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26 May 2021

How Niall Ferguson’s Doom fails to make sense of the Covid crisis

The historian’s reading of the pandemic is undermined by theoretical jargon, incoherence and a self-consciously provocative right-wing position. 

By Richard J Evans

You can’t predict disasters, the historian Niall Ferguson rightly says. They’re too diverse to prepare for, and “we rarely get the disasters we expect”. When a disaster does occur, governments initially tend to underestimate its severity, a consequence often of their lack of imagination and their failure to learn from history. They look to the last crisis for examples of how to deal with it, or allow magical thinking, religion and irrationality to dictate their responses. And they are usually too slow to react, hoping the crisis will simply go away.

Yet “all disasters are man-made”, or at least gain much of their impact from human activities. Even natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, wildfires, hurricanes and floods generate a lot of their destructive power from human factors such as settlement patterns, misplaced location of dams, forest clearance, inadequate sea defences, delayed or bungled government responses and the like.

Pandemics are no exception to this rule. In his survey of the history of pandemics, Plagues and Peoples (1976), the great world historian William H McNeill convincingly traced the impact of infectious disease on human history. But the impact was also made in the other direction. Many if not most diseases originated in animal-human transfer of one kind or another, from bubonic plague, spread by rat-borne fleas, or HIV-Aids, carried by African “bush-meat”, to Covid-19, which most likely made the jump from animal to human through bats sold in Chinese “wet markets”. Cholera, a waterborne infection that first arrived in Europe in the 1830s, was another human product, as British imperialist expansion in northern India spread the bacillus westwards along trade routes into Persia and Tsarist Russia. It arrived in Europe just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning to crowd the working masses into cramped and unhygienic slums lacking in pure water supplies and effective waste disposal facilities. These acted as multipliers, killing millions. It was the combination of these material factors that caused the cholera ­disaster of 1892 in Hamburg, along with the failure of medical science and government to agree on what was to be done.

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Ferguson analyses such prior disasters with the aid of “network theory”. This posits that humans transmit disease by direct and (as in the case of cholera) indirect contact with one another, so that we can explain, and, theoretically at least, predict the spread of a disease by looking at the loci of contact such as families, friends, colleagues, schools, universities, neighbours and, more broadly, traders and travellers, whether they move around by ships, trains or planes or, in earlier times, on foot or horseback.

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Ferguson devotes a great deal of space to “network theory”, but this seems entirely unnecessary – an example of “the painful elucidation of the obvious”, as someone once called sociology – and leads to page after page of almost unreadable jargon. A typical example occurs on page 115, to pick one out at random: “The nodes in so many real-world networks follow Pareto-like distributions, that is, there are more nodes with a very large number of edges, and more nodes with very few, than would be the case in a random network.”

At his best, Ferguson is a fluent and exciting writer, but his desire to appear “scientific” – evident elsewhere too, as in his equally redundant employment of “chaos theory” in his earlier book Virtual History (1997) – too often blocks his real gifts as an historian.

These gifts are exhibited, however, when he turns to the current pandemic. There are plenty of pithy statements that make you sit up and think. “Pandemics,” he says, “like world wars and global financial crises, are history’s great interruptions.” Is this really the case – don’t they accelerate existing historical trends more often than not? I doubt whether after this pandemic ends we will all go back to doing what we did before. Still, Ferguson’s striking phrase does provoke reflection.

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[see also: Emma Griffin’s Bread Winner reveals the human stories of the punishing Victorian economy]

More frequently, however, his rhetoric gets the better of him and he makes claims that seem more like statements of political parti pris. Among other things, we learn from this book that world leaders’ concern with climate change is “obsessive”, that Donald Trump’s mass election rallies in 2020 did not spread the virus because overall rates of social distancing in the US went up during the period in which they were being held, that “Americans all across the nation seem to have adopted social distancing without being told”, and that “autonomous behavioural change by citizens… often anticipated government orders”. Believe all this, and you’ll believe anything.

The “rise of the ‘administrative state’,” he asserts, “has produced pathologies every bit as harmful, and perhaps in the long run more so, than the virus Sars-CoV-2.” Does he really think that less government would have improved our health? Lockdowns had no effect on containing the virus, but did immense damage to the economy, he claims. But again, the experience of the past few months, at least in the UK, has not borne out the first part of this statement – the lockdown that began earlier this year has reduced daily deaths from the pandemic to single figures. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) ­protests that swept across the US in the summer of 2020 caused “abject collapses of authority” that sparked a crime wave, he says. But the effects of the protests have been very different and far more positive than this, while in associating the BLM movement with criminality Ferguson is doing little more than parroting the Trumpian playbook.

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Donald Trump in some ways comes out rather well in Doom. It seems, according to Ferguson, that his initial attempt to play down the importance of the virus was aimed at preventing a stock market crash, and that the fiscal package introduced during his presidency succeeded. Not that Ferguson is uncritical of the former president – far from it. His point is that it is wrong to pin the blame for everything that went wrong on one man. It was “networks” that were responsible for the human ­devastation, and specifically bureaucracies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the UK, the focus of Ferguson’s criticism is the medical bureaucracy, particularly the epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, whom he accuses of having “hopelessly confused matters” with his predictions of mass deaths from the pandemic.

Niall Ferguson says that the international institutions from which Trump wanted to withdraw the US – notably the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Trade Organisation, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Paris Climate Agreement – constituted a “largely mythical liberal international order”. And if Trump’s actions are measured by their success in bolstering the US’s resistance to the rise of China, then they can be seen in a more positive light.

Ferguson devotes a great deal of attention to China and to condemning Beijing’s initial cover-up of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, which he says was aided and abetted by the WHO. Once the outbreak began, Ferguson suggests, the US, ­under Trump, cemented its position as world leader, especially in the areas of international finance, the race to develop a vaccine, the “tech war” waged against Huawei, and research into artificial intelligence.

[see also: The contradictions of Edward Said]

The new cold war that this US-China geostrategic competition represented was, says Ferguson, “both inevitable and desirable”. Most people, one suspects, would disagree with these claims, and with good reason. Seen on a broader front, the US withdrew from world leadership under Trump, and is only now beginning to regain it under Joe Biden. And surely nobody sensible wants a new cold war?

Ferguson pins the blame for slow and ­ineffective initial state reactions to the pandemic on national health bureaucrats rather than political leaders. But in the end, it really does matter who’s in charge; who leads the nation is, for many, literally a matter of life and death. Trump and Boris Johnson, as well as other populist leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India, not mentioned by Ferguson in this narrowly Anglo American book, have proved disastrous in their handling of the pandemic. You don’t have to be a devotee of the Great Man theory of history to believe that individuals really do make a difference.

Johnson’s absence from the Cobra committee for a sequence of meetings at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, his reluctance to follow medical advice, his setting up of an ineffective test and trace ­system presided over by Dido Harding, a Tory peer, his disastrous and politically ­motivated easing of restrictions over Christmas, and much more besides, all illustrated the effects of having an irresponsible politician in No 10.

Writing contemporary history is fraught with peril. Completed in August 2020, Doom more or less claims that the pandemic is over. At that time, worldwide deaths from Covid-19 were approaching 700,000. But they are now at 3.5 million and still rising. In the US the election of Biden, which took place after this book was finished, has begun to improve the situation. In India it goes from bad to worse. The future is hard to discern. Ferguson’s views on it are just as much in thrall to his self-consciously provocative right-wing position as his analysis of the pandemic itself.

***

Thus, for example, in a nod to the current “culture wars”, he predicts that the pandemic will have a disruptive impact on those universities “more interested in propagating ‘woke’ ­ideology than in teaching all that can profitably be learned from science and the human past” (he wisely does not attempt to tell us which universities he means). In discussing the “infodemic” of conspiracy theories that flooded the internet during the pandemic, he says too little about the Trumpian myth, rampant among Republicans even before the ­election, that Biden could only win by fraudulent practices.

Does the book deliver on its promise to offer “a general theory of disasters”? I looked hard for one but couldn’t find it. Certainly, the banalities of “network theory” don’t provide it. Instead, we have long and superfluous chronological lists of historical disasters – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes – going on for page after page, without any serious ­attempt at analysis: it all feels like padding, designed to inflate what is essentially an essay into the dimensions of an Important Book. Lengthy digressions into subjects such as the First World War, the Cold War, China’s geopolitical threat, the fall of ­empires, and the varieties of small scale disasters (fires, explosions, plane crashes, and the like) do nothing to help the book’s coherence, although they do increase its length.

Making sense of the Covid-19 pandemic will require a lot of sober, objective thinking and genuinely comparative analysis. Unfortunately, you won’t find it here. 

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe 
Niall Ferguson
Allen Lane, 496pp, £25

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism