In November 2006, Niall Ferguson traveled to the Bahamas. Then a
professor of history at Harvard, he had been invited to address Morgan
Stanley’s swank annual gathering for investors in Lyford Cay, a 1,000-acre gated community (and tax shelter)
of 450 homes in the British Colonial style. Ferguson implored his audience to consider
the possibility that boundless liquidity might not last forever. The crowd was
“distinctly unimpressed,” he recalled. Months later, the financial system seized
up precisely as Ferguson had warned.

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

by Niall Ferguson

Penguin Press, 496pp., $30.00

A little more than 13 years later, history repeated itself at higher
altitude. In early 2020, Ferguson—now a senior fellow at Stanford’s
conservative Hoover Institution plus managing director of his own geopolitical
advisory firm, Greenmantle—watched with mounting concern as reports of an
infectious new respiratory disease went largely unremarked upon at Davos. His
climate-obsessed fellow delegates regarded him as “eccentric” for his early attention to the novel coronavirus, he reports, making
him once again the one percent Cassandra and perhaps the most well-connected man
to be perennially ignored. Ferguson’s fifteenth and latest book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, is meant to set the record straight on the
pandemic, rebut the most “idiotic” arguments made about Covid-19, and situate
our year of disastrous living in longer historical perspective. “Why,” Ferguson
asks in Doom, “do some societies and states respond to catastrophe so
much better than others?”

As much as a knack for provocation or his scholarly bona fides, what
Ferguson has been selling for 20 years as a major public intellectual is prescience.
Prescience isn’t the same thing as prediction or even wisdom, just the capacity
to be the right man at the right time. In the early 2000s, Ferguson wrote books
celebrating the British Empire and imploring America to use its financial muscle for benevolent
imperial ends—leaving him unusually well-situated to be an influential advocate for the long-term occupation of Iraq. In 2008,
when banks and states crumpled beneath the weight of over-leveraged balance
sheets and the financialization of the globe became evident, Ferguson’s
brand-new history of money allowed him to speak authoritatively about the
“financial secret” that made the world tick. Doom trades on prescience,
too. Ferguson confides that he has been “keenly interested in the role of
disease in history” for over 30 years, now positioned perfectly for a pandemic.  

It’s the resolutely public orientation of his writing and scholarship
that has distinguished Ferguson throughout his career. Early on, he became notorious for reaching beyond his academic peers to address
ordinary readers with appetites for good stories, skillfully told, to say
nothing of their disposable incomes. (At 34, on the cusp of his celebrity, he
was praised by The New York Times as a historian
“Whose Vox Is Populi.”) Whether hosting television documentaries or writing
revisionist bestsellers, Ferguson has typically pursued influence through public
argument: by provoking debates and aiming to win them. This is exactly how one
expects a committed liberal and Scottish Enlightenment buff to behave,
treating the public sphere as the most important maker and breaker of
authority.

Doom is different. Clubby
and superficial and impressively dull, it feels intended to win over the
powerful few, not persuade—or even madden—the many. Arriving at a time of
massive wealth concentration and consolidated power, Doom offers a
revealing glimpse of how ideas are sold to those with great wealth, tremendous
influence, limited curiosity, and a penchant for having their own assumptions
assiduously confirmed. More than that: to read Doom is to understand
what it looks like when a public thinker truly goes private. 

Ferguson has long been fond of the explanatory power offered by the
physical and social sciences, leavening his historical tomes with borrowed
scientific metaphors and concepts. It’s appropriate, then, that Doom exists
in a sort of wobbly quantum state: at once a book, two books, and, finally, not
really a book at all.

One of the things Doom contains is a critical interpretation of
the first six months or so of our most recent pandemic, focused principally on
Britain and the United States. Ferguson proposes that we see Covid-19 not as a shocking
“black swan” event but instead a “gray rhino,” a term coined by Michele Wucker in 2016 to describe “dangerous, obvious, and
highly probable” occurrences that we should see lumbering toward us but
usually don’t. We missed Covid-19, Ferguson believes, in part because policymakers
were too focused on climate change, led astray by the siren call of Greta Thunberg,
“child saint of the twenty-first-century millennialist movement.”

For the early spread of the virus, Ferguson blames the “obfuscation and
foot-dragging” of “China’s dysfunctional one-party state” plus the World Health
Organization’s “supine, if not sycophantic” Director-General Tedros Adhanom
Ghebreyesus. He thinks that physical distancing, testing, contact tracing, and
travel restrictions were useful but that lockdowns were a “historically
unprecedented” error and a massive overreaction to a disease that did not
appear to be as deadly as the Spanish flu. Like his Hoover colleague Scott Atlas, who briefly, calamitously advised the Trump
administration, Ferguson says that the economic consequences of business
closures “may have exceeded the public health benefits,” which he judges to
have been relatively minor. (Public health experts disagree, and an important study in Nature Human Behaviour found that lockdowns were among the
most effective tools for stopping the spread of Covid-19. But here we are.) For
the egregious first-wave failures in Britain and America, Ferguson does not much
blame Boris Johnson or Donald Trump but rather faults public health bureaucrats
and scientific advisers. Ordinary people are responsible, too, he notes, for their
inability to grasp the science. The real problem, Ferguson considers, betraying
a fatal misunderstanding of how public health information functions, “was that
Americans all over the country acted in ways that simply ignored what was known
by that time about the virus and the disease.”

Ferguson acknowledges
that some of Doom’s forceful judgments “may already prove to have been
wrong at the time of publication.” Indeed, his interpretation was first drafted
in August 2020: a world before vaccines, before variants were a major concern,
before the U.S. suffered its ruinous third wave. Then, the U.S. was reporting about 50,000 cases daily; by early 2021, that count had
soared by a factor of five to a quarter-million cases reported every day.
Ferguson’s then-estimated American death toll (of 250,000) for 2020 was
exceeded by year’s end. It now
stands at more than half a million. His sense
of the pandemic’s real seriousness—and his skepticism of lockdowns—hinges on
the reader “assuming that the virus [would] not mutate in a way that made it
more contagious or more lethal or both,” a condition one desperately wishes had
turned out to be true. 

There is not much to
be gained by fact-checking Ferguson’s claims about Covid-19, many of which are
now simply outdated. But there are two threads in his analysis worth tugging
on, since they lead us to the book’s most noxious offering: polished and savvy versions
of the riskiest conservative ideas about the pandemic.

The first is
Ferguson’s vociferous defense of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, two men “childishly”
blamed by journalists for their Covid leadership but with whom, we are told,
not much responsibility actually lies. Disasters like the 1986 Challenger
explosion or the Chernobyl meltdown, Ferguson contends, indicate that
structural or organizational failure is usually to blame when catastrophe occurs.
He proposes that it is often a fallacy

to
attribute a crucial role to a leader in a disaster, unless it is one of those
leaders like Stalin, Hitler, or Mao who purposefully sets out to cause a
disaster. Most disasters occur when a complex system goes critical, usually as
a result of some small perturbation.… 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
organization chart.

Instead of framing the pandemic as a “morality play” about populism,
Ferguson suggests, we should focus on the bloated “administrative state,” a
bureaucratic nightmare that has “produced pathologies every bit as harmful, and
perhaps in the long run more so, than the virus SARS-CoV-2.” Ferguson knocks process
errors like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s sluggish approach to testing and quality control, the
failure to set clear lines of accountability for the overall response, and (in
the U.K.) poor expert advice—all more salient, he writes, than even the most
“manifestly idiotic” things Johnson or Trump did or didn’t do.

Yet could we imagine a counterfactual scenario (a favorite Fergusonian
move) in which different behavior from these leaders might have improved the
pandemic response? Yes. Any epidemiologist or public health expert will tell
you that clear public communication is one of the best non-pharmaceutical
interventions we have at our disposal to reduce the spread of infectious
disease. If people don’t understand what they’re being asked to do or why, if
rules are unclear or scientific messengers lack credibility, achieving wide
uptake of key measures like mask-wearing or physical distancing will prove next
to impossible. Ferguson, whose work has always been more attuned to networks
and numbers than the nature of language, does concede that “good information is
vital” for pandemic response, chastising internet platforms for not stanching a
deluge of online disinformation. But he’s unwilling or unable to connect the
dots when it comes to the role of government leaders.

Ferguson frames egregious cases of mixed or misleading health
messaging—for instance, Trump’s retweeting of claims about miraculous Covid
cures from an anti-mask physician who believes in demonic sexual illness, or the furore sparked when Boris Johnson
adviser Dominic Cummings broke lockdown rules—as “diverting” dramas and distractions. They
are much more than this. Research in The Lancet found, for example, that the Cummings debacle severely
eroded public confidence in the U.K.’s pandemic response. Ferguson is not wrong
to argue that leaders of complex organizations are not the singular authorities
we imagine them to be. But what leaders say is entirely within their own control.
And on this, the populists do have much to answer for. 

It’s Ferguson’s quasi-Calvinist cultural gloss on the pandemic, however,
that’s hardest to stomach—and that situates his account in somewhat unsavory
company. One of the most consistent, if least persuasive, themes in Doom
is the idea that some mixture of wokeness and generational leftist snowflakery
has impaired our ability to deal with the coronavirus. We simply aren’t as
tough as we used to be, Ferguson thinks, not as willing as Americans of
generations past to confront death and accept losses. He admires President Eisenhower
and the “stoical attitudes” of his fellow citizens during the Asian flu of
1957–58 (when no lockdowns were used), inviting us to compare that favorably with
“the hesitancy of many voters in 2020 to … return to work and social normalcy.” He
sympathetically cites Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who proposed that
senior citizens should “take a chance on [their] survival” and resist
protective measures, to save “the America that all America loves” for
generations to come.

Ferguson’s fixation on sensitivity and cancel culture leads him to stake
out some bizarre claims. One of the heroes of Doom is Maurice Hilleman, the
scientist responsible for the rapid development of a novel flu vaccine in 1957
(as well as the inventor of several major vaccines still used today, including
jabs for measles, chickenpox, and meningitis). What made Hilleman successful,
Ferguson thinks, was his “fearless single-mindedness” and his rough,
unsympathetic manner. He was combative, rude, profane, and celebrated his
firing of employees with an office trophy collection of fake shrunken heads.
Ferguson laments that it is “not easy to imagine” such a gruff male genius “thriving
in the academy of the 2020s.” Setting aside the fact that jerks like Hilleman
continue to thrive in the university, it’s a bit inconvenient for Ferguson that
the Covid-19 vaccine was developed in record time not by a monomaniacal
old-school man’s man but rather via the patient, painstaking research of a Hungarian woman and a German-Turkish husband-wife team.

Doom is a Covid-19
book. More importantly, from Ferguson’s perspective, it is also “a general
history of catastrophe,” covering everything “from the geological (earthquakes)
to the geopolitical (wars), from the biological (pandemics) to the
technological (nuclear accidents).” Really, Doom is a lofty tour of
various unfortunate events: “asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, extreme
weather events, famines, catastrophic accidents, depressions, revolutions,
wars, and genocides.” What seems to join such disparate phenomena—though
Ferguson never states it so directly, preferring to assert madly that “like
Tolstoy’s happy families, all disasters are fundamentally alike”—is that they
are distressing occurrences in which some people die and others suffer. On that
slender reed, Doom promises that there are “general lessons” to be
learned “from the historical study of catastrophes” writ large.

Many of those lessons are reasonable, if not particularly original.
There is no such thing as an entirely natural disaster, Ferguson rightly notes.
They are all, on some level, “man-made political disasters,” drawing their
significance and impact from the ways in which they interact with social
systems and political cultures: from the state capacity to enforce quarantines
or roll out testing kits to the housing patterns that put us at perennial risk
of mudslides and earthquakes. What makes disasters significant is “whether or
not there is contagion,” that is, some form of ripple effect or networked
cascade. Every disaster is a “moment of truth, of revelation,” he writes, in a
phrase the likes of which you have read countless times since last spring, an
experience that “lays bare the societies and states that it strikes.”

Ferguson’s eight chapters on the comparative study of disasters lack the
polemical force of his briefer reflections on Covid-19. One comes away having
learned new random facts (the diameter of South Africa’s Vredefort Crater, it
turns out, is 190 miles) but absent any serious understanding of which matter
most or why. Long block quotations go unpacked and unreflected upon. Few of the
book’s major conceptual claims are novel. Its typology of serious risk-events,
for instance, stitches together three categories developed by others: gray
rhinos (Michele Wucker), black swans (Nassim Taleb), and dragon kings (Didier
Sornette). And there are paragraphs and pages, on topics like cognitive bias
and network science, that are lifted nearly word-for-word from Ferguson’s earlier
books and articles. 

We will certainly face more major disasters in our lifetimes, whether
industrial accidents or pandemics or existential threats like climate change and
perhaps artificial intelligence. Many will ask us to reckon meaningfully with loss. Some will demand that
we reimagine how we live together. Ferguson might easily have sifted through
his vast Wunderkammer of catastrophe for cases in which societies emerged
stronger from times that tested them, to help us see “how
to build social and political structures that are at least resilient and at
best antifragile” to face future
disasters. But to write that book, Ferguson would have had to engage more generously
with the environmentalists and Green politicians who have become the most urgent voices calling
for sociopolitical resilience. He rather concludes that these “radical prophets,”
people who seek to inflict “economic penance to avert the end of the world,”
have little to teach his elite readers and boardroom acolytes. 

It is the relationship of formal power and informal influence that makes
the Fergusonian world go round. Unusually for a professional historian, much of
his work has been made possible not by archival serendipity but by the high
and mighty. His masterful account of the Rothschild banking family was born
when Sir Evelyn de Rothschild told Ferguson it might be “a good way to mark the
bicentenary” of the family’s arrival in England. He is now halfway into a
two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger, who proposed the project himself after
seeing Ferguson at a fancy party hosted by Conrad Black. In his own telling, Ferguson
has never been interested in wielding power, rather in studying it: what it
looks like, how it works, what it is for, how it may be lost.

Exerting influence is another matter. Ferguson is never shy about the
privileged circles in which he moves: Davos, Bilderberg, Ivy League alumni
groups, corporate boards, private clubs. A self-described “networks guy,” he
has sought for years to shape the thinking of policymakers and elites, to bring
history into conversations about power and smash open the market for expertise
long cornered so confidently by economists and social scientists. Siegmund
Warburg, a transatlantic financier and subject of an admiring 2010 biography by
Ferguson, once observed that “influence is more important than power.” This is,
by all accounts, the Fergusonian credo.

If Doom were truly meant to convince or even provoke a public, to
advance an argument and reframe the contours of an important debate among
democratic citizens, it would fail. It is scattered and underwhelming. Ferguson
appears to be much keener on settling scores (with journalists, climate
activists, socialists, China doves, critics of populist leaders, etc.) than he
is on meaningfully explaining our current experience. Appropriately for its Davos
genesis, Doom is essentially a slide deck whipped into a book like egg whites
into a meringue: Light and airy, it crumbles to the touch. It’s hard not to
read the text as a client
prospectus for Greenmantle, the work not of a public intellectual but a private
one.

Public intellectuals, of course, are always being shuffled to the
endangered species list. In the 1950s, the historian H. Stuart Hughes wondered in Commentary if the intellectual was
obsolete. Russell Jacoby’s 1987 polemic, The Last Intellectuals, decried the
loss of serious public thinkers as cushy universities swallowed up bohemian
avant-gardists. Thirty years later, in The Ideas Industry (2017),
political scientist Daniel Drezner sketched a universe in which public
intellectuals had been replaced by “for-profit thought leaders.” Ferguson
cooperated with Drezner’s book, confiding in an interview that he had made the
switch to thought leadership “for the money.”

Thought leadership represents the neoliberalization or corporatization
of intellectual life, but it does, in principle, still maintain the pretense of
shaping a conversation occurring in a public space—the way intellectual
authority has been wielded and weighed really since the Enlightenment. With Doom,
even that veneer has been stripped away. In this light, its oddest and most
irritating qualities make more sense. The chortling disdain for socialists and
climate activists, the repetition and recycling, the mystifying detours and
digressions (including several pages spent patiently debunking the historical
theories of a hedge-fund billionaire named Ray Dalio)—all these things turn out
to be features rather than bugs, in a work meant to cajole and convince an
exalted few. We have left the world of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith and are
back with Machiavelli. Here, ideas and authors matter for whispering in the
king’s ear. Finding or convincing a democratic public is not necessary.

Ferguson has not held an academic position in a history department since
2015, when he left Harvard for the Hoover Institution. He confided to Drezner
that he wouldn’t miss the classroom, that teaching students was “not the most
efficient way to change the world.” It looks as though Ferguson may have found
a better way. And he doesn’t need any of us.

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