Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Caste, Present and the Future

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Caste, Present and the Future

Article excerpt

Richard Bosworth ponders the four types of humans and the problems of business hegemony.

Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power

By David Priestland

Allen Lane, 352pp, Pounds 20.00

ISBN 9781846144851

Published 30 August 2012

Very courageous, Minister," might be the reaction of the tea-room at Teddy Hall, Oxford, where David Priestland is established as a reasonably sober Sovietologist. His "new history of power", he at once states challengingly, aims at analysis of the entire human past, since "we can only start to solve our present problems if we have a clear-eyed view of the past". History, he asserts, "is the only kind of guide we have to the future, and so before we can go forward, we have to go back". In order to process the immensity of his topic, Priestland urges that human beings were, are and always will be divisible into four types, four castes: the warrior, the merchant, the sage and the worker-peasant.

With an earliest reference to 10,000BC, he moves with slowing speed through five short chapters, the first getting to the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the second to 1919. The third examines the inter-war; the fourth the initial post-war, which he calls in his epilogue the "Golden Age" of the 1950s and 1960s.

"Economically, the most successful period in the developed world was the era of greatest caste balance and inclusivity under the auspices of the sage-technocrat," he maintains. His final chapter moves on to the rise and rise of what he might call a merchant hegemony, if he added Antonio Gramsci to his bibliography. From the 1970s, he declares, two generations "elevated the merchant to god-like status. And the world he created was entirely predictable: glittering and tolerant, but beset by social tension and prone to economic implosion."

Merchant rule, however, was exposed as threadbare in 2008, "a year of tectonic shifts - a year to be classed alongside 1917, 1929, 1945, 1968 and 1989". Yet 2008 also proved to be a turning point where history has failed to turn, since merchant dominance has not been overthrown (as it was in favour of bloody warriors after 1929). Confronted by this paradox, Priestland offers some futurology, albeit with hesitant apologies for historians' poor track record in that arena. Maybe the US is like Weimar Germany? Maybe no-longer-communist China is like the Wilhelmine Reich? …

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