7 October, 2012Issue 20.1HistoryPolitics & Society

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Caste Rule

Harriet Fitch Little

BritishDavid Priestland
Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power
Allen Lane, August 2012
352 pages
ISBN 978-1846144851


“The committee to save the world”: Time’s bold headline in February 1999 was accompanied by a striking image of Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, the trio dubbed the “Three Marketeers,” whose global market model would save the world from financial meltdown. Just over a decade on, David Priestland’s new book draws a direct line between this all-consuming faith in the power of market solutions and the financial storm of 2008. Power, Priestland argues, has historically been shared by three castes: merchants, soldiers and sages. Times of crisis—whether in the form of the French Revolution, the Great Depression or the global instability of the present day—correspond to periods in which one caste succeeds in “colonising” its rivals, thereby upsetting the balance. Today, living in a country in which the heir to the throne has established a multimillion pound business trading on his status in the form of “Duchy Originals”, the ethos of the merchant caste has achieved a previously unimaginable hegemony.

Priestland makes it clear in his introduction that he is aware that the grand-narrative approach to political explanation is “academically unfashionable”. He is at pains to distance himself from those models of the political left and right which see history as having a clear direction—Fukuyama’s “end of history”, Marx’s “utopian endpoint” and Hegel’s “grand synthesis”—all of which fall into the category of “na√Øve fables of progress”. Dismissing such models does not mean however that we should be blind to our past. History is the only guide we can have to understanding when and why society works best. For Priestland, “before we can go forward, we have to go back”.

The conditions of membership for the “ideal types” of the various castes are more nuanced than their simple labels might suggest. The merchant caste is not to be reduced to the pilloried city elite—it is also the caste most attached to values of equality and inclusivity. It casts its net wide. Indeed, one of the main reasons for its incremental rise to dominance lies in its surprisingly successful alliance with the creative bohemians of the 1960s, the Steve Jobs generation who persuaded the world that capitalism was compatible with their counter-cultural “think different” mantra. Just as the merchant’s church is unexpectedly broad, the “sage” caste is not the secular priesthood of cloistered academics that might be expected. Apparently dismissing the Weberian claim that bureaucracy represents the logical highpoint of rational capitalism and thus forms part of the merchant’s creed, Priestland classes all institutions of officialdom as “sagely” counterweights to the short-term logic of the market. We therefore find the sage caste cropping up in some surprising places. In 1968 it was to be found amongst the technocratic establishment rather than the young intellectual rebels pushing for greater civil rights and inclusivity. Even the KGB, with its record of hard-headed planning and shrewd intelligence, is credited with imbuing Putin with sagely values.

The picture painted of history’s trajectory depicts a Hegelian zig-zag between opposing forces, albeit one with fewer moments of neutralising synthesis than Hegel envisaged. Although the visible locomotive force of change is generally manifested in war, economic collapse or social revolution, these upheavals are generally only markers of a series of elite implosions, most commonly occurring when any one caste is allowed to rule without constraint. Priestland’s exploration of this pattern roots itself in the rise and fall of the social contract of the middle ages and expands into a deeper analysis as it approaches the 20th century. Following the ignominious loss of faith that the warrior caste suffered as a result of the “industrial slaughter” of the First World War, American hegemony brought about the first serious attempt at unencumbered merchant rule. At this time a new social contract was born which offered the production line workers of Ford factory fame a rationale for abandoning socialist solidarity: they could instead aspire to own the products they produced. The “new capitalism” turned a generation into aspiring capitalists. Even religion was not spared the merchant’s makeover. Barton’s bestselling 1925 “The Man Nobody Knows” recast Christ as “the greatest ad-man the world has ever known”, creating demand through his miracles in a saturated religious market.

The first era of merchant domination came tumbling down in the 1930s with the collapse of the American market. It was followed by a turbulent series of unstable caste alliances spanning the rise of fascism and the Second World War. Balance was at last restored, resulting in “Les Trentes Glorieueses”—the period of history which comes closest to providing a model for the merchant-soldier-sage consensus which Priestland equates with stable prosperity. For almost thirty years the steady involvement of the technocratic sage in government ensured social harmony against the backdrop of the cold war, and allowed the sociologist Martin Lipset reasonably to assert that the conflict between left and right might be viewed as concerning “a little more or a little less government ownership and economic planning”.

The exact end of this period of caste consensus and the beginning of “1930s redux” is hard to pinpoint with any certainty. Priestland’s pressure points are typically esoteric. He credits the collapse of Bretton Woods with “liberating” capitalism from the constraints of management and long term planning. Bringing his analysis up to the present day, he argues that 2008, although we may not yet realise it, was a year which mirrored the depths of the 1930s depression. Despite the fact that the pervasiveness of the merchant’s domination means that the need to recalibrate is more pressing than ever before, the perverse truth is that the chances of it happening are slimmer. The shock has not been strong enough fundamentally to shake our faith in the free market ethos. In some cases, the collapse has actually helped the merchant: he has at last begun to penetrate the previously warrior-dominated Middle East.

Priestland’s analysis offers little hope and few solutions. His epilogue imagines, somewhat glibly, the potential of a new world summit on a Nepalese “magic mountain” (picked for being conveniently cushioned between two of Asia’s leading economies) where participant’s realise that success has historically corresponded to times of caste balance and inclusivity. On this hilltop the men and women will come to realise that sage control must be used to tackle problems which the market cannot hope to conquer. The most pressing of these is the issue of environmental devastation–illustrated with a surprising anecdote about the desertification wrought by China’s cashmere goat population. What are the chances of us coming to such a realisation, whether in the Nepalese mountains or in less distant corridors of power? As Priestland concludes, “the runes do not seem promising.”

Illustrating the excesses of capitalism through a discussion of goats is typical of Priestland’s engaging and impressively erudite style. The symbolism of 16th century portraiture, the moral subtext of Robinson Crusoe, and the 1859 origins of Self Help literature all feature in the story of the merchant’s rise to hegemony. Equally, the better known parts of the story are presented with a novel focus. Adam Smith’s posthumous reputation as a theorist of harsh market discipline is thrown into question and, despite Priestland’s belief that we are living in an age where the merchant rationale dominates, he questions the idea that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was primarily motivated by oil. Instead he sees it as the result of “impeccable warrior logic” on the part of Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney: weakness in the face of the enemy was not an option.

As a history of power, Priestland’s is an ambitious study which pushes the reader to consider more closely the “pressure points” of historical change. The attempt to mould the narrative into a story of three loosely bounded castes provides an engaging focus, but sometimes feels more like a straightjacket than a convincing categorisation or one which might facilitate real solutions. After all, the potential for crisis still exists in systems which combine all three; the fact that the Chinese merchant ethos is combined with a strong sagely presence and embedded warrior-nationalism does not make it a model for the kind of power-sharing he envisages. Indeed, although his academic focus is on the need for a balance between the three most powerful castes, the real world examples which he sees as models of success (such as Sweden’s Social Democracy) actually tend to harness the power of a forth undervalued caste: the workers.

It is perhaps surprising, given that Priestland’s last work was a history of the communist movement, that this fourth caste is largely excluded both from his history of power and from his suggested power sharing solutions. They come into play only briefly, in the book’s epilogue, in which he suggests that a more radical solution to social harmony could be achieved through a complete shake up of the established division of labour. Despite the title, Merchant, Soldier, Sage finishes by suggesting an arrangement which dissolves all three. Like his final proposition, Priestland’s book could itself survive without such a strong emphasis on the tripartite division of its protagonists. The history of power that he presents is original enough to stand on its own.

Harriet Fitch Little read Social and Political Science at Newnham College, Cambridge.