The “Circus and Bread” Social Contract

According to Rousseau, populations enter into social contracts in which they tacitly consent to give up individual sovereignty in exchange for order and security.  The nature of these contracts differs from time to time and state to state.  I will analyze a very special form of contract, that between imperial states and their populations.

Ancient Rome exchanged bread and circus for loyalty to the empire.  Besides bread and circus, Rome also offered a very important psychological goody,  identity with moral, military, and cultural supremacy, that is, individual Romans got to feel superior to individuals from subjugated regions.  Today, the US and its allies, the NATO states, have engaged their populations with similar "bread and circus" social contracts – promising ever increasing consumption, prosperity, entertainment, and pride – in exchange for unquestioning loyalty to the global system of Pax Americana.  The bread is no longer wheat, it is industrial grade cake.  Lions no longer devour Christians, but we participate in the spectacle of vultures razing 3rd world financial systems.  However, the psychological benefits of being a member of a state that carries its weight around the world, whose corporations enjoy impunity, and whose populations offhandedly debate the merits of torture and military occupations, remain equally gratifying and decadent then as now.

The current global financial crisis has put a dent to the "bread and circus" social contract because of the enormous military expenditures devoted to remaining the first honcho in face of rising unemployment, home foreclosures, and debt.  If the state is no longer able to hold its part of the bargain – increasing consumption, wide-spread availability of drugs, credit, hubris, and swagger – will the 1st world populations keep their part, that is, remain loyal to 1st world hegemony?  Will Americans continue to accept that it is their imperial duty to defend Japan and South Korea from a nuclear North Korea?  Will the populations of Japan and South Korea accept that their security is in the hands of a state at the brink of bankruptcy and with two other wars going on?

Japan and South Korea agreed not to develop their own nuclear capacity in exchange for a promise that the US would defend them.  This pact functioned while the US was the unquestioned military hegemon.  However, the US no longer fulfills its part of the bargain – maintaining its nuclear monopoly in the region – and Japan and South Korea are now in a worse position than if they had developed their own nuclear arsenals and maintained their own military bases, not that they had much of a choice when they entered these agreements.  In any case, the limits of Pax Americana have become clear to see.  And as the global security system is pierced by North Koren nukes and pirates in the Indian Ocean, so is the illusion of its legitimacy, based on the absence of  rebellion,  by the anti-imperial rhetoric of foreign heads of state who can no longer be silenced by covert political assassinations and coups, the wars of liberation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wide-spread anti-Americanism  and anti-neoliberalism.

The individual national "bread and circus" social contracts have created a global system in which relations among states are determined by their relative power and restrained solely by conscience; in which they have the freedom to harm and threaten; in which national populations live in fear of one another.  The global system is asocial and apolitical, in a constant state of war.  Clearly, the global system has descended into what Rousseau called "the state of nature" and what is needed is a global social contract in which state sovereignty is surrendered to international law. 

Now that the empire is crumbling, perhaps the 1st world populations will see its merits.

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