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“The distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers,” remarked Thomas Piketty, in a work noted for its regular references to the novels of Austen and Balzac for insights into wealth and inequality in the nineteenth century. Contrary to the claims to scientific objectivity made by mainstream economics, issues of power and money inevitably have a subjective, psychological and hence political dimension; “democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts”, and it is the imaginative artists who can depict the effects of inequality and the workings of the economy ”with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.” (more…)

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The Melian Dialogue in Thucydides has been of interest to game theorists since the earliest development of the field; it was discussed on several occasions by John von Neumann, generally accepted founder of this approach, and it appears in the work of a leading game theorist like Thomas Schelling. It’s entirely understandable: the dialogue presents two sides in a high-stakes, zero-sum conflict, pursuing very different strategies with a limited number of possible outcomes, and – if you want to push the boundaries of game theory a bit further, it also offers interesting examples of how each side seeks to anticipate and influence the decision-making of the other, and raises some fundamental questions of rationality. I fully expect to find lots of other examples when I have time to pursue this theme in depth, but for today I want to focus on one case of a game theoretical discussion of the Dialogue, written by the current Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (1997; revised version 2014: 262-83). It is in itself an interesting reading of the situation, in relation both to Thucydides and to the normal assumptions of game theory, but there are also some striking implications for the current negotiations between Greece and the EU, especially Germany, which I will consider in the final section. (more…)

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Whenever aspects of my job start to get me down (usually the result of some new, nonsensical bureaucratic procedure introduced without consultation or, apparently, thought, whether at university or national level), I always try to remind myself that at least I have a job that, mostly, allows me to do stuff that I actually enjoy much of the time, and pays me very well for it; I am in a very privileged position in that respect, and I try not to forget it. It’s not that I think I have the perfect job – as I discussed a few months’ back, there are certain attractions about the idea of being compelled to switch to Plan B – but I would admit to slipping, now and again, into the assumption that it is potentially perfect; that were it not for the various things that stop me teaching, researching etc. in exactly the ways I’d prefer, it would be very hard to complain. An excellent essay in the latest edition of Jacobin, ‘In the Name of Love’ by Miya Tokumitsu, raises some important and searching questions about this sort of attitude; since reading it, I’ve been fighting the compulsion to quote lines and paragraphs on an hourly basis, and I can only urge you all to read it as soon as humanly possible. In my case, at least, it positively demands self-examination, and indeed a fair amount of self-reproach.

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There is a significant risk that being so focused on a single author and his modern influence, as I am with Thucydides, one starts to see him everywhere. I’m pretty well resigned to the fact that I now have a Pavlovian reaction to more or less any mention of Thucydides in the media, either rushing off to write a blog post or planning an article (or sometimes both), but I now seem to be imagining his influence even when there is no explicit reference or even subtle hint to be found that Thucydides has anything to do with it. It’s a little bit like the portrayal of the mentality of conspiracy theory in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: if you assume that there must be a connection between apparently disparate things, then you can always find one with a bit of thought; if you assume that “the Templars have something to do with everything” (or in this case, that Thucydides is a pervasive influence on the whole of modern culture), then you tend to find evidence to support the theory. From the outside, and even in one’s own reflective moments, this starts to look like paranoid delusion – but then another hint of evidence turns up to suggest that there really is a vast conspiracy…

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A few brief comments – since I have now finished writing my unashamedly inaccessible and impactless piece on different approaches to reading Thucydides in modern political theory – on a far more important and serious issue than my uncontrollable envy of Leicester archaeologists. A story in yesterday’s Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/feb/04/academic-casual-contracts-higher-education) offered a reminder of something that most of us in universities know about but, for various reasons, prefer not to dwell on too much: the increasing dependence of the whole enterprise on casualised labour, fixed-term research and teaching fellows. This is certainly a problem for those individuals who are stuck in such posts, and for those (including at least some academics in permanent positions) who are concerned about them; but it’s also a reflection of wider, equally worrying changes in the modern university, which aren’t always so easy to spot as they creep up on us gradually.

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Re-reading Marshall Sahlins’ Apologies to Thucydides yesterday, I was struck by his characterisation of the malign influence of the ancient Greek in a way I hadn’t been before. In my previous reading, perhaps because this was what I was most interested in at the time, Thucydides seemed to be being presented above all as a symbol of and/or cause of the narrow perspective of traditional historiography, excluding cultural and social factors from serious consideration and concentrating on politics, narrowly conceived in nationalistic terms. This is a critique that dates back at least to the late nineteenth century and the reaction against the dominance of the Rankeans, and appears in a less developed form much earlier, most often in the confrontation of Thucydides and Herodotus as different models of historiography, where the latter can be celebrated for his broad ethnographic and geographical interests and inclusive approach. This time, however, I realised how far Sahlins’ critique was not directed solely against historiography, but against an entire climate of thought in the modern West: the ‘neoliberal’ assumption that all human actions are intelligible in terms of crude, instrumentalist motives, driven by a universal ‘human nature’. (more…)

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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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A couple of weeks ago I commented on the fact that Thucydides had been cited as part of a critique of German/EU policy towards Greece and its debt crisis, and made a disparaging comparison with the conviction of long-disregarded political economist and Thucydides worshipper Wilhelm Roscher that he’d learnt as much about economics from Thucydides as from any other author. I really must stop being so condescending; two references in one week to Thucydides on economics suggests that he may indeed be the authority on absolutely everything that many people assume.

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I’ve been reviewing a book* for an economic history journal that claims to explain, using rational choice theory, how Christianity developed over the first thousand years of its existence into a religious monopoly: in the marketplace of ideas, it undercut and outmanoeuvred its rivals through product development, cartelisation, vertical integration and ruthless price-cutting, so that it became the rational choice for religious consumers seeking to maximise their utility. Given the nature of the journal, my actual review will be short and limited in scope – roughly summarised, ‘the only economic history you’re going to find here is the assertion that the Christianisation of the Roman Empire must have ‘crowded out’ crime and immorality, so reduced enforcement costs and promoted economic growth’ – so I wanted to take the opportunity here to engage with some of the other problems I see with its approach to the history of religion. Where do we start..?

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