history, the real world today

Myths of power: merchant, soldier, sage…?

David Priestland has written a provocative book, Merchant, soldier, sage: a new history of power.

His main idea is that power is controlled by “castes” or social orders defined by occupation, a prevailing social ethos and characteristic ways of wielding power. These castes or elite groups cycle through positions of dominance or alliance with each other, and so arise the characteristic pattern of rules and social values of different regimes and societies.

He defines four castes, with the understanding inherited from Weber that these castes are ideal types, with many historical variations on the theme. The castes are the three named in his title, and the workers, as is understandable from a historian of communism and the soviet state. Our current age is the regime of the merchant. Both 1950s America and theocratic muslim are in different ways regimes of the sage. The sage, as with the other castes, can appear in different costumes at different times. In 1950s America he was the sage technocrat, who in some ways is still with us with the econocrat, although the economists have sold their rather cheapened soul to the merchants. The sage has appeared more commonly as the priest, the wise one, the law speaker. The soldier leader we have known many times, and, I fear, will know again.

There is, in Priestland’s account, something of an eternal turning of the kaleidoscope, as these patterns of caste are refracted through the changing light of social conditions and the ceaseless struggle of their incompatible values. Within his account of today’s free rein of free markets, and the unshackled dominance of the merchant, who has displaced all who seek life without prices, there is a deep, long bass note of hope: the turn of the cycle means their rule must end sometime. Priestland did write his book, after all, in the wake of the financial collapses of 2008.

Of course, such a simplified story of power, which brushes aside all its multifarious intricacy, is a form of myth-making. But such myths are powerful and necessary, and remind me of George Sorel’s idea of the social myth. I agree with the fundamental idea that power crystallises around certain dominant social orders that are defined less by interests than by an ethos shaped by common purposes and activities. It is a commonplace observation today that we are grouped in tribes, largely defined by what we do, and that there is often a chasm of misunderstanding between people like us and the people we shame on twitter.

I think though that there are more patterns in the glass, and each dominant social order is shaped in contention with a shadow, as much as by itself. The soldier is shadowed by the criminal, the thug or the terrorist. Regrettably there are those who use violence for anti-social ends; and sometimes the soldier leader comes from the criminal – is this not the story of Mao and Stalin? The merchant is shadowed by the libertine, the spendthrift, the extravagant consumer. The acquisition of money is negated by burning through the stuff, and all courts have at least one libertine. The sage is shadowed by the artist, the clown, the fool. The high priests of knowledge are shadowed by the high priests of feeling. The worker is shadowed by the carer. Yes, there are no gendered social roles in Priestland’s history of power, or more precisely there is noone at home cooking dinner. The celebration of the dignity of labour is so often a flight from the necessity of caring and waiting on the sick, the young, the old, the vulnerable.

So I could imagine a variation on Priestland’s hypothesis with these eight types, and the added dimension of tension between opposing types. Then we might create a truly mythic cosmogony of power. It would provide a richer story of power than the often stereotypes I find in most of even the best literature.

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