The Glorious Free Market

Michael Kulikowski

  • Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens by Peter Acton
    Oxford, 384 pp, £51.00, December 2014, ISBN 978 0 19 933593 0

‘Unless we can recognise the affinities as well as the differences in our studies of other societies, it is hard to explain why anyone should pay or be paid for studying them.’ You have to admire an academic monograph that wears its neoliberalism so proudly as to approve the abolition of academic study lacking in immediate ‘relevance’. Peter Acton throws out a red herring on page one – ‘agriculture was the real capitalism, contributing to social inequality’ – but agriculture and class analysis are both wilfully absent here. Poiesis is a book about making things and selling them. Acton’s is a world in which production, commerce and retail were king; everyone participated in a market economy governed by rational invisible laws, with unprecedented material prosperity the result. Athens, thanks to trade, ‘was a place of opportunity’. It welcomed skilled immigrants and fostered expatriate communities because both enhance capital growth. With craftsmen no longer constrained to sell to end-users, retail was born, as a ‘separate business and major employer’. Manufacturing was a slave’s best chance of gaining freedom and social enhancement, never mind that most were rented out in gangs or that they were valued in sensitive economic sectors because they could be ‘kept honest through torture’. Best of all, minting aside, Athenian government left capital alone to work its magic: financial innovation managed debt, invented securitisation and risk management and fostered ‘public private partnerships’ (what other historians call tax-farming). Acton’s 13 years as a vice president of the Boston Consulting Group are rarely not on display.[*]

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[*] A management consultancy with annual revenue in 2014 of $4.55 billion and clients including Google, Ford and the Russian energy ministry.

[†] See especially Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Princeton, 464 pp., £24.95, May 2015, 978 0 691 14091 9).