Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power Paperback – 3 Oct 2013
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A gripping, argument-led history ... dazzling ... here, at last, is a work that places the current crisis in a longer history of seismic shifts in the balance of social power (Frank Trentman BBC History Magazine)
Stimulating ... In illustrating these larger processes of caste conflict and caste collaboration, the author offers crisp portraits of entrepreneurs, economists and warriors ... Sparkling prose and ... arresting comparisons (Ramachandra Guha Financial Times)
Concise but extremely ambitious ... well worth pondering and reflecting on ... among the many contributions to the dissection of our current predicament, this is surely one of the most thought-provoking (Sir Richard J Evans Guardian)
Lively and opinionated (Economist)
An intriguing way of analysing society ... This is a refreshing description of society, and a thought-provoking one ... it a real attempt to break out of established ways of thinking, and should be applauded (Mail on Sunday)
Diverting and provocative (Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times)
Very readable ... [Priestland's] studies of Communism have given him an enviable grasp of 19th- and 20th-century developments across the globe, and he writes with such verve ... Priestland casts an intriguing glimmer of light on what may be ahead (Independent Radar Book of the Week)
About the Author
David Priestland is the author of the widely-praised and internationally acclaimed The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World. While researching The Red Flag it became clear that it was neither Marx's 'classes', nor Huntingdon's clashing civilizations, nor even Fukuyama's competing ideologies that drove historical change, but 'caste struggle'. Merchant, Soldier, Sage is the result. He teaches history at Oxford University and is a Fellow of St. Edmund Hall.
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Top Customer Reviews
Inspired by the work of the French sociologists Bourdieu and Boltanski with a nod to Michael Mann he makes use ,to be more inclusive, of a conceptual toolkit that replaces classes by castes and ideology by the concepts " doxa" and " habitus" borrowed from Bourdieu which include cultural outlook and economic interests/aspirations rooted in upbringing and education.The main historical players or castes are the merchant, the warrior, the sage technocrat and the worker.These castes with their different interests and cultural values either dominate power in certain epochs or enter in coalition with one or more castes at the expense of the others who are powerless and confined to the margins of society.In other words there is a circulation of castes(elites)with their values as they rise and fall.Read more ›
As the title suggests, Priestland suggests that the people who seek power are largely motivated by either money, war or intellectual control (both religious and secular). Over time, these developed into commerce, military power, and bureaucracy and then later into various combinations of all three. The author demonstrates that nearly all of the history of the world can be described and explained by the interplay between these groups. Society is stable only when no single group has too much power. In societies ruled by the sage, a lack of innovation stifles growth and creativity and leads to inequality; rule by the solider inevitably leads to war, and whilst limited merchant power can be good for economies and creativity, as well as living standards, unchecked merchants will always lead society to economic ruin.
It's an interesting idea and the book is written very well. The bulk of the book concentrates on the twentieth century, and it's in the retelling of the "ideological battle" from the Russian Revolution through the Cold War that the book is at it's best, along with the reason for the various economic crises of the last hundred years or so. In the epilogue, the author suggests that in order to end this constant cycle of caste struggle, a more joined up approach is needed. A blend of all three, with sagely leadership and merchant innovation leading to economic security but also social equality.
Whether you agree fully, partly or even disagree with the author, it's certainly an illuminating perspective that begins to explain why things happen and when.
I'm not going to repeat the overview of the books content that an earlier reviewer has outlined. However the use of the term 'caste' to encapsulate the wider cultural aspects of power based groups is certainly a useful new concept for trying to understand and explain the dynamics at work in society. There are other forces at work though which are underplayed in this account, particularly the impact of technological innovation, which the 'merchant' has embraced so successfully and which may help to explain his current dominance. Are the castes driving change or just responding to it?
This is a fascinating take on the forces driving historical change. I'd certainly recommend it. I'd also suggest reading the appendix 'Caste and Power' first as it really does help to set the scene.