Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A History of the World in Three Castes

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A bold new interpretation of modern history as a continual struggle among three prevailing power groups: merchant, soldier, and sage

Noted Oxford historian David Priestland argues history is, at base, a conflict among three occupational groups, or castes: the commercial, competitive merchant; the aristocratic,militaristic soldier; the sage, or the bureaucratic, expert manipulator of ideas. Since the move of civilization into the city, merchants have vied for power with the ...

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Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power

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A bold new interpretation of modern history as a continual struggle among three prevailing power groups: merchant, soldier, and sage

Noted Oxford historian David Priestland argues history is, at base, a conflict among three occupational groups, or castes: the commercial, competitive merchant; the aristocratic,militaristic soldier; the sage, or the bureaucratic, expert manipulator of ideas. Since the move of civilization into the city, merchants have vied for power with the soldier and the sage in every society. These groups struggle for power, and when one achieves preeminence, as the soldier did in imperial Germany, or the merchant did in theAnglo-American world of the 1920s, the result is cultural domination.

Yet the predominant group must adapt to changing circumstances or there will come a point of drastic change, as the world saw in 1914 and 1929. The result is economic crisis, war, or revolution, and eventually a new alliance of castes takes over. The last century bears the scars of these often very violent shifts of power between the castes.

After dominating the world order for decades, the merchant faced his greatest challenge in the financial crisis of 2008. Slowly, haltingly, the economies of the West seem to have regained their footing. But questions remain. Can we ensure that the merchants at the helm of our economy will not chart the same ruinous course they did in the run up to the crisis? How long will it be until we face another financial crisis?

We cannot gain perspective on our current challenges until we understand their position in a larger historical context. Priestland argues that we are now in the midst of a period with all the classic signs of imminent change. In the wake of the great recession, the merchant is weakened and discredited, but still clings to power. As the history of the last century shows, there is good reason to be fearful of the forces that the likely failure of the merchant may unleash.

Merchant, Soldier, Sage is both a masterful dissection of our current predicament and groundbreaking piece of history. Neither our past nor our present will look the same again.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Distinguished Oxford historian Priestland (The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World) offers a “big history” based on the power struggle between three different castes, each of which, he argues, embodies distinct “ideas and lifestyles, which they often seek to impose on others.” Citing figures and events from antiquity through to the present, he explores how tensions among the three groups repeatedly rise to a fever pitch, and eventually transform their host society, and sometimes the world—the most recent example of one of these “tectonic shifts” occurred with the financial crisis of 2008, when the exploits of the merchant short-circuited the global economy. Priestland predicts that in the future, the Great Recession will be classed among the great shakeups of the 20th century: WWI and II, the Great Depression, the fall of the Berlin Wall—each of which he touches on. In the course of his “broad sweep,” Priestland is consistently engaging, whether in his discussion of the marshaling of Confucius’s teachings for political ends, or in pegging former President George W. Bush as a warrior. The author’s project is necessarily exclusive—what, for example, of the laborer or scholar, or mother for that matter?—but it is also ambitious, well organized, and insightful, and will appeal to scholarly and popular audiences. Agent: Gill Coleridge, Rogers, Coleridge & White (U.K.). (Mar. 25)
Library Journal
Oxford’s Priestland (The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World), an expert on the Soviet Union and scholar of 20th-century comparative history, provides a nuanced, culturally aware, Marxist-influenced reading of the shifting ascendancies, rivalries, and collaborations of three elite groups (the “castes” of merchant, soldier, and sage). These groups are fluid; for instance, one of Priestland’s subjects, Robert McNamara, worked for years in corporate America (“merchant”), eventually heading Ford Motor Co. He was then recruited by President John F. Kennedy to serve in his administration (“sage”) as secretary of defense, whereupon his stewardship of the Vietnam War, first under Kennedy, then under Lyndon B. Johnson, enshrined his legacy as an exemplar of the “warrior caste.” Priestland begins his study with Genghis Kahn and Beowulf and with uncommon erudition pays equal attention to Asia and the developing world and Western Europe and the United States while managing to sustain narrative momentum. He is not sanguine about the future; his story ends with the warrior’s disastrous demise in Iraq, the Wall Street merchant’s destruction of investment as a driver of economic growth, and the dubious rise of “Davos Man,” a closed elite of extraordinarily wealthy sages—many with business and military credentials—who annually attempt to contain the world’s problems at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Verdict Readers of serious intellectual history and contemporary policy will appreciate this relatively left-oriented yet nondoctrinaire assessment of the history of global power politics.—Scott H. Silverman, Dresden, ME
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
The author of The Red Flag: A History of Communism (2009) returns to present the skeleton of a new theory of human history. Priestland (Modern History/Univ. of Oxford) employs the term caste to mean "self-interested bodies seeking economic advantage but also as embodiments of ideas and lifestyles, which they often seek to impose on others." He identifies three of them (see title) and says there is also a fourth (workers and peasants) which, he writes, we should not neglect. He notes that each caste has, historically, allied with the others to varying degrees (the merchant-soldier, for example), but each has sought to dominate discourse and politics. After explaining his terms, Priestland marches us through history, showing us how his model applies to and illuminates everything from the Reformation to Robinson Crusoe, Adam to Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie to Ayn Rand, Hitler to Putin, and Richard Wagner to Sinclair Lewis (George Babbitt does not fare well here). He notes--no real surprise--that the world tends to get in trouble when it permits one caste to dominate. In recent times, he bewails the warrior ethos that impelled George W. Bush to invade Iraq after 9/11 and the "pervasive merchant value system" which drove the world to near economic collapse in 2008. Occasionally, Priestland sounds very much like Paul Krugman, especially when he declares that the stimulus package of 2008 was too small; he sounds like Elizabeth Warren when he slaps the faces of investment bankers, who, he writes, need firm reins. The author acknowledges that this is a theoretical, not a practical, text, but he does offer some vague solutions: more awareness of history and a balanced contribution of all the castes. Useful, often-clarifying trifocals through which to view the world.
Lively, opinionated… The aim of this book is to use the lessons of history to understand the current financial crisis… Priestland has some interesting things to say about why power relationships shift and what happens when they do…
The Barnes & Noble Review

How did we get here, to this endless wasteland of debt and economic disparity, living standards falling as if in the thrall of gravity, for most of us, the 99 percent? The 1 percent pointed the direction and convinced enough of us, through the cultural dominance Antonio Gramsci called "hegemony," that their worldview was where it was at, which — surprise! — is here and now and has been for thirty diminishing years. David Priestland, in his rock-skipping-quick, silken, if at times dodgy history of caste over the past millennium, Merchant, Soldier, Sage, finds that under the cover of that 1 percent squat bankers, merchants, and their afflatus.

Since the 1980s, though now in eclipse, Davos Man has been at the top of the food chain, triumphantly ruinous, charter member of that Rotary Club for plutocrats, gesturing in concern for the less fortunate and seeing salvation in the form of deregulated markets and the merchant's short-term flexibility, no matter how flighty. With that get-rich flexibility came high risk, especially so in a deregulated economy, and a consequent disdain for any inclusive well being, "whether it is the artisan's and worker's pride in creativity, skill, community, equality or the sage-technocrat's commitment to long-term, coordinated development." It is an economic mindset that shreds security, building a career, and developing expertise. It is myopic, blinkered greed, a tragedy of the commons with the village green spanning the entire globe.

This bill of goods, this hegemonic worldview, didn't spring fully blown from Ayn Rand or Alan Greenspan's head, but had been sending down roots since human society entered the modern world a millennium ago, passing through filters that challenged its power, sometimes trampling it flat (as North Korea's isolate rulers continue to do). One of the pleasures of Priestland's work is its broad sweep, the grand narrative of the merchant's progress, for it has been anything but linear. In conjunction with the other three ancient occupational castes — the aristocrat/soldier, the sage/priest, the peasant/worker — it has merged and mutated, integrated and cross-fertilized, while shaping and reshaping its distinct outlook on life. During the 1500s, however, with growing markets, trade, and urbanization, the merchant caste took on an ascendant force, and the fruits of the Reformation fell at their feet, with a weakened church and the seizure of property by the crown, leaving in its wake a large, landless labor force, ripe for the coming revolution in industry.

Along the way we meet Piers the Ploughman and Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the robber barons and a dozen absorbing European entrepreneurs. Priestland introduces the eighteenth-century merchant, a blend of hard and soft, and the uncoupling of cultural and economic equality; there would be no truck with destructive charity, the rewarding of the lazy and foolish, like decent wages. But labor had an ace up its sleeve: organizing. Give and take — another example of what Priestland sees as the locomotive of history — "the conflicts and alliances among these castes and their values as they adapt to the changing environment," until an alliance or group is able to impose itself on its rivals. Hegemony, then, be it courtesy of a bayonet or snake oil.

Just as readers make it out of World War I, where the warrior's bloodlust cast a lasting pall, when we think that the sage has emerged from the scrum with the ball, before the sage-technocrats and economic advisers grab the limelight at Bretton Woods, here comes Henry Ford and a shattering new approach to the owner- worker relationship. By paying workers a decent wage and streamlining production to drive down costs, he created a market, a new economic model, and helped fashion the zeitgeist: "a popular, consumerist, gadget-crazy, networking-obsessed, finance-led capitalism." Mass consumerism, aided and abetted by credit and debt, distracted attention from class differences, because labor "could at least aspire to having a lifestyle similar to that of their bosses — even if they would never achieve it." Smoke and mirrors often make for hegemony's most effective tack.

The bohemian 1920s gave way to the desperate 1930s, and soft merchants lost the baton to hard merchants, who when facing threats to their financial position became advocates of Dickensian austerity: "fearful that governments would print money to inflate away the debt, they insisted that spending and welfare benefits be cut. This, of course, was almost the ideal policy to make the crisis much worse." Worse until the warriors took the scene, Nazis and fascists and fellow travelers, who really knew how to make things go from worse to nightmarish.

Despite having an impressive grasp of the shifting accords and kaleidoscopic interplay of castes in the years after World War II, Priestland has a dervish on his hands in trying to pin down all the activity. He hops from scenario to scenario in a mad dash to keep up with events, hardly able to finish explaining one before another floods his mind, galloping out ahead, threatening to leave him behind, breathless.

But, remarkably, Priestland does corral the actors, and they are legion: the sage-technocrats seeking social reform and coordinated capitalism in northern continental Europe and Japan; the warrior rising like bad gas in the Soviet Union and China to achieve order over chaos, but also with Castro and the anti-imperialist fights in Southeast Asia, not to forget Lyndon Johnson before he pursued a Great Society; the bohemian romantics and creatives overcoming the warriors and Big Brother in the U.S., to be quashed by the hard, Volckerian/Greenspanian merchants, Margaret Thatcher in tow; Reagan and Gorbachev evolving into soft-merchant folk, easygoing compromisers; the corrupt sagely elite in China's elephantine bureaucracy over-relying on exports, India's brittle merchant supremacy failing to build the infrastructure to spread wealth, the rise of the Russian oligarch stripping the assets of what was left on the Russian carcass. Vladimir Putin would teach them a lesson, the shrewd and brutish warrior/sage, paternalistic to a fault, by throwing them into jail. Like many latter-day warrior chiefs, Rumsfeld and Cheney preferred to exercise their warrior instincts at a remove, while so did George W. Bush, the warrior as tool and poseur. For the Tea Party, it was time to take a stick to the feckless, sponging vermin.

It is rare to witness a successful caste order, writes Priestland in this piquant survey, one with "the capacity to deliver economic prosperity and the ability to meet contemporary social ideals." Priestland keeps an even keel, he displays no obvious evidence of rancor, but his portrait of merchant rule — the rule that rules today - - is dismaying: pervasive insecurity, corrosive inequality, environmental jeopardy, profit maximization and the rest be damned, liquidation of capital industries, toadying to shareholders, stagnant wages and benefit reduction, impoverished research, outsourcing to near-slave labor states, an ethos of blaming the victim. It is only when the merchant is tempered by some balance with the other castes that things have a chance of going right. Most everywhere — except, perhaps, in North Korea's prison-state — the merchant is in the driver's seat, conducting the business of our life, with predictable results.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594203107
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 3/21/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,048,598
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

David Priestland is the author of the widely acclaimed book The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World and teaches modern history at the University of Oxford. A fellow of St. Edmund Hall, he lives in Oxford, England.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2014


    Is so confused.

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