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Before the Market: The Political Economy of Olympianism.

Author(s):Wang, D.N.
Reviewer(s):Engen, Darel Tai

Published by EH.Net (June 2019)

D.N. Wang, Before the Market: The Political Economy of Olympianism. Champaign, IL: Common Ground, 2018. xiv + 191 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-61229-900-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Darel Tai Engen, Department of History, California State University San Marcos.

Funding for History and Classics departments has steadily diminished as the public questions the relevance of the scholarship of university professors to their daily lives. D.N. Wang’s Before the Market: The Political Economy of Olympianism attempts to break out of the scholarly bubble by not only arguing for a new understanding of the ancient Greek economy but also proposing it as a model for today. Wang characterizes the ancient Greek economy (at least in its earliest phases) through the term “Olympianism,” which embodies cultural truths that formulate individual identity and action within a communal context through values of ecumenism and conviviality, a sharp contrast to today’s dominant market system and its celebration of autonomous rational actors operating in self-interest. Wang’s argument is only partially convincing, however, as it does not always resist the temptation of subjectivity inherent in “presentist” historical analysis. Nevertheless, Wang’s attempt to make history relevant is admirable and should be considered by more historians, albeit with greater care.

After a Prologue that frames the work within its presentist agenda, Chapter 1 contrasts prior scholarship with Wang’s new approach. In the century-long “Great Debate” about the ancient Greek economy, opposing camps characterized it as either embedded in a unique culture that privileged self-sufficiency and status (“primitivist,” “substantivist”) or just a small-scale version of a universal market system that promoted specialization and profit-seeking (“modernist,” “formalist”). This debate suffered from static overgeneralizations, normativism vis-à-vis our current market economy, and a myopic focus on a Greece isolated from the wider economy of the Mediterranean world. More recent work has employed the quantitative methods of the social sciences and the application of New Institutional Economics, on the one hand, and on the other the methods of literary criticism of New Historicism to emphasize the representative, as opposed to factual, nature of the literary sources. Wang undertakes a “cultural analysis” that sees the economy as a unique, context-specific construction governed by Foucauldian “discourse” that creates “cultural truths” that shape the values, institutions, and behavior of individuals, thus contrasting with the notion of the autonomous, rational, self-serving homo economicus and the universal market mentality of Classical economic theory.

This leads Wang to propose a three-part mechanism for economic formation: culture (a worldview that creates “truth” and meaning), identity (individuals’ understanding of themselves and their roles in society), and action (what individuals do, based on their culturally-defined identities). With this approach, Wang can eschew archaeological and quantitative data (which is fragmentary for the ancient world) and argue for the validity of the literary works as sources of evidence, since their reporting of isolated “facts” about practice is less significant than their illumination of the cultural truths that shaped the economy in general. Wang’s analysis identifies three cultural-economic systems that operated in ancient Greece. Olympianism is characterized by ecumenism and conviviality, which emphasizes interdependency, reciprocity, equality, and community. Polism is similar, but narrower, in that only male citizens of a particular sovereign city-state are included in that ecumenism and conviviality. In Oeconomism, autonomous individuals compete to maximize their own utility without regard for others, i.e., a market system. Because all three systems are cultural constructions, they are subject to contestation and change, thus explaining the complexity we see in the actual ancient Greek economy, in which these systems sometimes overlapped and even co-existed. In general, however, Wang asserts that Olympianism prevailed from the Homeric age through the Archaic period (900-480 BCE), whereas from the sixth century onward, Polism and Oeconomism arose and eventually overtook Olympianism as the prevailing systems by the height of the Classical Period (480-323), with Oeconomism eventually dominating in the Hellenistic Period (323-30).

The bulk of the book that follows is divided into two parts. Part 1 describes the Olympian model of political economy beginning with Chapter 2, which discusses property, which in Olympianism is governed by the paradigm of kleros, meaning “allotment,” which promotes the equitable distribution of land and establishes individual identity within a community of self-sufficient peers, contra the isolated homo economicus who competes against rivals for private property. Operating alongside of kleros are temenos (land granted in return for public service) and “the commons,” the notion that since all resources, whether land or even government funds, are ultimately gifts from the gods, at least some should be freely accessible to everyone, which can be seen in the Greek liturgical system of voluntary public service and expenditure. Labor is the subject of Chapter 3 and in the Olympian system is characterized by the homo faber, the individual whose identity and worth are created through his work, which must be self-directed and free from the compulsion and constraints of higher authorities, i.e., employers or owners. Consisting of craftsmen, single proprietors, small business operators, and yeoman farmers, these laborers could thrive because of “an economic environment defined by low barrier to entry, horizontal specialization (rather than vertical integration), open access to resources and technology, direct channels of exchange, and the freedom of itinerancy” (p. 19). However, with the rise of the state and the market, as Polism and Oeconomism began to challenge Olympianism, self-production was gradually replaced with rentierism, imperialism, and slavery in order to maximize profits. Chapter 4 examines the formative impact of Olympianism, with its emphasis on individual identity and worth within the context of the community, on the rise of democracy in Athens. Wang concludes, however, that Classical Athens betrayed the Olympian ideals of ecumenism and conviviality, replacing it with a Polism that selfishly applied these values only to male citizens, excluding women, slaves, and foreigners.

Part 2 of the book turns to the culture that shaped the political economy of Olympianism. In Chapter 5 Wang explores the concepts of ecumenism and conviviality that served as Olympianism’s foundation. Ecumenism is based on the notion that “all people have inalienable worth, rights, and entitlements as valuable and precious subjects before the gods” (p. 20). Conviviality, an egalitarian sense of inclusiveness that naturally follows from ecumenism, is manifested in the communal feast, a ubiquitous institution of the Homeric and Archaic periods. Although the agonistic, or competitive, spirit that also characterized ancient Greek life might be seen as contradicting conviviality, Wang argues that it actually brought the individual and community together by allowing individuals to show their true worth to the community. More challenging for Wang’s concept of Olympianism than agon, however, is the seemingly real exclusion of women, slaves, foreigners, and the poor that we see in the extant evidence, even in Homeric and Archaic times. Wang does her best in Chapter 6 to show that the religious discourse of early Greek literature gives voice to these marginalized groups with the acceptance that everyone suffers fate collectively, which runs counter to the notion of economic individualism that stresses personal responsibility for success or failure. Even more radically, Wang argues that the elite warrior-princes of Greek epic poetry did not dominate the masses of commoners, as is generally believed. Examining the infamous Thersites episode from Homer’s Iliad, which is often interpreted as celebrating an aristocratic ethos that disempowered and despised the common man, Wang concludes that Greek religion placed checks on the elite and enabled dissent from the masses, thus implanting the seeds of democratic egalitarianism and solidarity that would bloom later on. In a short concluding chapter, Wang provides an overview that turns traditional views of ancient Greek history on its head: Classical Athens does not represent a democratic victory over an aristocratic past supported by religion and tribalism, and the creation of the state and the development of a market economy do not constitute historical progress. Rather the Olympianism that prevailed in Homeric and Archaic times was the more egalitarian and effective political and economic system. The advent of an unjust and corrupting Polism and Oeconomism was neither natural nor inevitable either in the past or today, and, thus, we can and should choose Olympianism as the model for our political and economic system.

There are many good things about this book. Wang is right to stress the importance of culture in constructing an economy, and, judging from the literary evidence at least, it does appear that the culture of the earliest periods of ancient Greece was antithetical to a market mentality. Wang goes beyond the Great Debate, as well, in systematizing her analysis, offering a mechanism of culture, identity, and action in the formation of economies, and in acknowledging complexity and change with the advent and ultimate dominance of market behavior in the Classical and Hellenistic periods.

On the other hand, the central thesis of the book—that there was an Olympian economy in ancient Greece based on ecumenism and conviviality that can and should serve as a model for us today—is not entirely convincing primarily because of the presentist agenda that seems to color Wang’s treatment of the evidence for ancient Greece while underestimating the entrenchment of our market culture today. Although Wang justifies her reliance on elitist literary sources of evidence through a Foucauldian discursive method that reveals broader cultural truths, it is still debatable whether actual economic practice adhered to these “truths.” Certainly, gaps exist between the values expressed in literature and the better documented practice of ancient Greeks during the Classical period—just as they do today, when routinely selfish economic practices fly in the face of professed communal values. Even so, some of Wang’s readings sometimes feel like special pleading, most notably her attempts to explain away the lack of egalitarianism apparent in Homeric and Archaic literature in general and her explication of the Thersites episode in The Iliad as a celebration of the common man’s right to speak up and be heard in particular.

Moreover, if it is indeed true that economies are largely cultural constructions tied to particular historical contexts, then Wang needs to provide a historical explanation for why Olympianism was overtaken by Polism and Oeconomism. If Olympianism is so desirable, why would the ancient Greeks abandon it? If it was simply a matter of individual “bad actors” who freely chose to maximize their own utility at the expense of the community, then cultural forces might be less compelling than individual desires, which would seem to validate the universalist assumptions of Classical economic theory. If, on the other hand, there were larger historical factors beyond just the choices of individuals, then it is imperative that Wang explain them carefully not only to illuminate ancient Greek economic history but also to support her contention that Olympianism is both desirable and possible today, that individual human psychology does not necessitate a market system and that we can change the course of our own history to promote the culture and economy of Olympianism. In short, Before the Market: The Political Economy of Olympianism is a noble effort to understand the ancient Greek economy and make it relevant to today, but it pursues its presentist agenda a little too zealously to be fully persuasive on either account.
Darel Tai Engen earned a BA in Economics and a PhD in Ancient Greek History from UCLA. He is currently an Associate Professor of History at California State University San Marcos. He has published articles on the ancient Greek economy, including “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.,” in D.W. Tandy, ed., Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy (Black Rose, 2001) 179-202, “Ancient Greenbacks: Athenian Owls, the Law of Nikophon, and the Greek Economy,” Historia 54, 4 (2005) 359-381, “Democracy, Knowledge, and the Hidden Economy of Athens,” Journal of Economic Asymmetries 8, 1 (2011) 93-106, and “Reconsidering the Economy: Traditional Values and Philosophical Theory versus Public and Private Practice in Fourth-Century B.C.E. Athens” in I. Därmann and A. Winterling, eds., Oikonomia und Ökonomie im klassischen Griechenland: Theorie – Praxis – Transformation (Franz Steiner Verlag, forthcoming 2019). He has also published a book on the subject, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E. (University of Michigan Press, 2010).


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Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient