Damp squid: the fall of Niall Ferguson

The Scots-American we can do without.

I

Whatever happened to … Professor Niall Ferguson, and this year’s Reith Lectures? "A bit of a damp squib," reported my daughter Alison from think tank country. What went wrong?

Did some apparatchik in Room 101 at Broadcasting House think that Fergy as Reith Lecturer would fill up a useful bit of Jockland’s regional radio quota:  "fraternal assistance" coinciding usefully with NATO’s courtship of the Salmond government. Who knows? But after Reith the man seems to have overtaken Donald Trump as the Scots-American we can do without. If Scotland is to approach foreign affairs by regenerating our engineering, international law and environmental traditions, why sign up to a military-financial complex whose overblown rhetoric and confused strategy landed us in Afghanistan?

Qualms have rarely beset Ferguson, the macho face of no-holds-barred capital: blue shirt and chinos, young Connery appearance and delivery, with that hint of "You looking at me, pal?" recalling the Glasgow kiss - or head-butt. Sharp sound-bites and a deft way with the statistics – re. GNP, taxation, the killing fields or whatever – perhaps owing to Harvard Graphics as much as to Harvard Campus? Sailing in convoy with fringe-language research assistants, to pluck the difficult stuff, beefed-up "Bad History" is boosted rather than sunk by readable enemies, like Alan Bennett in The History Boys. The geld comes with influential friends on the Financial Times and Wall Street. "What first attracted you to the billionaire Rothschilds?" as Mrs Merton would have put it.

II

An invite arrived for the last Reith lecture on 28 June in Edinburgh. I was in Tuebingen, holding a Walter Scott seminar there with my conservative friend Allan Massie and organising the 22nd Freudenstadt Colloquium on European Regionalism for the SPD’s Ebert-Stiftung. I couldn’t and wouldn’t go, and what I’d read of the lectures and their feedstock Civilisation: the West and the Rest  confirmed a general disquiet. Was the guy safe at any speed?

Take page xxvi of Civilisation’s intro, where Fergy – always adept at name-checking literature – draws his "West v Rest" parallel from James Hogg’s Justified Sinner and R L Stevenson’s Master of Ballantrae:

Competition and monopoly; science and superstition; freedom and slavery; curing and killing; hard work and laziness – in each case the West was father to the good and the bad. It was just that, as in Hogg’s and Stevenson’s novel, the better of the two brothers ultimately came out on top.

Eh, wait a minute …

In both novels the good brother doesn’t "come out on top". He gets killed. George Colwan is thrown off a crag on Arthur’s Seat by Robert Wringhim; Henry Durie, whom obsessive rivalry degrades to his charming, evil brother’s level, drops dead when James is exhumed, living, from his Caribbean grave.

James Durie was a great storyteller, and the same might go for Fergy. But one senses that the motor of "History Speaking!" Inc. is running out of gas.

Those research assistants don’t always get "some suitable quotation, please" to fit the name-checks. This turns the diligent reader to an index which is very peculiar – and broadcast discourses which, in transcript, don’t improve matters at all.

No Disraeli, for a start. I turned to Civilisation from Tancred (1847), a pantomime, but with lizard wit and hard-headed realism about the Middle East. I found on page 162 Fergy on Stendhal and Scarlet and Black – in which the revolutionaries of 1830 are aligned "with the utmost force". But Scarlet and Black is about reaction not revolution: Julien Sorel, a plausible youth of the Fergy sort, with a photographic memory, impresses French Restoration conservatives trapped in their myopic game of interest-defending, only to be driven to self-destruction by its terminal paralysis as much as by his own conflicts over ambition, sex, and love. Great literature is personal and subtle, like that. Civilisation is not.

III

"The Rule of Law and its Enemies" has brought Fergy’s moment of hubris:  cometh the man, cometh the disaster.

Reith one, "The Human Hive" starts out by elaborating a Kipling tract: "The Mother Hive" is a metaphor of vibrant individual capital depreciated by welfare deformation – and spendthrift baby-boomers. Though the wise ones in the Fergy version turn out to be Germany (fiscal rectitude), and Norway (oil wealth). Between 1980-2008 Germany retained a manufacturing economy and "community banking" while Britain and Wall Street mocked "widget-making"; Norway nationalised its oil, when Britain’s "finance-friendly" Thatcher in Sir Alastair Morton’s words "blew it on the dole". These images stick, though they weren’t meant to.  

In Reith two, "The Darwinian Economy" we are in the ordure of the financial crisis. Ferguson blames public regulation of the markets, cites lots of apparently epic papers by financial authorities. Yet these (like most of the activities of high finance) are abstracted from any objective analysis of production, of the sort that  Karl Marx – ritually denounced – identified in the "Working Day" section of Capital.

Where in all this assertion is "Fordist" welfare capitalism? Ask in derelict Detroit. Where is oil, up from S1.7 to $ 100 a barrel, 1970-2012? How fares the SME/mittelstand in the domain of Microsoft and Walmart? Who trains youngsters when factories close? Where does organised/disorganised narco-crime fit into the banking balance sheets? Or the military-industrial complex, its princely Saudi clients, and their Wahabi-fanatic friends? Or London’s immigrant oligarchs who so much disturb Ferdinand Mount in The New Few? No reference to any of these in Fergy’s affluent but strangely constipated world.

In Reith three, "The Landscape of the Law" there appears the inevitable demand for property-friendly law. As in Pohl and Kornbluth’s brilliant sci-fi satire The Space Merchants (1953), the public sphere will become the corporate: General Motors takes over the USA.

Well, actually, no. The opposite had to happen once the Banksters had fouled up.  

So there’s no mention of how hyper-trading trashed marginal utility, how corporate lawyers bought the Senate. Bagehot’s pristine markets get in, but not John Ruskin’s environmentalism – 'there is no wealth but life' – and J A Hobson’s critique of the imperial plunder and inequality-driven instability that stemmed from it. Does Fergy register the post-1990 decay, shown in Misha Glenny’s reportage, from the liberal ideals of The Rebirth of History (1991) to the plutocrat-and-gangster states of McMafia (2008) and their indispensable London Geldwascherei? Don’t ask.

In Reith four our hero finally reaches Edinburgh. 'Civil Society and its Enemies' has market, Motherhood, Apple Pie, and the Big Society cleaning up the polluted Welsh beach chez Fergy that the lazy state ignores. He pats Free Schools on the head; after all he is advising Michael Gove, another noisy Scots renegade. A few representative local profs – John Haldane, John Curtis (sic), Colin Kidd – question and get slapped down. Ernest Gellner’s 'strong civil society' of the Scots 'estates' – Kirk, Law, Burghs, Colleges – is ignored.

Yet plastic-soiled beaches are the pendant to the rise of marine oil and gas, which vomits the stuff out as by-product. Chris Smout, Doyen of Scots Historians – does Fergy even know of him? –  tells in his fine "Land and Sea" essay in the Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History (2012) how we have been afflicted by a commerce as "heartless and witless" as Thomas Hardy’s "nature",  which it has wrecked:

The productivity of the North Sea is one tenth of what it was in 1883 … Greenhouse gas emissions fell by 13 per cent between 1995 and 2004 … but if we take into account those emissions generated by manufacturing imports, they rose by 11 per cent over the same period.

III

Civilisation’s "killer apps" – inevitably a borrowing from disjaikit yoof thumbing its handhelds, fathoming the factflood through peremptory commands  – would have been commonplace in T S Ashton’s day. Competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic simply enable Fergy –  the M’Choakumchild for our own Hard Times –  to slot in a conventional narrative of the sort we thought Eric Hobsbawm had seen off. But "rapping for executives" is going to leave a lot out.

Look up "environment" in Civilisation’s index, and find a couple of pages, largely devoted to the evangelical American Christian take on it. Fergy may claim to be a Humean sceptic but his readership is out there. In the boondocks, in the airport bookstore, the Romneyites, the Tea Party, are thumping their Bibles and fracking God’s land. No contest.

Goldman Sachs was "vampire squid", Fergy’s Reith is damp squid: not feral but feart.  So please stop. You’re famous. You’ve appeared in The Simpsons. Think.

Go wreck a sand dune with Donald Trump? Do a Huffington? Hug trees? Guest with Springsteen, hollering against the bosses? This is showbiz, after all.

Christopher Harvie's most recent book is "Scotland the Brief: A Short History of a Nation" (Argyll Publishing, £5.99).This piece originally appeared on the radical Scottish website Bella Caledonia.

Niall Ferguson, right, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era