Art Economics Low Politics Decline Political Theology Power Geopolitics

High Noon: The Warriors and The Merchants

High Noon: The Warriors and The Merchants
Photo by Nik Shuliahin 💛💙 / Unsplash

In my forthcoming book, The Prophets of Doom, a recurring feature of the analysis – which, in fact, goes hand-in-glove with analysis derived from elite theory as per The Populist Delusion – is the notion that there are four broad social types who may rule. Oswald Spengler called them the Four Estates, while Julius Evola described The Doctrine of the Four Castes, but these amount to the same thing. The first estate is the Warrior caste or nobles or aristocracy, who rule through their superiority in martial prowess; the second estate is the Priest caste or intellectuals, who rule through their superiority in discursive prowess; the third estate is the Merchant caste or bourgeoisie, who rule through their superior in commercial prowess; the fourth estate is the Peasant caste or proletariat or ‘the people’, who never actually rule themselves but may, from time to time, elect a Caesar who acts as their champion and rules in their interest. Fans of James Burnham may note that there is one group missing here: the bureaucrats or managers. These people are a constant who perform administrative tasks in every era no matter who is in charge. The bureaucrat who served Hitler or Stalin or Franco is of the same stripe of person as the bureaucrat who serves any of today’s leaders from Vladimir Putin to Joe Biden. He is recognisable even in Shakespeare’s plays as the faceless minions who quietly carry out the work of every type of king from the good ones like Henry V to the awful ones like Richard III. Robert Michels in Political Parties has many lively and accurate descriptions of this loathsome and mediocre figure. Burnham’s thesis posits that managers have recognisably become a class, and today’s ruling class. While this is true, it is also clear that ‘our’ managers are drawn from the bourgeoisie, while ruling managers, let us say, in Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany – while the same in personal disposition and technical functions – can be said to come from different castes, in both cases some mixture of warrior and peasant hostile to ‘the rule of commerce’.

In practice, while a single caste may be dominant, there is almost always support from a secondary caste. In fact, one way of thinking about historical periods is to map the different configurations of ‘who rules’. Note that no social order can function without the other two (i.e., the two that are not in the ruling coalition) playing vital and important social roles: Every system needs a tax-base and labour base, every ruling class needs intellectuals to generate BS for its rule, every social order needs force to repel internal and external enemies and so on. Thus, the absence of, say, Priest or Peasant below does not mean that they were non-factors, simply that they were out of power.  Here’s a rough version of what the ruling coalitions from the feudal era to now might look like.

During the medieval period, there were some occasions in which the Priests momentarily took power, most notably under Gregory VII. In the main, however, the Warriors ruled. Feudalism started to break down when blood oaths and bonds of vassalage gave way to mercenary armies and land rents. To use the English example, the typical noble at the time of, let us say, Henry IV, was defined in practice (if not in theory) more by his money-bonds than by his social-bonds and oaths. The feudal order proper was largely undone by the rise of commerce. To stick with the English example, the War of the Roses represents its final collapse. The coming of the Tudors consolidates and centralises power in the figure of the king who then – to use Jouvenelian language – utterly smashes the rival castles of the nobility and the priests. However, you’ll notice that throughout this long period and well into the eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries, the Warrior caste largely remains dominant in one shape or other. The transition from feudalism to absolute monarchy can be seen largely in terms of the concentration of Warrior-caste power in a smaller number of hands, which is to say where once the power of the nobility held the king to ransom, now the power of the king was greatly elevated above the nobles who were brought to heel – this happened in France, incidentally, even more thoroughly than in this country. But viewed from this distance, the castes were of the same generic type. The disputes between the aristocracy and the monarchy can be seen as inter-caste disputes. In his monumental work, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1943) – which I have been reading again recently, with much excitement – Joseph Schumpeter outlines the basically Jouvenelian mechanism by which the monarchy defeated its rival castles using ‘high-low vs middle’ support from one of the other castes:

Consider the outstanding instance that is afforded by the monarchy of Louis XIV. The royal power had subjugated the landed aristocracy and at the same time conciliated it by proffering employment and pensions and by conditionally accepting its claim to a ruling or leading class position. The same royal power had subjugated and allied itself with the clergy. It had finally strengthened its sway over the bourgeoisie, its old ally in the struggle with the territorial magnates, protecting and propelling its enterprise in order to exploit it the more effectively in turn. Peasants and the (small) industrial proletariat were likewise managed, exploited and protected by public authority—though the protection was in the case of the French ancien régime very much less in evidence than for instance in the Austria of Maria Theresa or of Joseph II—and, vicariously, by landlords or industrialists.

The constant interplay between the Four Estates should be obvious.

The period of the British Empire starting roughly in the reign of the Elizabeth I and ending with World War I can be said to play out almost entirely with the Warrior-Merchant axis in power, they change positions arguably late in the Victorian era, I would say during the period in which William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli kept trading places as Prime Minister (starting in 1868), but the aristocracy remain a recognisably active part of the British ruling coalition until, really, the end of World War II. In The Fate of Empires, John Bagot Glubb refers to this period as ‘High Noon’, that is the British Empire at the peak of its powers. On the one hand, the martial prowess and discipline of the old Warrior caste was able to maintain moral and social order, and perhaps even more importantly, to win battles and wars around the world on behalf of Britain; on the other, the creative and dynamics forces of capitalism from the Merchant caste’s commercial prowess led to unprecedented growth and prosperity that benefited the whole of the nation. This ‘High Noon’ represented a happy medium: the worst excesses of capitalism had not yet fully eroded the social fabric (although it had started, as per Thomas Carlyle), and the Warriors and Merchants could work in symbiosis for the greater good.

Schumpeter points out why this arrangement, particularly that of the earlier period of the British Empire while the warriors were still properly in charge rather than ‘support’, worked so well. He argues that the Merchants (or third estate or bourgeoisie) have excellent skills for enterprise but are ill-suited for government for various reasons. I am going to pull out a very lengthy passage now, but no aspect of this can be truncated and I do not wish to interrupt the eloquence of Schumpeter with my own musings; it must be read in full:

Correct diagnosis of this pattern is of the utmost importance for our subject. The king, the court, the army, the church and the bureaucracy lived to an increasing extent on revenue created by the capitalist process, even purely feudal sources of income being swelled in consequence of contemporaneous capitalist developments. To an increasing extent also, domestic and foreign policies and institutional changes were shaped to suit and propel that development. As far as that goes, the feudal elements in the structure of the so-called absolute monarchy come in only under the heading of atavisms which in fact is the diagnosis one would naturally adopt at first sight.

Looking more closely, however, we realize that those elements meant more than that. The steel frame of that structure still consisted of the human material of feudal society and this material still behaved according to precapitalist patterns. It filled the offices of state, officered the army, devised policies—it functioned as a classe dirigente and, though taking account of bourgeois interests, it took care to distance itself from the bourgeoisie. The centerpiece, the king, was king by the grace of God, and the root of his position was feudal, not only in the historical but also in the sociological sense, however much he availed himself of the economic possibilities offered by capitalism. All this was more than atavism. It was an active symbiosis of two social strata, one of which no doubt supported the other economically but was in turn supported by the other politically. Whatever we may think of the achievements or shortcomings of this arrangement, whatever the bourgeois himself may have thought of it at the time or later—and of the aristocratic scapegrace or idler—it was of the essence of that society.

Of that society only? The subsequent course of things, best exemplified by the English case, suggests the answer. The aristocratic element continued to rule the roost right to the end of the period of intact and vital capitalism. No doubt that element—though nowhere so effectively as in England— currently absorbed the brains from other strata that drifted into politics; it made itself the representative of bourgeois interests and fought the battles of the bourgeoisie; it had to surrender its last legal privileges; but with these qualifications, and for ends no longer its own, it continued to man the political engine, to manage the state, to govern.

The economically operative part of the bourgeois strata did not offer much opposition to this. On the whole, that kind of division of labor suited them and they liked it. Where they did revolt against it or where they got into the political saddle without having to revolt, they did not make a conspicuous success of ruling and did not prove able to hold their own. The question arises whether it is really safe to assume that these failures were merely due to lack of opportunity to acquire experience and, with experience, the attitudes of a politically ruling class.

It is not. There is a more fundamental reason for those failures such as are instanced by the French or German experiences with bourgeois attempts at ruling—a reason which again will best be visualized by contrasting the figure of the industrialist or merchant with that of the medieval lord. The latter’s “profession” not only qualified him admirably for the defense of his own class interest—he was not only able to fight for it physically—but it also cast a halo around him and made of him a ruler of men. The first was important, but more so were the mystic glamour and the lordly attitude— that ability and habit to command and to be obeyed that carried prestige with all classes of society and in every walk of life. That prestige was so great and that attitude so useful that the class position outlived the social and technological conditions which had given rise to it and proved adaptable, by means of a transformation of the class function, to quite different social and economic conditions. With the utmost ease and grace the lords and knights metamorphosed themselves into courtiers, administrators, diplomats, politicians and into military officers of a type that had nothing whatever to do with that of the medieval knight. And—most astonishing phenomenon when we come to think of it—a remnant of that old prestige survives even to this day, and not only with our ladies.

Of the industrialist and merchant the opposite is true. There is surely no trace of any mystic glamour about him which is what counts in the ruling of men. The stock exchange is a poor substitute for the Holy Grail. We have seen that the industrialist and merchant, as far as they are entrepreneurs, also fill a function of leadership. But economic leadership of this type does not readily expand, like the medieval lord’s military leadership, into the leadership of nations. On the contrary, the ledger and the cost calculation absorb and confine.

I have called the bourgeois rationalist and unheroic. He can only use rationalist and unheroic means to defend his position or to bend a nation to his will. He can impress by what people may expect from his economic performance, he can argue his case, he can promise to pay out money or threaten to withhold it, he can hire the treacherous services of a condottiere or politician or journalist. But that is all and all of it is greatly overrated as to its political value. Nor are his experiences and habits of life of the kind that develop personal fascination. A genius in the business office may be, and often is, utterly unable outside of it to say boo to a goose—both in the drawing room and on the platform. Knowing this he wants to be left alone and to leave politics alone.

Again exceptions will occur to the reader. But again they do not amount to much. Aptitude for, and interest and success in, city management is the only important exception in Europe, and this will be found to strengthen our case instead of weakening it. Before the advent of the modern metropolis, which is no longer a bourgeois affair, city management was akin to business management. Grasp of its problems and authority within its precincts came naturally to the manufacturer and trader, and the local interests of manufacturing and trading supplied most of the subject matter of its politics which therefore lent itself to treatment by the methods and in the spirit of the business office. Under exceptionally favorable conditions, exceptional developments sprouted from those roots, such as the developments of the Venetian or Genoese republics. The case of the Low Countries enters into the same pattern, but it is particularly instructive by virtue of the fact that the merchants’ republic invariably failed in the great game of international politics and that in practically every emergency it had to hand over the reins to a warlord of feudal complexion. As regards the United States, it would be easy to list the uniquely favorable circumstances—rapidly waning—that explain its case.

The inference is obvious: barring such exceptional conditions, the bourgeois class is ill equipped to face the problems, both domestic and international, that have normally to be faced by a country of any importance. The bourgeois themselves feel this in spite of all the phraseology that seems to deny it, and so do the masses. Within a protecting framework not made of bourgeois material, the bourgeoisie may be successful, not only in the political defensive but also in the offensive, especially as an opposition. For a time it felt so safe as to be able to afford the luxury of attacking the protective frame itself; such bourgeois opposition as there was in imperial Germany illustrates this to perfection. But without protection by some nonbourgeois group, the bourgeoisie is politically helpless and unable not only to lead its nation but even to take care of its particular class interest. Which amounts to saying that it needs a master.

These few pages are extremely insightful because they recognise, with Schumpeter’s unflinchingly realist gaze, the prominent role played by the old Warrior caste in achieving and maintaining British hegemony. The tendency today is to think of the British Empire as straightforwardly capitalist or ‘mercantile’ in nature, but both Glubb and Schumpeter draw attention to the important role played by the ‘feudal shell’ that birthed it. In other words, had the British Empire been purely run by merchants, with no involvement by the old nobility, it would likely not have achieved the success it did. These elements are typically ignored or played down by libertarians making arguments for laissez-faire capitalism. In fact, Britain seems to downplay the obvious martial element in its world conquest; there is still the popular notion that Britain ‘stumbled’ into its empire.

Schumpeter believed that capitalism would ultimately destroy itself not only because it inevitably destroys the aforementioned ‘feudal shell’ which birthed it, but also because, lacking a Warrior caste to protect it, the Merchant class has a complete inability to defend itself. Much later, he develops this theme. Incidentally, this is nearly identical with what Glubb outlines as The Age of Intellect in The Fate of Empires:

From this follows both the unwillingness and the inability of the capitalist order to control its intellectual sector effectively. The unwillingness in question is unwillingness to use methods consistently that are uncongenial to the mentality shaped by the capitalist process; the inability is the inability to do so within the frame of institutions shaped by the capitalist process and without submitting to non-bourgeois rule. Thus, on the one hand, freedom of public discussion involving freedom to nibble at the foundations of capitalist society is inevitable in the long run. On the other hand, the intellectual group cannot help nibbling, because it lives on criticism and its whole position depends on criticism that stings; and criticism of persons and of current events will, in a situation in which nothing is sacrosanct, fatally issue in criticism of classes and institutions. …

… He drifts into an anti-saving frame of mind and accepts with an increasing readiness anti-saving theories that are indicative of a short-run philosophy. But anti-saving theories are not all that he accepts. With a different attitude to the concern he works for and with a different scheme of private life he tends to acquire a different view of the values and standards of the capitalist order of things. Perhaps the most striking feature of the picture is the extent to which the bourgeoisie, besides educating its own enemies, allows itself in turn to be educated by them. It absorbs the slogans of current radicalism and seems quite willing to undergo a process of conversion to a creed hostile to its very existence. Haltingly and grudgingly it concedes in part the implications of that creed. This would be most astonishing and indeed very hard to explain were it not for the fact that the typical bourgeois is rapidly losing faith in his own creed. And this again becomes fully understandable as soon as we realize that the social conditions which account for its emergence are passing.

Any of this sound familiar to you? If it is not obvious, I personally recognised in these passages every Tory and Republican politician I’ve seen in my entire life. The part about educating your enemies and then allowing them to educate you rung especially true. In this we can see something of Curtis Yarvin’s emphasis on the heightened influence of intellectuals – defined broadly as academia and the media – on the current ruling class. Arguments can be made that at some point after 1991, the modern Priests overtook the Merchants as the dominant partner. I’ve made it clear elsewhere why I believe this not to be the case, but it is obvious they are part of the current ruling coalition. I have them as junior partner over-indexing in influence owing largely to the abject weakness outlined by Schumpeter above. The Merchants do not have the heart or requisite level of ruthlessness simply to stamp on the Priests, and now here we are.

There is much to think about here. Not only in purely diagnostic terms but also in thinking about the shape of any future order. Almost everyone reading this would like to take some of the many benefits conferred by capitalism (the technology, the prosperity) without its obvious downsides (the erosion of social bonds and traditions). The ‘division of labour’ model offered by Schumpeter in his description of the British ‘High Noon’ may be one to aim for. The question would be how to limit the Warriors from overstepping their role as protectors and how to limit the Merchants from, well, doing what they did.