"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? Maybe the warriors are in the wings again? Or perhaps a happier formula can bring the castes back together or even lead to their withering away into a participatory democracy, which sounds a little like the way that Oxford academics govern themselves, despite the successful recent efforts of merchants elsewhere to control academic thought along with the rest.
Much of this is great fun and one wonders a little why Penguin did not bring the book out as a holiday read. It could have been a pleasant antidote to an Olympic surfeit of sport and patriotism, ensuring that Priestland drew maximum advantage from his placement into his own categories as a combined sage-merchant. But is the book a more lasting work? It is hard to be sure, of course. I am another historian with a poor record of reading the future. And a quick swing through some superficially digested evidence scarcely stopped Michel Foucault from becoming a mentor to the world. "The history of the world is the history of caste struggle", and accommodation, alliance and rupture. Maybe. But Priestland does not do well in explaining causation in a method that switches between grand generalisation and individual case studies (a curious privileging of the individual from a scholar who, elsewhere, makes many telling strikes against the familiar, outrageous urging of neoliberals that everyone is now free to "Just Do It", as T-shirts often instruct me).
Is history, then, predetermined? I am not sure what Priestland's answer is. Quite often, it sounds as though it is yes. As he explains, 2008 and All That was not the fault of this or that baddy; not even Alan Greenspan or Tony Blair. Rather, the real culprit was "the post-1970 economic system and the merchant values that sustained it. Once it was in place, we had little choice but to play by the rules" - hegemony, in other words. But the imprisoned sage, Gramsci (luckily imprisoned, since it saved him from Stalinism), offered the hope of counter-hegemony. That is what we really need to formulate now, as we recover from sportive glory or shame, and retreat to the real world.
Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power
By David Priestland
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20.00
Published 30 August 2012