The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power by Niall Ferguson - review

Anne Mcelvoy
Hooked-up: Niall Ferguson's sharpest insights are about the role of networks in fomenting and sustaining political power: Getty Images

In the city of Siena, the square and the tower co-exist in an architectural harmony that draws tourists to the scenic legacy of Medici power. The historian Niall Ferguson’s bold sweep through human relations and political power sees the tower standing for authority and hierarchy, the square, more nebulously, for “the structures that human beings naturally form” — lateral associations from professional guilds to elective affinities such as the Bloomsbury set — to Facebook, America’s alt-Right and online Islamic State recuiters.

One thing that a highly connected scholar is guaranteed to relish writing about is networks. The Square and the Tower provides an energetic dash through how they are formed, operate and can yield either reward or havoc.

The author's knowledge of Conservative American politics provides some useful worked examples. He takes on, with some verve, hand-wringing liberals, who see Donald Trump as merely a throwback to parochial, white America. As backward-looking as the Trump gospel may be, it was spread effectively through Network Donald (more properly, Network Bannon), crafting affiliations via social media to create an irresistible electoral force in 2016.

Opponents can gnash their teeth, but they will pay a heavy price if they fail to appreciate how that nexus worked. The power of networks is a well-known, if still not fully understood, political phenomenon in the digital era. But Ferguson links it here to another of his subjects. As the biographer of Henry Kissinger, he argues that Kissinger — who came to be regarded as the ultimate global power-monger — owed that status to a nifty ability to turn a bit of a non-job such as National Security, into a “superhub of connections” that
eclipsed more formal hierarchies in the White House and State Department. That fits with the book’s broader claim that the most powerful states, empires and corporations have been those with the most evolved networks.

The book takes us (via a rather erratic selection of charts and graphs) into the social science of how a network evolves. All this is informative but it has the feel of the “cross-silo studies” vogue in universities (Ferguson is a star professor at Stanford, having taught at Harvard and Oxford, so is no slouch on the networked front in academia).

Ferguson shines most when we are treated to his own intuitive leaps. He has little trouble jumping from, say, the Illuminati, a secret society in 18th century Germany pedalling Enlightenment ideas, who sound a bit like the worthy sorts running the BBC Trust, only to end up as fodder for everevolving conspiracy theories about groups who “really” run the world.

“No new thing under the sun” is a recurring theme. As the author of a succession of chunky histories of big topics including Civilisation, a biography of the Rothschild dynasty and the Ascent of Money, the author’s strength is in sifting shoals of small examples and divining patterns. But the difficulty he has in sustaining the square and tower metaphor is the need to yoke together phenomena as distinct as the printing press and its impact on the Reformation (easily overstated, since the oral and preaching tradition remained strong) a modern network of social-media users, the development of Russian intelligence and hipster hook-up culture.

Occasionally, it feels like we have entered arcane byways — niceties of Inca social organisation and the like — where the broader implications are vague. His sharpest insights are often about the role of networks in fomenting and sustaining political power. National Socialism, he points out, began as a ragged network and morphed into the most disastrous dictatorship of the 20th century. Conversely, the KGB hierarchy of the post-war era correctly interpreted the moral weakness of parts of the British Establishment when it recruited the Cambridge spies.

But life without hierarchies, in many of his explorations, turns out to run too readily to anarchy or simply corporate hierarchies, such as tech companies, sustained by a network of willing users. The square and tower, then, are part of mankind’s eventful evolution — and not so far apart after all.

Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist

£17.51, Amazon, Buy it now

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