Merchant, Soldier, 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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