Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street vs. the Roman Empire

If you look at some of the century-old architecture that surrounds the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, with the heavy weight of concrete and stone, tall columns, and broad staircases, you can get the impression of a protest against the Roman Empire. There is some truth in this. The greed, corruption, and abuse of power targeted by the protestors are patterns of conduct that are direct descendants of the centers of power in ancient Rome.

It is surprising in a way that this particular protest movement is so needed in the United States. This is a country, after all, that was founded substantially by Protestants, who two centuries before had shrugged off the Roman Empire’s outsized lingering influence on people’s lives. Protestants objected to such details as religious fees that had no rational justification and forcing people to speak in Latin, the archaic language of Rome, when they had no familiarity with the language. The United States was founded with an emphasis on individual freedom that would have been unthinkable under the Roman Empire. But the Protestant Reformation was focused on personal lives and religious institutions, and the Roman influence and corruption carried forward in government, commerce, and education, and most especially when it came to money, law, and anything else that formed the common ground for commerce. The many things the Protestants could not accomplish fall to the protestors of today.

It is no trouble at all to pick out Roman influences on money, law, and commerce in the United States. The United States has always stamped Latin affirmations on coins and currency to try to lend legitimacy to its money. United States law, like law in most places, is loaded with Latin phrases and Roman legal principles.

The root problem with this side of the legacy of Rome is that the Roman Empire was out to cheat the whole world with its control of the common currency and a habit of exploitation of legal ambiguity. The successors to this tradition are found on Wall Street. The U.S. dollar is the currency of reference for international transactions almost everywhere in the world. Meanwhile, Wall Street banks have become more than notorious for a pattern of surprising their customers and trading partners with unexpected interpretations of contract language. Every day, lawyers of Wall Street banks are in court explaining to a judge how a contract allows them to assess a fee that the contract never mentions or why they are exempt from living up to their side of a deal because the words in the contract do not mean what they seem to mean. It is as if the Roman Empire never left us.

The corporate news media has whined for two months about the supposed lack of specificity in Occupy Wall Street’s positions. There can be no doubt, however, that the protestors are railing against greed. I believe they are speaking specifically against the kind of greed that leads powerful institutions to cheat people left and right, and a system that allows this kind of greed to operate unchecked. They are protesting, in short, against the modus operandi of the Roman Empire.

This particular influence of the Roman Empire has been with us for 30 lifetimes. It is hard to imagine a world without it. Yet other vestiges of the Roman Empire have fallen away over the past centuries, and looking back, we find it hard to believe people used to act in such an antiquated way. This one will fall away too.