Niall Ferguson on the networks of today and yesterday

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward. Winston Churchill

I discovered the British historian Niall Ferguson (1964 -) through a seminar he gave at the Long Now Foundation, in San Francisco, about his most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, hierarchies and the struggle for global power (2018) as well as the future of networking, in YouTube. Ferguson’s idea was that the extensive networks of our era, which were made possible by the internet, have made us perceive it through its uniqueness in relation to all other eras of the past. Due to this perception, all the historical analogies of our era are situated in the 20th century, like the 1930’s, with the type of populism that was conducive to fascism, and the 1970’s, with the network British spies that the KGB operative Arnold Deutsch managed to recruit amid the elite of Cambridge University students. But Ferguson offered an analogy that went back centuries, to the period right after the appearance of the printing press in Europe. My desire to find out more about Ferguson’s vision on networks led me to buy The Square and the Tower, which I read with great interest.

In The Square and the Tower Niall Ferguson points that the way to understand the problems of our era is by asking ‘When in history something similar appeared?’ He disagrees with the analogies of our era with the 1930s and the 1970s due to the networks of fascism and traitor spies. To Ferguson, the common traits of networks are their tendency to polarize and attack one another and by looking for this tendency one can uncover the hidden networks of history. Once these networks are uncovered, it is important to disregard their speed for the networks of past centuries were much slower than those of the present. What connects the period that followed the appearance of the internet to the period that followed the appearance of the printing press in Europe is the optimist expectation of what their consequences would be.

After the introduction of the printing press it was commonly thought that greater availability of books was going to lead to more literacy and more education. Something similar happened in the era that followed the appearance of the internet at the end of the 20th century. People initially thought that the internet would remain decentralized and free, and that it would usher a new society formed by a union of ‘netzins’ (internet citizens).

After the appearance of blogging, it was thought that everyone would speak truth to power in their blogs, while the appearance of social media suggested the upended possibilities of social networking. What happened in the two eras above turned out quite different from what was expected. The introduction of the printing press created a network of distribution that polarized the West in various ways. Just a few years after the appearance of the internet, it came under the control of a few companies which created hierarchical structures and allowed the return of monopoly capitalism.

The author explains the dynamics of some of the mightiest networks of the 20th century. Perhaps the greatest network of the 20th century is the European Economic Community (EEC) that was created in 1957 through the Treaty of Rome. Not content with it, they proposed a new treaty (Maastricht) to turn the economy community of Europe into a political one, creating the European Union (EU). Further to that, many hard core Europeans began to ventilate the idea of turning the EU into a European state, which many British politicians find intractable.

Another important network of the 20th century is by the World Economic Forum (WEF), an international organization for public-private cooperation, founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab (1938 -). The WEF is not jut for chief-executives of multinationals and selected politicians, but also by any leadership formal or informal. Such is the power of the WEF that even though it is perceived as a bastion of capitalism, even socialist politicians and statesmen have attended their annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland. Nelson Mandela attended it in 1992, right after his release from prison, and returned a couple of times after he was the President of South Africa.

Some 20th century individuals were genius at creating networks. Two notable examples that Ferguson cites are the Hungarian-American investor George Soros (1930-) and Henry Kissinger (1923 -). Soros is mentioned in chapters 1 (The Mystery of the Illuminati) and 49 (Breaking the Bank of England) while Kissinger is only mentioned in Chapter 2, Our Networked Age. Regarding Kissinger, it is pertinent to mention that Ferguson has written a biography of Kissinger, covering the period until 1968 (Kissinger:1923-1968: The Idealist; 2015). Soros defeated the pound and became a millionaire by tricking the creation of a network of copy-cat investors.

Networks from other centuries other than the 20th are also described in this book. Some examples the Masons in Scotland, Freemasonry in America, the American Revolutionaries in Boston, the house of Bourbon in France, the British campaigners for the abolition of slavery, the British Empire, the ‘Round Table’ of world powers, etc. Other networks that Ferguson describe are that created by the American rev Political parties such as the Democratic and the Republican parties in the United States.

The understanding of networks is still very limited. Many people tend to think of networks as level playing fields but the reality says otherwise. However, many networks are hierarchies where the top node controls those below. Examples of hierarchical networks are the socialist and fascist regimes of the 20th century. Stalin and Hitler were notorious for their paranoia regarding dissenters and dissenting networks. Even the egalitarian networks created through social media have harmful consequences in their failing to segregate between the honest and the dishonest content. Although most people understand the measures of success of in social networks, such as the number of visualizations, followers, and likes, few realize that these social networks also serve dishonest and unethical causes. For the curious minds wanting to gain a deeper understanding of our age and its networks, The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson fits the bill.


Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities. Ferguson has authored fifteen books in popular history. In 1998, he published The House of Rothschild: the World’s Bank: 1798-1848, his 6th book. The second volume, covering 1849-1998, will be published in 2019.

Jo Pires-O’Brien, a Brazilian-British, is the founder and editor of PortVitoria, a magazine for the Iberian culture worldwide.