In the May 7, 2021 edition of the the TLS, Charles King’s reviews Niall Ferguson’s new book ‘Doom: The politics of catastrophe’. Some revelatory excerpts:
At its best, Doom is a vade mecum to misery. Whatever readers are facing in their own lives, they will soon be convinced that many others have had it worse and that, for now at least, civilization will probably endure. A volcanic eruption? Try the one at Mount Samalas in Indonesia, which in 1257 pumped 250 million tonnes of sulphate aerosol into the atmosphere, exerting a global effect on climate. A bloody revolt? Most of them pale before the An Lushan Rebellion of eighth-century China, which may have cost over 30 million lives. A modern international war? One sometimes forgets Paraguay, which during the War of the Triple Alliance in 1864–70 probably lost proportionally more of its population than any country has before or since. The Tōhoku earthquake of 2011, which triggered a tsunami, in turn triggering the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, may have been the costliest natural disaster in history, but the Wei River Valley earthquake of 1556 claimed fifty times as many lives. Disease, political turmoil and social disorder? Try competing with the Black Death.
Doom is savvy and endlessly entertaining, and if it reads more like a compendium than a treatise, this is because the book follows the rules of Olympian history-writing. The formula involves asserting a claim, or positing a framework of analysis – the “six killer apps” of the West in Ferguson’s Civilization, for example, or the six elements of networks in The Square and the Tower (2017) – and then offering not an argument but a stream of examples. The approach is to use history without actually being it – that is, to avoid offering propositions amenable to scrutiny, contradiction and falsification. As a school, it is not Whiggish, Marxist, or liberal but mesmerist. Historians do other things besides make arguments, of course. They evoke, compare and bear witness. But when the object is to persuade, one wants to know which way the data actually point.
From the ashes
Prof. King offers not just insights, but an alternative position to Mr. Ferguson’s disenchantment with the dismal present, a welcome reward for the reader. Can the reader expect Ferguson to experience a Damascene Moment as the final stop, in his idiosyncratic version of the Politics of Cultural Despair, to borrow from Fritz Stern’s book title.
This Ferguson essay was published on May 8,2021 an essay in The Spectator, titled ‘The China model: why is the West imitating Beijing?’ Mr. Ferguson’s habit is to use literary references to dress-up his political interventions. On this occasion it is a quotation from Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and The Dead’ : ‘We might easily go fascist after we win.’and a reference to George Orwell, who coined the ‘Cold War’ and wrote ‘1984‘.
This the frame that devolves into an attack on Biden, Blinken and ‘Bidenomics’, by way of ‘The New Industrial State’ by John Kenneth Galbraith. (Recall that Mr. Galbraith was the object of the animus of the Neo-Liberal Milton Friedman!) Ferguson then charges the amorphous ‘far left’ with the crime of ‘fellow traveling’. Alan Ryan in his essay ‘The Planners and the Planned’, in the 2013 Critical Review ,Volume 25,Numbers 3-4 titled Hayek: The Good,The Bad, The Ugly, made this vital critical distinction between Planning and Planned! Now available under the title ‘Hayek’s Political Theory, Epistemology, and Economics’
In The New Industrial State, John Kenneth Galbraith argued that planning was inexorably replacing the market in the United States, just as it had in the Soviet Union, because of the demands of ‘modern large-scale production’. The more radical left went much further, insisting that the United States was in fact the aggressor in the Cold War — which was of course exactly the central leitmotif of Soviet propaganda.
Mr. Ferguson lectures the reader on the costs of Bidenomics via its critics Larry Summers and Steve Rattner, strategically attached to Biden’s advocacy for an American version of China’s One Belt One Road initiative.
Jiang Shi-gong ,Chinese political theorist, becomes the focus of Mr. Ferguson’s polemic:
In a revealing essay published last year, the Chinese political theorist Jiang Shi-gong, a professor at Peking University Law School, spelled out the corollary of American decline. ‘The history of humanity is surely the history of competition for imperial hegemony,’ Jiang wrote, ‘which has gradually propelled the form of empires from their original local nature toward the current tendency toward global empires, and finally toward a single world empire.’ The globalisation of our time, according to Jiang, is the ‘“single world empire” 1.0, the model of world empire established by England and the United States’. But that Anglo-American empire is ‘unravelling’ internally, because of ‘three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy… ineffective governance caused by political liberalism, and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism’. Moreover, the western empire is under external attack from ‘Russian resistance and Chinese competition’. This is not a bid to create an alternative Eurasian empire, but ‘a struggle to become the heart of the world empire’.
Moving forward in Mr. Ferguson’s attacks on fellow travelers and ‘dupes’ via conjecture, and the political caricatures of 1952.
Might they be right? In a moment of despondency this week, the conservative writer and editor Sohrab Ahmari tweeted: ‘I’m at peace with a Chinese-led 21st century. Late-liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilisation, especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue.’ He deleted the tweet, but it is telling that the thought even crossed his mind. Ahmari is the author of The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. He is not the only conservative thinker to feel the pull of cultural despair as American institutions increasingly succumb to the plague of ‘wokeism’ — an illiberal ideology that originated on elite campuses but is now prevalent everywhere from Californian public schools to the Central Intelligence Agency.
I am not so gloomy, because I believe that woke ideas are profoundly unpopular with the electorate as a whole and that the Democrats’ adoption of slogans such as ‘anti-racism’ and ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ will ultimately backfire when it becomes clear to more people what they mean in practice. Nevertheless, I begin to understand better how convergence theories gain traction at times of superpower conflict.
Preceding Mr. Ferguson’s comment on Sohrab Ahmari, but that still resonates in the reader’s mind as the she continues :
It is one thing to compete with China. I firmly believe we need to do that in every domain, from artificial intelligence to Covid vaccines. But the minute we start copying China, we are on the path to perdition
Mr. Ferguson ends this essay in the guise of a modern day Cassandra:
There is a kind of low-level totalitarianism detectable in many institutions today — from elite universities to newspapers, publishers and technology companies — which reveals that practices such as informing, denunciation and defamation can all flourish even in the absence of a one-party dictatorship. And it turns out you don’t need a Communist party in charge to have censorship of the internet: just leave it to the big tech companies, which now have the power to cancel the President of the United States if they so choose.
There is indeed an osmosis of war, as Mailer noted. But there seems also to be an osmosis of peace. And if China ends up winning the Second Cold War, historians — if any real ones are left — may well conclude that its victory began when Americans decided to imitate not just OBOR and CBDC but the Cultural Revolution itself.
Consider next this May 9, 2021 essay from Bloomberg by Mr. Ferguson:
Headline: The Next Global Disaster Is on Its Way, and We Aren’t Ready
Sub-headline: A major lesson of Covid-19 is that there is no distinction between natural and man-made catastrophes.
The Covid-19 pandemic is not over, but it is already clear that Lord Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal, has won his 2017 bet with the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker that “bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event within a six-month period starting no later than Dec. 31, 2020.”
Last year, according to Johns Hopkins University, the SARS-CoV-2 virus claimed the lives of 1.8 million people. The global death toll could exceed 5 million by Aug. 1 — or 9 million, if one accepts the drastic new upward revision by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. It could have been worse, of course. In March 2020, some epidemiologists argued that, without drastic social distancing and economic lockdowns, the ultimate death toll could be between 30 and 40 million. Yet the cost of such nonpharmaceutical interventions has been enormous — for the U.S. alone, an estimated 90% of GDP.
Lord Rees’s was only one of many warnings before 2020 that humanity’s most clear and present danger was a new pathogen and the global pandemic it could cause. Yet somehow these warnings did not translate into swift, effective action in most countries when a pandemic struck. Why did so many democracies handle this crisis so badly?
Note the framing: a bet between Lord Rees and Steven Pinker! An amalgam of cynicism and farce? My commentary is not in any way meant to be definitive, that would take more time and space, and would exhaust the patience of the reader. But ‘Doom’ is the dominant theme of this latest Ferguson political intervention. Should it surprise that ‘The Great Degeneration’ was followed by ‘Doom’, from which there is no hope of rescue? The reader just might again look at Ferguson’s political development, as a ripening idiosyncratic riff on The Politics of Cultural Despair?
Consider the techno-intellectual actors, stand-alone phrases and ideas ,in Ferguson’s Political Melodrama, that provide him with his evocative ready-mades : a pastiche of thought? Or just ready to hand descriptors?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s word) “antifragile”
Marc Bloch’s “Strange Defeat”
Michele Wucker’s “gray rhinos”
Taleb’s “black swans”
Didier Sornette calls “dragon kings,”
nonlinear relationships and “fat-tailed” distributions.
Philip Tetlock’s superforecasters,
Norman Dixon : The psychology of military incompetence
A few example of Ferguson’s Ideas:
power laws, normal probabilities, Bell Curve,The Mean ,Logarithmic scales,Disater preparedness and mitigation
Mr. Ferguson, an Economic Historian, then defines five categories of political malpractice:
Failure to learn from history
Failure of imagination
Tendency to fight the last war or crisis
Procrastination ,or waiting for a certainty that never comes
Let me end my comments on Mr. Ferguson’s collection of political interventions, and Charles King’s insightful review of ‘Doom’ here, as the preamble to his prescriptive interventions presented as ‘I have five suggestions.‘ Mr. Ferguson’s expertise is capacious, inexhaustible and a never ending revelation to the reader.
Even in the 17th century, the nascent popular press could sow confusion in people’s minds, as Daniel Defoe found when he researched the plague of 1665 in London. The advent of the internet has greatly magnified the potential for misinformation and disinformation to spread, to the extent that we may speak of twin plagues in 2020: One caused by a biological virus, the other by even more contagious viral misconceptions and falsehoods. This problem might have been less serious in 2020 had meaningful reforms of the laws and regulations governing the big technology companies been implemented beforehand. However, despite abundant evidence during the 2016 election that the status quo was untenable, almost nothing was done.
All disasters, in other words, are to some extent politically constructed, even if we think of some as natural and some as man-made. What should we do ahead of the next one? I have five suggestions.