normal and anyone who says different is merely peddling fake news or part of project fear.

The only compensation for our present-day descent into a new Dark Ages is that some of the details can almost seem adorably cute, like watching a small child playing with its cuddly toy while a ravenous tiger approaches undetected, fangs dripping with eager saliva, from behind.

The Democratic Party of the USA is one such adorably cute phenomenon. Whenever I see mention of the Democratic Primary I have an inescapable vision of a group of well-intentioned old ladies earnestly debating whether or not salmon finger-sandwiches should be served in preference to egg-mayonnaise finger-sandwiches while a Panzer IV tank smashes through the front of their house, machine-gun blazing and its 75mm main gun loaded and ready to fire.

It seems to have escaped everyone’s notice that the USA is over. Perhaps everyone is too busy watching reality TV or cramming McSlop down their throats. Nonetheless, you’d think someone would have noticed.

Trump has committed and has blithely admitted to committing a series of treasons and crimes any one of which would be grounds for immediate removal. But the GoP is firmly behind him, he will face no consequences whatsoever, and he will almost certainly win re-election in 2020.

The only fact that counts in the barrage of lies that today forms the dominant political narrative is that Trump has nearly forty-three million drooling howling halfwits firmly behind him. As Moron-In-Chief, Trump is unassailable.

Meanwhile the US Justice Department has become nothing more than an enforcer of Trump’s whims, its main purpose now being to intimidate and silence any potential critic or independent actor attempting to behave correctly. Even if Trump were to be executed tomorrow by an unusually awake Secret Service agent, nothing would change. The lesson Trump taught the world is that at least half the population is so mind-numbingly stupid they can be duped by even the most pathetically obvious lies and bogus promises provided those things are delivered in single-syllable easy-to-chant sound-bites.

This is not a lesson that can be unlearned.

Across the Atlantic the UK has provided its own damp and dreary example of the same phenomenon. Brexit was sold to the dull-witted and simple-minded in a package of pathetically obvious lies and impossible promises. Only a total moron could have listened to the nonsense peddled by the blustering charlatans in their Brexit Bus and thought “oh, that’s a good idea!” And of course, only the morons did. But guess what? As half the population by definition has an IQ under 100, it’s not difficult to achieve a slender majority provided the lies are delivered in single-syllable easy-to-chant sound-bites.

For years after 2016, journalists fell over themselves pretending that grotesque ignorance and monumental stupidity was really “a cry against the injustices of globalization, a protest against the elites.”

Which just goes to show how very infrequently journalists bother to talk to actual people.

No one who voted for Trump or Brexit had a clue about global supply chains, the relationship between offshore production and cheap products in the shops, or anything else about our complex inter-connected world. No one who voted for Trump or Brexit even knew what “an elite” was. Remember: this supposed protest against “the elites” (a nicely undefined concept not unlike “international Jewry” and “the Patriarchy”) resulted in tens of millions of people voting for… Alexander Boris de Pfeffer Johnson, Old Etonian, Oxford graduate, and compulsive liar; and Donald J. Trump, the brainless offspring of a multi-millionaire, born with a silver-plated butt-plug up his rear end and now a self-proclaimed billionaire.

So much for “a protest against the elites.”

The behavior of the chattering classes is not dissimilar to the behavior a Roman intellectual sitting on the third row of the left side of the Colosseum in Rome watching a slave being torn apart by a hungry lion and telling everyone within earshot that “of course what we’re looking at is really just a metaphor for the inevitable triumph of truth and justice over lies and tyranny and everyone knows that no one at all is being hurt in the staging of this spectacle.”

Trump and Brexit were successful because they appealed to our worst instincts. They created fear of foreigners and promised bogus solutions. They created fear of change and promised bogus solutions.

Meanwhile Modi in India, Babiš in the Czech Republic, Salvini in Italy, and Bolsonaro in Brazil watched and learned and applied the lessons purposefully. Putin and Erdogan and Orban had already known the secrets of success, but they’d not enjoyed such a global stage and such instantly shattering successes so most people hadn’t really paid attention. But now every aspiring and current politician knows that P.T. Barnum was absolutely correct when he stated that “no one ever lost money by under-estimating the intelligence of an audience.”

So we’re now into the closing phase of our accidental experiment with representative democracy. From here on out, it’s mob rule.

Of course we’ll continue to pretend, as the Romans did, that nothing has really changed. We’ll still preserve some of the surface features of democracy and we’ll still pretend that the law is for everyone. But gradually all but the most totally brain-dead citizens (and admittedly there are a great many of these) will understand that all is corruption, cynicism, and the perpetual threat of state-sanctioned violence. More and more will look to make short-term gains because there is no future for anyone to aspire to.

Lefty-trendy folk will blame everything on Capitalism and The Patriarchy but in reality the true causes will be basic human ignorance and stupidity combined with intellectual and moral indolence.

As Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry said about the War of 1812: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.

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