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Populism, corruption and xenophobia: the political heritage of the Roman Republic

At that time, the savior of the country, the man who saved it from succumbing, went into exile pursued by the shadow of corruption and died without being able to return; at that time the sovereign challenge was unleashed in a moment of implacable crisis, and it was then that, who held power, decided that it was better to do nothing, look the other way, let time pass and solve the situation by itself ; At that time, there were those who did populism promoting public works and distributing lands at the expense of the richest, and those who promoted a law of incompatibility in economic matters for the political class; At that time, there were those who did populism, also accusing the political class of generalized corruption, of collusion with the great fortunes, and promised in elections to end it if they came to power; At that time, there were those who did populism last, accusing immigrants of general degradation, of degeneration; at that time, a global culture, a hegemonic aesthetic and a universal language were imposed.

The names change, the times are modified, but the problems are analogous to those of that Rome of the Classical Republic, some two thousand two hundred years ago. Today there is no Gaius Flaminio willing to promise land to the common people, controlled by the senatorial class, or to create a circus for commoner shows. There are those who speak of raising taxes on the rich to distribute wealth and offer more social services. Nor is there anyone willing to exclude senators from commerce and transportation, to separate the political class from business affairs, but there is talk of transparency and incompatibilities.
Today there is not a situation of war, but it has been going through a fierce economic crisis in which the country’s second metropolis has led the sovereign challenge of a territory. Capua did it long ago, dragging Campania with it: it threw itself into Carthaginian hands in the hope of capitalizing Italy. Meanwhile Rome survived governed by a Fifth Fabius Maximus who gave its name to the cunctatio, the art of a politics in which problems are solved without facing them, while time runs against the challenging rival.

In the meantime, a global time has made its way in which culture is standardized by finding in a foreign language – then it was Greek – the vehicle of a wide-ranging transmission, of a cultural torrent that flooded the Mediterranean and the Orient to the confines of the civilized world. .

The Roman Republic will be able to save itself from the great Carthaginian threat thanks to the military ingenuity of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africano, the patrician member of an aristocratic dynasty who accedes to command thanks to unconditional popular support. However, he will end his days in exile, cornered by his political rivals who denounce suspicions of bribery at the hands of a Middle Eastern monarch, Antiochus III. He thus succumbs to the harassment of a populist who makes the transparent and integral management of the treasury and public goods his political banner. It was about Marco Porcio Cato, a new man without illustrious ancestors, who breaks out against the corruption of the political class, the senatorial nobilitas of which he and his descendants become part.

At that time Rome was still republican and the positions, in addition to being collegiate, were renewed annually, without allowing sustained attachments or feeding party apparatuses.It was a system of direct democracy that was increasingly restrictive because it was deposited in a mass of Roman citizens. of an empire of increasing dimensions. Within the political struggle between populists and defenders of senatorial interests, the path was traced for the emergence of leaders who promised to advance in equality and justice. The establishment could not bear it: the violence of the powerful seized the political scene, subjugated the system and led it to tyrannical and dictatorial solutions that degenerated into the imperial and Caesarist autocracy.

History is not the teacher of life, but testimony, memory and judgment

History is not the teacher of life, but testimony, memory and judgment. It offers examples, but does not provide recipes. Neither the socio-temporal coordinates coincide, nor were there in the past adequate solutions for the great challenges of the present. In times, in which even postmodernity has been overcome, no one awaits the arrival of a leader, even if he has feet of clay like Scipio. However, there is still room for Fabian traditionalisms and for reactionary and xenophobic populisms.

And also for the others, for the populisms that denounce corrupt practices: today, of what has been called the political class; then, from the so-called nobilitas made up of patricians and wealthy commoners with political careers. And today, as then, the proximity and collusion between this political class and the business and corporate sectors, that is, the equestrian order and the publicans of yesteryear, is noted with concern; and today, as then, misappropriation and illicit enrichment are denounced; then, through the award of contracts by the censors and the hoarding by the consuls of the manubiae, a substantial part of the spoils of war seized by the citizens, who have risked their lives in the legion, from the annihilated enemy .

Today, academic sociological readings conceive populism as a symptom of the crisis of democracies. However, this interpretation may evoke those made by the senatorial order when Cornelius Scipio Nasica argued in 154 BC. that the first stone theater that was under construction should be demolished. It was necessary to avoid stimulating scenarios to the growing agitation of the common people, of the common people. The Senate approved the motion. It is one of the first initiatives, unequivocal in its intention, promoted by an optimate, one of “the best” men in Rome. There was in it an implicit contempt for popular opinion, susceptible to being carried away by passionate, popular speeches: “demagogic”, it would be said then in a pejorative tone.

The analysis could be analogous: today as then, the established senatorial order feels questioned. But these are symptoms, and the symptoms should not hide the true disease, or its causes. The demagogic speeches catch on in the manageable mob, but the origin does not lie in the stupidity of the masses. The phenomenon is reproduced when social inequalities are increasingly marked; when the system is no longer able to hide the abuse of its elites, practiced forever and placidly dormant, generation after generation, in the softness of established custom and tradition; when the established order resists, not only to promote equality, but simply to introduce corrective factors of iniquity.

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