To say Niall Ferguson is synonymous with controversy would be an unfair exaggeration. A financial historian, primarily, whose range of expertise—or domain of scholarship—spans the landscape of economic and financial history as well as the history of the British (and American) empires, Ferguson is conventionally, and rather too easily, labelled “conservative” but prefers to see himself, not without reason, as an upholder of the classical liberal tradition going back to the Scottish Enlightenment. The nine or 10 major books usually cited in assessing his skills as historian and writer tend to exclude his acclaimed and awarded double volume on the Rothschilds based on original research. His Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist (2015), the first of a promised two-part biography, hasn’t got as much popular attention as it deserved but, together with the second volume, could become his greatest work. Ferguson—an academic, winner of an International Emmy for documentary, once among TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people—is famous as a popular historian whose counterfactual adventures can be vigorously contested but never dismissed. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003) is a case in point to study how and why Ferguson generates intellectual controversy. His view of Britain (and its empire) as a great modernising force was understandable, but offered at a wrong moment in history. Accused of being an apologist for colonialism, he pointed at the lack of nuance in such a reading and asked critics to compare the British Empire to its German and Japanese alternatives.
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (Allen Lane, 496 pages, Rs 999), published last month, is a global history of catastrophe in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not a history of the pandemic per se (the writing was finished by last October) but an exploration of disasters, big and small, that shows Ferguson’s grasp on specialised domains like epidemiology, cliodynamics, network theory, etcetera.
Ferguson, who had correctly predicted a credit-induced major financial crisis in 2007 (The Ascent of Money, 2008), draws on his previous works like Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) and The Square and the Tower (2017) and argues that a little perspective is necessary whenever we find ourselves in a crisis. Here, he talks about the pandemic, the new cold war and what he expects of the book. Excerpts:
You have written a history of catastrophe pegged to a crisis—the Covid-19 pandemic—that’s not over yet. Was it a calculated risk, or justified by the book’s implication that it wouldn’t have made a difference?
It made no sense to wait until the pandemic was over, as who knew (or knows) when that will be. We need to start learning lessons right now, rather than to wait for some quite possibly illusory closure. In any case, I think it’s good to remind readers that when we write history long after an event, we have an illusory sense of its deterministic nature. When you write history in real time, you show that even the quite near future is uncertain. That’s why I give readers a couple of plausible scenarios towards the end: one in which it all ends quite quickly and another in which Covid becomes endemic. We’re much closer to scenario 2, clearly, but it’s still better than my pessimistic scenario because the mRNA vaccines work even better than I’d expected.
“What we really have to fear is big disasters that do not kill us all, but just a large number of us.” We have seen real people, millions of them, actually believing that Covid is something that happens to other people.
Cognitively, we struggle with the realities of mortality, both as individuals and as a species. None of us wants to think too much about the fact that death is inevitable and is not guaranteed to give us 80 years of life. When the risk of death jumps, as it did last year, we struggle to believe the risk applies to us. A great many people died in the second and third waves in the US because they refused to adjust their behaviour in ways that would have greatly reduced their risk of infection. At the same time, there were plenty of people (including a lot of bureaucrats) who acted like this was the 1918-19 influenza, and a great many measures that did more harm than good (for example, prolonged school closures).
Tied to being in denial is ignorance of history. As with the experts who have too readily dropped the word “unprecedented” in our lap. There’s nothing unprecedented even about quarantines and lockdowns. Do you see the largescale apathy to learning about the past as a long-term systemic failure too?
There’s a major crisis in historical education these days, at all levels. From universities down to elementary schools, more and more professors and teachers feel impelled to present history as some kind of activist indoctrination programme, as if the most important thing we have to learn is how wickedly racist and sexist earlier generations were. This is useless. Instead of acting as though we can somehow teach the past to be more “woke”, we need to understand the past in its own terms, and start learning from it. The most interesting thing about the Bengal Famine of 1943 is not that it revealed Winston Churchill’s antipathy to the leaders of the Quit India movement.
In discussing the “fractal geometry of disaster”, you cite Richard Feynman on bureaucratic failure—that the point of failure is often within middle management, whether we look at Chernobyl, Challenger or Covid. Some critics have taken you to task for letting leaders at the top, such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, off a bit too easily.
The book does not let the populists off lightly. For example: “Trump made matters worse. He downplayed the risk. He touted quack remedies. He made bad appointments. He disparaged masks. He tweeted downright lies. He campaigned with a callous disregard for the health of those around him.” But if we tell ourselves that it was all his fault that 600,000 Americans died prematurely, we are not going to learn the right lessons at all. In fact, we’ll act as if we’ve solved the problem just by electing Joe Biden. But the mistakes that cost the most deaths were not made by Trump but by the public health bureaucracy: example, the CDC’s failure to ramp up testing last year, the absence of an effective contact tracing app, the failure to protect the people in elderly care homes. Just as was true in other Western countries without populist leaders, where excess mortality rose even higher than in the US.
Instead of acting as though we can somehow teach the past to be more ‘woke’, we need to understand the past in its own terms, and start learning from it. The most interesting thing about the Bengal Famine of 1943 is not that it revealed Winston Churchill’s antipathy to the leaders of the Quit India movement
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In India, we have had two vastly different years and experiences of Covid management. It seems a classic recycling of the anticipated “grey rhino” to “black swan” shock. With the benefit of hindsight, could India’s second wave qualify as a fitting case study in subsequent editions of Doom?
Yes, I certainly failed to anticipate that India’s second wave would be so much worse than the first. I think nearly everyone underestimated that the virus might mutate in ways that would lead not only to largescale re-infection but also to worse outcomes when people got re-infected. It’s been a similar story in Brazil. I’ve written a new preface/afterword for future editions that makes this and other points.
A lot of people consider lockdowns necessary house arrest. They have impacted economies. But such “non-pharmaceutical interventions” are also acknowledged to have prevented Covid from becoming a bigger disaster. How did our short public memories come up with what seemed to be a readymade solution?
“Lockdown” is a term that covers a multitude of measures. Some of these were clearly necessary after the virus had spread widely. But some of them were overkill and probably had costs that outweighed the benefits. The Oxford Blavatnik School’s data show that there’s no correlation between stringency of measures and Covid death rates. I try to disentangle what worked from what didn’t work in the book. Clearly, it was not a good idea to close public parks and beaches, as happened in California, when outdoor spread was so limited. Schools could have been kept open much more than they were. The important goal of policy should have been to prevent large indoor gatherings and to protect the elderly population from exposure to infection. Much of what happened in the spring of 2020 was very disruptive economically without being very effective in terms of public health.
Behavioural adaptations like social distancing, too, need hierarchical sanction. But the death of a Black man under the knee of a White police officer could instantly throw such spontaneous modifications out of the window. Isn’t sustainability a problem with the insight of network theory that, say, we could just have quarantined superspreaders?
Policy needs to be based much more than is currently the case on network science. When you have a disease with a low dispersion factor, where 80 per cent of the spreading is done by 20 per cent of infected people, you want to try to prevent the superspreaders from doing their worst. That means prohibitions on all large indoor gatherings. I also think testing, contact tracing and isolating could have been done much better in the Western world. Why could the South Koreans get this right but no Western country?
Cliodynamics reduces complex and very old systems to data and then attempts to predict patterns on a grand scale ignoring the specificities of each society or system. But do we not read ancient cyclical theories too literally in dismissing the idea of cycles of history?
Well, I take Peter Turchin very seriously and try to present his work clearly and fairly to my readers. But I think the point of Doom is just that disasters are so random or power-law distributed that any cycle of history that exists is bound to be disrupted to the point of breaking down altogether.
The cold war with China seems to be on full blast and it does not seem anymore that Beijing is winning hands down. While that should vindicate your argument that forecasts of US doom are exaggerated, at the same time, is it still feeding the risk of a hot war?
Yes, the risk of hot war is there and it’s real, especially over Taiwan. But I am guessing we get to détente or at least containment “lite” in the coming months. In the end, I would bet that neither Xi Jinping nor Biden is going to risk a major war over an issue as obscure as Taiwan’s status. A sure sign of this will be if we get an easing of tariffs before the end of the year.
You had urged Trump against a trade war with china, but largely approved his China policy. How is the Biden administration faring vis-à-vis China?
I think they have understood the need for containment of China’s rise (which many of these people didn’t understand when they were in the Obama administration) but that tariffs were not the way to do this. I agree. But there needs to be credible deterrence as well as tough talk. My big worry is that the current US commitment to Taiwan is not really credible in military terms.
The bureaucratic efficiency of an America long gone, the Eisenhower management of crises, is little appreciated. But it was also close on the heels of the war, public and institutional memory was perhaps sharper. By the time Covid-19 came, even 9/11, let alone the Cold War, had mostly slipped out of most people’s minds.
Yes, we have become rusty. The pathologies I identified in The Great Degeneration a decade ago have got worse. Covid exposed the sclerosis of the administrative state. We need to learn from this and start making our bureaucracy a lot quicker on its feet. We could learn a thing or two from Audrey Tang in Taiwan, as well as from Eisenhower!
You have brought this book out from the isolation of Montana. Did you at any point think of how it could be received by readers who have had a bit too much of gloom and doom for more than a year now?
If I had wanted to produce a huge bestseller, I would have written “FUN: The Politics of Partying”, which is doubtless what people would rather read right now. But I am not in the escapism business. At some point, we need to figure out why most countries did so badly against this tiny virus. Doom is an attempt to do this by showing that disasters do have certain common features, whether we call some manmade or some natural. The point of failure is often in the middle of the bureaucracy. I hope that message will slowly sink in, so that when the next disaster strikes—whatever it is—we are quicker on the draw.