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, was born to network.

Networks, it seems, are not only pervasive in the natural world but also quintessentially human.

These are large claims, but they are not new. Attempts to explain historical change in terms derived from biology recur throughout modern thought. The Victorian prophet of laissez-faire capitalism Herbert Spencer argued that the free market emerged through a process of evolutionary competition with other economic systems—a claim reiterated in the twentieth century by the Austrian-British economist F.A. Hayek. The early-twentieth-century British sociologist and Fabian Beatrice Webb (who worked as Spencer’s assistant for a time) believed that Soviet collectivism was the next phase in political evolution. Francis Fukuyama used to believe that countries throughout much of the world were evolving in the direction of Western democratic capitalism. The direction of the process may differ, but theories of social evolution form a major strand in modern thinking.

There are many problems with such theories. Darwinian evolution, a process operating through the natural selection of random mutations, has no analogue in history. The underlying unit of natural selection is the gene, a physical structure with definite and specifiable characteristics. No such unit has been identified in society. What exactly are Ferguson’s ubiquitous networks, whose pivotal part in human events he believes has been so badly neglected? Though the book’s central story concerns conflict between networks and hierarchies, he tells us they are not simply opposites: “This dichotomy between hierarchy and networks is an over-simplification.” Indeed, “far from being the opposite of a network, a hierarchy is just a special kind of network.” But if networks and hierarchies are not distinct types of social organization, how can we know how they interact and compete with each other? How can we tell the difference between them in any particular historical situation?

Ferguson never properly answers these questions. Instead he offers a mix of metaphor and what purports to be a new science. The square and the tower that give the book its title are the Torre del Mangia and the Piazza del Campo in Siena, which for six centuries have embodied two types of organization and power: vertical and horizontal. These forms of social organization are exemplified in corporate life today: “When employees from different firms meet for alcoholic refreshments after work, they move from the vertical tower of the corporation to the horizontal square of the social network.” But do employees make this radical transition when they go to the bar together? Or do they remain unequally constrained by the hierarchies of the organization? The metaphor of vertical and horizontal power cannot answer such questions.


Turning from business to politics, Ferguson faces similar difficulties when he discusses how the Bolshevik Party changed after it came to power in Russia: “The Bolsheviks turned their revolutionary network into a new hierarchical system, in many respects much harsher than the old Tsarist regime.” The suggestion is that before the revolution the Bolsheviks were a conspiratorial fraternity not unlike the late-eighteenth-century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati, one of several secret societies Ferguson discusses and to which he devotes the book’s first chapter: “No case better illustrates the historical significance of networks than that of the Illuminati.” But as he acknowledges, the Illuminati network was from the beginning structured on hierarchical lines. There were three grades of membership, and “the lower ranks were to be given only the vaguest insights into the Order’s goals and methods.” The Bolshevik Party was also founded and organized as a hierarchy, with Lenin and his closest comrades at the top. Were these “horizontal” or “vertical” organizations? Both at the same time? Or did they shift at some point from one to the other? A figure of speech cannot tell us.

It may be from an awareness of the limitations of metaphor that Ferguson invokes “network science” repeatedly in The Square and the Tower. The text is embellished with dozens of “network diagrams,” which illustrate “the foundational concepts of network theory,” the Medici network, the sexual network of the Bloomsbury Group circa 1925, the “ego networks” of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, a “network design” of the Arpanet (the proto-version of the Internet), Donald Trump’s 2016 online network, and the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee members’ network, among others.

With the diagrams comes a technical jargon. The importance of individuals in a network can be measured with respect to three kinds of centrality: “degree centrality, betweenness centrality and closeness centrality,” measuring the number of relationships an individual has with others, “the extent to which information passes through a particular node,” and “the average number of ‘steps’ it takes for a node to reach all other nodes.” Using such diagrams, Ferguson suggests, we can better understand historical events. For example, when Protestants suffered persecution in England during the reign of Mary I, the execution of fourteen of the top twenty nodes did not destroy the network because figures with high “betweenness centrality” took over. He illustrates the effect in diagrams of the Protestant network immediately before and after the execution of one of its major “hubs” in July 1555.

Ferguson summarizes network theory in seven ideas: “No man is an island”—individuals can be understood in terms of the “nodes” or “edges” that connect them; “Birds of a feather flock together”—like attracts like; “Weak ties” are strong—a network can be resilient if it is connected with other networks, even if only through weak links; “Structure determines virality”—“some ideas go viral because of structural features of the network through which they spread”; “Networks never sleep”—they are not static but dynamic, and can evolve into complex adaptive systems with emergent properties; “Networks network”—when networks interact, the result may be innovation and invention; seventh and lastly, “The rich get richer. Because of preferential attachment, most social networks are profoundly inegalitarian.” “When we understand these core insights of network science,” Ferguson concludes, “the history of mankind looks quite different.”

Maybe it does. But can network theory explain why significant historical shifts happen? A case cited by Ferguson suggests otherwise. “In the history of networks,” he tells us, “few episodes are more instructive than that of the Cambridge Spies.” Chapter 39, “The Ring of Five,” begins with an expression of puzzlement: “So repulsive were both the totalitarian regimes—Hitler’s and Stalin’s—that it remains difficult to fathom why anyone living in a free society would have been attracted to either of them.”

In chapter 33, Ferguson discusses how members of the Cambridge Apostles, the exclusive “Conversazione Society” founded in 1820, “had become estranged from Victorian values both sexually and politically around 1900.” At Oxford, a network had formed around the imperialist ideas of the former high commissioner of South Africa Alfred Milner, which envisioned “a muscular, martial, imperial and heterosexual future.” Cambridge was quite different. After 1900, Ferguson tells us, “the network that evolved there in and around the Cambridge ‘Apostles’ was effete, pacifist, liberal and homosexual.” Prominent Apostles included Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and E.M. Forster. Not all Apostles were gay or bisexual, “but a rising proportion were. And even those (like [Leonard] Woolf) who were not nevertheless subscribed to the somewhat solipsistic ideals of the gay ‘brothers.’”


Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Niall Ferguson, right, with Adrian Pennick at the International Emmy Awards, where their BBC series The Ascent of Money won best documentary, New York City, 2009

In 1939, Ferguson notes, Forster was writing that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country…. Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of a State. When they do—down with the State, say I.” By the outbreak of World War I, “a significant proportion of Apostles agreed with E.M. Forster’s position that friendship came before loyalty to King and Country.” A later generation “took this estrangement a step further: from conscientious objection to treason.” Among the Cambridge spies, Antony Blunt joined the Apostles in 1928 and sponsored Guy Burgess as a member four years later. “Both were academically brilliant. And both were gay…. However, the historically significant fact about Blunt and Burgess is that they were Communists who willingly offered their services to Stalin.”

Ferguson reiterates his sense of puzzlement: “Why did they do it?” He rejects as “naive” the idea that they were “all men of principle,…disillusioned by the policy of appeasement, who saw Stalin as the only credible counterweight to Hitler.” Many British spies working for the Soviet Union, he points out, were especially active during the period “when Hitler and Stalin were on the same side—and, of course, the other side from Great Britain.” What then could have motivated them to switch their loyalties from a functioning liberal democracy to one of its enemies, a murderous tyranny?

One reason may have been the appeal of communism as a secular religion, serving the same need to find meaning in history as monotheism had and demanding unthinking obedience from its believers—attractions that, according to Arthur Koestler, moved many intellectuals to convert to communism in interwar Europe. Or perhaps the explanation was more parochially British: most of the spies were members of an elite that realized British power was in decline and aimed to become part of the ruling class in what appeared to them to be the rising power—the Soviet Union. To my mind both accounts have some plausibility, but Ferguson does not discuss either of them. Unless the explanation lies in the “solipsistic” culture that grew up around the Apostles—an implausible view, given that most of the spies recruited in Britain by the Soviets in the period leading up to World War II were not Apostles or gay—he offers no reason for the treasonous behavior of a significant section of the British elite. Network theory seems silent on the subject.

In fact nothing in “network science” can tell us why historical agents—the Illuminati, the Bolsheviks, the Cambridge spies—acted as they did. The scientific credentials of network theory are highly questionable. Ferguson seems confident that

network science offers the best way of understanding why some ideas can spread very rapidly. Ideas…can be transmitted through a social network, not unlike a contagious virus. However, ideas (or “memes,” to use the evolutionist’s neologism) are generally less contagious than viruses.

But what are memes, and how are they “transmitted”? They are supposed to be units of meaning or information that compete in a process of natural selection analogous to that which operates on genes. Discussing Lenin’s rise to power, Ferguson reverts to metaphor again: “The Bolshevik virus travelled by train and telegraph.” Literate soldiers, workers, and sailors were most susceptible to “the Bolshevik plague,” succumbing quickly in the ensuing “epidemic.”

But memes are not observable physical structures like viruses. Is Romanticism a meme, or Christianity? Or the Gothic style in architecture? Like genes, viruses are identified by well-established scientific methods. Memes cannot be distinguished from one another by any objective properties. Like Ferguson’s horizontal and vertical modes of power, they are metaphorical devices. How networks and hierarchies are differentiated from each other depends more on the elasticity of language than on any facts of the matter.

In truth, network theory is not a theory at all. Theories that attempt to explain large-scale historical changes may be crude. Inasmuch as nationalism and religion have continued to act as autonomous forces in politics, Karl Marx’s historical materialism has not been borne out by events. Still, Marx’s account illuminated social conflicts, showing how political struggles are often rooted in economic divisions. If it failed as a general theory, it had at least the merit of being demonstrably false. “Network theory,” on the other hand, is much too nebulous to be either true or false.

The advantage of a discourse of networks, for Ferguson, is that it gives the impression that the story he tells has the authority of science. He takes the reader on a high-speed tour from the Third Dynasty of Ur in southern Mesopotamia circa 2100–2000 BC to the media-assisted political disruptions of the present time. Along the way he offers snapshots of many institutions and episodes, including the Holy Roman Empire, the emergence of modern banking along with the advent of Medici rule in Florence, the impact of the printing press on the spread of Lutheranism, Freemasonry in the French and American Revolutions, the restoration of European order after Napoleon, the significance of steam power and electrical cables in the British Empire, the Taiping rebellion in late-nineteenth-century China, the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in 1916, National Socialism as “a movement” that “can be said to have gone viral between 1930 and 1933,” the “brief encounter” of the British philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in 1945, “the transition to a more networked world” in the 1970s and “the triumph of Davos man” that supposedly ensued, and George Soros’s part in “breaking the Bank of England” in September 1992, together with vignettes of the use of networks in the September 11 attacks, the ascendancy of Facebook as a distance-conquering social network, the rise of ISIS, Brexit (which Ferguson describes as “a victory for a network—and network science—over the hierarchy of the British establishment”), and Trump’s electoral victory.

Not all of these vignettes serve any discernible purpose. What does an anecdote about Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova have to do with the book’s central narrative? Perhaps it serves to distract from the fact that Ferguson’s conflict between networks and hierarchies reiterates an old and familiar story. As set out by nineteenth-century writers such as T.B. Macaulay and W.E.H. Lecky, the Whig interpretation of history told the story of humankind as a march from ignorance and tyranny to enlightened liberty. Ferguson echoes this view when he writes:

For most of recorded history, hierarchies dominated networks in their scope and scale. Men and women were mostly organized into hierarchical structures, with power concentrated at the very top in the hands of a chief, lord, king or emperor. By contrast, the average individual’s network was stunted in its scale.

As we approach modern times, the human condition improves with the rise of the free market: “Friedrich Hayek was one of the first to rediscover Adam Smith’s old insight that the spontaneous order of the market was bound to be superior to ‘any that could have been achieved by deliberate organization.’”

It is an oft-told tale. But why should the reader accept it? Other accounts of the origins of market society are available, after all. The political economist Karl Polanyi presented an opposite view in The Great Transformation (1944),1 in which he described free markets as artifacts of state power, constructed by the ruling hierarchies of early Victorian England as a means of breaking up social networks that had been inherited from premodern times in order to promote laissez-faire capitalism. Inverting Ferguson’s account, Polanyi’s is in some ways more convincing. Ferguson does not mention it.

The Square and the Tower may be best read as a presentation of the Whig interpretation of history to an audience of hedge fund investors. Consisting of a series of historical snapshots thinly glossed with large ideas, the format of the book—sixty thumbnail chapters, interspersed with diagrams—is that of a PowerPoint presentation. This is not a study of history but another of the business books that have become familiar sights in airport newsstands in recent decades. While notably more erudite, The Square and The Tower belongs in the same genre as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) and Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat (2005).2

Along with nearly all such books, Ferguson’s portrays the present time as one in which the creative energies of entrepreneurs have been unshackled from regulation by an overmighty state. To his credit, his version of this view is more nuanced than most. He cautions against underestimating “both the resilience of the old hierarchies and the vulnerabilities of the new networks—not to mention their capacity to fuse to form even newer power structures, with capabilities potentially greater even than those of the last century’s totalitarian states.” Yet throughout he represents networks, especially those of business, as being inherently more innovative and productive than any government can be. An interpretation of history well suited to triumphal gatherings in Swiss mountain resorts, it may also be one whose time has passed.

The last word on networks and hierarchies may belong to a figure not usually remembered for his intellectual acumen. Toward the end of his life, it has been reported, Stanley Baldwin (1867–1947)—former Conservative British prime minister, astute political operator, and pig breeder—was asked whether he had been influenced by any thinker or book. After a long pause, he replied, “Sir Henry Maine.” In his once-celebrated book Ancient Law (1861), Baldwin continued, the eminent Victorian jurist showed that history was a process of progressive development in which societies governed by status were gradually replaced by ones based on contract. Then Baldwin paused again, seemingly puzzled, and asked: “Or was it the other way around?”3