“All unavoided is the doom of destiny,” declares Richard III ruefully. Shakespeare’s line sets the tone for Niall Ferguson’s brilliant new book Doom, an extended essay on how human politics cope with catastrophe.
Humanity has lived with a sense of doom and destiny since society and history began, argues Ferguson. The game of survival has been a tangled tale of decision and indecision, misunderstanding and self-deception. The present Covid crisis is no exception – great powers east and west have made disastrous choices from the beginning. Some have recovered from dismal starts, the USA and Britain especially. Smaller powers, learning from experience and recent history, fared better, and countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have led the pack.
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The book, however, is no mere catalogue of major disasters and emergencies; floods, fire, pestilence, famine and death – though there are these in aplenty. It looks at how those in charge, and the victims, reacted to cataclysmic and world-changing events. It is the politics of disaster from all angles and at all levels, from the family and village to the palace and mighty bureaucracies of governance. And it is not just a history as such, but a beguiling piece of argumentation – a brilliant amalgam of historical analysis and raw journalism. It’s a format at which Ferguson excels – he would have made a brilliant editor of one of the world’s great titles whether the Times of New York, London or India – but I fear this aspect has baffled some of the book’s narrow minded critics.
“Look into these disasters and you find them shaped by politics,” he tells me in a recent telephone conversation. “Take volcanoes – sure you can say there is nothing manmade about their eruption. But building villages and houses round them – that’s a political decision, and they continue to do it.” He admits that he has been writing the new book from his residence bang on top of the San Andreas Fault in California.
Pandemics have had a huge and persistent impact on humanity. None more than the Black Death, the great plague that killed 40 per cent of Europe’s population in the 14th century, and the “Spanish” Influenza outbreak that killed anywhere between 50 and 100 million worldwide between 1918 and 1921.
The impact of the Black Death still resonates, and its effects are there to see. “And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown into those ditches and covered with earth,” wrote Agnolo di Tura about the plague in Siena. “And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug, and I Agnolo buried my five children with my own hands. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”
The Piazza Duomo, an elaborate gothic expansion was under way in 1347, on the eve of the plague. All that remains is an elegant skeleton of a Siena brick Gothic arch of the new transept. All public works were cut for a generation by the ravages of the pandemic. Great artists, and governors, Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, authors of the great pictogram in Siena’s townhall of early modern republicanism – ‘Il Buon Governo’ – good government, and Europe’s first modern secular landscapes, disappeared in the conflagration. Ominously the Sienese called it a ‘holocaust’.
The onset and impact of the H1N1 Influenza pandemic of 1918 were as stunning as the Black Death. On this, Ferguson is at his forensic best. The outbreak was spotted late, and then concealed, as it is still to an extent to this day. The death toll was about 100 million – many times the number killed and injured in the Great War of 1914 to 1921 in Europe and the fringes of Asia. The point is made powerfully by this book – the two sets of events are conjoined and intertwined. The course of the war and the plague were conditioned and shaped by politics.
“If anything, I think I may have underestimated how the Influenza pandemic affected the course of the war – especially in 1918,” Ferguson says. “There is a lot more to be studied here. I think the German Imperial army was badly affected through the summer of 1918, and many soldiers were probably too ill to fight.” By June American and British artillery units struggled to resupply with ammunition – gunners were falling off the horses pulling limbers to the front.
In Britain, the Influenza known as Spanish flu came in two big waves – the second dying out in 1922 – “and for many reasons that we don’t fully understand,” the author explains. He suspects that we may be seeing a similar pattern of waves with Covid-19, on an equally global scale.
Failure to learn from history is one of the cardinal political errors made in the present crisis. This is a point of common sense, and not a refined piece of theocratic historiography. This is the first of five errors from which we now have to learn, the book states at the beginning. The others are failure of imagination, tendency to fight the last campaign, underestimate threat, procrastination and delay, and hoping a clearer solution is just round the corner.
Ferguson points out that a UN assessment three years ago put the US and UK at the top of the world table for being ready to deal with a pandemic. So what went wrong? The UK had put drills, memos and theoretical models in place to fight an epidemic. But that epidemic was supposed to be influenza, and not the recurrence of Covid, or Sars. The same point is made in Michael Lewis’s The Premonition – A Pandemic Story (Allen Lane). In fact, the machinery in London and Washington had become gummed up with the smug bureaucratic protocols and assurances of public administration and the civil service. Lewis in his brilliant polemic is particularly scathing about the shortcomings and shortsightedness in the USA of the CDC – the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which performed so flaccidly in the early days of the outbreak.
Niall Ferguson uses the toolbox of history and historical inquiry, brilliantly and to hugely entertaining effect. The book, its footnotes and bibliography have provided me with a reading list for insight, stimulation and fun for the rest of my life. Inquiring how the past informs the present and future he invokes the aid of three creatures – black swans, gray rhinos and dragon kings. Black swans, the term promoted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, are phenomena that come out of the blue, the gamechangers from nowhere, the dragon kings are the drivers of events leading to distant unforeseen outcomes. But most useful in the Covid story is the gray rhino – a concept developed by the financial journalist Michele Wucker when faced by the Argentine financial collapse in 2001. It is a kindred spirit to the elephant in the room – the large creature everyone knows is there but pretends isn’t there at all. The problem is that once the gray rhino charges, you have to get out of the way or be crushed.
Why the gray rhino of Covid-19 wasn’t stopped in its tracks when it could or should have been, is the central theme of the book. It is discussed in terms of historical analysis, and brilliant, informed conjecture. The effect of the way the pandemic was addressed may have changed politics for a generation and perhaps for good.
Tentatively, Ferguson suggests that democracies have fared better in recovering from a very bad start – particularly in the case of the US and Britain. “It was a dreadful 2020 for both governments – but they showed themselves pretty good at recovery – especially Biden. In the UK there is the success of the vaccines,” he says.
The best performers were small, historically aware, countries like South Korea and Taiwan. “They were well prepared and knew what to do with lockdown,” he tells me. He might have added that both countries have prepared and drilled their populations against a possible attack by chemical weapons.
The Bulgarian academic Ivan Krastev agrees with Ferguson about the profound impact of the Covid episode on politics. In a brilliant article in the International New York Times of 13th May this week, he argues that it may have promoted a new form of democracy, and not of the kind that Biden would like in his bid to relaunch liberal democracy as a global brand. The new form is ‘the elected autocracy’ exhibited by the likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Narendra Modi in India. Though elected to office, the Covid turmoil has enhanced their autocratic ways – though they have handled Covid with mixed results.
Ferguson has great concern about the performance of China in the pandemic. “A lot is still to be understood about what happened,” he tells me, and he suspects the crisis isn’t over in China itself. “They delayed disclosure, and seemed to cover up. They took the same approach that the Soviet Union did to the Chernobyl disaster. They then went on the attack, blaming everyone else for the outbreak. The ‘wolf warrior’ attack diplomacy was a failure. And their vaccine diplomacy hasn’t been a huge global success, either – they’re just not as good at developing vaccines as America.”
The Covid threat will be with us for some time, a year or two at least. In preparing for the next wave, or even a new variant, politicians must not focus overmuch on what they should have done better last time. They shouldn’t depend too much on experts and officials either, because in the end the ultimate decision and responsibility is on politicians. The politicians must prepare for the community to be more resilient – a point on which Ferguson, Lewis, and many doctors and senior officials I have spoken to, all agree. It is astonishing that no specific discussion and consideration was given to social and security resilience in the UK government’s new Integrated Review.
For all the brilliant marshalling of historical experience and sources in Ferguson’s wonderful book, some of the greatest insight comes from an almost unexpected quarter – a bit of a black swan, you might say. “I am astonished how useful so much Science Fiction is to thinking about where we are,” he tells me. “Honestly, I gave up reading sci-fi when I was about 17 or 18. I took it up again two years ago and found so many books that give extraordinary suggestions about where we are now.”
A favourite is The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, which is about to be made into a television mini-series. It tells of a dystopian China trying to save itself from extra-terrestrial destruction. “The China of the book behaves not unlike China today in the Covid pandemic,” he says, “I am telling all my students to look at these books to deepen their understanding of where we are.”
Doom is an exhilarating ride in the story of disaster and how we may or may not cope with it. It is full of history, with the best of anecdote and analysis – but it is also so much more. It is a glorious rain check of where we stand now by one of the most brilliant analysts of the global scene.
Of course, this is an open-ended commitment to a continuing story – and I cannot wait for the next instalment. By the way, I am sure Ferguson’s gritty Scots stoicism is on the money.
The crack of doom isn’t here quite yet.