Is it déjà vu all over again? Are we yet again witnessing the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Charles Hugh Smith in his Of Two Minds blog (via Zero Hedge) suggests that we are suffering from two factors that caused the decline and fall of Rome. The first is extreme income inequality. The second is “virtue signaling.”
Put it all together and you have “a self-serving elite desperate to cloak reality” by feeding people virtue. The elite includes the media, tech oligarchs, financiers, lawyers and government officials. The top ten percent of the people earn over $127,000 and control the largest amount of wealth. They want to retain their money and their power, and they must persuade the bottom 90% not to take it away from them.
To define extreme inequality Smith points out that in the early days of the Roman Republic the wealthy were worth between ten and twenty times what the rest of the people were worth. In its last days the rich were worth 200 times what the rest were.
The rich want to keep their money and power by using virtue signaling. Thereby, they allow everyone to feel that he or she has the right feelings about the right moral issues, while not really solving any of society’s problems. You may not have very much money but you are on the side of the angels. One suspects the virtue signalling represents a modern secular version of a theology that teaches everyone that earthly existence is merely a way to prepare for the joys of eternal life.
Virtue signaling is defined as "the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily with the intent of enhancing that person's standing within a social group," "the practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue" and "Saying you love or hate something to show off what a virtuous person you are, instead of actually trying to fix the problem."
Since the Roman elites functioned in the same way, the idea is not new. One feels constrained to note that the therapy culture is also hard at work inculcating these same values. Therapists want to teach people to have the right feelings about the right issues.
Much therapy is about adjusting your feelings, not fixing problems. Therapists pretend to be men and women of science, but more often than not they are indoctrinating their patients in the dogmas of political correctness.
Smith seems to suggest that Donald Trump has the right approach, that is, he wants to fix the problems. Smith does not say whether he accepts of rejects Trump’s solutions, but he sees Trump’s opponents as indulging in virtue signaling, while ignoring problems. Identity politics has eaten their policies.
In his words:
What are those "resisting Trump" proposing as solutions to the profound structural ills afflicting the empire? Gender-neutral bathrooms? A continuation of a dysfunctional immigration policy? Blaming Russia to mask the catastrophic failure of the past 25 years of neocon imperial over-reach? Cost-free "virtue-signaling" proclamations in support of diversity? "Safe places" on college campuses paid for by student loans crushing a vast indentured class of debt-serfs?
These status quo policies and cost-free diversions are the acme of a profound complacency and intellectual sclerosis that serve to defend a self-serving, morally corrupt political and financial elite.
Virtue-signaling pronouncements lack any recognition of the moral, political, social and financial crises facing the American empire, and are devoid of any practical, politically/financially painful first-aid measures to staunch the decline.
Surely, it is interesting to consider that students who go to college on loans are “an indentured class of debt-serfs.” It is even more interesting to consider that these colleges are teaching students the joys of virtue signaling, the better to let them align themselves with the technocratic and financial elites. The statistics show that very few of them will ever make it to that level.
Smith continues that the elites are becoming complacent and that they are developing a sense of hybris that will “soon” choke their false status and false sense of confidence. By that he means that the elites believe that they really are that much better than the rest of the nation.
Those who possess the greatest wealth tend to avoid military service and taxes:
What we have now is a self-serving "virtue-signaling" technocrat class that works for a self-serving political/financial elite that avoids the imperial burdens of military service and taxes while imposing what amounts to an economic military conscription on the working class. This Imperial elite sends these military conscripts around the globe to defend their Imperial interests.
Virtue-signaling doesn't signal virtue--it signals decline and collapse. Just as in 5th century Rome--an empire careening toward collapse--those reaping the gains are complacently confident in their moral superiority while their hubris-soaked intellectual sclerosis blinds them to the systemic banquet of consequences that will soon choke their precious self-serving status quo.
We do not know whether a nation suffering from these two ills can reform itself or whether the problem of extreme inequality can only be remedied by a great catastrophe.
The latter thesis was offered by Stanford professor Walter Scheidel in The Atlantic:
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward.
He continues, on a discouraging note:
Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth. They appeared in four different guises: mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake, and by the time these crises had passed, the gap between rich and poor had shrunk.