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In 1901 a C.A. Andrews could write that The Middle Ages had fixed institutions, blind faith, and acceptance of authority that "is characteristic of a period in which there existed no true idea of human progress". ("Introduction", Two Classic Utopias, Dover reprint, NY 2003.) Josiah Ober dismissively states that "an expanding common culture cannot at once be an adequate cause and a primary effect of Hellenic greatness", (p. 14), to explain the world of the Greek poleis we need to move forward in time to the contemporary world of self-consciously knowledge-based enterprises.
Apart from a vague suggestion that wealth and health may have some correlation and equally vague mentionings that urban living can be healthy, Ober's book offers next to nothing about health, mental or otherwise (unless implicitly, cf. remark on mentality below) as data are difficult to interpret and contradictory, for our readership. What does occupy the author is economy, namely the history of what he calls, the "efflorescence" of Classical Greece. The importance of which he emphasizes is that this explanation of classical Greek efflorescence has "more-than-superficial similarity to ... contemporary democratic society", whence "[i]nsofar as we value democracy and insofar as Greek democratic exceptionalism did anticipate exceptional conditions of modernity, we have strong reasons to want to know whether Greece's "doom" must also be our own -- and if not, why not", (p. xvii, p. 295) -- leaving you to wonder to whom that 'our' refers.
Ober repeats several times that the question his explanations are to answer is how economic efflorescence is possible without central authority. For the latter, efficient centralized-authority societies, it's taken for granted. He plays a rather crude ping-pong borrowed from Hobbes -- besides whom Aristotle and Douglass North seemingly provide his peak political luminaries -- of central vs. decentralized governance (that is, acc. to Ober, democracy, citizens' centered governance, citizen-centric politics, -- he describes 'the agora' as were it Addison going to the Royal Exchange). For all intents and purposes these could be the only two options when all's said and told, yet one would expect that someone presenting himself as a top student of political theory might be less simplistic.
History is a changeling and has often invaded all disciplines. It's widely held that history has to be constantly up-dated, re-written, overhauled in the light of the presumed advance of human knowledge and world views. The light in this case is a compound of geography, climate, archaeology, demography, batteries of economic and social theories, etc., the view political. All here in the form of contextualist economy, meaning neither this, nor that, but any context of choice is permitted.
Ober presents his "hypothesis" thus: "Fair rules and competition within a marketlike ecology of states promoted capital investment, innovation, and rational cooperation in a context of low transaction costs" (p. 103). Does that sound Greek to you? If it strikes you as the current state of the economic "arts" along with his vocabulary of network, ecology, experts, and such, you no doubt recognize the current jargon as does of course the singular focus of economy on 'growth', spiced with an economist nomenclature of rent, wage, GDP, GNP, income, labor mobility, per capita consumption, etc. -- notably, the only one missing: inflation -- even stretching to lamenting that some historians fail to grasp 'the value of deficit financing' (p. 284). (Despite a referenced superabundant 34 page bibliography, spot checks cast doubt on reliability; such as for example Ober claims: "Higher levels of urbanization correlate, historically, with higher incomes and economic intensification" (p. 88) referring to a Science article in which Bloom, Canning, and Fink conclude: "the notion that a larger fraction of a country's population living in urban areas improves economic performance does not seem to have empirical support".)
Out of c. 1100 poleis on record, Ober mentions perhaps 50, touches on about 25, and of those on three in particular Sparta, Syracuse, and mainly Athens, and a general assumption that the other 1000-some poleis emulated Athens. Reaching for the aura of scientific precision. No exact amounts (a daily wage of 1 drachma/day in "the later fifth century", only anecdotal evidence for "late fourth century", a house is estimated to cost 6-15 years income, p. 90), no city-state account(s) cited or known; from so rare particulars, almost all further estimates are necessarily highly conjectural, wrung out via model machinations, etc., are still derived a wealth increase of 15-20 % in the period 800-300 BCE, yielding an annual aggregate economic growth rate of 0.6-0.9 %, (p. 83). Timeframes are similarly loose (into the fifth century; in the late 4th century; into the forties; etc.), unusual for bottom line aficionados it all floats. The book features 48 maps, figures, and tables probably intended to certify the narrative, but some spread of tabulations and graphic curves remain mere decoration.
Ober operates with a tripartite society -- poor, middle, elite -- and with labour, wage, and redistribution in the popular contemporary sense. He seems to hold a low opinion of "manual labor-intensive subsistence farming" life quality (e.g., p. 112), and doesn't even mention the expertise it takes. Specialized 'expert' is reserved for, you guessed it, military men and political aids, the latter referred to once as taught "political science" by "the sophists", (p. 206).
Wealth is mere 'above subsistence level' (whatever that may be here, there, or anywhere). But a big middle class raises consumption, hence indicate wealth (p. 89). For example, he gauges how 'big' by a change in house area. Well, during any 500 year period, people build houses like this and like that (incl. a generalization of a bigger house is wealth "symbol" in today's US) -- to take haste off such a generalization one would have to check whether the size of igloos, wigwams, Japanese paper houses, Yemen adobe houses, etc., is indeed 'indicator' of wealth -- it could be merely fashions, ecology of building materials, a way of life in which many people live together, or ...
As far as I can tell Ober never explains what 'lower transaction costs' are, nor estimates what they tally up to, only they are a constant Oberlish plus-side, some decisive circumstance as 'context' for growth (p. 115f). There is no way to measure consumption (p. 82). Greek and other mercenaries' pay went up, yet Ober leaves where their consumption went untold.
The bulk of the book is all the same the well-rehearsed conflict and war accounts (I believe without any new detail), never mind all the preparations and inputs from the theory panoply, and by then wealth is tacitly measured, not by degree of welfare, but by who can afford to mobilize the biggest army. Which Philip, Alexander, and then Rome eventually did, bringing about the political fall for the "poleis ecology".
That much said, much could and should be said about Ober's methods and logic; I shall however select a couple of brief notes here.
Ober points out that sources are scarce (e.g., p. 130, 141), which is agreed all around. They are in fact rather an accidentally preserved disparate collection, so one can arbitrarily model, reconstruct, hypothesize, extrapolate to one's delight. (Again p. 77 "we cannot answer the comparative welfare question directly ... indirect way to approach the question"; p. 91 "it is not possible to calculate ... on basis of a plausible model of wealth distribution ... I estimate ..."; p. 130 "It is not possible, given the state of our evidence ... But the emergence of the framework can be modelled ..."; p. 251 "There is no way for us to determine the value added (or lost) by the increased employment of experts by the Athenian state... it seems reasonable to guess..." in view of "the inefficiencies arising from all-amateur government" they increased governmental productivity and not bureaucratic bloat; p. 279 "Many details ... remain murky, due to the fragmentary nature of our sources. But we can dispel much of the fog by making informed guesses based on the evidence we do have"; et passim.) When 'evidence' is scant, many many hypotheses will be compatible and favor none of them in particular. When Ober claims his does conform with the evidence, that therefore is on other grounds.
He categorizes his explanans as an hypothesis, but appears to have some trouble telling it from his conclusions. With a little tip of the hat to the philosophy of science, his hypothesis, he says, to preserve scientific status should be falsifiable, yet he only offers counterfactuals as would-be falsifications (e.g., p. 120f, 252, 306). In that way, all descriptions happen to be viable, incorrigible hypotheses. Of course, Ober can't think of anything falsifying his grounds.
Again, hypotheses should have predictive capacity (p. 109), and so his does: having posited the explanandum, the explanans unsurprisingly turn out to be "Just so" stories. Gratuitous verification. Ober can't really mean predict -- he must mean slides of his framework. The kind of circularity much historical explanation suffers.
Ober's (hypo)thesis of drawing "a causal arrow from democratic reforms to superior [economic] performance" (p. 170) resorts to a strangely conglomerate cause. One may well wonder whether 'competition' and 'rational cooperation' are strictly compatible. Can a 'rule', can a 'fair rule' cause anything? and what is to be understood by fairness (Ober's coinage 'rule egalitarianism' means "in practice that many people within a society, rather than just a few elite people, have equal high standing in respect to major institutions: e.g., to property, law, and personal security ... in sum, they can expect to be treated fairly". (p. 110). But what's fair? let alone just?) -- except here something putatively geared to growth? Is (a or) several decentralized authorities marketlike? and, if so, does it cause innovation? (the sorts of innovation Ober does mention are in siege weaponry, man of war construction, and military tactics). These are questions, not answers, obviously, but they put that mark on the 'cause' of "The Wealthy Hellas effect arose from uncounted individual choices but was not readily predicted by them", (p. 104) -- a shadow of an invisible second hand out? However, such determinism is a rather vulgar, far from a correct grasp of 'causation'; as I recently had another occasion to point out, causation does not describe a process, cause and effect are not separate events and take no time, nor therefore several centuries; it's an explanatory concept, ("Time Frees Practically", Phenomenological Reviews, Dec. 27, 2016) and the proposed "context" of this "economic event" are rather specious. Speaking of fairness,
What he and his political theorist confreres term the "monopoly of violence", quite a cute term, and take to be an ineluctable societal component, yet whether that be wielded by central, decentral, internal, external, foreign or extraterrestrial, or otherwise, it seems (with their approval) to remain violence and the victims wouldn't know the difference. It has been suggested it could depend on victims' consent to the given monopoly, which would surely save the fairest day.
Again and again Ober mentions together with the material flourish the cultural flourish of Hellas, yet never details, let alone clarifies what that is. In other words, he seems to take for granted the old adage of the "cradle of civilization". How can he reconcile that with one city sacking another, plunder and demolish it, then killing all the males and enslaving or selling the women and children, (p. 69), with an efflorescence in human capital, an advance of any kind, writing without flinching, as proof of democracies' beneficial efflorescence? How can assorted schools, picked as the Greek contributions to civilization, (categories still used today: skeptics, stoics, Platonists, etc.), balance out the constant warmongering occupying those same societies? (On that score, Ober's discarding Aristotle's teleological naturalism (such as described, e.g., in Ethica Nicomachea 1124ff), as "clearly (in light of evolutionary science) mistaken and unhelpful in achieving my goal", (p. 53) to be replaced by 'economic growth', is hardly arguable.)
Ober, ping-pong mentioned above, apparently thinks Hobbesian sovereign and contemporay democratism are the only unfoggy parameter points worth considering, -- I don't know, perhaps the welfare of any and all humans does reside in 'equalization' (p. 252), a true idea of human progress, but whether so or not, does it follow it's a mold to impose on historiography? That I shan't say either -- Ober, on the other hand, in no uncertain terms, with or without his empirical leanings, practice so.
Either an expression of a misunderstanding or of his own ideology, when Ober asserts "They [rulers in Sicily] were not social reformers, in that they did little to address problems arising from inequality" (p. 177, similarly p. 252 et passim) the implication seems to be that something is a 'social reform' if and only if directed at equality, known as the egalitarianism fallacy. And further as well "with the right systems of production and distribution", (p. 51, my italics). Which is the core of his grounds. A more accurate title would be "In Praise of Democratic Egalitarianism".
It is my good luck reading at the same time a fine book The Surviving Image about Aby Warburg and the concept of cultural history, by a Georges Didi-Huberman, where there's different life and depth in ways of thinking about history, historical understanding; that I can recommend.
© 2017 Lars Aagaard-Mogensen and Wassard Elea
Lars Aagaard-Mogensen and Wassard Elea