Salus populi suprema lex esto

The health of the people is the supreme law. Cicero’s famous maxim. Searching for a principle that acts as a counterpoint to the logic that has brought about our present crisis, few appear as pertinent. Not merely denoting ‘health’ in the sense of physical wellbeing, ‘salus’ might also be rendered as ‘good’, ‘welfare’, ‘safety’, ‘felicity’ or ‘salvation’, or some combination of all. In trying to understand the nature of our present systemic model and the type of logic that underpins it, we can reduce its complexity down to a simple rephrasing: Opes nobilitatis suprema lex esto. The wealth of the elite is the supreme law.

Here, ‘opes’ can be rendered not only as ‘wealth’ but also ‘resources’, ‘means’, ‘might’ and ‘power’. Simply put, such an inversion articulates what is clear to all, the guiding principle of our society. Politics, business, finance, the media, education – all are aligned to this logic. A vast apparatus, both physical and psychological, serves to propagate this ideal as not only inevitable and beyond the capacity of collective democratic will to upend, but also desirable. Each of us should aspire to ascend to the lofty position of the chosen few, or be content with the crumbs thrown from the elite’s table, and harbour no pretensions about a more egalitarian society. Hegemony ensures that common sense is fixated upon notions of individualised personal liberty, ones right to do what one wants to the extent it is within ones power to do it, as opposed to more holistic and collective conceptions of autonomy as constitutive of genuine freedom. The argument that the freedom of the one is dependent upon the freedom of all is anathema to those that hold the reins of power, for it would mean their removal from the rarefied air they enjoy at the summit while billions choke on the stagnant fumes of their infernal domain. How we can speak of the freedom of the slum dweller who subsists on less than a dollar a day, whose “career” consists of trawling through the waste of the wealthy that is deposited on his doorstep. To do so is pure casuistry.

Salus populi suprema lex esto represents an organising principle that could transcend the labels affixed to twentieth century -isms that, despite their meanings being contested by those determined to bring about a fairer society, are in effect damaged ideological goods for large swathes of the populace in wealthier nations. In effect, it is a rallying cry for an alternative common sense, at once profoundly ideological (as any sort of common sense) but having the appearance of being non-ideological. Who can argue with the sentiment that the health of the people ought to be the guiding principle of civilisation? Such an assertion seems completely self-evident. And yet, in asserting it, attention is drawn to the fact that such a goal is completely unattainable within our present model, that in fact attaining it would require a transformation not only of all existent institutions but also our ways of thinking and conceiving. When Texan politicians speak of how the elderly must be jettisoned to ensure that monopoly capitalism can continue on its course of destructive accumulation towards our inevitable serfdom, the spell is irrevocably broken. No more can the prophets of capital assert that our present model will bring about improved circumstances for all. Such utterances are opes nobilitatis suprema lex esto phrased in simple terms, and so absurd to anyone with an iota of clear thinking. Let us counter them with the demand of salus populi suprema lex esto, a demand that necessitates a societal order that realise it.

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