Niall Ferguson has emerged as one of the finest historians of recent times. His ability to avoid fashionable leftist jargon, look with equal ease upon broad patterns as well as upon individual contributions, and his humanist concerns, all lead to his emergence as a scholar and a stylish writer in the tradition of Gibbon. His most formidable accomplishment consists of repeatedly exploring and explaining to his readers the institutional, technological, political, economic and individual elements which have gone into the making of the modern world. He has on occasion been an unabashed defender of market capitalism and an admirer of technological progress. But his defence is both magisterial and eloquent — not shrill or hysterical.
This new book explores “networks”. It includes lengthy digressions on the mathematical theories surrounding networks. References are numerous to nodes, to edges, to centrality and so on. Ferguson’s principal argument is that historians have focused too much on one sub-set of networks — hierarchies — simply because we find it easy to study kingdoms, empires, despotism and dictatorships. All along, some of the most dynamic happenings in history have been instituted by non-hierarchical networks — usually not among kings or dictators (although these persons have also on occasion networked horizontally among themselves), but among writers, philosophers, scientists, merchants, bureaucrats, inventors and others. While hierarchies work hard to preserve the status quo (the Chinese imperial hierarchy being the best example in history), networks seem to be the founders and dispersers of change — change which of course in many (not all) cases lead to human progress as we understand it.
The interactions between progress in the areas of scientific knowledge, technological innovations, philosophical arguments and human institutions is a fascinating one. In many ways, this interaction is what has made the astonishing changes in the last 500 years possible and sustainable.
Networks can have dark undersides also. Just think of the mafia. Just think of the “axis” between Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. But most of the evil in the world actually comes not from lateral networks, but vertical hierarchies, which, as pointed out earlier, are a sub-set. The most murderous hierarchies in recent times have been the National Socialist one in Germany and the Bolshevik Socialist one in the former Soviet Union. Killing tens of millions was a seemingly casual, but an integral part of the operations of these two evil hierarchies. Ferguson points out that both, especially the Bolshevik one, focused extensively on information control and control of information pathways in order to achieve brutal ends.
Networks have invariably generated conspiracy theories. The network of Freemasons or the so-called Jewish network with the House of Rothschild as its most important node have all been pounced upon by network conspiracy theorists. British imperialist networks starting at Oxford University and American transnational networks with secret participation of people like Henry Kissinger all make for good bestsellers. Ferguson examines many of these conspiracy theories and concludes that the exaggerated fears are not fully untrue and misplaced.
Ferguson also analyses the infamous Cambridge network of British spies. He again concludes that rather than being super strong, this network succeeded because the opposing bureaucracy was stupid — sort of Humphrey Appleby at his most incompetent.
The book can be read as a panegyric to networks — especially to networks of scientists who have produced the huge quantum of modern scientific knowledge, and political activists like the US Founding Fathers, who left behind a great institutional framework. Having whetted our appetites, the book however ultimately disappoints the reader. It meanders too much. It’s a bit all over the place. As one reads it, one picks up all kinds of facts, factoids and insights — both brilliant and trivial. Here, Ferguson is at his best. And yet, somehow it does not all come together. One is left with the feeling that there is no overarching theme, no compelling story that one can cleverly use in a social gathering, no sparkling historical theory that one can leverage in unrelated areas.
Perhaps the fault is not with Ferguson, but with his subject. Networks, especially lateral networks, are humble. They achieve success, not by drawing attention to themselves, but by quietly operating in the interstices of hierarchies. They prefer energised and multi-directed nodes to Carlylean heroes. The net result is a book that covers the astonishing developments of the last 500 years in a way that can only be described as a worm’s eye view — for networks do have a worm-like quality.
Ferguson ends by covering the new world of social and other networks that have been spawned by the internet — itself an astonishing network. The Indian rope trick by which so-called democratic lateral networks have been converted into hierarchies owned by three oligopolist firms is something that bothers Ferguson and should bother all of us. Our best hope is that new technologies, new networks, the very human tendency to change, will free us from the despotism of these new hierarchies.
Dear reader: buy the book, read it, but read it slowly, opening the pages randomly. Like everything else from Ferguson’s desk, you will learn much and stay astonished. But remember at the back of your mind — this is not his best book.