Never in our lifetimes, it seems, has there been greater uncertainty about the future—and greater ignorance about the past. —Niall Ferguson, Doom
Disaster, decadence, decay, destruction or desolation, call it what you will, Niall Ferguson’s Doom: The politics of catastrophe has never been more prescient. From Jeremy Bentham to T.S. Eliot, Orwell and Huxley, literary scholars have tirelessly explored and foretold the prevalence of political expediency, imperial panopticism and the triumph of death. Integral to the human condition though, is doom. Politicians, medical professionals and individual citizens can go to great lengths in mitigating it, but ultimately, we each experience catastrophe one way or another.
Ferguson is one of Britain’s most decorated financial historians and has continued to demonstrate the power of applied history. Doom is no exception. Although writing in August 2020, Ferguson got a great deal more right than wrong. Despite the Guardian and the Economist accusing Ferguson of “lacking any real argument”, his ability to put COVID-19 into historical perspective is, quite simply, unrivalled. From the recent infodemic, Chinese imperial panopticons and the self-flagellating orders of climate extremism, Ferguson traverses the early months of the pandemic with powerful insights into the dangers of totalitarianism and the ensuing “pandemic of the mind”. Doom helpfully forewarns the reader of mass psychosis and the propensity to be controlled by the fear, foolishness and fallacies of centralised governments paralysed with power and bureaucratic sclerosis.
This review appears in September’s Quadrant.
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The history of catastrophes is the study of uncertainty and complexity. As Ferguson writes:
We cannot study the history of catastrophes, natural or man-made—though the dichotomy, as we shall see, is somewhat false—apart from the history of economics, society, culture, and politics. Disasters are rarely entirely exogenous events … Even a catastrophic earthquake is only as catastrophic as the extent of urbanization along the fault line—or the shoreline, if it triggers a tsunami. A pandemic is made up of a new pathogen and the social networks that it attacks. We cannot understand the scale of the contagion by studying only the virus itself, because the virus will infect only as many people as social networks allow it to.
Just as Ferguson swings across the political pendulum from anti-Trump journalism to America’s own failed response to the pandemic, so too catastrophes affect both sides of the political aisle. While Marxism, materialism and environmentalism play a part in the world—albeit, with varying degrees of certainty—no political ideology or exogenous event can describe COVID-19, nor any other catastrophe for that matter. Why? Because all societies live under a cloud of existential uncertainty. From early Homo sapiens who possibly feared an “end time” extinction event, to Muhammad’s revelation of the Koran, to the vivid cycle of death and rebirth in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, most major religious movements have placed their bets on the end of the world. Doom is alluring. However, it’s the disasters that most people survive which pose the greatest threat, because they have happened before and will certainly happen again.
“We are all doomed”—but in varying degrees. The average life expectancy from 1543 until 1863 was under forty for the United Kingdom, and under thirty for the rest of the world until 1900. Long life is a recent phenomenon. If you lived in Russia after the fall of the Romanov dynasty, your life expectancy was twenty. Hence, Ferguson notes, “Despite the ongoing quest for solutions to the problem … Life is a terminal condition.” This is the case for 59 million people every year, and 160,000 people every day. In the first year of COVID-19, roughly 510,000 people died from the deadly contagion. Reading these numbers stirs hardly enough emotion to grasp the proximity of our own existential eschaton. In a popular aphorism often attributed to Stalin but originally phrased by a French diplomat: “War? I don’t find that so terrible. The death of one human being, that’s a catastrophe. A hundred thousand dead—that’s a statistic.”
Ferguson makes sense of these statistics. Up to September 2020, COVID-19 had killed 0.0114 per cent of the world population, making it the twenty-sixth-most disastrous pandemic in history. For New York City, COVID-19 was 50 per cent worse than influenza in 1918, and almost four times worse than 9/11. Ferguson notes: “This is not to equate al Qaeda or the Nazis with the virus SARS-CoV-2, but merely to show that disaster … can take diverse forms and yet pose similar challenges.”
Ultimately, what Ferguson achieves in this book is explaining why some catastrophes past, present and even future can be more authentically tragic than others.
One of Ferguson’s most important insights is the scale of disaster in a complex society: “The illusion that because nation-states are made up of millions of individual people, they should therefore experience crises in the same way individual people do.” Indeed, the deadliness of viruses depends on how vulnerable the network of a society is. Essentially, a social network in the words of Ferguson is a natural structure beginning with knowledge and ranging from communication to family trees to larger settlements and distributed species. Some networks may be structured, others may be spontaneous. Yet the important point is that disasters happen to a network, not just to individuals. With rising cases of suicide, it is worth noting that one death can affect up to 150 people. Each suicide affects a network of communities, family, friends and first-aiders.
Ferguson also comments on the political networks that either mitigate or exacerbate disaster, particularly the Soviet Union’s two famines in 1921 and 1932. As the rainless summer of 1920 dried up harvests, labour shortages from the civil war ravaged the agricultural population. Output went from 22 million tons of grain to 2.9 million:
Far from increasing agricultural output, the abolition of private property and the herding of the peasantry into state collective farms obliterated incentives. Rather than lose it to the state, farmers slaughtered and devoured their livestock. At the same time, Stalin ramped up exports from 187,000 tons in 1929 to 5.7 million tons in 1931. As famine ravaged Ukraine, the Politburo issued two decrees that … led to a mass purge of Communist Party of Ukraine officials.
As a result, 7 million people starved to death because the network of political, social and economic connections was fragile. Likewise, in Ethiopia, Marxism claimed the lives of up to 1.2 million between 1984 and 1985 to starvation. Ferguson is very much in the right. What is seemingly natural in scope, is often political in networks, characteristic of a complex system of interrelated pathogens.
Writing in August 2020, Ferguson was writing in the realm of uncertainty. No one knew at the time about the effects of the Delta variant, the potential treatments of ivermectin and the new information about Wuhan lab leaks. Yet, this does not take away from the accomplishments of Doom, in fact, it only strengthens its main point. Disasters are uncertain, unpredictable and impossibly complex. The closeness to which Doom predicts the limited effectiveness of continued lockdowns and the importance of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) is still remarkably accurate.
Calculating the risks and rewards of COVID-19 policy is much easier for a financial historian than for a moral philosopher. Each life is morally priceless, no doubt, but death has a price, which Ferguson calculates to be around $625 billion if around half a million people die in the US. Therefore, “If a single month of lockdown costs $500 billion, then after a month and a half, the costs of the policy would begin to outweigh the benefits.”
Ferguson’s best analysis is in his balanced approach in assessing COVID-19:
A growing body of research offered an alternative interpretation. Containment of the contagion was a function of social distancing in all its forms. This did not need to be mandated, though it generally was more effective when it was. If social distancing was done effectively, lockdowns were more or less superfluous.
For Taiwan and South Korea, the two best early responders to COVID-19, they chose not to follow the lead of the CCP and followed the advice of their own health officials to use NPIs by emphasising early testing, social distancing and limiting super-spreader events. Mandated or not, social distancing was far more effective than closing down businesses. Ferguson adds, “Other measures that should have been more widely adopted would have focused on isolating the elderly and otherwise vulnerable populations.”
Since 1809 in Massachusetts during the smallpox epidemic, mandatory vaccinations have been a hotly debated issue. The new mRNA vaccine produces synthetic antibodies otherwise known as spike proteins to attack the disease. Ferguson has little to say on this topic, other than its importance in beating the virus at certain points. But what is clear in his writing is that vaccines are no magic bullet. As the Delta strand has proved, vaccines are not immutable but often imperfect. The lesson to be gleaned from all this is the need for a balanced approach that uses vaccines, NPIs and other medical treatments to protect the vulnerable and those affected by the highest mortality.
While the World Economic Forum was distracted by climate change and social justice during the outbreak of the pandemic, the Wuhan Health Commission was suppressing the news that 109 cases and six deaths of COVID-19 had occurred. On January 11, the head virologist in Wuhan posted the virus’s genome on the internet and was subsequently ordered to close for “rectification” by the government. The World Health Organisation was busy promoting the Chinese “Health Silk Road” as the virus spread. One insight from Ferguson is particularly alarming:
Carnegie Mellon University researchers analyzed more than two hundred million tweets discussing COVID-19 and found that roughly half the accounts—including 62 per cent of the one thousand most influential retweeters—appeared to be bots. Among tweets about “reopening America”, 66 per cent came from accounts that were possibly humans using bot assistants, while 34 per cent came directly from bots. Of the top fifty influential retweeters, 82 per cent were bots … On June 3, Twitter took down 23,750 accounts that had tweeted 348,608 times, all of which the company concluded were being run by the Chinese government.
Although these accounts had few followers, the CCP’s actions spoke louder than its digital words. The US journalist Ross Andersen wrote:
In the near future, every person who enters a public space [in China] could be identified, instantly, by AI matching them to an ocean of personal data, including their every text communication, and their body’s one-of-a-kind protein-construction schema. In time, algorithms will be able to string together data points from a broad range of sources—travel records, friends and associates, reading habits, purchases—to predict political resistance before it happens.
The biggest problem is how this technology is up for export. Among the countries buying Chinese tracking systems are Bolivia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Venezuela, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The most dangerous form of totalitarianism is when imperial subservience is entered into freely by the general population.
Death triumphs in war. Indeed, war is the very language of our present news. “Sydney siders fighting against Covid” or “Vaccines are the key to victory” is often what we hear when we tune into mainstream media. Indeed, the rhetoric used in peacetime and in war is deliberately one of good and evil. This overlap between two seemingly different disasters—pathogens and politics—happens simultaneously. “The First World War,” Ferguson writes, “ended with twin pandemics—not only influenza but also the ideological contagion of Bolshevism.” The latter certainly proved deadlier. “The lesson of history is that biological and political contagions often coincide,” says Ferguson.
In the same way, anti-racism in 2020 moved even quicker than the virus. Although the protests of last year did little to spread COVID-19 on a large scale, what did spread was crime. In Minneapolis, Ferguson notes:
111 people were shot in the four weeks after the death of George Floyd. New York City recorded 115 shootings in the first three weeks of June, double the number in the same period in 2019. In Chicago, more than 100 people were shot in a single weekend, the worst since 2012.
Humans have responded to the threats of these dual contagions in irrational ways. Like the self-flagellating orders after the plague in 1350 where people whipped themselves to inflict pain as recompense for past evils, today it is morally upstanding to denounce your culture, skin colour and racial predispositions for recompense as well. Ferguson was prophetic—where catastrophes reside, contagions of the mind follow.
Doom is alluring. But we are not there—yet. The best remedy to catastrophe is forward thinking. The dystopian novels of Huxley and Orwell act as a shield to disaster by envisioning it in the hope that we might not make the same mistakes. The Greeks called it apotropaic aegis—to stop tragedy, one must imagine it. Niall Ferguson’s assessment of COVID-19 and the catastrophes of the past are built on his attention to history. Those who neglect such historical knowledge are destined to repeat past catastrophes. We should learn not just from this book, but from the history of catastrophes, so we can imagine ways to stop the usurpations by the corrupt, the violent and the sinister. Ferguson puts it best succinctly:
All we can do is learn from history how to build social and political structures that are at least resilient and at best anti-fragile; how to avoid the descent into self-flagellating chaos that so often characterizes societies overwhelmed by disaster, and how to resist the siren voices who propose totalitarian rule or world government as necessary for the protection of our hapless species and our vulnerable world.
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe
by Niall Ferguson
Penguin, 2021, 496 pages, $35
Luke Powell is studying at Sydney University