A large part of my misspent youth was taken up with the study of Roman and Greek language and culture, their history and their philosophies. One of the great mysteries of both the Roman and the Greek civilizations is why such civilizations, so carefully grounded and structured, should so completely collapse. The same question coud be asked, and has been asked by scholars far greater than I, about the many other great civilizations scattered through the pages of history — Egypt, China, India, the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Incans, and likely a host more.
I have no doubt that there is no one easy answer, but I think it likely that there is one element common to all of them. Each of these civilizations began as a system created to recognize and protect the rights and needs of its citizens, but, as time went on, some group within it gradually modified the system to enrich that group to the detriment of the other members of the civilization. The privileged group, finding itself successful in so enriching themselves, just continued to thus pervert the system until finally they had so thoroughly alienated the other members of the society that those other members had no alternative but to bring down the entire system.
To put that briefly, each one of these once proud and noble institutions were perverted by greed, and each was then destroyed by some form of revolution.
This raises an obvious question. Why would the privileged group let that happen? Why would that privileged group, in effect, kill the goose that laid the golden egg? Why would not this group who had figured out how to have the system work to its profit and advantage not have the foresight and prudence to provide at least enough goods and services to those not so privileged to keep the system going?
There is more than one answer to that question. The first is the truism that you don’t have to be intelligent or wise to take advantage of others. You just have to be more powerful. You have, for instance, to be willing to break the ordinary rules of morals and society. You have to lie, cheat, steal, bully. You have, in other words, to violate the fundamental principle of all society, that the rights of each member of a given society are inviolable.
One other reason stands out. Greed is an addiction, and, like all addictions, it knows no bounds. The drunk may know that he or she is destroying himself or herself by continuing to drink, but the addiction pushes the addict to keep doing it. Greed does exactly that. The robber baron John D. Rockefeller was asked, when he was in his eighties, when he was going to retire. He is said to have responded, “I just need a little more.” When he said it, he was the richest man in the world. On a lesser scale, that is what happens to everyone who suffers the addiction of greed, who defines himself or herself by the amount and character of his or her possessions. You have a used Chevy, and you want a new one. You get a new Chevy, you want a new Cadillac. You get a new Cadillac, and you want a new Mercedes, then a new Jaguar, then a new Ferrari, a plane, a bigger plane, a yacht, a bigger yacht, a mansion, a bigger mansion. And, in that mad pursuit of newer and fancier things, you never stop to ask what price others may be paying to feed your addiction.
To succeed in feeding this addiction of greed, you have, at some point, to limit the rights of others. There is, after all, only so much wealth in the world, and for you to get more than your share, you must assure yourself that others get less and that those others cannot take what you have away. You have, for instance, to limit their voice in government. So you would want to limit the right of the people to vote. You would need to pass legislation, for instance, limiting the hours of voting, and perhaps requiring some kiind of registration process that would make it difficult for the less wealthy to cast a vote. You would also have to limit the distribution of wealth, and to loudly decry all attempts at such distribution as evil, as, for instance, a communist plot. You would have to cut taxes and, accordingly, cut the benefits provided by government for such things as health and education. You would have to limit the ability of the people to organize. So you would have to pass laws limiting and even prohibiting the right to form collective bargaining units. Utlimately, you would have to pass laws even limiting or prohibiting the right of the people to assemble and protest. And you would have to do all of this while convincing the people somehow that it is all in their own interests.
If you are very good, you can get away with that for a while. Eventually, however, the people are going to notice that they are being disadvantaged. The middle class, for instance, might notice that their once prosperous position was slipping, that they were not profiting as much as they once did and that their number was shrinking. The poor would definitely notice that they were getting distinctly poorer, that their children were going hungry, that their schools were deteriorating or even being closed for lack of funds, that basic health care was too expensive for them, that the cost of even basic goods was rising beyond their ability to pay.
Like a tree rotting from within, the society would look pretty much intact for a long period of time. Inevitably, though, the day would come when some event would bring it down. The power exercised by that privileged group, political, financial, and likely in the end military and police, would fail. The people would have had enough, and the people would rise up. Revolution.
Revolution. That terrifying word. It always appears suddenly, as if it were a total surprise. In hindsight, of course, it is perfectly predictable. The French royalty knew it. “Apres moi le deluge,” said Louis XV. After me the deluge. The British likely had a sense of it when they responded to the grumbling about taxation by introducing more troops into the colonies. The czars likely knew it, or at least those around them certainly did. Nevertheless, history tells us over and over that revolution is the inevitable consequence of the addiction of greed.
We are, in the United States today, seeing all the signs of the addiction of greed. Those in power are serving monied interests more than anyone else. They are limiting the right to vote, the right to organize, the right of access to education and health care. They are being allowed to give money a greater voice in the legislative and political processes. And, through all of this, there is no sign whatsoever that those in power see any kind of limit to their accretion of power. They feel no need to moderate their pursuit of increased advantage of others. The ruse, they think, is working and will continue to work.
It won’t, of course. Like the Greeks and Romans and all the others, it will devolve into oppression and, ultimately, revolution. I am not here advocating revolution. There are a thousand ways to avoid it, and the pain visited on a society by revoluiton is abominable. I am, rather, stating a fact. We are witnessing, today, now, right now, all of the signs of the devolution of our society, of that commitment to the rights of every human being that made us unique and admired and respected throughout the world. We are approaching a point of critical mass, a point of no return, a point at which the people will find themselves so oppressed and so ignored by the system that they have no other option except revolution.
Call me chicken little if you wish. Tell me that it is only a pendulum, that we are only in a conservative phase and that it will swing back as it always has. I will surely want to agree, and I will carry that hope. I have, however, lived long enough to know what the pendulum feels like, and I don’t feel it now. I feel the rot inside the tree. I love my country. I see no greater ideals than the inalienable rights of every human being on which our government was based. I feel, however, the hands of greed pressing around the throat of those ideals, and I know too well the madness that that way lies. Somewhere off in the distance I hear the tramping of the boots of the oppressed. It is not too late. It can be stopped. We can have our country back, but greed will not give it back without a struggle. Citizens, unite in peace, or you will surely, in some near or distant future, unite in violence, in revolution.