Timeless Agendas: Wealth and Power from The Oresteia to Today

Realities Past and Present

In examining these aspects of wealth and power, The Oresteia offers a fascinating – and helpful – template to note behaviors seemingly ingrained in societies and human interactions. The trilogy is of course partly legend and reliant upon the divine characters and efforts marking ancient Greek drama, but the core of the story nonetheless represents how wealth and power sustain themselves through victimizing the poor and the powerless. The story of the fall of the House of Atreus, even as it involves so many wider issues, is intensely personal; Orestes feels he must murder his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge her killing of his father. At the same time, there is no escaping that all of the dramatic acts of violence of this cursed family are inextricably linked to state agendas, which in turn connects to the levels of power held by the family. Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon, the king, because he has sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, but the sacrifice itself was hardly random; the goddess Artemis demanded it before the Greeks could reach Troy and avenge the perceived rape of Helen. As king, Agamemnon choose to murder his daughter to ensure the state's objectives, and it is difficult to conceive of a circumstance more emphasizing the need for the powerful to preserve state interests – and, of course, their own status – at the cost of the weak, in this case Iphigenia.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia is crucial in more than on way. On one level, that it is her father who orders that her life be taken adds an intensely political element to the action; Agamemnon is in effect acting not as a father, but as a leader making a decision he sees as vital to maintaining the power of the House of Atreus. On another, Iphigenia actually represents a more expansive theme of sacrifice evident in the plays. Aeschylus describes the fighting breaking out around Troy as sacrificial in a preliminary sense; the eagles who kill the pregnant hare exact a “sacrifice,” and Clytemnestra literally revels in the idea of sacrifice. She invites Cassandra to the house to be a guest at a sacrifice, intending her to be the victim, a reality known to Cassandra. In no uncertain terms, then, the theme is consistent; to achieve desired ends, the powerful must discard others who are, by virtue of being less powerful, fit to be so discarded. “Sacrifice” itself then takes on a broader meaning, and one more reflective of the right of the powerful to so act.

The question then becomes: is this trajectory absolutely necessary? Is it essential that power and wealth exist only through a control of the powerless so absolute, the powerful must oppress or destroy the weak? The answer would appear to lie in how those who hold power perceive it itself, because they in a sense define the answer. Put another way., and viewing both ancient and modern history, it is reasonable to argue that this consistent and gross disproportion exists because no other avenue is considered. This may be noted in modern conditions of the United States, and some not so very recent. The rise of the Industrial Age of the lat 19th century, for instance, created a state arena in which there was a radical shift in wealth, which in turn translated to power as vested in a minority. Importantly, wealth and power were virtually synonymous; for the rich industrialists to retain their wealth, it was necessary to oppress workers both financially and politically, and remove any opportunities for them to form powerful collectives. This in turn generated the violence of the Age, as the wealthy used their positions to attain political standing and the influence needed to employ the law to suppress unionizing. Corruption itself then evolved as a “natural” means for the powerful to hold onto their status, seen as necessary simply because the initial wealth was based on a similar form of subjugation, or “sacrifice.”

The consistency of such large social and political processes is clear when another such disproportion is noted. Importantly, it also reflects the foundation of wealth as essentially setting in motion the inequalities which go to sacrifice. Since the late 1970s, there has been a reversal of income distribution in the U.S staggering in its implications. Following World War II, the majority of Americans participated in the distribution of wealth, if to proportionate degrees; the rich, in plain terms, made more, but the middle and lower classes were not excluded from economic gain. In more recent decades, this has no longer been the case, with a slim minority experiencing increasing prosperity and the vast majority undergoing stagnation or outright deprivation. To some extent, certainly, this is known to the society in general, but the discrepancies of wealth are in fact far more extreme than most people realize. In the U.S. today, the top one percent controls more of the wealth of the nation than most Americans believe is in the hands of the top 20 percent. Put another way, even the relatively pragmatic, if not cynical, view of most Americans is wide of the mark. A very select few are in control of the bulk of the nation's wealth, and this inevitably translates to the few as indomitably powerful, as that one percent figure points to a plutocracy.

This has given rise to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is actually increasing in strength today as so many Americans believe that their interests are completely sacrificed to the benefit of an elite few. Moreover, the movement reflects the critical connection between wealth and social/political power as comprehended by the masses themselves: “Few among the 99 percent now believe government works for their benefit”. The rich, in plain terms, have the means to influence the power structure, and the influences are directed to preserving the wealth which generates the power. It is very much reflective of the disparities of the Industrial Age, but with a significant difference, in that the intervening years are believed to have provided the nation with a far greater impetus to true equality. That such gross economic inequality prevails today, then, all the more reinforces how wealth consistently generates the processes by which it maintained. This being the case, it is then inevitable that those who fuel the privilege are in some sense sacrificed.

What also seems to be a reality emanating from this relationship between the powerful and the powerless is how the state legitimately translates it into a kind of nationalistic necessity. In broad and more survivalist terms, states can only exist when they perceive themselves as entitled to extract sacrifice as needed; the preservation of the state, just as with the determination of the wealthy to retain their wealth, is paramount. Sacrifice then takes on more literal qualities, and an example of this is the U.S. response to modern terrorism. Violence, or at least extremes of action, were mandated by the severity of the threat, and the Bush administration presented a clearly overt stance in regard to the state's prerogative to employ violence following 9/11, in that preemptive strikes were felt to be necessary. The distinction is important, in that the state's absolute right to secure itself equated to the right to anticipate threat and act accordingly. Critically, the imperative to maintain the state of being as powerful is so absolute, any means is validated.

This very much reflects Max Weber's Theory of Monopoly, in which the state has the absolute right to exercise military control – or violence – as it deems necessary for its own preservation. This in turn reflects a more broad agenda of means of any kind as valid to do whatever is essential to safeguard the holder of the means. On the state level, this translates to unprecedented legitimization of violence, as well as the ignoring of constitutional liberties of ordinary citizens. On the economic level, the root agenda is the same, as the wealthy oppress to maintain wealth. In all of this, and seemingly in place since before Aeschylus composed his trilogy, is the process by which the strong, based on any number of actual motivations, make efforts to preserve the strength and exercise the prerogative to sacrifice.

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