Bread and Circuses plays a part – and probably never before in human history have even the poorest enjoyed so much bread and so many circuses – but there’s also a kind of ‘taught helplessness’.
I’m a transplant to the US, and one of the things that continually strikes me about the US is the pervasiveness of the messaging designed to present the status quo as the only possible way. Part of it is rooted in American exceptionalism – this is already the greatest country on Earth, we have nothing to learn from any other country – but part of it is a repeated, insistent message that if you even look at alternative ways to manage your society you will lose everything you have.
So anything that even hints of prioritizing social over economic goals is not only naive and contemptible, but fraught with terrible danger. Venezuela, of course, is the cautionary tale par excellence here, but there’s also a lot of synchronized sneering at Europe. As everyone knows, Europe’s embrace of social democracy means that every nation there is a terminal economic basket case, hovering just a heartbeat away from total fiscal and social collapse. And of course everything good flows from the super-wealthy and giant corporations, so if the capitalists aren’t allowed to have everything they want, unchecked and unquestioned, then the entire US economy will go tits-up in the space of a week.
Environmental problems? Can’t impose restrictions on industry, because then the US won’t be competitive, and then it’s your job that goes, Joe. Unionization? Good luck finding work when unions have destroyed that industry too. More taxes on the rich? Are you out of your mind? Do you want the ‘job creators’ to stop creating jobs? And so on and so forth.
And this stuff is, as I say, pervasive. It’s not just Fox News putting it out, although they bang all those drums pretty hard. The supposed ‘left-wing’ media (pardon my scornful laugh) also take this stuff as a given. The same basic assumptions are present in everything they put out. The people who benefit most from the current state of affairs work very assiduously to persuade everyone else that it’s also to their benefit, and to discourage them from contemplating any possible alternatives.
Given this almost constant propaganda, some subtle, some not, devoted to the idea that, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “There is no alternative”, it’s not surprising that the lesson has sunk in, and now forms a foundation for many people’s vision of the world. Until people start questioning that, meaningful social change looks quite unlikely.
Which is, of course, the point.