THE WEDNESDAY INTERVIEW | Niall Ferguson Interview

‘I expect things to get worse before they get better’, says historian Niall Ferguson


History, as it is routinely studied and understood, is hierarchical, but change and revolutions come from social networks, argues historian Niall Ferguson in his latest book, ‘The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook’. The book scans numerous episodes from history to illustrate the dynamics between hierarchy and networks, and says the current era of social chaos is not new and may get worse before getting better. Excerpts from an interview with Mr. Ferguson, who is now Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.


Is there an equilibrium between network and hierarchy for a society and the international system to be stable?

Theoretically, there must be. As I show in the book, the extreme cases of a very centralised, hierarchical system or a completely decentralised, network-based system don’t work well. And most natural world organisms tend to have a hybrid character — some elements of hierarchy, some elements of network. The way in which the Roman Catholic Church survived for centuries... it has been somewhere in that sweet spot. There is a very clear hierarchical structure, but at some level Roman Catholicism remains a social network and a remarkably vital one, despite its great age. Institutions that have lasted for a long time are somewhere near that happy medium.

Would it be useful to try to understand history as ongoing, cyclical, hierarchy-network swings?

It might be a little too neat. Large networks are complex systems, and they have emergent properties that are rather unpredictable. They are quite capable of sudden changes. The key here is that revolutionary networks like the Bolsheviks were capable of transforming, with amazing speed, into hierarchies of tremendous rigidity and centralisation. That hierarchical structure endured for 70 years, and then fell apart with extraordinary swiftness. I prefer to think of history as a somewhat erratic and chaotic process rather than as one characterised by cycles, or pendulum swings. That is why it is hard to predict history, and it does not operate in a way that submits to nice, neat laws.

You make some predictions and say the current phase of social and political chaos will last for some years.

If one compares our age with the period of the printing press, the striking thing is that there are many, many similarities, though the speed today is an order of magnitude faster. It took a hundred years in the 16th and 17th centuries, in the age of the printing press; now it takes 10 years. If you think about what happened in the 16th century, the printing press... when the Reformation started, it unleashed at least 130 years of religious conflict in Europe. It went on until the end of the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia. In my very rough analogy, we should expect our age’s ideological conflict to last about a tenth of that time. The age of the Internet, certainly the age of Facebook and Twitter, has given rise to a kind of ideological polarisation in many democracies. I would expect that process to continue and get worse for a whole period of conflict that is not as long as 130 years but perhaps 13 years. But this is a very rough analogy. This is about how these technological shocks, these innovations like the Internet or the printing press, change the structure of the public sphere and give rise to conflict, because of polarisation or violence... If you think of it in a rough way, we are having this 16th-17th century experience in the realm of democratic politics... but speeded up. That means I expect things to get worse before they get better. Because I don’t see any change in the state of affairs created by Facebook, YouTube and the rest soon.

One of the chapters in your book is titled ‘When Gutenberg Met Luther.’ Would its equivalent today be ‘When Zuckerberg met Trump’?

In some ways it is right. The great combination of (Martin) Luther and the printing press was the key to what happened in the 16th century. Without that the Reformation would not have happened. If it had not been for the social media, (Donald) Trump would not have happened. Yeah, it is ‘when (Mark) Zuckerberg met Trump’. The irony is that I don’t think they have met. Because Mr. Zuckerberg refused to go to the famous summit with Silicon Valley. But that relationship seems to me absolutely central. I think that relationship is set to deteriorate. As it becomes more and more apparent that Facebook is hostile to Mr. Trump — having helped him get elected — the relationship is going to get worse.

How has our idea of a collective changed over the years? You write about polarisation. Have we become less capable of finding collective interests with people who are of a different religion, colour, or race?

I think one of the ways in which historians have struggled in the past is about collective action. This is partly the malign influence of (Karl) Marx. The problem with thinking in terms of class is that on close inspection, very few societies confirm to the standard three-class model of aristocracy, bourgeoisie and proletariat. And most social structures, when historians examine them closely, really do not work in that framework. I think partly what the book is trying to say is that if you think about things more rigorously, we think about all social organisations having network structures that are available for analysis. When people propose collective action, and say all the following people rise up together... what, in fact, happens is a select number of people do join and then the next. Mobilisation of people is something that we need to analyse using network science, rather than by using vague terms like the working class or the underclass. Because in most societies, particularly in western societies, social structures are much more fluid than those catchphrases imply. If we start using network analysis, you see what is really going on. There is one critical question to be asked to anybody who claims to speak on behalf of a group, and that is: How many people are actually in your network?

You refer to the Mathew effect — of the rich getting richer — in network systems. Elsewhere you talk about economic inequality. What is cause and what is effect?

In the theory of preferential attachment, the network grows in a somewhat lopsided way, because the new nodes want to be connected to the already well-connected nodes. And that is why new people who join Twitter are more likely to follow Donald Trump than me, and therefore, with regard to the networks, the rich get richer, metaphorically. The way that this works in our time is that the network effects are overlaid on an already quite unequal social structure, where there are already high concentrations of wealth and quite an unequal distribution of income. Along come network economics that tend to magnify those inequalities. This is partly because fortunes can be made quickly in Silicon Valley. Once you (have) made billions, you have the first right of refusal on all the attractive new investment opportunities, so the elites of Silicon Valley have the first say on the next big thing. I see this operating here, on the west coast (of the U.S.). So it is really quite a hierarchical system in practice. The tendency for the rich to get richer already exists in a market. The network effect magnifies it.

From your book it appears that you are dismissive of the ‘elite versus masses’ binary that has become the default analytical framework to interpret the chaos in democracies.

I think it is an analytically very impoverished framework. Because, in practice, the distinctions do not work. Mr. Trump did not simply get the masses (to) revolt against the elites. Mr. Trump himself belongs to the wealthy elite, even if not the cultural elite. And support for Mr. Trump was not confined to the working class or white working class. In fact, it was quite distributed across the spectrum of income distribution. I think the problem with the 20th century conceptual framework that people tend to fall back on is that it is rooted in the 1930s. It misses out on the subtleties of our contemporary public sphere. When you try network analysis, you see that it is absolutely possible for a person to be simultaneously a populist and an oligarch. His network is simultaneously a network of business connections, reality TV viewers, the disgruntled white working class, and Twitter followers. You capture that much better with the network approach. If you map Donald Trump’s networks, you could see who has the closest relationships with him. I think it is a much more helpful way of thinking about structural power and we don’t need to resort to these outdated terminologies of elites and masses.

You are not a network utopian. You sound rather sceptical about what network technologies do to social stability.

Yes, certainly. I am not someone who thinks that when everybody is connected, everything is awesome. When everybody is connected, all sorts of crazy things can happen. And polarisation is more likely than a global community. I am a sceptic about the networked world.

You write about roughly 100 years to the First World War that were relatively peaceful, and argue that it was due to the domination of the five powers. Can only a hierarchy maintain the world order? And does it have to be the five permanent members (P-5) of the UN Security Council?

It doesn’t have to be, but do you have a better idea? The difficulty about international order is that it requires some element of hierarchy. You can’t have the UN General Assembly run the world. That is why the permanent members of the Security Council exist. The advantage of the P-5 is that it has legitimacy, because it has been around for a while. And if you try to reinvent it, it will be very hard for any new institution to acquire that legitimacy.

You are hopeful that the U.S., Russia, and China can have an agreement on the world order?

I think it is not beyond the band of possibilities, as they all have common interests on a host of issues. Is it all going well? No. Given all the difficulties that the Trump administration has with Russia, deterioration in the relations between the U.S. and China, the fact that Britain is leaving the EU... It was an argument that I made a year ago, when the Trump administration was newly elected. The argument that I made was the U.S. should make advantage of the Security Council as it exists. A year later, it looks harder to make that work.

But you think that is the way to go?

I don’t have a better solution than that.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 9:15:51 AM |

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