“We’ll pay for it!” These words, spoken in response to a sunny day in the poem “Scotland” by Alastair Reid, capture perfectly the national talent for pessimism among so many of us who were brought up north of the border.
It somehow seems fitting, therefore, for a Scottish-born, US-based scholar to have authored a book titled Doom. Yet this book also underlines that there are few Scots either as talented or industrious — in this and so many other regards — as Niall Ferguson. While others spent lockdown learning to bake sourdough or watching Netflix, my fellow countryman was holed up “in the mountains,” applying his prodigious intellect to placing the present pandemic on a wider historic canvas.
And goodness, he really does have an enormous canvas. Doom seeks to understand why humanity, time and again through the ages, has failed to prepare for catastrophes, whether natural or man-made. Early on, Ferguson asserts that this exploration necessarily involves “the history of economics, society, culture and politics” so as to enable us to learn from the past how we can “construct social and political structures that are at least resilient and at best anti fragile”.
In pursuit of these insights the reader is taken at breathless pace through a survey of disastrous events ranging from those which we think we already know something about (the first world war; the sinking of the Titanic) to those we really should have known more about (the Soviet Union’s famines of 1921-23 and 1932-33).
The failure to predict accurately imminent catastrophe is a persistent theme. While in 1914 “few grasped until late July the imminence of Armageddon” in 1920, a “hot rainless spring” in the USSR simply “set the stage” for the combination of labour shortages and the peasants’ reluctance to plant their fields to deliver catastrophic famine.
Although the writing is compelling, the sheer range of examples makes it difficult always to hold on to a sense of the overall thesis; each tree is beautifully drawn but this reader at least sometimes struggled to retain a sense of the wood. Forecasting, network science, economics, epidemiology, together with the psychology of leadership are all considered in a dazzlingly broad examination of the “politics of catastrophe”. Reassuringly, Ferguson concludes that human behaviour does actually matter in determining the impact of disasters, whatever their origins or character. The vulnerability of the system, rather than the weakness of the leadership, is fundamental to Ferguson’s account of how catastrophes unfold.
Perhaps inevitably, Ferguson has much to say on the most recent experience of Covid-19. With his elegant prose style and depth of sources, he provides what must be one of the most detailed, comprehensive and readable accounts of the early months of the pandemic that has been published to date. The vulnerability inherent in our networked world is discussed by Ferguson with an expertise that puts much contemporary comment on Covid to shame.
Yet Ferguson’s book was completed in September 2020 ahead of the pandemic’s most deadly wave when, as the author describes it “much that is now known to the reader was unknown”. While Ferguson argues convincingly that “thinking about an unfolding event is not without its value”, there is obvious jeopardy here for a historian.
It certainly feels anomalous to read an account of this economically, politically and racially tumultuous period only to find it ends months before the storming of the US Capitol in January by supporters of Donald Trump who, in his journalism of recent years, Ferguson sought to defend from his critics.
There is, of course, much to admire and to think about in this real time analysis. His echo of Henry Kissinger’s 2019 warning that the US and China “are in the foothills of a cold war” seems worryingly prescient given the tensions already evident in Alaska in March at the first US-China meeting under Joe Biden’s presidency.
But, more fundamentally, the election of Biden last November is already proving a more consequential choice than even the author could have anticipated when writing last summer. Ferguson first embraced the free market outlook of Thatcher and Reagan as an Oxford undergraduate. Four decades on, the economic orthodoxy they defined — with its belief that the only answer to market failure is more markets — is being upended. President Biden is now ushering in a radically different economics in Washington as surely as he is embodying a different politics. An early second edition or even simply a postscript would benefit the book.
Despite our ideological differences, one of the reasons I have long admired Ferguson’s scholarship is that, engagingly for a historian, he seems to be at least as fascinated by the future as the past. But for all its magisterial reach, Doom is more useful as a warning of past follies than a guide to those that may be coming over the horizon.
I know this from personal experience. As a UK minister in the period after 9/11, I stewarded through the parliament the Civil Contingencies Act, designed to update old emergency powers to anticipate future disasters. Yet just a couple of years later, as transport secretary, I found myself having to deal, in real time, with a new threat of liquid bombs blowing up airliners for which our security regime designed to address older technologies and past threats offered little protection.
The inherent unpredictability of what lies in wait for us all around the next corner means that, notwithstanding Ferguson’s brilliance and breadth of scholarship, this immensely readable book is a better lens than it is a compass.
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson Allen Lane, £25, 496 pages
Douglas Alexander is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a former UK cabinet minister