BMCR 2019.05.51

Before the Market. The Political Economy of Olympianism. New directions in the humanities

D. N. Wang, Before the Market. The Political Economy of Olympianism. New directions in the humanities. Champaign: Common Ground, 2018. xiv, 192. ISBN 9781612299006 $30.00 (hb).

Unusually for a monograph on the Ancient Greek economy and the mentalities and ideologies into which it was embedded, Before the Market ’s main concern is on the lesson such an investigation holds for the present. Its central concept is Olympianism, one of three dominant cultural belief (or truth) systems prevailing in Ancient Greece (the others being Polisism and Oeconomism); throughout the book the beneficial potential of adhering to Olympianism’s values and ideals for our contemporary global society is emphasized. In Wang’s definition, Olympianism is based on “the distinctive idea that human identity ought to be constantly fashioned through collaborative and reciprocal action”; its main feature is that it “stimulates robust, dense, rhizomic social relations” (p. 9). Moreover, Olympianism is characterized as “a social configuration that rejects the logic of the market”, that achieves “a unique property system that fulfills many desirable ends that include safeguarding subsistence, augmenting independence, and bolstering service”, thus engendering “the material conditions for an egalitarian and horizontal society” (p. 23).

Before the Market is divided into two parts, the first four chapters being dedicated to Olympianism’s political economy, and Chapters Five and Six to the underlying cultural system. The first chapter explains the concept and gives an overview of past research. Chapter Two focuses on ownership, in particular of land against the backdrop of prevailing ideals of equality and egalitarianism. Wang highlights the centrality of concepts such as kleros and temenos in actual economic life and on the ideological plane. She also provides a discussion of impoverishment and debt bondage of small-scale farmers. In the second part of this chapter, attitudes towards jointly held assets (“the commons”) and obligations—notably the liturgical system—are discussed in detail. Chapter Three is dedicated to Homo faber, the autonomous labourer, be he farmer or craftsman, embedded in a web of “exchange between dignified, equal members who relate to each other on the basis of love and trust” (p. 80). Monetization and the commodification of skills through market forces brought about a fundamental weakening of this class, eroding social cohesion. Moreover, this development brought about increased reliance on slave labour. The very brief fourth chapter touches on the subject of the relationship between democracy and the polis, postulating that the exclusionary mechanisms against women, foreigners and slaves so strongly in evidence in Classical Athens bear witness to a dramatic shift in the city’s cultural fabric and a “betrayal” of Olympianism’s legacy. The second part of the book contains two chapters, the former being dedicated to the question of social identity. Central practices discussed are the agon and the symposion. The latter is said to foster horizontal relationships within the community, while the former serves to assert individual identity in a communal setting. Aspects tackled in this section are internal conflict resolution, service to the group and peer-to-peer relationships. Chapter Six is devoted to the role of subaltern groups in the Greek Olympian system, especially women, the poor and foreigners. Against the grain of much past and current research, Wang makes a case for a larger scope of these groups in political discourse, and a less despised position than conventionally assumed; in part due to a prevailing belief system imbuing the world with sacral transcendence (pp. 10-12).

Unfortunately, the book’s central flaw resides in its peculiar narrative structure centered on the lessons its analysis holds for the contemporary world. In the quest for giving urgency to her agenda, Wang contrasts the positive Olympian ideals with ‘realities’ spawned by an exclusively negatively connotated market system inhabited by homo economicus “who constantly lives in a state of hostility and rivalry” (pp. 50-1): ownership is “socially extractive,” the extractive class being endowed with “economic entitlements that suck in rent, interest, surcharge (from enclosing resources), and profit (from exploiting labor)” (p. 91). Human intelligence is “instrumentalized for the pursuit of abstracted utility at the price of collective well-being” (p. 57), and legal-juridical process is equated with the “use of force and bureaucratic procedure by the state” (p. 39). The lopsidedness of such an account is, however, not the only (or even central) problem here. Even graver weighs her disregard of a wealth of economic and sociological literature pertinent to the book’s core theme, as questions of social identity, cultural values and the generation of trust have come to play an important part in recent research.1 A particularly striking example is the importance given to homo economicus in Wang’s narrative (pp. 50-2). Even as a heuristic tool, this concept has largely run its course, as statements (by economists!) such as “it is anything but prudent to let Homo economicus be the behavioral model of the citizen” make clear.2 Consequently, it clearly cannot bear the weight it is given in Wang’s discourse where it epitomizes the market and all its failures.

The shortcomings just described are all the more unfortunate as Wang identifies a hitherto neglected but potentially fruitful area of research capable of significantly modifying current assessments of the Ancient Greek economy. The variables put to the fore by her approach—questions of social values and moral standards as well as of social identities and individuals’ decision-making processes—are neither easily discerned in our sources nor conventionally brought to bear on social and political-economic matters by standard economic approaches. Moreover, some of her discussions (in particular in the book’s more felicitous second part) shed new light on well-known passages from various sources, among which the Homeric epics take pride of place. A case in point is Wang’s treatment of the Thersites episode, which she takes as an illustration of the considerable potential impact of actions of non-aristocrats in political discourse (pp. 145-53).

Yet overall, Before the Market fails to convince the reader. It values polemical black-and-white thinking (the ‘market’ vs. Olympianism) over a clearly argued demonstration of both the shortcomings of current approaches and the novel insights to be gained by her own approach. Important matters are only adumbrated or left aside. Both Polisism and Economism are briefly dealt with in the introduction, but by and large merely serve as antipodes to Olympianism, rather than being analyzed as belief systems in their own right. Consequently, neither the question of the bearers of her three belief systems nor the interdependence of the latter nor the issue of current actualizations of a belief system’s normative (and time-independent) precepts are given due weight in Wang’s account. This pertains e.g. to the adaptation and transformation of social values and moral standards chiefly associated with Olympianism under the rising influence of Polisism and Economimism. Moreover, lingering beneath the surface of Before the Market is an uneasy narrative of decline that sees the replacement of one rather idyllic value system by two others that are less positively connotated. To sum up, while Wang shows a promising way forward, she does not succeed in realizing its potential.


1. Two recent monographs on these issues are G. Akerlof and R. Kranton, Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-being. Princeton University Press 2010, and S. Bowles, The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute For Good Citizens. Yale University Press 2016. For the Greek world see now D. Lewis, ‘Behavioural economics and economic behaviour in Classical Athens.’ In M. Canevaro et al. (eds.), Ancient Greek History and Contemporary Social Science, Edinburgh University Press 2018, pp. 15-46.

2. Bowles, op. cit., p. 2. The context of this quote is a call to abandon the concept both in scientific discourse as well as in applied social politics. For further critical assessments of homo economicus see the references given in R. Pirngruber 2017, The Economy of Late Achaemenid and Seleucid Babylonia. Cambridge University Press 2017, p. 12 and n. 22. See also the prudent discussion in A. Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States. Princeton University Press 2016, pp. 16-18.