The calamitous course of history

Reading Doom might not save us, but it leaves us with a better appreciation of the complex politics of catastrophe

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

For several years in between writing about history and politics, I used to advise companies in Asia about what to reveal — and what to avoid saying — in the event of a corporate crisis. 

We would undertake a risk assessment of their business’s vulnerability and identify who in the management structure was responsible for what and whether they could talk authoritatively into a microphone. We advised on which journalists to chum-up to and from which to remain distant.

Most of all, we endeavoured to impress that, come the calamity, the company should tightly restrict who did the talking. The evaluation would end with the unveiling of our “crisis and emergency handbook”. 

Generally, these meetings went well. But occasionally when I finally stopped talking there would be a pause as the chief exec replaced his cup of green tea in its saucer, fixed me his stare, and said slowly and quizzically, “so, this handbook does not tell us how to avoid a crisis, let alone an emergency?”

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe
by Niall Ferguson, published by Allen Lane, £25

Devotees of self-help manuals and of management gurus will be equally disappointed to discover that Niall Ferguson’s Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe provides no flow chart nor three-point turn on how to save us all from peril. The absence is among its strengths. For Ferguson is an historian, not a charlatan.

At a time when universities and research grants reward specialism — sometimes of the narrowest imaginable focus — Ferguson continues to put his deep understanding of economic history and the personal and financial networks that underpin actions to plough the ridge and furrow of our wider discontents. This, and a canny knack of writing deeply researched books of broad scope at propitious moments has established him among the most influential historians and one of Britain’s foremost public intellectual exports. Reason enough, therefore, for so many academics to hate him. 

Ferguson’s 2008 work, The Ascent of Money, was published as we sought to make sense of how banks that were too big to fail took the western world’s financial system to the precipice. Covid’s period of near global dominion makes Doom equally timely and universal in appeal.

His chapters relating to Covid were written in August last year. While they provide a stimulating draft of the fast evolving pandemic, he rightly acknowledges that the immediacy of this narrative lacks perspective. Frankly, we still do not know the outcome let alone the varying weights of contributions towards it (not that this stopped some MPs demanding the near immediate commencement of the official inquiry into Britain’s handling of Covid in its opening weeks and when all sorts of imperatives — since found rather less critical — were thought to be all that stood between life and the abyss).

Ferguson accepts that we don’t yet — if we ever will — understand why “the experiences of Germany and Japan had been so different from those of Belgium and the United States, or why the experience of Britain had been rather similar to that of Sweden, despite the two countries’ adopting radically different public health policies, or why Portugal had fared better than neighbouring and very similar Spain, or why Swiss Italians had fared so much much worse than Swiss Germans.”

He wrote this before the first vaccines completed their trials. But his line of argument — thus far — appears still broadly tenable in that Covid’s health impact (as distinct from its economic consequences) in the major western countries may ultimately more closely resemble the now largely forgotten Asian flu of 1957-58 rather than the far more devastating 1918 Spanish flu. It was another Neil Ferguson (of Imperial College London) who may have done the most to ensure the imposition of national lockdowns because his modelling, since shown to be flawed, suggested that without them there would be 1918-level fatalities.

The resemblance is, therefore, in the pharmaceutical industry’s role not in the response of governments and the advisers upon whom they depend. President Eisenhower’s strategy, echoed at individual state level, kept America unlocked as rates soared (and it might be added Harold Macmillan was even more phlegmatic). In 1957, Merck’s successful jab did make its timely arrival — albeit that Maurice Hilleman’s vaccine was distributed in a far more targeted and limited deployment than the massive rollout now underway.

Hostile reviewers, always keen to find fault in Ferguson’s centre-right outlook, have sifted the wide and varied evidence provided in this stimulating and varied study and extracted short passages that demonstrate scepticism on the efficacy of the modern “administrative state”. Their unwavering faith in the latter doubtless encourages their crude depiction of this book as either a Trumpian apologia or a laissez-faire tract. 

It is neither, and selectively quoting to suggest otherwise demonstrates only the confirmation bias of some critics of Ferguson’s approach. For it is part of its enormous value that Doom is too wide-ranging yet nuanced to shoehorn very different political and managerial approaches into a comprehensive pet theory. 

Ferguson’s panorama of manmade and natural calamities, spanning everything from the sudden collapse of the Ming Empire to why having more lifeboats on the Titanic might not have saved many more lives, is history in the round. Ferguson’s magisterial breadth is deployed not to proselytise a series of lessons. On the contrary, Doom is history-writing as a means of freeing us from the narrowband frequencies of contemporary thinking.

For instance, Ferguson dissects the flaws of a framework overseen by 150 agencies in the United States that contributed to the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979, as well as the failings of the Soviet system that presided over the Chernobyl accident. 

“The point of failure, if it can be located at all, is more likely to be in the middle layer than at the top of the organisation chart,” he tentatively suggests. What Chernobyl had in common with the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 were false economies driven by capitalist and communist economies with very different incentive structures. 

Morton-Thiokol, the company supplying Challenger’s boosters, was desperate to keep its contract with NASA through timely supply. Its engineers knew there was a problem but “the reliance on O-rings and putty was an improvisation to avoid addressing a fundamental structural flaw with the rocket boosters. The decision to build Chernobyl reactors on the cheap, without sufficient concrete outer cladding, sprang from the same kind of false economy.”

False economies led to both the Chernobyl disaster and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger

The two systems of government and outlook did, however, produce different responses. “The first impulse of the American media in 1986 was to blame the president,” notes Ferguson, “the first impulse of the Soviet government was to blame the workers.” 

Of course, some historical themes — the interplay between incumbent and emerging powers, the corruption of too much power in too few hands — appear eternal and, as Ferguson writes, “historical data remain the foundation for all kinds of forecasting. Models based on the theory may work, but without past statistics we cannot verify them.” The problem is that, “future technological changes are not easy to infer from the past”. 

In a concluding section, Ferguson — far from seeking to pretend that we could better prepare for the future if only we listened more to historians, concedes that, actually, “science fiction provides us with a large sample of imagined discontinuities that might not occur to us if we looked only backwards.” If, “as Paul Samuelson joked, declines in U.S. stock prices have correctly predicted nine of the last five American recessions, science fiction has correctly predicted nine of the last five technological breakthroughs.”

Among the next catastrophes waiting to overcome us, Ferguson identifies the potential of the Internet of Things to disable a country’s critical infrastructure and the possibility of a dangerous genetic modification being unleashed by inexpert hands, given that you can now buy a “genetic engineering home lab kit” for less than $2,000. Accessibility to world-changing technology has never been readier.

Another danger comes with drawing too sweeping a conclusion. Ferguson contrasts the World Health Organisation’s sure-footed swiftness of response to the Sars outbreak of 2002 with its tardy and overly deferential sensitivity to Chinese obfuscation in the early, critical, phases of Covid’s escape from Wuhan. But he also warns about the risk-aversion culture of a “National Warnings Office” and the creation of a “high-tech Panopitcon” leading to precisely the sort of stultification and totalitarianism that has so frequently ensured misgovernment and ruin. 

He quotes approvingly Bryan Caplan’s warning about “overblown doomsday worries” driving us towards authoritarianism: “those who call for the countries of the world to unite against threats to humanity should consider the possibility that unification itself is the greater threat.”

Reading Doom might not save us. But, by goodness, it leaves the reader with a more rounded appreciation of the complex politics of catastrophe.

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