Posts Tagged ‘latifundia’

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Michael Parenti (2012)

Film Review

In this presentation, Michael Parenti discusses the fraudulent history we are taught about the late Roman Republic. In particular, he focuses on the popular resistance movement that led to the rise of the Populares in the Roman senate in the second century BC. The revolt of the Roman proletariat was largely a reaction to the privatization of Rome’s collective agricultural lands as latifundia (plantations owned by Roman aristocrats). Historically there was no private land ownership in Rome until thugs hired by aristocrats drove the peasants off their land around 200 BC.

Parenti starts by demolishing the myth promulgated by mainstream historians that Rome was a republic. The Roman senate was a self-appointed oligarchy. For the most part Roman senators paid no taxes though. Instead they loaned money at interest to the Roman government (sound familiar?). The lower classes, in contrast, were heavily taxed.

The first great Populares to serve as consul was Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. He and his brother Gaius, who succeeded him, fought for land reform to break up the latifundia and redistribute them to the landless. Despite their aristocratic background, all the Populares consuls challenged a Roman economic system that was rigged in favor of the elites All were assassinated by aristocratic death squads.

Julius Caesar would be the last Populares consul, and he, too, would be assassinated in 44 BC. Among the reforms he enacted were

  • Lowering interest and fines on debts
  • Building exceptional public libraries to be used by all Roman citizens
  • Guaranteeing freedom of religion to Roman Jews
  • Ending the practice of forcing people with unpaid debts into slavery
  • Introducing a democratic constitution
  • Creating state jobs in Rome and the colonies for the unemployed
  • Ending Cicero’s* witch hunts and extrajudicial executions

The aristocrats in the senate, who detested Caesar because he threatened their wealth and privilege, responded by labeling him a brutal tyrant and assassinating him. Ironically the emperors who succeeded him were far more tyrannical. Yet the senate aristocrats supported them as they protected their wealth and privilege.

What strikes me most about this presentation are the clear parallels with the current period, with the liberal elite and intelligence establishment portraying Trump as an unspeakable fascist tyrant based on little evidence other than his rhetoric. I’m aware that much of the liberal establishment is justifiably frightened of the ultraconservative bent of Trump’s appointees. However most of the strident anti-Trump rhetoric seems over the top to me.

For me the two main ways the parallels break down are 1) the absence of a genuine reform movement from below similar to the Roman resistance movement that led to the formation of the Populares 2) the absence in Trump of the towering intelligence, charisma and military and political ingenuity that Caesar displayed. Trump’s lack of political experience raises the vital question whether he or his conservative cabinet will be in control. Despite his promise of numerous populist reforms, I’m extremely skeptical whether the prominent conservatives in his cabinet support them.


Progress and Poverty

by Henry George (1879), edited and abridged by Bob Drake, Robert Shalkenbach Foundation (2006)

Downloadable as free PDF:Progress and Poverty

Book Review

Progress and Poverty is an economic classic which has been suppressed in the US owing to its subject matter: the elimination of poverty and economic inequality by restoring the Commons. Written over 130 years ago, the book provides uncanny insights for the current difficulties capitalism faces (i.e paralyzing recession, massive public and personal debt and growing income inequality). Internationally George’s economic theories are regarded as comparable to those of Marx, Keynes and Galbraith. Yet despite being the third most famous American in 1879 (after Edison and Mark Twain), George’s work remains largely unknown outside of Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Why Development Always Produces Poverty

George’s goal in writing Progress and Poverty is to explain, in economic terms, why material progress (i.e. economic development) is always accompanied by poverty and increasing inequality. Employing Adam Smith’s classical definitions of labor, capitol, wages and interest and Ricardo’s Law of Rent, he argues that development must always produce poverty and inequality so long as a privileged elite holds an exclusive monopoly on the ownership of land and basic resources.

George starts from the premise that land and natural resources are the source of all wealth, though wealth itself can only be created through human labor. According to George, the relative monopoly the elite hold on land allows them to capture all increases in productivity and production as “rent” increases.

The History of Land Privatization

George’s approach is relatively unique for political economists in his emphasis on the role ideology plays in the economic theories that gain popular acceptance. In contemporary society, no one questions the right of a privileged elite to monopolize land and natural resources for their own benefit. However private land (and resource) ownership is a relatively new concept originating in seventeenth century Britain with The Enclosure Act.

About a third of Progress and Poverty traces the historical evolution of private land ownership. In all human societies, the common right of all people to use the earth to support themselves has been sacrosanct. The concept of individual land ownership only emerged as societies advanced and either concentrated power in privileged classes or seized land and slaves through military conquest. Prior to the rise of Greek and Roman civilization, all land was communally owned and the notion of an individual claiming a patch of land as his exclusive possession was unthinkable.

Henry George sees the mass seizure of land by the nobility (in Rome this was referred to as the latifundia) as responsible for the death of democracy in these early societies and the ultimate collapse of both civilizations.

After the Roman Empire fell, feudalism was characterized by systems of communal and private property rights that operated in parallel. A feudal estate was considered to belong to society at large. The king, as the chief representative of the people, merely granted its use in trust to church leaders and military officers in return for services rendered to the commonwealth. Churches were expected to provide for the care and welfare of the sick and poor. For their part, feudal lords were expected to defend the king’s military interests.

Because they allowed the British system of private land ownership to persist in the US, George accuses the founding fathers of failing in their efforts to establish a true republic. Despite abolishing heredity titles and establishing the right to vote, they failed to reestablish the communal property rights that enabled the Greek and Roman democracies to flourish. He contends that political equality, when coexisting with wealth inequality, must always lead to either dictatorship or anarchy.

Restoring The Commons Through a Land Tax

George proposes that the wealth inequality, recessions and numerous other evils commonly attributed to the capitalist economic model could be totally eliminated by restoring public ownership of land and resources.

Rather than advocating outright government seizure of private land, he proposes to accomplish this by imposing a tax on unimproved land roughly equivalent to its rental value. Such a system would allow landholders to preserve their right of tenure, while discouraging them from speculating by holding land and resources out of production. While ending land speculation and recessions, this type of tax would simultaneously expand land and resource access for workers and capital investment. Any productivity increases (beyond interest on capital), would accrue to the government, rather than private landholders.

According to George, the government could use revenue from land and resource taxes to abolish taxes on wages and capital (which discourage production) and to pay down public debt.