Posts Tagged ‘ancient economy’

Students of the ancient economy are all too familiar with the situation of being in the middle of a debate and slowly realising that the entire thing has been operating at cross purposes without anyone noticing. Most often, this is because discussion focuses on substantive matters, with questions of theory and interpretative frameworks pushed firmly into the background or ignored altogether; it’s perfectly possible even for someone like me to talk about a topic like Roman bakeries for some time before it becomes clear to me, if not to my interlocutor, that we’re agreeing on a specific point on the basis of diametrically opposite assumptions and conceptions. I must admit that my usual reaction to this situation is to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable; it feels quite rude and aggressive to switch the discussion to the theoretical or methodological level, like a dubious rhetorical move or illegitimate exercise of academic authority – and that’s almost certainly how it would be received; at any rate that’s how it felt whenever the late Keith Hopkins did it to me when I was a PhD student – but at the same time I fervently believe that you can’t do history properly without examining your preconceptions, considering the broader implications of your ideas and so forth, and so I feel I ought to say something to make it clear that we’re agreeing just on this point, not on everything else.


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Okay, we all know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; what about judging it by its index? This thought is prompted by the especially detailed index of the new Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy, edited by Walter Scheidel, a copy of which has just been delivered (the cover, incidentally, has a perfectly decent picture of a sculptural relief showing a ship arriving at Ostia – of course, we could think about the impression that such an image, rather than alternatives, is intended to create – and is a very nice red colour). I’m not going to have a chance to read the thing properly until some time next year, and as I have a short contribution therein to a discussion on Roman trade (because choosing any single one of the different contributors to write a single chapter on this controversial topic would have been problematic, I guess – or Walter wanted to stay on all our Christmas card lists) I’m not going to be asked to review it properly; I can therefore indulge in a few snap judgements without any serious consequences, or at least explore the results of making snap judgements on the basis of the index. (more…)

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In this morning’s Grauniad, Maurice Glasman seeks to establish the irrelevance, or at any rate limitations, of Keynesian ideas as a response to the ongoing economic crisis by taking a longer historical view, back to classical antiquity:

The practice of counter-cyclical public spending on public works in order to protect the real economy, the status of citizens and the institutions of society, goes back, as does so much else these days, to Athens. It has been a fundamental tool of statecraft for as long as democracy and markets have been negotiating their tortuous settlement. There is nothing distinctively Keynesian about public spending in a recession. What is distinctive is the reliance on the Treasury to achieve this, on taxation and centrally administered spending as a method of generating growth.

It’s difficult to know how to respond to this in a more articulate manner than “Huh? You what?”. There is no trace whatsoever in what can loosely be described as ‘ancient economic thought’ – bearing in mind the complete absence of anything resembling ‘economic theory’ in a meaningful sense – of any concept of economic cycles, such that one could develop policies to cope with them; hell, there’s not even a concept of an economy that could undergo cycles, or which it was the responsibility of the state to manage. There’s a serious debate as to whether credit was ever employed for productive purposes – I think it was, even in Athens, but there are some very credible historians who disagree – and since there wasn’t any system for state debt anyway it’s difficult to see how anyone could have pursued Keynesian policies even if they’d had the idea. In the absence of any detail, one can only speculate as to what on earth Glasman has in mind. Pericles using the resources of the Delian League to fund the Parthenon? Spending the income from the silver mines on triremes and pay for attending the assembly and jury service? Ancient states buying in grain during food crises? Not obvious that any of these is ‘counter-cyclical’…

Of course, one suspects that historical veracity is beside the point; the aim isn’t to say anything useful or relevant about the ancient economy, it’s simply to put the boot into Keynes by any means necessary. It’s all too reminiscent of my favourite anecdote from Reinhart Koselleck, about the Prussian official who intervenes in a debate with the words “But Privy Councillor, do you not remember that Thucydides tells of the evils that followed from the circulation of too much paper money in Athens?” In the early nineteenth century, such spurious appeals to antiquity were perhaps a bit of a risk, given the importance of the classics in the education system and the widespread belief in its authority; today, most people will lack the confidence to call out such claims as bogus, and those who do can be dismissed as pedantic academic irrelevances. (I intend to put this to the test in the Grauniad‘s comments section shortly…).

As almost always happens in such cases, Glasman’s use of antiquity hops backwards and forwards between “the Greeks were wonderfully sophisticated and insightful” – they pre-empted Keynes, and there’s so much more to be learnt from Aristotle’s economic thought than any modern nonsense – and “antiquity was a long time ago and is basically irrelevant” – the only visible contribution of ancient thought to Glasman’s prescriptions is an emphasis on (undefined) ‘value’, along with vocation and virtue, as the true goals of policy. In other words, Aristotle is evoked as a representative of timeless values rather than specific (albeit historically contingent) insights – and, more importantly, as an authoritative figure to be brandished against Keynes. Goodness only knows what Aristotle – or Karl Polanyi, who is also cited – would have made of a sentence like “Decentralised vocational institutions is the way ahead and that involves statecraft rather than statism.” As it happens, I do believe that the study of the ancient economy has important lessons for understanding the present state of things, but not like this…

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I’m a participant in an online seminar in David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years, a book that I heartily recommend. I also heartily recommend the debate, at http://crookedtimber.org/, but since it is primarily focused on economics and politics I thought I would also reproduce my contribution – I assume I was asked primarily as an ancient historian to comment on the historical dimension of the book – here.

David Graeber’s Debt is, in the most positive sense, rather an old-fashioned book, in its conception and approach if not in its matey and approachable style.  It ignores disciplinary boundaries within the human sciences, especially those between economics, history and social studies, in a manner that recalls polymaths like Max Weber or the free-wheeling early years of political economy with figures like Smith and Malthus.  In its search for the connecting thread between an astonishing diversity of cultural practices and texts from across time and space, it resembles the early classics of speculative anthropology – not Malinowski but J.G. Frazer.  In its ambition to offer an account of the trajectory of the whole of human history, it undoubtedly runs the risk of being confused with the likes of Jared Diamond or Niall Ferguson, but it strikes me rather as in the vein of Arnold Toynbee, not least in the weight of scholarship that underpins this work of imaginative reconstruction. I feel the need to stress again that I don’t offer these comparisons as a criticism… (more…)

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