Sunday, 24 January 2016

Gods among us

"By every meaningful measure, today's elites are gods" wrote Jeff Sparrow, in the week when the modern Olympian deities gathered on their mountain to discuss what to do with the teeming mortals below.

If Sparrow's right, it wouldn't be the first time a society has moved from trying to restrain the conceit of the powerful to openly worshipping them. I've just been reading Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. The Republic, although clearly not a democracy in any sense that we would understand it, (or that the Athenians would have understood it), celebrated individual ambition, but also recognised it as a dangerous force that needed to be limited:
To preserve it from the ambitions of would-be future tyrants, the founders of the Republic settled upon a remarkable formula. Carefully, they divided the powers of the exiled Tarquin between two magistrates, neither permitted to serve for longer than a year. These were the consuls, and their presence at the head of their fellow citizens, the one guarding against the ambitions of the other, was a stirring expression of the Republic's guiding principle - that never again should one man be permitted to rule supreme in Rome.
Compare and contrast the founding principles of the Republic with the honours Julius Caesar allowed himself in its dying days:
In the East they already worshipped Caesar as a god. In the East there were traditions far older by far than the Republic, of the flesh becoming divine, and of the rule of a king of kings.

And there, for anxious Romans, lay the rub. Late in 45 BC the Senate announced that Caesar was henceforward to be honoured as divus Iulius: Julius the God.
For many Romans and later commentators the transition from liberty, of a sort, to an imperial Pax Romana under divine autocrats was no bad thing. According to Gibbon "if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most* happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domition to the accession of Commodus."

Substitute "prosperity" for "peace" and that's more or less the justification for worshipping the god-like plutocrats of the 21st Century: we live at the end of history, in the best of all possible worlds, thanks to a handful of special ones with god-like creative powers: "And Zuckerberg said, Let there be Facebook: and there was Facebook. And Zuckerberg saw the Facebook, that it was good and Zuckerberg divided the advertising revenue from the allegedly amusing cat photos."

In a case of history repeating itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, we even have a precedent for the Eastern prophecies of an incarnate messiah in Ayn Rand's turgid fictionalised manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, in which the figure of John Galt foreshadows the entrepreneurial tycoon as a god made flesh, fit only to be discussed only in terms of awed reverence.

When did the prophecy come to pass? Well, at different times in different places, but here in Britain, I'd say the deification of the plutocracy happened around the time that Richard Branson attained the status of rock-star cool. Rather like the Christian applicant for the post of Messiah, Branson was an unlikely candidate for godhead; in Jesus's case this was because he was "little weak and helpless", as the Christmas carol puts it - in Branston's case it's because he looks less like a god than a toothy gnome wearing a jumper your nan knitted:
Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
I'm a laughing gnome and you can't catch me!
Strange, but, as Robert Graves wrote in his sequel to I Claudius (Claudius the God), "godhead is, after all, a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion: if a man is generally worshipped as a god then he is a god. And if a god ceases to be worshipped he is nothing." The deification of the elite owes less to the elite's own virtues than to our weakness for idol worship, which takes us back to the Marx quotation in Sparrow's article:
I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.
And just in case you were doubting that those particular words have already been made flesh:
 If you haven’t yet heard, Donald Trump is good at making money......He is great. He is rich. People like him. Politicians are terrible. ISIS must be defeated. Illegal immigrants must be deported. Make America Great Again. It goes on.

*Thanks to the over-enthusiastic predictive text on the tablet I was using, this originally came out as "moist happy and prosperous" which, with the addition of a comma, would have been more or less OK, given that we are, on average, mostly water.