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

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

4.0 1
by David Priestland
     
 

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

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Overview

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.
Economist
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…

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594203107
Publisher:
Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
03/21/2013
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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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