Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Nov 23 01:36:09 GMT 2013

Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power by David Priestland – review
Richard J Evans on a thoughtful explanation of our current crisis
    * <>Richard J Evans
    * <>The 
Guardian, Thursday 23 August 2012 10.40 BST
Donald Rumsfeld tours Abu Ghraib in 2004

Soldier caste: US defence secretary Donald 
Rumsfeld tours the Abu Ghraib prison facility 
with military top brass in May 2004. Photograph: 
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

In this concise but extremely ambitious book, the 
Oxford historian David Priestland sets himself 
the task of taking the long view of the financial 
crisis that afflicts the world today. His 
argument is that the year 2008, when the credit 
crunch began, is as important as 1917, the year 
of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, or 1945, 
when the second world war came to an end. Four 
years on, the crisis shows no sign of coming to 
an end, and political systems, economies and 
societies seem in a state of disarray – even looming collapse.
    * Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power
    * by David Priestland
    * Buy the book

How has all this come to pass? Why have we got to 
such a crisis? Such questions, Priestland 
suggests, can only be answered with the help of 
"the only kind of guide we have to the future". 
If the crisis has done one thing, he suggests, it 
has been to discredit the simplistic view of 
history that recognises in it nothing but 
progress towards a liberal, free-market, 
capitalist, democratic present and future. 
Capitalism comes in many forms, and if the recent 
development of China shows anything, it is that 
democracy doesn't have to come with it. 
Historical change isn't impelled solely or even 
principally by the conflict between economically 
based classes, as Marx believed, or by the clash 
of ideologies, as the last of the great 
optimists, the American academic 
Fukuyama, assumed. In practice, both play a part. 
It makes more sense, says Priestland, to look not 
at the interaction of abstract forces but at the 
concrete competition for power between three 
major groups in 
over the ages – or, as he calls them, "castes", 
each with its identity and purposes rooted in an 
ethos closely linked to occupation and social function.

The first of these is the merchant caste, or in 
modern parlance, the capitalists, promoting the 
values of business competition and the market. 
The second is the soldier caste, originating in 
the warrior aristocracy of the feudal middle ages 
and emphasising heroism, aggression and 
discipline. The third is the sagely or 
clerical-intellectual caste, dating from the days 
of the monks in medieval Christian society and 
finding its present-day embodiment in the 
bureaucrat, the technocrat and the expert. Over 
the centuries, these three castes have struggled 
for supremacy over the broad mass of peasants 
and, more recently, workers. This struggle, he 
boldly declares, has been "the locomotive of history".

When one or other of these castes becomes too 
dominant, crisis usually ensues and it is 
replaced by another. The dictatorial and 
hierarchical rule of the soldier caste is 
destroyed by defeat in over-ambitious military 
action; the hidebound and ossified rule of the 
sage caste leads to revolutionary uprisings 
designed to widen participation in the state; the 
unconstrained dominance of the merchant caste 
leads to economic instability and inequality, 
fuelling social conflict and sparking revolution.

Most of Priestland's book is devoted to a 
narrative account of recent history seen in terms 
of the competition between these three castes. 
The focus here is on the inexorable rise of the 
merchant, beginning in England and the 
Netherlands in the 17th century, gathering pace 
and spreading geographically in the early 
industrial age, and coming temporarily to grief 
in the Great Depression of the early 1930s. 
Thoroughly discredited, the merchant caste gave 
way in a country like Germany to a modernised 
version of the rule of the warrior under the 
Nazis, in Soviet Russia to an unstable alliance 
of martial bureaucrats and ideologues under 
Stalin, in Scandinavia to the rule of Social 
Democratic sages keeping the warriors and merchants under their thumb.

If the merchant caste was discredited by the 
Depression, the soldier caste lost its legitimacy 
after the vast catastrophe of the second world 
war, and for a while the Social Democratic model 
provided stability and progress. But this sagely 
rule got into trouble too, its bureaucratic 
dullness and elitism alienating women, youth, 
minorities and "1960s creatives", its managerial 
claims destroyed by its failure to control the 
economic crisis that followed the huge global oil 
price hikes of 1973-74. This allowed the merchant 
caste to make a comeback, which it did with a 
vengeance towards the end of the 20th century.

Today, Priestland says, the merchant caste rules 
alone in the west. Wherever you look, you find it 
in charge. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher brought 
business values into the heart of government and 
there they have stayed. In the US, Alan 
Greenspan's Federal Reserve unleashed an era of 
unbridled financial expansion. In Russia, the 
collapse of communism opened the way to a decade 
of free-for-all capitalist competition with huge 
fortunes being made by a few and a collapse in 
living standards suffered by the many. 
Everywhere, trade unions were vanquished, the 
public sector assaulted and diminished, while 
what was left of it was subordinated to commercial values.

The destruction of New York's twin towers by 
Islamist terrorists led by Osama bin Laden (a 
warrior, according to Priestland, a sagely 
fanatic in the eyes of President George Bush) 
prompted the resurgence of the warrior ethos, 
represented most crudely by the US secretary of 
defence Donald Rumsfeld ("We've got to do Iraq," 
he said before the invasion: "There just aren't 
enough targets in Afghanistan. We need to bomb 
something else to prove that we're, you know, big 
and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kind of attacks").

Yet the self-evident pointlessness of the Iraq 
war and the huge costs it incurred – human, 
political, financial – shoved the warrior ethos 
back into its box. Only in Russia, where the 
consequences of merchant rule were spectacularly 
awful, did the warrior caste come back to power, 
in the shape of Vladimir Putin. In the west, 
continued merchant rule brought "economic 
insecurity, corrosive inequality and potential 
environmental catastrophe", with unbridled and 
unregulated financial competition leading from 
2008 onwards to unprecedented financial collapse, 
government indebtedness and political instability with no foreseeable end.

Priestland's solution, predictably enough in a 
book coming from an Oxford don, is more sagely 
power. Yet there are few signs of this happening, 
and, drawing on the example of the 1930s, he 
warns darkly that "the year 2008 has set the 
world on a course towards potential conflict, and 
the domestic and international forces that 
brought us the violence of the 1930s and 1940s 
are with us today" – not least in a China that 
has close similarities with the kaiser's Germany 
in its synthesis of nationalism and merchant 
power, though it's clearly less militaristic.

If sages are to be reinstated in positions of 
power, they need, according to Priestland, to 
forge alliances with others, above all with 
creative groups and with workers. Yet this is 
where his model begins to come apart, for these 
two elements in society remain shadowy figures in 
the background all the way through his book. He 
clearly believes in democracy, but by portraying 
history as a struggle between elites he takes it 
out of the picture, reducing the vast majority of 
people to passive objects of the ongoing fight 
for supremacy by their superiors. This is history 
from above with a vengeance. Moreover, by forcing 
so much into such a simple straitjacket of 
historical categories, he lets himself in for a 
whole range of dubious generalisations and 
obvious oversimplifications. Are we really ruled 
by merchants for example? Have the military in 
the US really been sidelined? Is China really 
like Wilhelmine Germany? At the end of almost 
every paragraph readers will surely feel the word "but" coming to their lips.

Priestland is of course aware of the complexities 
of political structures, but he leaves himself 
too little space to explain how and why alliances 
between his castes occur, and how the different 
groups modify and intermingle their values and 
behaviour with those of the others; if he'd done 
that, then the detail would have submerged his 
schema out of existence. Nevertheless, it's a 
schema well worth pondering and reflecting on. 
And among the many contributions to the 
dissection of our current predicament, this is 
surely one of the most thought-provoking.

• Richard J Evans is Regius professor of history at Cambridge.
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