Long before Karl Marx wrote about it at great length in Das Kapital and other works, the well to do had realised that there was a problem with the workers who serviced them. They and their families eat into the profits of the comfortably off. In the opening scene of Coriolanus, the proud hero’s friend, Menenius Agrippa, avuncularly chides the famished plebs for growing mutinous. He tells them an Aesop fable (borrowed by Shakespeare from Plutarch) about how the whole body collapsed when its members, tired of slaving away to satisfy the wants of the belly, decided to go on strike. The body stands for the State, the belly for Rome’s storehouses, and both, of course, were controlled by the patricians through the Senate.
The common people of Ancient Rome had no share in governance, only the right to petition through their elected Tribunes. Yet here is a lesson for today, for our time of no work to go to or shrinking wages, welfare cuts, food-banks, and evictions, since these are just a few of the things that bring into question the value of a vote that entitles us to play a petty part in who is going to govern us. Considering how much has gone awry in the world of politics in recent times (especially since we entered what had been heralded as a brave new millennium), and considering how little the ‘ordinary’ man or woman can do about it, widespread political disengagement – not so much from politics as such (remember the million-or-more march against war in Iraq?), but from parliamentary politics – is no wonder.