The Roman Republic, and subsequent Roman Empire, were based on a strong class structure which divided the population into distinct economic categories. The lowest class were of course the slaves, who were regarded as chattel to be exploited, bought and sold at a whim. At the top end of the vast social pyramid was the Roman aristocracy. The nobility, the patrician class, were the wealthiest families and clans in the Roman polity, and dominated the political process. Hereditary wealth was a key factor if a person wished to occupy high political office. Gradually, a new social force, the equites, the non-patrician wealthy elite, were included (sometimes reluctantly) into the highest political positions of the Roman republic and empire.
Note how that to be in the Roman Senate, from which candidates for the most powerful political positions were drawn, wealth was the single most important criterion. While the official slogan of the Roman Empire was Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (the Senate and the People of Rome), there was no doubt that the highest and most powerful class in the land was the financial oligarchy. In fact, the largest faction of the noble class called themselves the Optimates, literally meaning ‘the best’. These were the hereditary nobles, who fought tooth-and-nail against their opposing counterparts, the Populares, those senators who were (allegedly) on the side of the Roman people.
Under the Roman Republic, there were political avenues for the people to address their grievances to the Senate. The plebeian tribune, a powerful political office, did serve as a conduit for the expression and resolution of political and economic complaints. However, the plebeian tribune office did not have any military or executive function, so its decisions were circumvented or undermined by the all-powerful senatorial oligarchy. If the plebeian tribune was to become stubborn, and persist in measures to alleviate the economic inequalities inflicted on the people, then the senators would not hesitate to use their financial power to attack – and sometimes violently assassinate – the plebeian tribunes they regarded as a thorn in their side. The most famous tribunes, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi, were both killed in politically motivated violence, victims of lynch-mob murder incited by the financial oligarchs because they wanted to reform the social and political structures of Rome to assist the poorer classes. The Senate made sure that the laws of the land favoured the preservation and extension of their wealth, and used that legal structure to suppress any threat to their economic privileges. An extensive network of patronage ensured that the republic, and ensuing Roman Empire, remained economically viable for the wealthy senatorial elite.
This excursion into ancient Roman history is not just an academic exercise. It has serious implications and lessons for contemporary times. The unifying of political and economic power is the salient feature of the Roman republic and empire. What has this got to do with today’s events?
In a revealing and powerful article, Robert Scheer, a veteran political commentator and editor-in-chief of Truthdig online magazine, writes about the incestuous relationship between powerful financial oligarchs, politicians and the Wall Street crowd in the United States today. In an article called ‘Congress Still Puts Out for Wall Street’, Scheer examines the close relations between the bankers and financial speculators that caused the ongoing capitalist economic crisis, and the political clout they exercise in the US Congress. As Scheer explains:
What does it take to make a Wall Street banker squirm with shame? Not content with having swindled tens of millions of Americans out of their homes and life savings, the very bankers who caused the biggest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression are now subverting government regulations designed to prevent comparable disasters in the future.
Scheer cites the example of Citigroup, a mega-bank and financial institution, itself the result of a merger between two enormous financial institutions, that swindled millions in the years leading up to the 2008. They were able to do because their partisans, the army of lobbyists that they hired and unleashed on the US Congress, convinced the law-makers to abolish regulations that restricted Citigroup’s ability to generate millions in profits by speculation. For instance, the Glass-Steagall Act, passed back in the 1930s, prevented commercial banks from engaging in financial speculation with the bank deposits of ordinary investors. Pensions and bank deposits were protected from risky investment banking activities. Citigroup was one financial behemoth that led the charge to abolish this act, thus opening up billions of dollars for further speculative activities – the Glass-Steagall Act was abolished by compliant politicians in 1999.
The US Congress since 2008, rather than challenging the ability of the Wall Street hucksters to write and shape laws that enrich elite interests, has actually continued to enmesh itself in the tentacles of the financial mega-corporations. Key legislation passed by the US Congress governing financial activity has been drafted by bank lobbyists, many of them in the pay of the big banks like Citigroup. A financial oligarchy that occupies legislative positions, and enacts laws to enrich itself and transfer the social costs of the economic burden onto the poor – that looks eerily similar and highly reminiscent of an ancient empire.
It is true that the Obama administration passed the Dodd-Frank Act, subtitled the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, in July 2010. But even this lukewarm, halfhearted measure to crack down on the billion-dollar derivatives market has faced strenuous opposition from industry groups and financial institutions that portray this act with bipartisan fury as an attack on private enterprise that threatens to demolish the entire financial complex. As Scheer elaborates, the drafting of this legislation was supervised by the large financial conglomerates;
As an example of the profound corruption of our legislative process, congressional staffers turned to top corporate lawyers to draft the wording pretending to rein in their activity.
For example, as the emails reviewed by the Times revealed, House committee staffers consulted Michael Bopp, a partner at the elite law firm Gibson, Dunn who represents corporations involved in derivative trading, as to the verbiage he would prefer in the legislation. His language was well received, as the Times reported: “Ultimately, the committee inserted every word of Mr. Bopp’s suggestion into a 2012 version of the bill that passed the House, save for a slight change in phrasing.”
So the very financial institutions that caused the current economic malaise have enormous input into the legislation that is supposed to facilitate the economic recovery. The corruption of the political and legislative process by big money is all too evident. Legislation that is skewed towards preserving and extending the wealth of the financial oligarchy is having its intended effect.
The Pew Research Centre, a non-partisan think tank dedicated to gathering and collating data on social and economic issues, released a report in April this year entitled ‘A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93%’ documents that during the years 2009 to 2011, the upper seven percent of the richest households saw their average net worth increase by an estimated 28 percent, while the rest of us, the 93 percent, witnessed a decline of four percent in the average household net worth. This differential wealth recovery was explained by the Pew Research Centre as a result of stock and bond market activity, and the already-affluent have their assets concentrated in stocks and financial holdings. The lower income households have most of their wealth represented by their homes, and the housing market remained flat over the 2009-11 period.
Since the 2008 capitalist economic crisis, the ruling financial elite has intensified its efforts to transfer the cost of economic recession onto the working people, while insulating its own wealth through corrupting the legislative process. The US government, under Bush and now Obama, has utilised every measure to preserve, and even increase, the ability of the financial oligarchy to accumulate staggering amounts of wealth, while social services and public utilities are cut back. Financial speculation, asset bubbles and predatory economic practices are back on the agenda and remain typical of financial activity since 2008. Obama responded to the economic crisis with ‘bailouts’, that is, handing over vast amounts of public money to the private banks, sowing the seeds of an even larger economic crash to come. Maintaining US imperial power while imposing austerity at home has been the main priority of the Obama administration.
The Roman Empire, while occupying a place in ancient history, is not so remote from our contemporary political and economic experience.