Certain strands of contemporary ancient economic history have a tendency to suffer from economics envy, rather as some social scientists suffer from science envy: partly it’s the apparent solidity and certainty of the knowledge that it generates, and the confident assertions of its practitioners, unconstrained by the sorts of wishy-washy historicist doubts that plague humanities scholars; partly it’s the fame and the money; and partly, at least some of the time, it’s about the possibility of direct engagement with the world, the fact that ‘real’ people (i.e. policy makers and governments) will actually listen to economists now and again. This envy is then one of the drivers of the adoption of economic theory in the study of the ancient economy – by no means the only driver, as there are entirely sound reasons why some economic ideas can be useful, but it’s surely a factor; hence (again, if we’re being pedantic, among other reasons) the popularity of the New Institutional Economics, which allows ancient historians to align themselves ostentatiously with contemporary (well, only slightly dated) economic approaches without actually having too abandon too much of the complexity and historical specificity that is our bread and butter. It also fuels the ongoing disparagement of alternative approaches to pre-modern economies as naive primitivism, obsessively raking over the fruitless debates of the 1970s rather than facing up to post-1989 reality. As I’ve argued elsewhere – can’t for the moment remember whether it’s here or in a forthcoming publication, or possibly both – the neoliberal agenda is pretty unmistakeable in ancient economic history as elsewhere.
One familiar criticism of NIE is that it appears to acknowledge the importance of social and cultural institutions, in opposition to a crude ahistorical economics that regards only economic institutions and behaviour as significant, but recuperates them for the same old assumptions – there’s a subtle slippage from “look how religious beliefs and rituals could serve to lower transaction costs by creating trust” to “what’s important about such rituals is that they can serve to lower transaction costs” to “religious rituals lower transaction costs”, never explicitly denying that other factors may be involved but clearly implying that they are insignificant. Instead, we need a genuine commitment to studying the social and cultural aspects of ancient economic thought and action in order to understand it in social and cultural terms, as something that cannot be adequately understood from an exclusively economic standpoint. There are clear signs of such ideas being developed in other areas of the human sciences, including economics, and clear opportunities for ancient historians to engage in the debates on a more equal footing; the more that analysts of economic behaviour look to the past for complexity and for contrasts with present assumptions, the more we are in a position to help fill in gaps (e.g. the neglect of Rome in David Graeber’s Debt book, as he fails to find studies to supply the sorts of ideas and insights he draws from Seaford, Kurke etc for Greece) or to correct naive readings and enrich the picture of classical culture (as in the case of Sedlacek’s Economics of Good and Evil).
All of this offers grounds for optimism, if only enough ancient historians are prepared to take up the challenge of engaging properly with the social sciences, rather than just consuming occasional bits of their theories for our own purposes. However, a fascinating article in this morning’s Grauniad by William Davies on ‘How friendship became a tool of the powerful’ raises a few doubts. Davies begins by noting the developments in behavioural economics over the last few decades, that raise serious doubts about the standard model of human beings as rational, self-interested maximisers of utility that underpins much neoclassical theory – strictly speaking, just as a theoretical construct for the sake of building an abstract model, but the way that this construct has gradually and implicitly, if not unconsciously, been adopted as a description of reality and hence as a driver of policy is all too familiar. Insofar as behavioural economics questions such crude, deterministic, reductionist models and instead emphasises the range of human motivations, not least the social, it surely has to be welcomed and incorporated into our studies…no?
But there is also a more disturbing possibility: that the critique of individualism and monetary calculation is now being incorporated into the armoury of utilitarian policy and management. One of the key insights of behavioural economics is that, if one wants to control other human beings, it is often far more effective to appeal to their sense of morality and social identity than to their self-interest.
This is not just about social media like Facebook, and the way they exploit different human instincts (both to seek contact with others and to advertise ourselves) as a means to profit; it also influences a range of new policy initiatives and marketing campaigns. In brief, it illustrates the unlimited capacity of capitalism to absorb critique and weaponise it in pursuit of its own goals – or, in the hands of states, it augments their power to control. The inhuman effects of systems based on crude assumptions about human beings and their motivations (think of many of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms) are, as a result of the criticism of those assumptions, replaced not by more human systems but by more effective ones, based on a better understanding of how people can be manipulated. We may expand our understanding of ‘the human thing’, in Thucydides’ words, through the study of classical conceptions of value and virtue – and the consequence in the present may be a more insidiously effective way of selling deodorant or dubious financial instruments.
Of course this is a fairly far-fetched scenario, as multi-national companies and high-powered think tanks are not currently in the habit of consulting ancient historians about anything; we will surely lose out in most cases to the social psychologists, offering similar insights with a greater level of apparently scientific, evidence-based precision. Still, it’s not impossible, especially in the UK, where the Impact agenda is explicitly intended to get us all thinking about how to ensure that our research has a measurable effect in the real world – any effect, so long as it’s measurable. Expressing hesitation about the possible misuse of our research is likely to provoke derisive laughter, given that on the whole we are struggling to persuade anyone to pay attention to it rather than beating off corporate representatives with a broom handle – but is that sufficient reason not to consider the ethical implications, even if they are unlikely to be put to the test in practice? We can implicitly go along with ‘social capitalism’ or what Davies labels ‘neoliberal socialism’, feeling pleased that the social is being taken seriously at last – or we can pursue a consciously radical, critical approach, understanding the study of past behaviour and thought not as an end in itself, and not as a means (however limited) of fuelling the engine of capitalist production, but as part of a project to recover and restore social life in opposition to the atomising forces of neoliberalism.