Niall Ferguson is a distinguished historian of Scottish origin who specializes in big arguments, and contrarian claims. His books are always provocative, frequently infuriating, and often (if not always) correct in their analyses. Unlike most academic historians, he genuinely understands issues of business and finance, both in the contemporary world and in the historic past, and treats money matters with the respect they unquestionably deserve. Also setting him apart from most academics is his frequent sympathy for conservative and right-wing causes, a tendency encouraged by his marriage to anti-Islamist provocatrix Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ferguson’s latest book, The Square and the Tower, is an important and wide-ranging text with a significant historical argument that will be widely influential. His argument daringly combines historical writing with social science and information science, and specifically builds on the vital technique of social-network analysis. If you want to understand why somebody is important in a particular era, he argues, it is very useful to chart their linkages to other individuals, to see how they fit into the larger web of relationships. Who knows whom, and how? How strong are the bonds between two nodes within the network, as compared with their ties to others? Those connections can take many forms—family and kinship, same old school or college, literary and publishing ties, common business interests and investments, clientage, sexual relationships—whatever. Can you identify an inner core of critical actors and activists?
Once you chart such connections and networking as a map or a diagram, you begin to see the hitherto unsuspected significance of particular individuals and, often, of institutions that supply the critical nexus. Do members of networks frequent particular places? Do they share particular customs, interests, or even hobbies? Sometimes a network might share a common ideology, but often a person will belong to a larger network of friends and allies with whom he disagrees on certain points. Until quite modern times, the English concept of “friends” didn’t mean just people you chatted with in a coffee shop, but fellow members of this larger informal connection. In a society based on patronage, such networks were an essential foundation of economic well-being. You are who you know.
Network science traces its origins to mathematical diagrams created by the pioneering Enlightenment mathematician Leon hard Euler. Euler puzzled over a technical problem concerning the seven bridges in the Baltic city of Königsberg, and the number of journeys it would take to cross them most efficiently. His dazzling solution, published in 1735, created the whole subfield of topology, and also suggested means of mapping all kinds of systems and communication networks. Applied to understanding social networks, such network analyses became known as sociograms. By the 1990’s, this kind of analysis was becoming a standard and fashionable tool of historical analysis.
Network science has been especially popular in understanding the worlds of the Enlightenment, with its salons and its transcontinental correspondence, which played such a vital part in disseminating scientific knowledge and progressive ideas. In the American context, we now see Paul Revere as an absolute key to multiple networks, at once an indispensable component of so many sociograms and a gatekeeper to those structures. That central position gave him unique weight in terms of both authority and credibility. Midnight ride apart, this role made him pivotal to the initial success of the revolutionary movement in New England. E.M. Forster’s famous appeal “Only connect!” begins to sound like a guide for historical investigation.
That Enlightenment focus helps us greatly in understanding Ferguson’s larger argument, which draws widely on examples from the period encapsulating roughly the 16th through the 20th centuries, but finds its intellectual heart in the 18th. Ferguson postulates a running conflict between hierarchies and networks, between the vertical (the tower) and the horizontal (the square). Governments and institutional structures, whether civil or religious, are hierarchical, and fit the image of the tower. So are giant corporations and financial empires. Yet those hierarchies are regularly challenged by networks, informal and usually non-institutional structures that are called into being by new forms of technology and media. A classic example of this process would be the rise of anticlerical reformist views in the 16th century, focused on the Reformation. Networks of reformers and activists sprang up to challenge church power, inspired and facilitated by the upsurge of printing and mass communication. The world is shaped by these two different forms or realities, and the constant conflicts between them.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ferguson ends up siding far more with the hierarchies than we might expect from his initial romantic portrayal of those insurgent grassroots networks. As he writes,
The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of the Jacobins . . . It is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.
Of course, the distinction between networks and hierarchies is anything but neat, and one kind of structure segues easily into the other. Networks become hierarchies, and hierarchies may contain different kinds of network. But for the sake of argument, let us accept Ferguson’s distinction, which raises significant problems for most historical research and writing. We have a vast amount of information about the “towers” of Church or state precisely because they exercise authority, enforce norms and laws, and, above all, maintain records of how they do so. They make and preserve the records that historians use as the basic tools of their craft.
Networks demand very different skills of analysis than do hierarchies, to the point where you sometimes have to work hard to justify studying them. We see this from the example of Freemasonry, which Ferguson discusses prominently. Assume that Freemasons are vital opinion leaders and agents of change, and you have to learn about them and their doings to comprehend “mainstream” history. (Just try writing a Mason-free history of the 19th century United States or the British Empire, and see how many inexplicable plot holes you are left with.) But because Masonic records are commonly far removed from traditional power structures, studying the movement can lead to charges of succumbing to conspiracy theory, rather than conducting “proper” academic historical research and writing. Also you have to consult documents and records that might surface or be preserved by chance, rather than working through the customary archival collections and record offices.
The operation of networks is fascinating because it often involves radical alternatives to traditional means of communicating and governing. Ferguson takes the story right up to the modern wars against Islamist terror, when ISIS explicitly moved to a nonhierarchical system of lateral networks in order to avoid official surveillance and suppression. In turn, social-network analysis is fundamental to investigation and intelligence, in matters of regular criminality as well as subversion or terrorism. Much classic antiterrorist work consists in drawing up just such analyses of enemy networks, in what the French in Algeria called their organigrammes.
Although this book has a huge amount to offer, Ferguson strains on occasion to fit particular stories into his larger analysis. One recurrent issue is that of causation and correlation. He rightly stresses the impact of new technologies and media in driving change, and associates that with the rise of networks using those technologies. But are not the technologies sufficient cause in themselves for the revolutions we observe? Do we need to hypothesize networks as well? We can argue about this point at some length.
For this and other reasons, British reviews of The Square and the Tower were friendly but not uncritical. But whatever we think of the book’s overarching argument, Ferguson’s network approach can be extremely useful, especially in approaching religious history. Although he does not talk so much about the religious dimension of his subject—apart from that classic Reformation example—Ferguson’s network model can be easily applied to many non- and anti-hierarchical movements in Christian history, from the earliest itinerant apostles onward. Sometimes, such structures emerge as a deliberate means of avoiding suppression by a repressive state or Church. We think of dualists and other heretics in the Christian Middle Ages. On other occasions, such structures appear for ideological reasons, as with the Quakers or other egalitarian groups in the 17th or 18th centuries. Network analysis can be a precious tool to investigate (say) revival movements in the 18th century, or social reformers and abolitionists in the 19th.
As in the secular realm, we see a pattern whereby networks develop and flourish, become increasingly structured and hierarchical, and are in turn subverted by new networks. To adapt Ferguson’s language, squares become towers, which call forth new squares. Logically, the breathtaking acceleration of technological change in our lifetimes should mean that this cycle should become ever faster, and its consequences more tumultuous.
[The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, by Niall Ferguson (UK: Allen Lane) 608 pp., £25.00]