Bread and Circuses: How Dystopian Fantasy Distracts Us from Our Dystopian Reality

By Glenn Ashton · 16 Jul 2014

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Picture: Photograph of Jean-Leon Gerome
Picture: Photograph of Jean-Leon Gerome's painting 'Pollice Verso' (Thumbs Down) said to have inspired Ridley Scott's film 'Gladiator', courtesy Raul654/Wikipedia.

Two millennia ago the Roman commentator Juvenal wrote of “panem et circensis,” bread and circuses, to demonstrate how the masses had abandoned political responsibility in exchange for full bellies and extreme entertainment. In Juvenal’s times entertainment was of the gladiatorial variety.

Today the violence of gladiators has been replaced by sports heroes and teams where rules constrain the violence, or by cinema and television featuring violence as gratuitous as the Coliseum, watched while we munch junk food, distracted from our dystopian reality.

We live in a time of peril. The danger is not so much the shadowy extremists portrayed, mass media or Hollywood movie themes as it is a function of our economic system, which drives human and environmental exploitation, creating inequality, pollution and climate change. Those capable of realising change apparently choose distraction rather than action.

Suzanne Collins denies she wrote “The Hunger Games” series as a protest against our dystopian world. Yet our reality eerily echoes her fictional nation Panem (yes, bread!), where the one percenters in the capitol monopolise global resources while keeping the colonial serfs in line through military power and violent entertainment. However Collins does admit to drawing inspiration from the way in which war and so-called reality TV has become a seamless continuum.

Humans are good at self-distraction. Historically we blamed our ills on malicious deities or fate. Before we adopted the trappings of so-called western civilisation and monotheistic religions, we danced sacred dances or performed ritual ceremonies to celebrate or assuage the wrath of the gods. We discovered, and continue to use drugs and alcohol to enhance or blunt our perception.

Our modern world demands our constant attention. We are immersed in a web of instant messaging, email and social networks, effectively a seamless media feed. We are simultaneously informed and misinformed. The lines between reality and fantasy, real war and computer simulation are increasingly blurred. We are intentionally distracted from the shadows flitting across the walls of reality, while big brother peers over our shoulders.

This distraction is necessary to divert our attention from the great lie of the impossible premise of endless growth in a world of limited resources, of dwindling forests, grasslands and marine resources. Plastics and pollution clog planetary arteries; toxins saturate land and water; fossil fuel emissions pollute our atmosphere. This all adds up to what is termed a polycrisis. Some recognise the threat, but most appear to prefer to remain distracted as the easier option.

The varieties of distraction are instructive. They are not exemplified as much by the candy coated rom-coms about vacuous idols living the American dream as by disaster movies, where everything is to blame for human troubles except (occasionally) for anything similar to the actual threats we face.

The updated version of “Godzilla” provides a useful example as to the variety of available distraction. We have the frantic hero yelling about this lizard/dinosaur sending everyone back to the stone age, itself an ironic nod to US general Le May’s threat to bomb Vietnam back to the stone age.

In “Transformers – Age of Extinction,” cities are threatened by absurd robot aliens rather than the realities of fragile food and water supply chains. Then there is the “Edge of Tomorrow,” where the diminutive hero repeatedly gets to blow up illusionary threats from the future, instead of dealing with the causes. Pompeii does show natural disaster, but with nature as deity, as in Vulcan.

And these are just the latest big budget distractions from the real and present danger we face. It is not lizards we should fear but far more tangible threats like economic and ecological collapse.

The OECD recently warned of diminished growth and ecological risk as we hit the limits to growth toward mid-century. Just as we are co-responsible for wantonly destroying global ecosystems in the pursuit of profit, we are equally complicit in failing to act against increasing inequality that Thomas Piketty shows to threaten social stability. The reality is that we have devised inadequate responses to our polycrisis.

It would be trite to claim that relevant social commentary is absent from entertainment media. The point is we remain as prone to the allure of bread and circuses, of sports extravaganzas, junk movies and food, as were the citizens of ancient Rome while the elite compromised the empire. We all know what happened to Rome.

It is painful to face up to failure, particularly when surrounded by the evidence of dysfunction. The alcoholic, the sociopath and the drug addict are the last to seek help, usually after alienating those who mean the most to them. So too with plutocracy and empire. Can we continue to allow ourselves to be co-opted by those distracting us with their bread and circuses?

In 2011 the celebrity philosopher Slavoj Zizek asked the Occupy Wall Street protestors, “We know what we do not want, but what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want? Remember: The problem is not corruption or greed; the problem is the system which pushes you to be corrupt.”

We know our system is rotten and failing us in almost every possible way. It is ecologically and economically fragile. Yet what we spend on war could bring peace to the world many times over, shift us from unsustainable resource exploitation toward ecosystem restoration and provide real growth for all. Contradictorily, those who seek change, in any form – environmental, social or economic - are portrayed as the enemy.

If we are to change the system we need to look beyond the circuses of the big and little screens and the junk dished up as bread, which stunts us intellectually, spiritually and literally. As analyst Nassim Taleb loves to remind us, "If you see fraud and don't shout fraud, you are a fraud."

Mary Pipher’s recent book “The Green Boat” elegantly showed how engaged and linked communities, from local, to regional, to national level can indeed begin to change the system. Meaningful change requires overt rejection of contemporary bread and circuses. If not, we will be complicit with the fraud perpetrated upon us.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Michael Henning
16 Jul

The Future

I agree broadly with what you're saying. I no longer watch TV (that's almost 30 years now ) and I no longer social network...and slowly clarity has arisen in my mind. Like the addicts we all are, we are addicted to an idea of permanent sustained growth. I could wax on about this but once we are in loop like this, then complex systems tend to whirl on. There is not a lot we can do about it...

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17 Jul


Great read, Glen. Made me wonder if you've read Paul Virilio's writing? If not, I recommend it - particularly Strategy of Deception (1999).

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