The Square and the Tower – Niall Ferguson (Allan Lane – 2017)

Sweeping historical narrative, illuminating detail and compelling arguments make this a great read.

First, a gripe.  I was given a review copy of this book via NetGalley.  It was free so maybe I shouldn’t complain however it was almost as if the publishers didn’t want anyone to read the review copy, so bad was the formatting.  Words ran into one another, footnotes were shoe-horned without introduction in the middle of paragraphs and diagrams were cast adrift from their explanatory notes, which I would trip over several pages later.  If you want people to give reviews, at least give them the chance to read it.

Niall Ferguson considers the interaction between rigid ruling hierarchies and their interaction and competition with more loosely based networks over time.  He argues  that,

Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organised groups of people

Whilst this might be taken to suggest that shady networks, such as the oft-mentioned ‘Illuminati’ control world affairs, Ferguson dismisses any such arguments very early on.  He admits that as networks are usually quite informal, they rarely leave a lot in the way of documents or records and are not, therefore, a very attractive subject for historians, especially if the subject attracts conspiracy theorists.

We may tend to think of networks being more relevant now in our interconnected world of online networks but Ferguson shows that networks have been influencing our lives for centuries and have led to great advances (or great destruction).    Major religions, fascism and communism were all decentralised networks to begin with, although some transformed into highly rigid hierarchies over time and attempted to destroy other networks that may have challenged them.  Ferguson documents the example of Stalin’s Russia, where even the loosest connection with the ‘wrong’ person could be life-limiting.

Concentrating on our own times, Ferguson examines the internet, terror attacks, Brexit and Donald Trump.  In all he points to how a more nimble network manages, or has managed, to confound more rigid hierarchical structures.  Forget six degrees of separation, the average figure for Facebook users is 3.57 degrees of separation.  So you may be even closer to Kevin Bacon than you think.  Ferguson argues that the success of Brexit and Trump were attributable in large part to the way they used the internet to spread their chosen message, which made an impact regardless of its veracity or counter-arguments from the establishment.

Ferguson is a very compelling writer.  This was a fascinating, thought-provoking read and I would recommend it.