Greek Tragedies

Before the weekend, the Monkey Cage featured an interesting article on the Greek debt crisis and Thucydides. In general, I’m not a fan of the way that Thucydides and the History of the Peloponnesian War is trotted out within debates on international relations. The basic problem is that the famous quote plucked from Thucydides’s Melian dialogue, ‘The powerful do what they can, whilst the weak suffer what they must’, is potentially vacuous. There’s a question of whether the quote is even an accurate translation of Thucydides:  apparently, Mary Beard claims that a closer translation would be ‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply’, which removes some of the natural necessity of the quote and assigns greater responsibility to the powerful. But putting this to one side, the quotation is circular and tautological if being weak is defined as suffering what one must and powerful means doing whatever one can without restraint. As I’ve emphasised (belaboured?) in discussions with countless students, a lot of power-talk in international relations is vacuous in this regard. These sort of parlour tricks, wheeling out old Thucydides to make seemingly-profound but platitudinous statements, are what provides fairly unsophisticated versions of realism in international relations with their superficial aura of plausibility. To talk about power properly, it’s necessary to distinguish between resources/relationships and outcomes, which enables a much more productive debate about what sort of resources/social relations generate control over outcomes under what sort of conditions.

But the article by Neville Morley is quite a bit better than the usual fare, as it discusses the way in which responses of actors placed positions of strength and weakness differ from what rational choice theories would predict. Thus it seems that the structure of the situation of bargaining among unequals has an influence over the goals that actors pursue. Perhaps this is another case where actors are operating according to heuristics, general strategies that are effective in a range of similar social circumstances. Maybe in their wider social experiences actors are used to using a position of strength to push for maximum advantage and used to shifting to moral appeals and unreciprocated cooperation when they are at a disadvantage. As the evidence I’ve read on cross-cultural experiments with game theory seems to indicate, actors may bring their wider social experiences of competition and cooperation with them into the laboratory.

The article makes some fascinating points about Varoufakis’s own research on game theory and the strategies that he has pursued as Finance Minister. But as someone in the comments points out, Morley’s piece ignores the fact of Athen’s eventual defeat in the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides classic has been read as a tragedy in which the Athenians, who expressed the hubris of the overly mighty in their arrogant dismissal of the moral arguments of the Melians, were eventually visited by nemesis. On this reading, there are lessons for the powerful as well as the weak.

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Posted on April 13, 2015, in crisis, crisis theorists series, inequality, international relations, justice, political economy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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