King Alfred the Great, commentary on Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy
In 2012, Oxford don David Priestland published Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power. It takes up the very theme familiar to Alfred in the 890s, that a society’s leaders are a combination of the three estates, those who get what they want through transactions, those who do so through violence or the ability to threaten it and those who do so through wisdom. The balance between them changes over time, defining the character of one society in comparison with another.
The neo-liberal project underway since the 1970s has been very much a matter of ‘all power to the merchants’, whose freedom of action is defined as the essence of freedom itself, trumping even democracy. Which means a world unprepared for the re-emergence of other ways of thinking. It means, for example, a world accustomed to the idea that violence is wrong, unless clothed perhaps in a claimed humanitarian intent. Such a world imagines that denouncing savagery as savagery is an anathema capable of having a real impact. What if the savagery is a very deliberate choice? A drive to power through fear? You wanted ‘shock and awe’? Well, you got it. Up against a liberal – famously defined by Robert Frost as someone too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel – who’s going to win?
The collapse of political or economic stability is usually followed by authoritarian rule of one kind or another. Chaos breeds a craving for order: good order if possible, evil order if necessary. Nature abhors a vacuum. And the whinier anarchists change their minds fast once their dole money stops. So let’s ask the question: if central government failed, if the debt economy imploded, if as communities, locally and regionally, we were thrown back upon our own resources, how would Wessex fare?
It’s not an unnecessary question but a prudent one, given what the demographic, environmental and geopolitical trends tell us about the changes coming over the course of this century. So far we have shown only our chronic unwillingness even to resist the impositions of a relatively benign London regime. The merchants continue to batter down the barriers that democracy has erected, while the globalised society they have advocated offers no protection against importing to our shores the consequences of other nations’ actions. Trade and war alike are threats to our way of life; those in more empathetic and far-seeing occupations have a vital role in keeping both equally at bay.