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Posts Tagged ‘neoliberalism’

Of course there’s a fine line between observing possible resemblances between classical antiquity and the modern world, and deploying arguable readings of classical antiquity in support of a specifically modern political agenda; on reflection, it is perhaps remarkable that Peter Jones’ Ancient and Modern column in the Spectator does the former so much more often than the latter. Today, however, is not one of those days. “Why do Greeks want to keep the euro, or remain in the European Union?” he asks rhetorically at the beginning. “The combative, creative, competitive, mercantile classical Greeks throve on independence.” The evidence for this is Hesiod’s Works and Days, and its praise of the good form of Eris, strife, which drives men to compete with one another in the race for riches. This then slides more or less imperceptibly into the depiction of democratic Athens as likewise ruled by competition, this time between politicians for the favour of the people, which is seen as the root of their confidence and of the Glory that Was Greece, until that was demolished by the arrival of Macedon and Rome. “No Greek should fear leaving the euro, or the EU.” (more…)

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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. (more…)

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The most interesting aspect of Donald Engels’ 1990 book Roman Corinth: an alternative model for the classical city, and the reason why it’s still worth reading (at least in parts), is not its account of archaeological work at Corinth (very useful then, now outdated), nor its substantive attempt at disproving the ‘consumer city’ model (which, if I recall correctly, included the argument that if the non-producers were in a minority it couldn’t be a consumer city), but his excursus into a historicising intellectual history: Engels sets M.I. Finley’s approach to the economy of antiquity in a wider context of suspicion of modernity and capitalist values, a climate of thought whose most prominent exemplars were Pol Pot and the Sendero Luminoso. Guilt by association, at however many removes; forget the common assertion that all the ideals of communism are irrevocably tainted by the crimes of Stalin’s regime (see recent discussion over on Crooked Timber), in this discourse any deviation whatsoever from the wholehearted celebration of industry and the market leads directly to mass murder. In retrospect, one is simply surprised that he didn’t chuck in the Manson Family and Altamont for good measure.

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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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