Book review: Merchant, Soldier, Sage, by David Priestland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 4:42pm


Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power

by David Priestland

Allen Lane

In this concise but ambitious book, 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.

Priestland suggests we look not at the interaction of abstract forces but at the concrete competition for power between three major groups in society 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 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 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. Today, he says, the merchant caste rules alone in the West. Everywhere, trade unions were vanquished, and the public sector was 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) prompted the resurgence of the warrior ethos, represented most crudely by former United States secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld.

Yet the self-evident pointlessness of the Iraq war and the huge costs that 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 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 China, which has close similarities with the kaiser's Germany in its synthesis of nationalism and merchant power, although it's clearly less militaristic.

Guardian News & Media