Circling the Square

Bibliothèque nationale de France
‘The Kings’ Cake, Cut at the Congress of Vienna,’ 1815; from Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower, in which he argues that ‘the “cake of kings” could only be cut up with the help of the Rothschilds’ financial network’

The Square and the Tower claims to present “a new historical narrative, in which major changes—dating back to the Age of Discovery and the Reformation, if not earlier—can be understood, in essence, as disruptive challenges to established hierarchies by networks.” Social networks “have always been much more important in history than most historians, fixated as they have been on hierarchical organizations such as states, have allowed,” and never more so than in modern times. The first “networked era” followed the introduction of the printing press in Europe in the late fifteenth century. The second such era—our own—dates from the 1970s, and the pace of change has accelerated along with new communication technologies.

The intervening period, from the late 1790s until the late 1960s, saw the opposite trend: hierarchical institutions re-established their control and successfully shut down or co-opted networks. The zenith of hierarchically organized power was in fact the mid-twentieth century—the era of totalitarian regimes and total wars.

Today we live in “the network age.”

Niall Ferguson believes that until recently networks have been neglected by historians, who prefer to study institutions that leave well-preserved and accessible archives. He confesses that he has only recently come to appreciate that his own books “were also books about networks.” For many years the British-born financial historian, chronicler of the Rothschild banks, television broadcaster, and prolific journalist had been “casual” in the way he thought about networks. When writing about the career of Siegmund Warburg, he had in his mind’s eye “a vague diagram that connected Warburg to other members of the German-Jewish business elite through various ties of kinship, business and ‘elective affinity.’” Yet it did not occur to Ferguson to “think in a rigorous way about that network.” He had yet to adopt “formal network analysis.” This book, he writes, “is an attempt to atone for those sins of omission.”

If the study of networks enables a new kind of historical narrative to be written, one might suppose that human history is the chief area in which they operate. But when Ferguson attempts to spell out how they work, he begins with biology: “The animal circulatory, respiratory, renal, neural systems are all natural networks. So are plant vascular systems and the microtubial and mitochondrial networks inside cells…. From worms’ brains to food chains (or ‘food webs’), modern biology finds networks at all levels of life on earth.” A page later, he tells the reader:

Homo sapiens evolved as a cooperative ape, with a unique ability to network…. Indeed, our species should really be known as Homo dictyous (“network man”)…. Man, with his unrivalled neural network,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.