Bread and Circuses in a Digital Age
by John Green
Thu 27th Feb 2014
Bread and circuses have always been a central aspect of ruling class hegemony and a means of keeping the masses in a soporific state; it was not confined to Roman times, even if the Romans were credited with its invention. However, today this method seems to have reached its pinnacle, only it’s now digital circuitry rather than circuses and the lure of consumer goods rather than bread.
Of course, there is a long tradition of apocalyptic prognosis and I don’t wish to join that posse, but there is little doubt that our civilisation is reaching a cultural endpoint in terms of the centralisation and manipulation of information and entertainment provision and its mass impact. In this respect, Aldous Huxley, in his 1931 novel Brave New World, was amazingly prophetic.
To maintain his ‘World State's Command Economy’, citizens are conditioned from birth to value consumption, and to buy new items instead of repairing old ones, because constant consumption is the bedrock of economic and social stability for the World State. Beyond providing social engagement and distraction in the material realm of work or play, the need for spiritual communion is addressed by the ubiquitous availability of the drug soma, a hallucinogen. This state-produced drug is a self-medicating comfort mechanism in the face of stress or discomfort. Recreational sex is an integral part of society. Huxley described a dystopian world in which television screens cover the walls in our homes and psychological manipulation and classical conditioning are combined to profoundly change society to make it more malleable in the interests of the powerful elite.
I am not suggesting here that there is in fact some massive conspiracy on the part of the ruling elites, but there is no doubt that questions of mass persuasion and how to achieve political subservience has and does occupy the minds of many of those whose job it is to serve those elites. It is largely due, I would argue, to a concatenation of amoral capitalist modes of production with the market-driven need for mass audiences and the global reach of electronic media all fueling the underlying tendencies.
For successful mass production and guaranteed sales under capitalism the goal is to create a docile public which will react predictably and en masse to prompts by the advertising and marketing gurus. This is the way labelling and branding of products works, but it can be, and is, also being used to ‘sell’ candidates, manipulate electorates and voting patterns.
Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies in Boston, USA in a recent article in the Guardian raises the question of why so many of us are fascinated and absorbed by anodyne soap operas about the ruling class (Downton Abbey) or the rich bourgeoisie (Recent films like The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, for instance, glorify white-collar criminality, and the new series, Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, takes us into the wealthy Hollywood celebrity world). Dines asks, too, why those, few, programmes dealing with the political class (e.g. House of Cards) portray an elite that has ‘so brilliantly stacked the deck that there is no point in fighting back’. We are shown a benign, paternal ruling class and a subservient, satisfied working class.
Where are the films today that reflect ordinary people’s lives or handle genuine social issues? Think of the the Italian neo-realists or Britain’s gritty realist directors (Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Ken Loach) and US films like Blue Collar, Erin Brokovitch, China Syndrome or Harlan County. Where are their equivalents today? Increasingly we are fed a fare of almost unremitting uniformity, overwhelmingly ‘Made in Hollywood’ of escapist fantasy, apocalyptical science fiction, glutinous romance or war. Of course, we all need escapism at times and no one wants a continuous diet of kitchen sink drama, but it’s the type of escapism offered by the media moguls that I question.
We are being spoon-fed a worldview that bears no relation to the lives the overwhelming majority of us lead. We are being denied knowledge of the real problems humanity faces or even those faced by individuals. Serious documentaries on television have been downgraded to post-midnight slots, if given an airing at all; they are rarely if ever shown in cinemas. Those that do make it on to our television screens are invariably skewed into a voyeuristic experience, rather than an empathetic and learning one (like the recent Benefits Street on Channel Four): how individuals cope with sexual dysfunction, extreme disability or demanding lifestyles, but such genuine problems are trivialised or exploited for titilation.
The ethical or moral limits of what most people and toothless regulators are pressured into accepting as valid entertainment have been pushed ever further. If a film today doesn’t have sufficient graphic violence and brutality or lashings of sex it will find no backing. The dividing lines between pornography and mainstream film have become totally blurred. Even historical dramas have become largely an excuse for more heaving bosoms coupled with male brutality. War and violence are now treated as the Romans did: as gladiatorial entertainment. You lower the bar to where human life has no value.
The impact of ubiquitous pornography - often a symbiosis between loveless sex and violence - on general culture should not be underestimated; it has undoubtedly fuelled the radical shifting of boundaries. Voyeuristic sex has replaced the depiction of complex love relationships. The demands this trend makes on women actors are, unsurprisingly, the greatest. They are increasingly being asked to do explicit scenes of sex and nudity. Films like Nymphomaniac, Nine Songs and Blue is the Warmest Colour are legitimised for actors and audiences alike by their categorisation as ‘art’.
In its heyday cinematography was characterised by a strong sense of aesthetic values, and images were composed and edited consciously so that form and content became a dialectical whole. It was widely accepted that cinema could be a genuine art form. Today form has largely become the content. Films are discussed in terms of their technical virtuosity or wow factor. Individual images reveal little compositional reflection or complexity, but serve rather to glamourise or horrify. Editing rarely involves a genuine montage, but concentrates on velocity, shock value and sensation. Most films bear little or no resemblance to real life situations, even the acting has become an incestuous caricature of itself. On leaving the cinema and mixing once again with real people, you realise how artificial and sterile it has all become.
Both the production and distribution of films and music is now in the hands of very few big electronics companies and their success is based entirely on marketing methodology rather than encouraging or promoting young, innovative artists. Music has become a game of ‘talent’ spotting, ‘celebrity’ potential, top ten listings and is focused on annual award ceremonies; films are valued in terms of their likelihood of winning Oscars. Everything is graded in terms of its star or popularity rating. To paraphrase another Oscar, ‘we are being taught the price of everything, but the value of nothing.’
Pete Seeger, in an interview when asked whether he felt any of his songs had had a political or social impact, replied that the most important aspect for him was getting people to join in and sing together. He argued that participation is the key to the future of the human race. That communal active participation is becoming a rarity; most of us have become passive consumers. We are often not aware of our passivity, nor are we aware of how we are being manipulated.
We are being deprived of information and facts which would help us better understand social processes and shape our own lives. On the one hand, we have, at the touch of a keyboard, access to an almost unlimited amount of information, we are daily inundated with images, facts and information - we are in fact tyrannised by information - but we are none the wiser for it. For facts and information to have relevance and use value they have to be placed in a meaningful context and in relationship to each other, otherwise they are like grains of sand on the beach with which it is impossible to make bricks and build houses.
We may be living in a world far removed from that of the Romans in terms of sophisticated technolgy, but our elite understands the role of bread and circuses perhaps even better than the Romans did.