Merchant, Soldier, Sage
Nearly five years after 2008, the global financial crisis continues to unfold in confounding, even scary ways. Most of the West is in the doldrums. The European Union totters precariously, its books a mess; one week it's Spain bringing the bloc to the brink of crisis, the next it's Greece. Rioters protest austerity measures. The US economy is anaemic, and Americans obsesses with their own (alleged) decline.
From left to right, bankers have received their share of opprobrium for getting us into this mess. As a bit of sloganeering, reducing the causes of the financial crisis to the conspiratorial wheeling and dealing of global brokerage houses has a visceral appeal. Simplistic, sure, but when investment banks get government bailouts and consumer debtors are harangued and hounded into bankruptcy proceedings, lashing out at bankers has a certain emotional logic. In his new book, Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power, the Oxford historian David Priestland avoids the emotive fireworks but arrives at roughly the same conclusion. Priestland thinks our present moment, and the history that came before it, is better explained by looking at how several groups, broadly construed, have jockeyed and competed for power over the last 1,000 years. His book is short, but his sweep is broad, and often frustratingly glib, but in the void left behind by the death of communism and the apparent triumph of unchecked capitalism, Priestland has taken a hard look at how historical change occurs.
Marx posited class struggle as the motor of history; Priestland provocatively contends it is the "caste" struggle. The merchant caste are capitalists, entrepreneurs, money people - flexible, cosmopolitan and tolerant (up to a point). The sagely order roughly encompasses intellectuals, government functionaries and technocrats, and derives from monkish orders of the Middle Ages. The aggressive warrior caste favours martial values. The fourth grouping is peasants and workers, who have tried to get from under the domination of the other three castes.
"The conflicts between these castes and their values," writes Priestland, "as they adapt to changing economic and technological environment, are the locomotives of history."
What Priestland effectively describes is the rise of capitalism and the spread of merchant values around the globe. Hopping from India to ancient China to Europe, Priestland shows how the merchant both partnered with - and revolted against - sages and warriors. At times, his history seems to be merely a function of group x + group y = outcome z. If anything, the merchant has proved resilient and infinitely able to adapt to nearly any social conditions. He is keen to point out that freedom and capitalism do not necessarily go hand in hand: one only need look to Putin's Russia, where the crassest kind of capitalism thrives under sham democracy.
The history of the 20th century offers a vivid dramatisation of the fortunes of the various castes. Under the aegis of the British Empire, free trade spread around the world, even if it led to the degradation of Africa and southern Asia. The Depression was a watershed; merchant values had promised prosperity but only brought economic catastrophe. Soviet Russia offered an alternative to merchant rule under the heavy hand of sagely bureaucratic oppression. In the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to tame merchant values with technocrats, as did Scandinavian social democracy. The ruin and misery of the Second World War discredited the warrior ethos and brought about the rise of the sagely expert nudging capitalism in a more stable and equitable direction. In the West, social democracy had its moment in the 1950s and 1960s, when workers and government experts tried to tame both warrior aggression and merchant rapacity.
Under the right conditions, caste competition creates a kind of static dynamic where no group has the upper hand. When one caste gains the upper hand, the social order tends to crack. When private enterprise swept all before it, as it did in the 1920s, the result was calamitous. Priestland sees similar conditions prevailing today. The merchant, checked in the postwar years, has come back with a vengeance and brought little good: social inequality, economic instability, environmental despoilation and soulless commercialism.
In Davos, the Swiss resort town, Priestland sees a fitting symbol of our times. In another era, Davos was known better as the setting of The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann's forbidding novel of ideas. Now, it is as famous for the World Economic Forum, which Priestland dismisses as an "arena of almost total ideological consensus and intellectual complacency". (It's an easy target.) Priestland sees dark times ahead as a result of the rule of "Davos Man, who has had three decades to extend his domination without any serious check from other castes. In that period, he has made many millions richer, mainly in China and India. But he has also created a crisis that may become more serious than even that of the 1920s."
What, then, does Priestland offer as an alterative? The historian turns pundit in the last section of his book, and argues that the merchant must be checked and "the worker (both communitarian and artisanal) and sage (both technocratic and creative) given more influence in our society." In other words, Priestland wants a restoration of the kind of social democratic values that saw the West prosper in the 1950s and 1960s. He urges us to look at history and identify "which caste orders have worked in the past, in terms of both economic success and human flourishing". Priestland proposes a "caste compromise", which would see broad financial reforms and a vigorous state-guided allocation of wealth. But he does not want to do away with merchant values: far from it. Entrepreneurs have a place in Priestland's vision of an ideal society. He values their spontaneity as a check on the sage's grave and colourless manner. But he wants the merchant brought back down to earth, as partner in a kind of grand caste bargain.
Priestland echoes the arguments variously mooted by the late Tony Judt and Joseph Stiglitz, among other liberal critics of the global order. He has written an apologia for social democracy in the guise of a clever reinterpretation of world history. "Davos Man" may be in trouble, but as to who will replace him, that is anyone's guess.
Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.