Saturday, 13 June 2020

How the Roman Emperor Augustus used propaganda 2,000 years ago



A very few people, rather than being carried along on the current of events like the rest of humanity, exceptionally manage to divert that current and change the course of history. Their use of propaganda is usually key to their success.

We are all affected by propaganda – sometimes easy to see, sometimes hidden so that we are not even aware of it. Propaganda has been around for thousands of years. One of the most brilliant users of propaganda in the ancient world was the first Roman emperor, Augustus.

The word “propaganda” is often used in a derogatory sense, but it can used for good as well as for ill. I use the word in the broad sense of putting out a message, by whatever means, with the intention of influencing people’s opinions.

Augustus was the first emperor of the Roman Empire just over 2,000 years ago. He used many different forms of propaganda including: his description of a comet, political trickery, buildings, statues, history, poetry, coins, a programme of moral revival, “bread and circuses” and his own name and title.

When Augustus defeated his only then rival for power, Mark Antony, at the Battle of Actium, in 31 BCE, he became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire and remained so until his death, 45 years later in 14 CE.

Before Augustus, Rome had been a Republic for 500 years. The Republic was not a democracy; it was an oligarchy. However, the system was designed to ensure that no one man could seize sole power.

Before the Republic - in the mists of time - Rome had been ruled by kings, who still had the reputation of being cruel tyrants centuries later. Augustus was always careful not to use any title that suggested he was a king in all but name. Instead, he used the modest title Princeps, “first citizen”.

Augustus was born in 63 BCE and was a teenager when Rome was in the throes of a bloody Civil War. The victor of that war was Julius Caesar, who was later murdered by a group of Roman nobles in 44 BCE shortly after declaring himself Dictator for Life.

It was the murder of Julius Caesar – and Caesar’s will - that changed everything for Augustus. In fact, he was not called Augustus at that time. He was born Caius Octavius and was Caesar’s great-nephew. Caesar and his great-nephew were not close, but Caesar decided to make Caius Octavius his heir and adopted him in his will.

Aged only 18, Augustus inherited money and Caesar’s name. He took a new name, Caius Julius Caesar. Mark Antony once sneered that he was “a boy who owes everything to his name”.  The boy at 18 had ambition and an astonishing political maturity but it is true that in the beginning he owed his success to his name and his links with Caesar.

Caesar had been popular with the common citizens in Rome partly because he kept them happy with “bread and circuses”. Augustus borrowed when there was a delay releasing money in Caesar’s will to give a sum to every Roman citizen and to put on lavish games, with gladiators and wild animals, to entertain the people.

During the games in Caesar’s honour, a comet appeared in the sky. Usually, comets were said to bring bad luck. However, Augustus in a brilliant move declared the comet was Julius Caesar ascending to heaven and had a star attached to Julius Caesar’s statue in the heart of Rome.

Throughout his reign, Augustus spared no expense in putting on games and feasts for the Roman masses. Potent propaganda for his rule.

Soon, Caesar was declared a god. Caius Julius Caesar – that is Augustus - then added to his name the words divi filius, “son of a god”.

The Divine Caesar also had a month named after him, the month of July. Some decades later, in his lifetime, Augustus had a similar honour – the month of August.

Between the murder of Caesar and his defeat of Mark Antony thirteen years later, Augustus was engaged in almost relentless war, first as an ally of Mark Antony and then fighting against him.

During this period, Caesar was a ruthless, murderous war lord. He ordered the murder of political opponents. He is even said to have gouged out someone’s eyes with his own hands. He became feared.

Augustus used propaganda to ridicule Mark Antony for being under the influence of his lover Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. The poet Horace jeered, “The shame of it! A Roman enslaved to a woman (you future generations will refuse to believe it)”. Mark Antony was painted as being ensnared in a decadent Oriental world.

After the defeat of Mark Antony, Augustus had no rivals for power. The central message justifying his rule was that he – and he alone – could bring peace after so many years of Civil War.

In the 45 years of his rule, Augustus’s used different propaganda techniques. He was astonishingly successful at persuading people of his messages. He had a number of advantages: money, a monopoly of the means of propaganda and a long time to spread his message.

It was essential for Augustus to portray his rule as legitimate. Rome had not been governed by a single individual for half a millennium and Julius Caesar was murdered precisely because other members of the Roman elite would not accept that he should have such power.

Augustus managed to pull off an extraordinary trick. He held supreme power yet could plausibly claim that he did so only because the people demanded it.

In 27 BCE, Augustus made a speech to the Senate which a later historian, Cassius Dio, described. Dio wrote that Augustus wanted to “have his sovereignty voluntarily confirmed by the people, so as to avoid the appearance of having forced them against their will”.

Augustus addressed the Senate, “You see for yourselves, of course, that it is in my power to rule over you for life… However, I shall lead you no longer… Nay, I give up my office completely, and restore to you absolutely everything…”

Augustus’s speech was met, as he planned, by cries from the senators “begging for a monarchical government” and Augustus was “forced, as it was made to appear, to assume autocratic power.”

This was also the occasion that the name “Augustus” was granted to the “monarch” by a decree of the Senate. 25 years later, Augustus was granted a further title pater patriae, Father of the Country.

Augustus set out to change the culture of Rome and its empire. He called for Romans to go back to the traditional values which had been lost: simplicity, self-sufficiency, strict upbringing, order, subservience within family, bravery, diligence, self-sacrifice.

Augustus set himself up as the exemplar of these virtues. He lived a life of “comfortable moderation”. He did not indulge in conspicuous consumption – although he was the richest man alive. He reinvented himself; he was no longer the brutal warlord.

Augustus brought in laws on morals making adultery a crime. This caused him huge problems when first his daughter Julia and then ten years later his granddaughter Julia were found to have committed adultery. Both were sent into exile.

Augustus also revived religious observance. He restored temples to the Roman gods and built new ones. Throughout the empire, local rulers copied what Augustus had done in Rome and also built shrines to “Rome and Augustus”. Augustus, who was made a god after he died, would not allow himself to be worshipped in his lifetime but made an exception if his name was linked with Rome and the worship was not actually in Rome itself.

Not only in temples but also in household shrines, millions prayed to an idealised and divinely sanctioned Augustus.

Augustus boasted that, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” The appearance of Rome was transformed under him and again what happened in Rome was copied elsewhere in the empire. The imposing new buildings – including a magnificent mausoleum for himself - impressed and awed those that saw them. As did the life-changing but less glamorous constructions providing drinking water and building sewers. Architecture is a powerful form of propaganda.

Poets produced work to add to the glory of the emperor. Virgil wrote a national epic, The Aeneid, showing the history of Rome from its foundation. He traced back Augustus’s ancestors to gods and showed the age of Augustus as predestined, the result of divine providence. Here is the man whose coming you so often hear prophesied, here he is, Augustus Caesar, son of a god, the man who will bring back the golden years to the fields of Latium… and extend Rome’s empire… to a land beyond the stars.”

Everywhere throughout the empire there were statues and paintings with idealised likenesses and mass-produced jewellery, utensils, and all sorts of household items. And everyone handled coins with the image of Augustus. No one could escape seeing his image every day.

Augustus was a military dictator who ruthlessly seized power. Through a wide range of propaganda, he legitimised his rule and reinvented himself as the wise father of the nation. He left a legacy that lasted for centuries after his death.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Mary Wollstonecraft was England’s “first feminist”, at least a century before her time


Mary Wollstonecraft died aged only 38, after giving birth to a girl, in 1797. She has been described as “England’s first feminist”. The ideas in her book The Vindication of the Rights of Woman written in 1792, including that men and women have equal ability to reason, and an equal right to education were considered outlandish and extraordinary by her contemporaries, both men and women.

Wollstonecraft was at least a century ahead of her time. Her contribution to the cause of women’s equality was not widely recognised until the 1960s.

Advances in women’s rights in Western countries are still very recent. The words feminist and feminism were not coined until the 1890s. Take the crucial example of voting: women got the vote in the USA only in 1920; all women in UK in 1928; in France it was not until 1944; and in Switzerland it took until 1971.

Like many others who have challenged the accepted wisdom and standards of their age, Wollstonecraft paid dearly for it. In her case, she was the target of sustained misogynistic abuse. Horace Walpole, a leading Establishment figure of the time, described her, in one notorious example, as “a hyena in a petticoat”.

The abuse intensified after Wollstonecraft’s death. Her grieving husband of a few months, William Godwin, a radical philosopher who believed in the paramount importance of truth-telling, wrote a biography which was loving but revealed scandalous facts, including Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate child and her two suicide attempts. Godwin’s book provided the enemies of Wollstonecraft’s ideas with sufficient ammunition to blacken her name for decades.

In The Vindication, Wollstonecraft made the revolutionary claim that men and women were equal “in reason” and equal in their ability to be “fully human”. The fact that this appeared to many people not to be the case was, she said, because women were deprived of the education which men received. “Until women are given the tools of reason, their minds valued as well as their bodies, they cannot be free, or even fully human.”

In the words of Godwin, when Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication, “She stept forth boldly, and singly, in defence of that half of the human race, which by the usages of all society, whether savage or civilised, have been kept from attaining their proper dignity – their equal rank as rational beings.”

The key for Wollstonecraft was education. “I have a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore.”

Education is to be understood here as far wider than the classroom. It also means addressing the cultural conditioning imposed on girls and women.

Wollstonecraft is clear that The Vindication is particularly aimed at middle class women. She is scathing about rich women and hardly mentions poor women.

Wollstonecraft argues that women were being educated to be convenient domestic slaves” or “alluring mistresses”. Society was using a disguise to “place on women the silken fetters which bribe her into endurance, and even love of slavery.”

In order to be “fully human” she argued, women had to be independent of a man. “I love man as my fellow; but his sceptre real or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”

She challenged women, as well as men. “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone”.

Women, Wollstonecraft argued, could pursue careers should they so choose, "women might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses . . . they might, also, study politics . . . Business of various kinds, they might likewise pursue."  It was not until 1876 that the first woman was admitted as a doctor in the UK and it was many decades after that before such a thing was common.

Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 in London into a world in which it was accepted as the natural state of affairs that women were inferior to men. That had been the position for almost all of recorded history. As the leading twentieth century feminist, Simone De Beauvoir observed, “Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth.”

It was generally accepted that women were too emotional, too hysterical to be capable of rational thought.

Wollstonecraft understood well the power of the consensus view. “Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace how, rather than to root them out. The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual cowardice prevails which makes many men shrink from the task…”

Wollstonecraft had been born into a middle-class family which got steadily poorer throughout her childhood. She ended up supporting the family. Her father drank and could be violent and her mother gave her little attention or love. As Godwin wrote “Her father was a despot and her mother was one of his subjects”.

Her schooling was basic; she was effectively self-taught. She first left home to earn her way in the world at the age of 16. She tried a number of ways of making money including setting up a school and being a governess. However, aged 28, she found herself homeless, with no job and in debt.

It was at this stage that, in a life-changing move, Wollstonecraft was helped by Joseph Johnson, a radical publisher with a shop near St Paul’s Churchyard in central London. She began work as a reviewer, and editorial assistant. It was Johnson who later published The Vindication and who provided Wollstonecraft with an entry into the world of radical literary London.

The French Revolution of 1789 was a seismic event for the radicals in London. Once the French people had successfully attacked the “sacred majesty of kings”, anything seemed possible. It did not, however, live up to its initial heady expectations. Any hopes that the cry of liberte, egalite, fraternite would extend to the rights of women were dashed by the time Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication.

It was this failure of the Revolution that caused Wollstonecraft to write The Vindication in a remarkable period of only 6 weeks.

The book attacks at length the ideas on education of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He had been the principle intellectual force behind the Revolution but his ideas about the place of women in society were anything but revolutionary. He argued that women should be educated for the pleasure of men, to be docile and sweet and to be good wives and mothers.

A few months after she wrote The Vindication, Wollstonecraft went to Paris, which was still very much in the grip of revolutionary turmoil. It was a characteristically independent step. In Paris, she saw the doomed King Louis XVI pass by in the street.

She also met a man there whom she fell passionately in love with. Gilbert Imlay was an American adventurer and businessman. Wollstonecraft and Imlay had a baby girl, but Imlay did not reciprocate Wollstonecraft’s passion and he deserted her. She left Paris to follow him. Time and again, in France and then in London, Imlay treated her, now with their baby girl, appallingly.

Twice, in despair over Imlay, Wollstonecraft made suicide attempts. In the first, she swallowed an overdose of opium. In the second, she threw herself off Putney Bridge into the Thames.

Wollstonecraft’s critics were to later gleefully point out that the woman who in The Vindication had sternly advocated that women be independent of men had not lived up to her own advice.

Eventually Wollstonecraft moved on from Imlay and eventually married William Godwin. The couple had the baby girl whose birth led to Wollstonecraft’s death, and who grew up to be famous herself. She was Mary Shelley, who wrote the famous novel, Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft’s message resonates in the twenty first century far more than in the eighteenth. “Rights of man and rights of woman are the same.”

Wollstonecraft was clear eyed about the resistance her ideas would encounter. She wrote these lines of herself a few months before her death, "Those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in, and to throw off, by the force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow, must learn to brave censure. We ought not to be too anxious respecting the opinion of others... Those who know me will suppose that I acted from principle. - I am easy with regard to the opinions of the best part of mankind - I rest on my own."

She urged women to be strong and independent, for their own sakes, “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”

In the end, it was a matter of justice. “It is justice not charity that is wanting in the world!”


Saturday, 2 March 2019

Ayn Rand preached selfishness is a virtue. Her ideas have caused terrible harm.

No doubt, there have always been selfish people, who care only about themselves and who never help or care about anyone else. However, such nasty behavior has never been encouraged or sanctioned by any major religious or secular system of morality. At least, not until Ayn Rand, Russian-born American writer and philosopher, created what she described as “a new code of morality”, Objectivism, in the mid-twentieth century.

Contrary to existing ideas of morality and to common sense, Rand preached that selfishness is a virtue and that a person’s only moral obligation is to their own happiness. “Man exists for his own sake, the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”

Altruism, Rand declared, is evil and "the curse of the world”.

Rand’s ideas still matter in 2019 because they have had, and continue to have, a profound influence in the West generally and particularly in the USA and the UK.
Tens of millions of copies of Rand’s books have been sold. In surveys conducted in the USA, her book, Atlas Shrugged, came second only to the Christian Bible when readers were asked which books had "made a difference" in their lives.
Initially through her novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and later through non-fiction books, Rand persuaded some people that it was cool to be selfish. She made nasty people feel good about themselves. She gave a specious morality, a fraudulent respectability to terrible behaviour.

Rand’s ideas became an important component of the ideology known as neoliberalism which has held sway in the West since President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher came to power in the 1980s in the USA and the UK respectively.

Reagan called himself “an admirer of Ayn Rand”. The New York Times referred to Rand as the Reagan administration’s “novelist laureate”. 

In 2019, Rand again has an avowed fan in the White House in Donald Trump.

Rand’s ideas crossed the Atlantic. Thatcher famously declared in 1987, “There's no such thing as society”. She was echoing a phrase from a book of Rand’s, straightforwardly entitled, The Virtue of Selfishness.

In 1986, Berkeley, a prestigious American university, gave the honour of delivering its commencement address to Ivan Boesky, a prominent Wall Street financier. Boesky told the students, some of America’s future leaders, “Greed is all right… Greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”  This was Rand’s message.

The following year,1987, the Hollywood film Wall Street popularised the phrase “Greed is good”. The film-maker had intended to satirise but, instead, many took the phrase at face value.

Interestingly, Rand did not believe that mankind is inherently, naturally selfish. She accepted the evidence that hunter-gatherers must have worked together as a community to hunt and to survive. She argued that the process of civilization meant that such “primitive” behaviour was no longer needed and should – morally – be avoided.

American author, Gore Vidal summed up Rand’s ideas, “Ayn Rand's 'philosophy' is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society.... To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.”

Objectivism was concerned with more than morality. It was also concerned with economics and society. Rand preached that capitalism was the only moral way to organise a society and explained, “When I say “capitalism”, I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism - with a separation of state and economics.”  
One of Rand’s closest disciples in the cultish group that surrounded her for decades, Alan Greenspan, was at the centre of the American and world financial systems as Chairman of the Federal Reserve for almost 20 years up to 2006. His following of Rand’s ideological obsession to do away with regulations and supervision and anything that impeded the “free market”, was held to be a major cause of the Global Financial Crash of 2008.
It was Greenspan who had given the eulogy at Rand’s funeral in 1982 – standing next to a six-foot-tall floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign; the giant dollar sign being a key motif in Atlas Shrugged.

Objectivism had consequences for society too. Rand lauded individualism and ruthless unfettered selfishness. According to her, success in life was all down to effort and ability and adverse circumstances were irrelevant. Empirical evidence shows that in most societies for most people this is not true. Some will, of course, succeed against the odds but most will not.

Rand was an unapologetic elitist. She taught that the rich, and particularly bosses of big companies, CEOs, were heroic figures who deserved admiration. In her worldview, wealth and virtue were closely linked.

She had a battery of insults for the lazy and unambitious, including moochers, parasites, second-handers, leeches and looters.

She had contempt for those who do not make it, who struggle in life. In her eyes, they deserved their plight. Even those with disabilities. Even children.

Rand opposed all types of what she called “collectivism” i.e. the subjugation of an individual to the group. She regarded taxation and all redistribution of wealth as theft. In America, opponents of higher taxes on the rich will often use rhetoric taken from Rand and argue that it is immoral to “confiscate”, “loot”, “steal” their money.
It is possible to hear Rand’s contempt for the poor echoed in many politician’s speeches and newspaper front pages. The idea that the poor deserve their poverty has been an important factor in levels of inequality soaring under neoliberalism and to increasingly punitive systems of welfare.
Rand’s hatred of collectivism was shaped by her childhood. She was born Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905 in St Petersburg in pre-revolutionary Russia. She was 12 years old when the Russian Revolution turned her world upside down and the Communists seized power.

Alissa’s father had a profitable pharmacy business. The Communists confiscated the business and justified their action by saying that it was for “the benefit of the people”.

In 1926, aged 21, Alissa Rosenbaum managed to leave the Soviet Union to live in the USA, where she very soon changed her name to Ayn Rand. In the Soviet Union, the horror of Stalinism was to unfold.

It is easy to see why Rand hated Soviet Communism. However, her hatred extended to any type of collective organisation, any acts of redistribution, regulation or altruism. 

After she arrived in the USA, Rand headed for Hollywood and earned a living there until she hit success with her novel The Fountainhead. This book and then Atlas Shrugged, made Rand a celebrity and a household name in the USA.

These two novels are the main vehicles Rand used to set out the contents of Objectivism. Characterisation and plots are subordinated to Rand’s desire to preach.

The heroes, Howard Roark in The Fountainhead and John Galt in Atlas Shrugged are Rand’s conception of ideal men: strong, creative, independent and, of course, selfish.

Roark is an architect. When his designs for a housing development are changed without his agreement, he blows the development up with dynamite. At his trial, Roark tells the jury that his vision was “mutilated by second-handers”. He explains to the jury how - as the creator - he was within his rights to destroy the building.

“I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need. I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others. It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.”

The jury duly acquits. Roark is vindicated, according to the author.

In Atlas Shrugged, the United States is languishing under a government which is stifling business with regulations. The bureaucrats are “thieving” and the social workers are “simpering”.

A small group of CEOs go on strike and hide themselves away in a hidden valley. Without these leaders, society collapses, food runs out and people riot.
According to Rand, it is not the workers who create value. It is the CEOs.
John Galt, the leader of the strike, ends up addressing the citizens and declares, “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another human being, or ask another human being to live for mine.”

The final years of Rand’s life were difficult. Despite inveighing against welfare for decades, she ended up accepting it for herself.

Rand herself was a deeply flawed person. However, it is the continuing power of her ideas to cause terrible harm that should be of most concern.