Merchant, Soldier, Sage

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%? The 1% 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% 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 flexiblity 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.