Thursday 11 July 2013

BBC "Ancient Greeks". What, no slaves?

I watched Michael Scott talking about the Ancient Greeks last night. Did I miss something? His theme revolved around an apparently mysterious contradiction between the glorious civilisation of Ancient Greece - which apparently 'gave us' pretty well everything that is good while at the same being cruel and occasionally barbaric eg at the Olympic Games and in the execution of Socrates.

I'll leave to one side the matter of whether the Greeks did or did not give us all that wonderful stuff or not for a moment. What was even more mysterious than the matter of the apparent contradiction that Scott talked about was the fact that he didn't mention the 's' word: slavery. This is not just a 'moral' question. Slavery involves a particular kind of attitude to the whole meaning of what it is to be human. Embedded within that is an idea of what it means to survive, reproduce oneself, reproduce society and produce wealth. That's to say, Greek wealth, society, culture, 'civilisation' (whatever that means), rested on the fact that at the heart of these processes of 'reproduction' of the self and society was the institution of seizing and holding the labour power and identity of other human beings.

This is a kind of extreme violence - even when it isn't violent. That's to say, it holds the person, his or her mind and body, in enforced service to other humans - the master, or the master's family.

So, when Scott scratches his head and wonders or muses on the apparent contradiction between the Greeks' great contributions to thought etc etc and their apparent cruelty, it isn't really a contradiction at all. At the heart of their civilisation was something that was largely invisible (though not to Socrates!): that they were conducting a form of extreme everyday violence on thousands of other humans. Of course what the Greeks' great intellectuals and artists said was extraordinary and amazing and wonderful but their ability to spend time strolling about wondering about the mysteries of life, death, love, hate - even cruelty! - rested on the fact that thousands of people produced enough wealth to enable them to have the time and leisure to speculate on such matters. The fact that it also rested on violence is crucial to what Scott was talking about.

I find increasingly when I watch TV or listen to the radio that commentators casually absorb and repeat what are in effect the views and attitudes of 'authority'. That's to say, at any moment in history or now, there is the 'prevailing' or 'dominant' view. This is the outlook expressed explicitly or implicitly of those with the power. So, to take one example, a monarch who 'brings stability' is described as 'good'. This might mean not much more than stabilising the means of exploitation, domination and foreign conquest.  The very notion of 'stability' is a 'prevailing' or 'dominant' view of what is 'good'. Extrapolate that attitude to now, we have a 'stable' government that has been 'good' at overcoming the potential schisms that might have occurred with a coalition. However, that stability has just made it easier for the coalition to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. There isn't anything 'good' about it at all.