Reviewed by: Frank Trentmann
Author: David Priestland
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £20
Adam Ferguson, in his 1767 Essay on the History of Civil Society, observed: “The object in commerce is to make the individual rich; the more he gains for himself, the more he augments the wealth of his country.” And yet, too much merchant influence brought corruption and doom. Merchants had a tendency to put profit before patria. Their commercial ethos ‘dismembered’ the human character, splitting it from the citizen and the warrior, whom a strong nation needed just as much. Progress was a delicate balancing act.
In this history of power, David Priestland does not talk about Ferguson, though he includes his famous friend, Adam Smith. Still, he takes this theme forward to our own times, following the ups and downs of merchant power in the modern world, all the way to our current crisis.
This book is written as an essay and it does what a good essay should: it tries out an idea. History, Priestland suggests, is not propelled forward by ideologies or classes but by castes. Readers of medieval history, of course, will be familiar with knights and priests as defining groups. But ‘caste’ is not normally part of the modern historian’s vocabulary. It has an archaic ring to it or is associated with India. But what if this is wrong? It is the genius of this book to look at modern history afresh as a struggle between the merchant-caste, the soldier and the sage.
In this drama, the merchant is the principal actor. Into the early years of the 20th century, the merchant remained everywhere in an inferior position to aristocrats and technocrats, except in the United States. The breakthrough came with the First World War, which left the old elites debilitated. The Golden Twenties gave the merchant a taste of dominance, but it proved short-lived. The world depression of 1929–31 re-energised warriors and sage-technocrats. After the Second World War, it was the latter who seized power in social democracies. Only in the 1970s did the merchant regain control. The consequences are for all to see in the current crisis.
We have here a gripping, argument-led history, effortlessly moving between New York, Tokyo and Berlin, from the Reformation to the 2008 economic crisis. To present the 1920s as the birth of mass consumption may be a bit dated, and its classless qualities in the United States can be exaggerated. Where the book is more original is in what Priestland has to say about the triumph of neoliberalism. It is too simple to lay all the blame at the feet of the ‘one per cent’. The financial elite had a crucial ally in the “creatives” of the 1960s who helped pull down the cultural foundations of sage-technocratic regimes.
In the end, this book is as frustrating as it is dazzling. Surely, Priestland is right that people’s ethos and way of life are as important as their material interests. How societies prize profit vis-à-vis valour and learning matters, and he is especially good in using novels to chart shifting values. For a book about ‘the merchant’ as caste, however, we meet curiously few real merchants and learn little about their education, tastes and lifestyle. We encounter the occasional Carnegie – the philanthropic steel magnate – but none of the thousands of small traders, merchant bankers, manufacturers and retailers who made up the bulk of business.
Merchants have been a highly diverse bunch and continue to be so. For every footloose cosmopolitan millionaire with a yacht in Monte Carlo, there is a head of a family firm rooted in the community who sponsors local charities and culture. Do they share enough to qualify as a caste?
Not everyone will agree with the entire diagnosis of the current crisis. I tried to imagine how young Italians might respond to the call for more technocratic and worker power. Many are unemployed not because of merchants but because old professors, taxi-drivers and pharmacists operate a closed shop. But these are small quibbles with what is the book’s major accomplishment: 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 Trentmann is professor of history at Birkbeck and a fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, Manchester