Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower is a short, sometimes too short, book that provides an interesting new perspective on history and how individuals’ personal networks—and networks of nations and corporate entities like businesses and associations—shape it. The book’s name comes from Siena, where the Torre del Mangia of the city hall symbolizes the hierarchical powers overlooking and sometimes overshadowing the socializing and commerce of the Piazza del Campo.
In a series of short, rapid-fire chapters that often read like a succession of prefaces rather than a profluent narrative, Ferguson introduces the reader to network theory, a body of work that analyzes relationships. In network theory, an individual’s relationships are measured by their number and strength to others in the network. Relative positions in networks are visualized as circles, with the more important members of the network being closer to the center. Visualizing networks in this way is intended to provide a sense of how information and influence move among a set of individuals whose formal relationships may vary or be unclear. Think of a “mob chart” on a classic TV cop show, where the cops are trying to find out who the boss is by the network of relationships leading to the source of authority.
Ferguson contrasts networks, which are generally informal and dynamic, with formal and static “hierarchies,” where the power relationships are established and clearer for the outside—although as he himself notes, a hierarchy is simply a specialized network. Using network theory he tries to portray history as oscillating between periods dominated by hierarchies and ones dominated by networks. Unfortunately this attempt fails, partially because it’s an oversimplification and partially because truly doing the topic justice would likely distract from Ferguson’s ongoing project of writing a comprehensive biography of Henry Kissinger.
The Kissinger work at times overshadows The Square and the Tower. Several chapters make use of Nixon administration memoirs and research into Kissinger’s life to make the case that Kissinger was effective as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State because of his informal networks, which allowed for direct, informal back-channel communication with allied or Soviet counterparts away from official statements. For example, Ferguson writes that Kissinger learned that the Soviets were terrified of the Americans taking advantage of the Sino-Soviet Split from a Czech official called Antonin Snejdarek at a conference both happened to be attending at the same time, well before anyone in the United States even knew it was happening. It would have been helpful had Ferguson sharpened this analysis further. Was Kissinger unique in his networks, or do Secretaries of State try to cultivate such informal webs of relationships to gather information? That seems to be a standard understanding, for example, of the work of a nation’s diplomatic corps.
Ferguson’s two “Networked Ages” are the Early Modern Period and the 1970s to the present, which also coincidentally reflect Ferguson’s interests—for example, his books The Ascent of Money, Civilization: The West and the Rest, and The Great Degeneration also focus on those periods—and another part of the book deals with the “Concert of Europe” that came out of the Congress of Vienna, which was the subject of Kissinger’s doctoral thesis. This narrow focus means that Ferguson largely ignores the most important network in history: the family.
Families and familial relationships formed the core of how most people related to one another in the West until relatively recently and continue to do so in some parts of the world, like the Middle East. In ancient cities like Athens and Rome people were grouped for governing purposes not so much by class, profession, or neighborhood as on the basis of being enrolled in a tribe or clan, each with its own patron god and ostensibly shared common ancestor.
Families shaped the map of Europe. There’s an old saying about the House of Habsburg: “Let others wage war, but you, happy Austria, shall marry.” It was not only royalty who married—business and political dynasties still exist. Ferguson devotes some space to the House of Rothschild, but he focuses on their business networking, not their familial structure even though he admits that the number of cousin marriages in the family in the middle of the nineteenth century was “extraordinary.” Today in Japan it still fairly common for executives to adopt the adult men they expect to succeed them and marry them to a daughter if one’s available and willing.
Not only are family networks examples of networks existing alongside hierarchies and binding them together, but the patron-client relationships of the Roman Republic and Empire also would seem to contradict the idea of hierarchies and networks being opposed to each other. While Ferguson devotes some space to globalization as an example of how the contemporary world is more networked, he overall neglects trade networks, which have existed within and between hierarchical states for millennia.
Happily, Ferguson is under no illusion about the costs of a hierarchical world or a highly networked one. The centrally planned world that came on the heels of the Depression and Second World War was strongly hierarchical and stifled innovation—but the networked world of today is vulnerable to terrorism, manipulation, is more fragile than we think, and is gradually falling under the domination of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google in the West and Baidu (Chinese Google), Alibaba (Chinese Amazon), and Tencent (Chinese Facebook) in the East.
Nor does he ignore the paradox that our networked world has been produced by hierarchical corporations. It may be possible that the hierarchical nature of the businesses that own and maintain our networks, with their drive to tinker, to create value for shareholders, and with conflicts in values between owners and users, could make them more fragile than other kinds of networks. Ferguson compares the Early Modern increase in availability and decrease in price of books that resulted from Gutenberg’s metal movable type with the increase in availability and decrease in cost of computers that began in the 1980s. However, they are not the same: books printed by Gutenberg had to be hunted down and destroyed, they could not be deleted from afar. With Facebook, it’s as though everyone is using the same printer, not doing their own printing.
Another flaw with looking at history through networks is that most people have some sort of connection to most other people, which, in the absence of good sources, can lead to conspiratorial thinking of the kind that continues to focus on the Rothschilds. For example, I have a surprisingly close relationship to the Nixon administration and Henry Kissinger: my grandmother worked at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in New York when the United States entered World War II. Kissinger, who was a German citizen and therefore an enemy alien, needed a reference to join the Army and my grandmother provided it. Later, she married a man who wrote a book making fun of Spiro T. Agnew, which earned him a place on Nixon’s expanded enemies list. On the other side of my family my great-grandfather was a Quaker and professor of geology at Duke University, where he taught Ed Nixon and got to know Richard, since both were raised Quaker and Richard Nixon was attending law school at the time.
Interesting for my family history, but less than a footnote to history.
Networks have definitely played a major and somewhat neglected role in history. Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower is, despite a few shortcomings, a tip in the iceberg for undoing the neglect.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.