Niall Ferguson's new grand theory of history is carried off with panache and sardonic witby David Marquand / November 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Niall Ferguson belongs to an endangered species. In an age of academic specialisation, when most historians devote themselves to learning more and more about less and less, Ferguson is a polymath. He scorns disciplinary boundaries, mixing economics with computer science and anecdotes with sweeping generalisations. As he puts it, he seeks to undermine the “tyranny of the archives.” He uses evidence drawn from a much wider range of sources than most historians dare to examine. In the last two decades, he has published an astonishing range of learned and intellectually provocative books, ranging from a financial history of the world entitled The Ascent of Money, to a study of the bloody 20th century, entitled The War of the World. He is also the author of a biography of the banker Siegmund Warburg, and in 2015 brought out the first volume of a projected two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger, challengingly subtitled The Idealist.
In some ways, The Square and the Tower is a summation of years of his intellectual achievement. It draws on the insights garnered in Ferguson’s previous books and on the research they reflect. But it is much more than that. In a host of ways it breaks new ground. Combining chutzpah, panache, imagination, learning and sardonic wit, it offers a new way of looking at and understanding half a millennium of human history.
Hierarchies, Ferguson argues, have been part of the human condition since the neolithic age. But in the 500 years since Gutenberg invented printing and Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church, hierarchies have been challenged again and again by networks, through which like-minded people communicate with each other, independently of those set in authority over them. Sometimes hierarchies have crushed networks; sometimes networks have undermined hierarchies. But the tension between them has been constant and inescapable.
Ferguson’s cast list is astonishing: from Alan Bennett to Anna Akhmatova; from Immanuel Kant to Joseph Stalin; from the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who annexed Peru for the vast domains of the Spanish crown, to John Buchan, the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps; from financier George Soros to traitor Kim Philby; from Donald Trump to Julian Assange; and from Hillary Clinton to Mark Zuckerberg. He has not chosen these seemingly disparate figures at random. They, and a host of others, illustrate a complex mix of interwoven stories.
But despite the complexity of Ferguson’s story, the basic argument is clear. Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, it is curiously reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. For Ferguson, networks are more creative than hierarchies. Their members are more engaged than the hierarchies they confront. Without them, the world would be a harsher, bleaker and crueller place. But when hierarchies fall, and networks carry all before them, the result, too often, is an anarchic war of all against all—like Hobbes’s state of nature. Again and again, Ferguson reminds us, triumphant networks have run amok, plunging their societies into bloodshed.
The Bolshevik networks that destroyed the liberal provisional government of Russia which had emerged, muddled and confused, from the 1917 February Revolution, ushered in a regime of unbridled savagery, much crueller than the Tsarist regime of the 19th century. Compared to the so-called Cheka, the political police set up under Lenin, the Tsarist Okhrana was a pussy cat. And from the Cheka, the line to Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s ran hideously straight. The illiberal but increasingly moth-eaten hierarchy of the Tsars had given way to one of the most brutal hierarchies in human history.
The story of the Protestant networks spawned by Gutenberg’s printing press and Luther’s reforming ideas differs radically from the Bolshevik story; but Ferguson shows they have more in common than meets the eye. Rival Protestant networks fought each other, often with astonishing violence, while a Catholic counter-Reformation replied in kind. The consequences of the emergence of Reformation networks, Ferguson writes aptly, were “terrible indeed.” Calvinists fought Lutherans, while Zwinglians fought both. Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, seized control of Münster in Westphalia, and set up a theocratic regime that legalised polygamy and prepared for a war on unbelievers. During the English civil wars of the 17th century, Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians and Ranters disputed the authority of the Commonwealth set up after Charles I’s execution.
Eventually, the religious fanaticism and associated network violence gave way to an uneasy and hierarchy-dominated truce, rather like the Cold War. The truce did not usher in peace. The top-down states of Europe fought each other repeatedly. The British state was an astonishingly successful imperial predator. It seized Gibraltar and Menorca from Spain and Quebec from France. The Russian state, ruthlessly (but incompletely) modernised by the arch-hierarchist Peter the Great, conquered vast tracts of the Eurasian land mass as well as what we now call the Baltic states. But these were wars for territory and loot, not for faith or ideology. Networks played no part in them.
The pendulum swung again when revolutionary networks reappeared in the late-18th century, first in the comparatively sedate American revolution and then in its far from sedate French successor.
Ferguson analyses the networks that inspired the American Revolution with marvellous economy and empathy. He quotes a long passage from the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which commemorates a revolutionary hero, and analyses the role of complex networks of Masonic lodges.
His treatment of the far bloodier networks that overcame all opposition in the French Revolution is equally impressive. He reminds us of the savagery of the Paris mob and of the war against alleged counter-revolutionary revolutionaries in the Vendée. Unintentionally, however, he also shows that, though the American and French revolutionary networks marched in different directions, they reached essentially the same destination. What started as a network soon became another kind of hierarchy.
The American Revolution was made by a patrician elite: Southern slave-owners, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; and the mercantile and professional elites of New England, typified by the Adams family. So far from toppling hierarchy, the American revolutionaries merely substituted an American hierarchy for a distant British one. The constitution they drew up after the revolution, with its complex checks and balances, was designed to forestall popular government, not to instantiate it. Hierarchy was to be the order of the day. The extraordinary result of last year’s presidential election, with Trump winning the presidency though Clinton won the popular vote, shows that vestiges of 18th-century hierarchism are still alive and well in the form of the electoral college.
The French story echoes the American one, though more clamorously. Revolutionary frenzy—the September massacres of 1792 and Robespierre’s Terror in 1793-4—led inexorably to tyranny, as political thinkers from Aristotle to Hobbes to Edmund Burke had predicted.
Napoleon, the “Corsican tyrant,” as his British detractors called him, was the ultimate hierarchist. Ferguson clearly has a soft spot for him. He was a workaholic; a tireless traveller; and a radical reformer. Yet, as Ferguson puts it, he was also “the first of the modern dictators.” He re-drew the map of Europe, placed dubious relatives on dodgy thrones, and won battle after battle. Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena are only some of them. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the most spectacular embodiment of military glory in Europe, is a permanent reminder of his achievements as a general. He also crowned himself Emperor of the French, and, as Ferguson puts it, appropriated “Egyptian, Roman and Hapsburg regalia and iconography” to legitimise himself and his regime. And in that he failed. His failure wiped out all his victories. For legitimacy, Ferguson rightly argues, is essential to hierarchical regimes.
The clear implication of these stories is that stable and legitimate rule depends on a symbiosis between Ferguson’s Square and his Tower: between networks and hierarchies. And half a millennium of human history shows that symbiosis is both extraordinarily difficult to achieve and extraordinarily difficult to maintain.
For most of the 16th and 17th centuries, the main threat to that symbiosis came from the fanatical, intolerant and often bloodthirsty religious networks that devastated central Europe. For most of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries it came from more or less brutal hierarchists—Peter the Great, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Il-Sung and the like. In his brilliantly provocative final chapters, Ferguson shows that the wheel has now come full circle. The frenzied religious networks of the 16th century flourished in what he calls the “first networked era”: the age ushered in by the astonishingly rapid diffusion of print technology all over Europe. Today, he argues, we are living in the second networked age. Ours is the age of the internet, of Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide web and giants such as Facebook and Google. The speedy diffusion of information that these websites facilitate allow individuals to form themselves into networks more easily, and more globally, than ever before. A development that is having profound consequences for once stable, or at least predictable, democracies.
By that very token, though, it is also the age of cyber-warfare, sometimes conducted by hierarchical states, like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and sometimes by networked individuals like Julian Assange. (Perhaps even the two in league with one another.) Russian interference in last year’s American election, and conceivably in Britain’s European Union referendum a few months before, are the most obtrusive symptoms of the new cyber-warfare age, but it is hard to believe that they are the only ones.
In the long run more dangerous is the impact of these new technologies on the public realm and on the distribution of income between individuals and territories. The age of Facebook, the tweet and the smart phone is also the age of the troll—the bully, the slander-monger and the liar. For Amartya Sen, public reasoning is fundamental to democratic governance.
The masters of what Ferguson nicely calls “Cyberia” claim that the second networked age is, in fact, an age of public reasoning: never before in human history, they point out, has it been so easy for people to communicate with each other. But reasoning does not mean shouting and yelling. It means listening and thinking, as well as talking. The greatest enemy of pluralist democracy today is the sour, resentful populism which put Trump in the White House, and is set to drag the UK out of the EU.
As in the past, though, the network has quickly been taken over by a hierarchy; the square has become the tower. The most astonishing feature of the second networked age is an explosion of inequality. The returns from the network, he points out, “flow overwhelmingly to the insiders who own it.” Thus, Google is worth $660bn; 16 per cent of its shares are owned by its founders. Facebook is worth $441bn; 28 per cent of its shares are owned by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg and his ilk are not alone. They are scooping up a massive rent; and, for decades, successful rent-seeking by the super-rich has been a feature of economic life right across the developed world.
The great question for the future is whether it will be possible to assemble a social coalition of Ferguson’s outsiders to challenge the dominance of the super-rich. In other words can the network strike back? The obstacles are formidable. But it is worth remembering that though left-wing insurgent Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, he might well have won the presidency if the race had been between him and Trump in his tower. Sanders’s populist campaign might yet turn out to have been the first swallow of a bright summer.
The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power by Niall Ferguson is published by Allen Lane (£25)