Conclusions dumped August 2020


And so we reach the end of my story: but history is not worth study unless we are prepared to ask the big question: are there lessons to be learnt for today?

Today, many countries in the world are struggling to go from a pre-market economy to a market economy and do not quite know the way to do it. Many more are in transition and do not know the way. It is important that we should try to understand how this transition happened in the past, and help to make the world a better place today.

My principal lesson is that there is a major difference between market and nonmarket societies, and that the difference is not just one of economics, but a difference in the type of society as well. Money gives us choice, and societies where there is a wider choice have that choice in social matters as well as in economics, and the business of living one’s daily life.

But the changes involved in moving to a market economy and society can be disruptive. The best adaptions come where the society already has a fluid structure, one might almost say a democratic structure, if one may use this term in a very general sense. Where a strict hierarchical structure already exists, as in a caste society, it is very hard to introduce a market economy which will disrupt the whole hierarchical structure of that society: this is why China adopted money, but never became a market society.

Indeed here we come to the great paradox of the market. Theoretical economists believe that ‘capitalism’ as it is sometime mistakenly called, is something cold and unfriendly, whereas in fact, the reverse is true. They feel that everyone is in competition with everyone else and is therefore fighting everyone else; but in markets, collaboration is of the essence. When you escape from the tribal village and arrive in the big city, you are indeed on your own and thus the first thing to do is to find allies, to make friends, and seek help from those of like mind. Indeed these nebulous terms such as race, class and nation become important, which is why they are so puzzling to naive economists.

It can be seen most vividly in marriage. In a tribal village, your mother or the tribe chooses who you are to marry, so there is no point in wondering whether your partner is good-looking or sexy or even suitable – you simply get along with living your life and raising a family. Once you enter a market society, and you find that you can choose who you are to marry, marriage becomes much more important. Occasionally indeed you choose badly, the marriage is a failure and divorce rates rise. More often it is a success and marriage becomes something deeper and more meaningful than in tribal societies.

In practical terms, we can see how the first market economy, in Greece, led to an outburst of artistic innovation in all fields, particularly indeed in my own field of the writing of history, with Herodotus, who is the father of history, anthropology and journalism. The success of the Romans was not that they were good soldiers, but that they brought peace and prosperity and freedom. Coming down to our own days, I am always surprised how in the Victorian era, there was a rich array of debating societies, and amateur theatricals: games were invented, and in my own field, there was an outburst of archaeological societies. In a market society, networking and collaboration are all important. .

How far am I justified in using the terms Barbarism and Civilisation? The term ‘civilisation’ is often used in a more basic sense of living in cities, and the first civilisations are said to be those in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where city living began (see David Wengrow’s recent book ‘What makes Civilization?’). However I feel that the term has long gone beyond this and has come to mean living a ‘civilised’ life, in peace and prosperity, security and tolerance. It involves the ability to ‘do your own thing’ – indeed we often think of a civilised life as being a life led in the countryside, far from the clamour and distractions of big cities. And I think that the term ‘barbarism’ is often used as the opposite, living in a society where one has little freedom, where one cannot express one’s own thoughts, and lives in fear of arbitrary arrest: in countries such as Communist Russia or Nazi Germany – they are the societies which today we call barbarian.

Nevertheless, I think we should be much more sympathetic towards the early Barbarian societies. They can be extremely efficient as Egypt demonstrates with the amazing structures of the great pyramids. They can also be happy societies, even if contentment comes from knowing your place, and staying in it. Our current fashion for questioning everything is not always a formula for happiness.

I would have liked to have been able to take this story further, to extend it down through the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages, and then down into what is usually called the Industrial Revolution, which I would call the rise of the second civilised society. This is a story which needs to be re-told, precisely because it is not the first, but the second great market society, and comparisons need to be made with the first market society of Greece and Rome.

There is also China, a great society that I have only belatedly studied: this is a society which goes through the money revolution but somehow never goes the whole hog to become a democratic market economy. I am aware that I have omitted Mesopotamia, but there was a choice between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and Egypt is the better known and the more literate of the two societies.

I make no apologies for omitting the Americas, for though the decipherment of the Maya inscriptions has made the Maya much more important, yet they remained Barbarian throughout: they never invented money, and never came anywhere near the achievement of a market, – they didn’t even have wheeled vehicles or horses. The Maya are a very interesting example of an advanced barbarism – but barbarian nevertheless.

In conclusion I would claim that I have been cultivating a virgin field, reassessing the great civilisations of Greece and Rome as being the world’s first market economies. It is a story which is important not just itself, but also because this is the only civilisation where we can see not only the rise and the success, but also the decline and fall. And if we wish to avoid the decline and fall of our own civilisation, we need to study the decline and fall of the only preceding market civilisation.