Published:

A new ConHome monthly series offering a very short introduction to some of those who are making or who have made an intellectual contribution to conservatism.

4) Niall Ferguson

Age: 57

Education: The Glasgow Academy, Magdalen College Oxford

CV:

  • Academic historian at Stanford (previously Harvard, Oxford, the LSE, et al)
  • Author

Relevant works:

Several, but for the purposes of this piece:

  • Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

Outlook:

If one had to distil a single lesson from Doom, a wide-ranging exploration of the sort of disasters which befall societies and why, it would surely be “it’s complicated”. Niall Ferguson starts by blurring the lines between ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ disasters – a flood is only a disaster if we have built on a floodplain, for example – and proceeds, by way of a broad sweep of different examples, to examine the huge array of factors that contribute to any catastrophic event.

From this morass arise two critical questions: how can we better predict disasters; and how can we make our societies (and ultimately human civilisation) more resilient to them?

Unsurprisingly, there are no easy answers. There are always more potential dooms than there is political will to hedge against them, and different calamities will impact different systems in different ways. Sometimes a system creates incentive structures that push those in power towards action, such as famine in democracies; in many other cases, it does not.

But the shape of the thinking prompted by the question nonetheless fits into an interesting pattern in recent right-wing thought.

The cold spotlight Ferguson shines on how autocratic and totalitarian systems often beget or aggravate crises is conventionally conservative enough. But his main takeaway from the Covid-19 pandemic, at least as far as the UK and US is concerned, is that it brutally exposed the shortcomings of an ill-organised and inadequate state, as well as an information wilderness presided over by social media giants (“the East India Companies of the internet”) and universities “more interested in propagating ‘woke’ ideology than in teaching all that can profitably be learned from science and the human past”.

One can see in this prospectus the preoccupations of a rising generation of rightists, many online, sketched out in a recent essay by Aris Roussinos: a renewed interest in state capacity; scepticism of corporate power; and an understanding of the ‘culture war’ that frames it not as a spluttered defence of this statue or that but a campaign with a purpose – the creation or capture of institutions through which power is exercised and nations are made, manifested in this country by Dominic Cummings’ abortive crusade for civil service reform.

Impact:

Ferguson has little time for the ‘great man’ theory of history. If this book comes to seem influential, it will likely be simply that its production was an early product of whatever systemic change it seemed, to the flawed retrospective judgement of future historians, to precipitate or predict.

Where to start?

Take your pick. We selected Doom both because it is his most recent work and a promising topic from which a broader philosophical outlook might be gleaned. But Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World and Civilization: Is the West History? both seem sensible alternative starting points.