What say should society have over global power networks that can influence elections, topple governments, and so on?

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FLJS panel assess “undisciplined effervescence” of Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower

02 March 2018

An FLS panel expressed both merit and misgivings over the scope and ambition of renowned historian Niall Ferguson’s latest bestseller, in a Book Colloquium held at Wolfson College yesterday to discuss The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power.

Emeritus Professor Denis Galligan was joined by Professor of Law and Humanities Eric Heinze of Queen Mary University, London, and Dr Christopher Decker, an economist at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, who were in broad agreement about the impressive range and enjoyable illumination provided by the historical anecdotes throughout the book.

The main flaws of the author’s approach, however, were found to also emanate from the ambitious scope of the volume, which served to undermine the clarity of the central argument about the nature of the network and the distinction between network and hierarchy. The prevailing verdict was that its “undisciplined effervescence” and lack of analytical insight may ultimately disappoint, but that it nevertheless offered an enjoyable interpretation of the history of power. 

Professor Galligan outlined the inspiration for the book’s twin thesis in the eponymous symbolism of Siena’s Piazza del Campo and the Torre del Mangia. Here, the tower represents the authority of the social order and the piazza represents the people over whom this authority and power is exercised. In his analysis, which drew on pre-Renaissance art and Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’, Prof Galligan praised the author’s efforts perhaps to suggest that the standard constitutional order and nation state are on the way out – to be replaced by another order governed by the network.

Professor Heinze took up this idea that power may increasingly be shifting away from the tower and towards the square, citing Machiavelli as one of the early exponents of the idea that power derives from more than mere top-down hierarchical structures. Prof Heinze was struck by the decidedly Anglo-liberal vision offered in Ferguson’s book, one in which the competition of the marketplace triumphs, and the author can be seen to be strangely sanguine about the hierarchical exercise of power.

 

What say should society have over global power networks that can influence elections, topple governments, and so on?

 

Dr Decker echoed his fellow commentators’ reservations, though not before praising the author’s effort to confront the modern-day view that social networks are not something invented in Silicon Valley in the past few decades, but had in fact been exerting a powerful influence on societies throughout the centuries. He concluded the opening presentations with a series of questions that he felt the book left frustratingly unanswered: 

  • How do you get excluded from a network?
  • How is power distributed among nodes of a network?
  • What say should society have over global power networks that can influence elections, topple governments etc.?

These and other questions were taken up in the entertaining Q&A that followed, which ranged across historical, theological, and mathematical interpretations of the book's themes.

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