The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

By Niall Ferguson

2,894 ratings - 3.64* vote

Most history is hierarchical: it's about emperors, presidents, prime ministers and field marshals. It's about states, armies and corporations. It's about orders from on high. Even history "from below" is often about trade unions and workers' parties. But what if that's simply because hierarchical institutions create the archives that historians rely on? What if we are miss Most history is hierarchical: it's about emperors, presidents, prime ministers and

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Book details

Hardcover, 592 pages
January 16th 2018 by Penguin Press

(first published October 2017)

Original Title
The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power
0735222916 (ISBN13: 9780735222915)

Community Reviews

Roman Clodia

3.5 stars for fuelling debate

More polemic than history, Ferguson has certainly digested a huge amount of material and tries to re-cast the entire history of mankind as a constant struggle between the power of hierarchies and networks. This kind of systematic binary categorisation, however, tends to simplify his vision - as his own narrative makes clear, the boundaries between a hierarchy and a network may shift, dissolve and reform: Russian communism, and Hitler's fascism might both have started as political networks but then both turned into the ultimate hierarchies of dictatorship and centralised power.

Despite this acknowledged outcome, Ferguson's own well-publicised politics lead him to the conclusion that 'the lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy' - and the key here is that 'to run the world', because this is what Ferguson is really concerned with. That his own narrative acknowledges the hierarchies of totalitarianism ('the secret of totalitarian success was, in other words, to delegitimise, paralyse or kill outright nearly all social networks outside the hierarchical institutions of party and state') and then *still* concludes that hierarchy, authoritarianism and centralised control is better than the 'anarchy' of distributed networks is a paradox at the heart of the book and something that I found disturbing.

The early part of the book which summarises decades worth of research on network theory feels overlong and could have been sharpened considerably. The later sweep through all of human history has its predictabilities given the author especially in relation to colonial imperialism ('but is "conquest" the correct term to describe what followed?'). The latter sections on contemporary politics (the rise of radical Islam, the Trump election, the Brexit referendum) are, in some ways, the most impassioned but, at the same time, sometimes lose their connection to the overarching argument about networks vs. hierarchies.

Ferguson is not the most elegant of writers here and his binary vision of power structures across human history is perhaps less radical than the book tries to claim (after all, network analysis has been around for the last 50 or so years) and also more limited and limiting than it should be - all the same, this is provocative polemic that will undoubtedly prompt public discussion and debate - surely the very attributes of the networks which he, ultimately, disses.

Thanks to Penguin for an ARC via NetGalley

☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣

Staggering political naivete...
... a time when intellectual diversity is the form of diversity that seems to be least valued in universities... (c)
Some among my contemporaries pursued wealth; few achieved it without at least a period of indentured servitude, usually working for a bank. (c)
Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, even when it is unconscious. (c)
To call Weishaupt’s thinking eclectic would be an understatement: his designs for the Order also included elements from the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries and Zoroastrianism (including use of the old Persian calendar). Another source of inspiration was the Alumbrados, a seventeenth-century spiritual movement in Spain. (c)
With the advent of Medici rule in 1434, ‘Renaissance man’ was born, a polymath engaged simultaneously in finance, trade, politics, art and philosophy – ‘part businessman, part politician, part patriarch, part intellectual aesthete’ (c)
Though less well known than the Medici, Benedetto Cotrugli is a perfect illustration of the ways that European networks were evolving in the Renaissance era – ways that created a new cosmopolitan class of interconnected individuals. Cotrugli’s Book of the Art of Trade is, it is tempting to suggest, the fifteenth-century equivalent of Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal ...
In many ways, The Art of Trade was Cotrugli’s attempt not just to raise the standard of business education but also to elevate the standing of business itself. Though it is best known to scholars as the earliest work to describe the system of double-entry book-keeping – more than thirty years before Luca Pacioli’s better-known treatise De computis et scripturis (1494) – The Art of Trade is most remarkable for the breadth of its subject matter. Cotrugli offers much more than just practical advice on accounting. He offers an entire way of life. This is not a dry textbook but an exhortation to his fellow merchants to aspire to be Renaissance businessmen. (c)
In addition to promoting rigorous accounting, Cotrugli was an early believer in diversification as a way of managing and reducing risk. He imagines a Florentine merchant entering into various partnerships with merchants in Venice, Rome and Avignon, investing some of his capital in wool, some in silk. ‘Having in a safe and orderly way put my hand to so many transactions,’ he observes, ‘I will gain nothing but advantage from them, because the left hand will help the right.’6 And again: ‘You must never risk too much on a single throw, by land or by sea: however rich you may be, at the most five hundred ducats a shipload, or a thousand for a large galley.’7 (c)
Cotrugli was a node in a burgeoning commercial network of credit and debt – hence his condemnation of ‘those that keep only one column of accounts, that is how much is owing to themselves and not how much others are expecting from them’, whom he calls ‘the worst type of merchant, the basest and most iniquitous’.8 ‘A merchant,’ writes Cotrugli, ‘should be the most universal of men and one that has the most to do, more than his fellows, with different types of men and social classes’ (my emphasis). Consequently, ‘everything a man might know may be helpful to a merchant’, including cosmography, geography, philosophy, astrology, theology and law. In short, The Book of the Art of Trade can also be read as a manifesto for a new society of networked polymaths. (c)

By the end of the war, a quarter of the British workforce was in uniform, 18 per cent of the American workforce and 16 per cent of the Soviet workforce. (c) How about saying no to trashy history? 34.5 mln people of USSR (Russia + republics) served in WW2.
Total population of USSR in 1940 was 194.1 mln.
34.5/194.1 = 17,77%.
One has to know that workforce is not 100% of the population and therefore was far lower than 194.1 mln. => So, the % of workforce in uniform is far higher than 16%...

the three-level pyramidal structure of the Soviet planned economy (c) I'd really love to know the source of this designation. From what I know, one can call it any number of level-economy, since the procedures were slightly different for different republics and at different times and for different parts of planning. I.e. planning milittary stuff and planning socks production were likely done via different procedures.

The twenty-first century increasingly looks like the fulfilment of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘The Library of Babel’. In it, he imagines a library containing not only all the books ever written, but all the books that ever could be written. With an infinity of information at their disposal, men swing swiftly from euphoria to madness. Some are seized by a ‘hygienic, ascetic furore’ to ‘eliminate useless works’, leading to the ‘senseless perdition of millions of books’. Others seek the one book that is ‘the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest’ – or they seek the librarian who has read that book and is therefore ‘analogous to a god’. In some parts of the vast library, men ‘prostrate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher a single letter’. In other parts, ‘epidemics, heretical conflicts, peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population’. The twenty-first-century world often seems like a vast realization of Borges’s vision. (c) Love this description. Pretty much what we got.

One of the few central bankers to appreciate the importance of this structural change was Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England, who argued that a complex adaptive system had been created that tended to amplify cyclical fluctuations. Haldane’s insight drew on the work of John Holland and others on complex systems which, unlike merely complicated systems, have the tendency to change in unpredictable ways. These ‘emergent properties’ were the thing missing from the Fed economists’ model. Quite simply, standard macroeconomics omitted network structure. No one had quite noticed that the global financial network had become connected enough for distress to cascade rapidly from one institution to many, but sparse enough for many institutions to be poorly diversified and inadequately insured against the failure of a counterparty. (c) Yep.

Charles Haywood

This book, by the always fascinating Niall Ferguson (though his main product for sale is always himself), analyzes capsule summaries of episodes from history, in order to negatively contrast spontaneous, networked action (the “square”) with hierarchical control (the “tower”). Two theses flow from this, one stated early on, the other only explicitly presented at the end. The first is that our networked age is not unique; in fact, it is the second such age, and lessons are to be gained from this, including that, from a historical perspective, networks are too often ignored in favor of focus on hierarchies. The second is that networks with actual power are mostly anarchistic poison.

There is apparently a modern academic discipline called “network theory,” in which statisticians and sociologists spend their days creating complex graphs to illustrate connections among everything from newts to nuclear power, using math to quantify the contents of those graphs. Network theory forms the basis of "The Square and the Tower," which is full of spidery graphs with interlocking and overlapping lines of different thickness, connecting circular nodes of various sizes. This is interesting enough, and sometimes even illuminating. It is true, though, that Ferguson elides a variety of definitional problems. For example, he does point out that a hierarchy is merely a kind of network, with limited or zero lateral connection between nodes. But this, combined with the many different types of networks adduced, and Ferguson’s admission that “most networks are hierarchical in some respects,” necessarily implies a continuum between network and hierarchy, not the sharp division on which Ferguson rests the entire book. Another problem is that what the actual connections that constitute a network are is never discussed. At one point the author does mention “friendship, intermarriage, and membership of clubs,” but there is a big difference between marriage ties on the one hand and ties of supposed friendship on the other hand. The reader realizes instinctively that not all network ties are created equal. A chart of the connections among China’s political elite is fascinating, but what do the lines mean, exactly? This problem goes unaddressed and unsolved.

But it’s Ferguson’s book, and this is how he has chosen to approach the matter. By his own detailed admission in the Preface, Ferguson is an inveterate networker—not in the sense of handing out his card to strangers at cocktail parties, but in that he (like his hero, Henry Kissinger) is extremely well-connected. As he admits, though, he has no power. Almost nobody reports to him and he is a member of no relevant hierarchy. Looking at the individuals he thanks, and at the footnotes, which seem voluminous but are mostly “ibid.”, Ferguson (at least for purposes of this book) circulates in exactly the network I’d expect (not one where I am ever invited). He name checks, among others, Francis Fukuyama, Graham Allison, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Robert Rubin, and Marc Andreesen. In other words, he name-checks the Davoisie, the neoliberal elite. Certainly Steve Bannon and Michael Anton don’t like any of these people. In itself that means little, but what Ferguson nowhere admits about networks is that they can offer their participants much, but they can also be insular and limiting. Not that Ferguson seems either insular or limited—in fact, he seems remarkably open-minded in these days of ever increasing forced conformity, such as with his admission that he was wrong to vote against Brexit. And he’s not very woke—among other examples, he says that he turned to writing because “the academic life turned out to be rather less well remunerated than the women in my life seemed to expect.” Tool of the patriarchy! Nonetheless, the reader should probably remember that a network can be a prison as well as a key.

Ferguson chooses to start his discussion of networks with talk of an imaginary network—the Illuminati. There was a real Illuminati, of course, a German secret society in the late 1700s, of the type favored by intellectuals of the time, which attracted quite a few prominent men, but was rapidly and permanently suppressed by the Bavarian government. The end. But, of course, ever since conspiracy theorists have postulated the society’s continued existence, ascribing to it world-spanning power and putting it at the center of, or as the most important node of (to use network theory terms), a network that rules the world. (I have never been attracted to conspiracy theories, because they are irrational. Certainly, there are conspiracies, but it is also certain, as Benjamin Franklin said, that “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Conspiracies tightly constrained in membership and time can sometimes succeed, a topic on which Machiavelli has much to say. But over any significant time frame, at some point some conspirator will find it profitable to betray the conspiracy, if for no other reason than to clear his conscience.) However, as Ferguson points out, not only have the Illuminati and other networks, including real ones such as the Freemasons, never had all the power often ascribed to them, the past 250 years have been a time of hierarchical dominance, culminating in the mid-twentieth century. Our age, though, is the age of resurgent and newly powerful networks, in the form of both secretive Muslim terror networks, and, what could otherwise not be more different, public networks embodied in businesses of great power, and these networks do not play nice with the hierarchies that have dominated our world for the past two centuries.

That the Illuminati are grossly overrated is not to say that networks have not often been important. In fact, one of Ferguson’s points is that the role of networks in history has been underappreciated, because it’s easier to record data about, remember, and write about the institutions created by hierarchies. (Another under-addressed definitional problem is connected to this, though—the distinction between networks lacking power, like the Rotary Club and other “civil associations,” or Ferguson’s own connections that get him access to research material, and networks with power. The former are unimportant in this context, but what’s the dividing line, and what gives a network power?) Before we get anywhere, Ferguson first spends fifty pages on technical descriptions of network theory, which is both surprisingly well-done and competently linked to the rest of the book, and illuminating in that it clearly explains how some networks are better at accomplishing things than others. Quickly enough, though, we get to Ferguson’s first major point—that our networked age is the second networked age in modern history, and so to cast our time as unique is wrong and wrongheaded.

The first networked age, according to Ferguson, followed hard on the heels of the invention and rapid spread in Europe of the printing press, and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century. (Although in a few places Ferguson uses non-Western examples in this book, such as the Taiping Rebellion, non-Western cultures play almost no role in this book, which is not surprising, since they have played no important role in creating any aspect of the modern world.) We bounce around, talking in one chapter about Benedetto Cotrugli’s (I never heard of him either) "Book of the Art of Trade" to, in other chapters, talking about Portuguese trade network expansion, Pizarro and Spanish-Indian mixing, and much more, with point-counterpoint among networks and hierarchies. Woven throughout this, though, is the outline of a subtle theme only later made explicit—that networks often kill.

Printing led to the Reformation, which led to, among other horrors, the Thirty Years War, which the virtuous (and hierarchical) Peace of Westphalia finally ended (Ferguson is a Westphalian to his core, as will become evident). Then the networked crowd and the breakdown of hierarchy led to the Terror, in 1793, and it was only the (hierarchical, and workaholic) Napoleon who finally ended the resultant anarchy. The 1815 (and very hierarchical) Congress of Vienna kept the peace for a hundred years. (Here Ferguson channels Henry Kissinger as if from a fire hose, and he recurs to Kissinger throughout the book—he is writing the second volume of his Kissinger biography, so I assume the man is on Ferguson’s mind. That said, Ferguson does love to shoehorn into his books characters from his other books, from the Rothschilds to Siegmund Warburg, and he constantly drops footnotes to his own works to support his contentions, all of which is a little bit jarringly circular.) Then, to be fair, Ferguson notes that bad hierarchies (especially Stalin’s—Ferguson correctly notes that Hitler had vastly less central control than did Stalin) killed a lot of people in the twentieth century, at the zenith of global hierarchical control—but they originated from networks, and they also controlled a lot of networks (though that suggests, again, an unclear dividing line between hierarchy and network).

In connection with the rise and success of Communism, Ferguson repeatedly recurs to the network of the traitorous Cambridge Apostles, a group which he snarkily calls the “Homintern.” (Ferguson slagged John Maynard Keynes a few years back for naturally not being invested in the future, being an “effete” homosexual who was “indifferent to the long run because he had no children.” Then he apologized, although his statement was inarguably accurate, and generally applicable. Whether or not homosexuals are generally corrosive of society, in times past when homosexuality was not widely accepted, there is no doubt that being a homosexual tended to place such an individual in a position hostile to the traditional pillars of society. Ferguson moreover says that Oxford men are “muscular” and “heterosexual,” as opposed to Cambridge men, who are not. Sure, he’s talking about eighty years ago, but given that he went to Oxford, the reader wonders if this is all some kind of inside joke.) The point of discussing the Apostles, of course, is to contrast the (pernicious) effects of their network with the opposing, ineffectual networks of English counterespionage, as well as more generally of elite Englishmen, and to describe the service of the Apostles to Stalin’s hierarchy. Again, this furthers the general, but not yet made explicit, theme that networks are poison.

The book takes numerous detours that bear tangentially on networks, from a discussion of anti-Chinese policy in nineteenth-century California to a discussion of Alfred Milner’s network of powerful Englishmen. Onwards we go, enjoying the ride, although wondering where we are going. We examine Axis attempts to use the networks of Islam to incite jihad against the British Empire. We examine the British general Walter Walker, who used networks to defeat the Indonesians in Borneo, during the 1950s (his methods could never be used today, though, given that in today’s American military, every time you want to kill someone, you have to get a lawyer to sign off first). The problem is that these vignettes, each of which is interesting, hang together only loosely. For example, there is a four-and-a-half page chapter on “The Triumph of Davos Man,” discussing the World Economic Forum held there (in fact, at this moment being held there—again, I was not invited). The point seems to be the power of networks, but actually most of the discussion is about Nelson Mandela and nationalization of industry. Interesting, sure, but it’s just not clear what the point is, or how this fits in. Ferguson also seems to love the evil little imp George Soros, and he falsely refers to him as “a refugee from Nazism”—in fact, as a teenager Soros eagerly collaborated with the Nazis, including in the seizure of goods from other Jews, and only left Hungary in 1947, so if anything, he was a refugee from Communism, not Nazism.

We get network analysis of Islamic terrorism, including ISIS. We get an analysis of the 2008 financial crisis, alleging that Lehman Brothers was allowed to fold because Dick Fuld didn’t belong to the right networks. What the right networks would have been for Fuld isn’t specified, which is odd, because the answer is obvious—the network centered around Goldman Sachs. This lacuna is puzzling—that network would make, for example, a perfect object of exactly the type of network analysis graph Ferguson offers throughout the book, and it could be done with publicly available information. My guess is that it would be incredibly informative, and incredibly disturbing. But not a word is said about Goldman Sachs in this entire book. Another lacuna is also puzzling—despite repeated mentions of the network of Donald Trump, that network is similarly treated as opaque, when mapping it would be extremely interesting, much more interesting than Alfred Milner’s network, certainly. And, finally, we get detailed thoughts on Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Ferguson waits until almost the very end to explicitly reveal his true feelings, and his second major point—he thinks that networks, at least those with power, are a death-dealing abomination that reinforces bad hierarchies without offering anything good in return. Not for him the optimism of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s "The Chessboard and the Web" (a recent book that got almost zero attention when released, despite the author’s prominence, for reasons I do not understand, though perhaps Ferguson continuously referring to her will help). Ferguson opens up his artillery on the new Lords of the Network. “And when [Mark Zuckerberg] says that ‘the struggle of our time’ is between ‘the forces of freedom, openness and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism, and nationalism,’ he seems to have forgotten just how helpful his company has been to the latter.” Ouch. Ferguson more or less sees Zuckerberg as a nasty combination of the worst aspects of Robespierre and Stalin, and that’s also, for the most part, how he sees the other companies that dominate the modern networked world. (In this he has a lot of commonality with Franklin Foer in World Without Mind, who sees the “GAFA” companies as pretty much the incarnation of evil, though for somewhat different reasons, and I agree.) And they gave us Donald Trump, whom Ferguson doesn’t seem to like much, though he doesn’t spend much time attacking him, merely sniffing here and there in a way that suggests he thinks an unpleasant stench is lurking somewhere nearby, and Twitter, along with Mark Zuckerberg, is to blame.

The specific companies are not the problem, which would exist with other companies with different names and leaders. The point is that networks, whether social and Internet-based, or amped up with robots and artificial intelligence, won’t lead to human happiness and peace, any more than the networks of the Gutenberg era did. Unless we all end up sedated in an Aldous Huxley dystopia, “A more likely outcome is a repeat of the violent upheavals that ultimately plunged the last great Networked Age into the chaos that was the French Revolution.” Ferguson certainly has that Revolution on the brain: “The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of the Jacobins. . . . Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to re-learn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.” By this he explicitly means a hierarchical order of great nation-state powers, not some new order of technology giants, the past sunny optimism of whose leaders Ferguson brutally contrasts to their more recent admissions that the now-arrived future is not what they expected, while he predicts yet worse to come.

The key to much of this is a quote that Ferguson offers early in the book, from Francis Fukuyama, “hierarchical organization . . . may be the only way in which a low-trust society can be organized.” Most of the world has always been low-trust, other than a few ethnic networks, and a few Western countries. But the West is becoming ever lower trust, we can all agree (for reasons on which it is harder to agree), so if it is true that hierarchy is needed in inverse proportion to trust, the future is hierarchical, or it is anarchic. Very importantly, though, these will be new hierarchies. Modern networks have disrupted the old hierarchies, and while nation-states (at least relevant ones) are unlikely to crumble, the hierarchies within them will be almost wholly new. Ferguson makes this explicit in his criticism of the administrative state, which he decries as “the last iteration of political hierarchy, a system that spews out rules, generates complexity, and undermines both prosperity and stability.” In this analysis, the rise of Trump is merely the leading edge of this turnover, and the desperate attempts of neoliberal Democrats and Republicans to stuff the genie back into the bottle, by using hashtags or by using the weaponized Justice Department to maintain their power, are doomed.

Ferguson ends the book by snickering at the new palaces of Facebook, Google, and Apple, and contrasting them to the (unnamed) Trump Tower in New York. The last two sentences of the book are, “On the other side of the United States, however, there looms a fifty-eight storey building that represents an altogether different organizational tradition. And no one individual in the world has a bigger say in the choice between networked anarchy and world order than the absent owner of that dark tower.” It seems unlikely that Ferguson does not realize the echo to Stephen King’s famous novella "The Dark Tower," in which an evil immortal clashes with a hereditary gunpowder knight wielding revolvers forged from the metal of Excalibur (with an awesome opening line, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”). He perhaps does not realize, though, that the dark tower of that novella is actually the structure that holds together the universe, and is a force only for good, attacked continuously by evil. But whatever Ferguson is trying to tell us about Trump Tower, this overrates the impact that Trump, or any one person, can have in forestalling anarchy. Facebook, Google, Apple, and so on have immense power, much more than Trump, and more than the mental and moral midgets in Congress, who represent the decayed political structure of end-stage liberalism (in the Enlightenment sense, encompassing both classical liberals and progressives) and the administrative state. That doesn’t mean the power of those companies can’t be broken, and new hierarchies regain relative power. But Trump isn’t going to do it, nor will chaos among nation-states demolish the Lords of the Network. Something new, and different, is needed, and, I suspect, this way it comes.


I am a big fan of Niall Ferguson's writing. He has the gift of being able to explain a complex subject in a lively, entertaining but intellectually responsible way - perhaps nowhere more so than in his wonderful 2008 book, "Money: a financial history of the world".

I therefore looked forward to reading "The Square and the Tower". In fact, I was biased toward it before I even opened it. The fact that I can only give it three stars is an indication of my disappointment. This book has a feeling of being "rushed", as if to fulfil a contractual deadline.

At times Ferguson appears to contradict what he has written elsewhere, but without explaining the new evidence that has caused him to re-think - such as his account of the rise of the Rothschilds, which seems very different to the account he gave in "Money". At other times he breathlessly introduces fascinating material, which he equally breathlessly leaves hanging - such as his comments about excessive White mortality rates in the U.S. - on page 363 in my edition.

But it is his sins of omission that particularly disappointed me. Perhaps the best example of the rise and fall of a powerful political network in recent times has been the Afrikaner Broederbond, which dominated South Africa for several decades. Since the consequences of the fall of apartheid are still with us, I would have expected at least an entire chapter on this particular power network. It isn't even mentioned.

Michael Cayley

Niall Ferguson is the author of, among other works, a superb history of the British Empire. I came to this book with high expectations and found it a huge disappointment.

Its central thesis is meant to be that networks of people who may be in themselves regarded as unimportant have played key roles in history. But much of the book is actually narrative history that focuses largely on people who have long been regarded as prominent individuals - rather belying the thesis. A much too long introductory section - about a tenth of the book - explores recent understandings of network theory, and quotes opinions and statements of network theorists as if they are facts. Niall Ferguson contrasts hierarchies - where people obey orders from above - with networks, which cross hierarchical and organisational boundaries. The importance of networks has been a platitude of organisational theory for decades.

Ferguson substantially exaggerates the novelty of historians thinking about the importance of networks: historians may not have used the jargon of network theory but they have recognised the significance of more informal associations of people for as long as history has been written. The concepts are also more than familiar to anyone who has read works on cultural or economic history or the history of art, literature, maths, science or ideas.

Network diagrams are interspersed in the text - these merely give a pseudo-scientific dimension, and add little. The narrative history content is often presented at a gallop, with some debatable generalisations and interpretations.

The whole book read to me like far-too-overextended journalism - albeit with some apt cautions about the influence of, for example, internet networking - rather than a work of a serious historian.

A great pity. Niall Ferguson has written some really excellent books. Alas, I do not think this is one of them.

With thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for letting me have an ARC.

Bryan Alkire

Not very good. I usually enjoy this author’s work, but not this reread. About the only good thing about this book is the idea of a history of social networks. The organization is not good…the chapters are too short and not in-depth enough and are inconsistent throughout at tying things together. The writing is dry and it was a struggle to finish. The content wasn’t really new research, seemed to be bits and pieces of the research he did for previous works. In sum, this seemed to be a lazy effort on his part to keep his publisher happy. I was disappointed with this book when I first read it and I’m even more disappointed now.

So, I give this a 2. It’s a nice idea, but that’s the only good thing. The rest, organization, writing and content were just disappointing and not up to the author’s usual more tightly focused work.

Alice (Married To Books)

I was approved for a copy for review via NetGalley!Sadly, this was a DNF for me at 20%. I am personally not the biggest fan of non-fiction works and found some of the terminology difficult to understand. I did like the use of diagrams though, as this made the chapters look visual. Sadly, I lost interest and will not be finishing.

Ken Hammond

The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson, Networks (The Square) Tower (Hierarchies) interestingly Ferguson points out that networks historically thought of as the powerless unwashed masses did in fact disrupt Hierarchies throughout history on a regular basis for instance "The French American and Russian revolutions" to name a couple, even Henry Kissinger the consummate professional powerless as an individual but then hired by the US Presidential office and suddenly master in the tower of power. Filled with interesting insights about the Illuminati (lets deflate the hype) some more on genetics of Queen Victoria's children and grand children (Kings, Queens and Emperors of most of pre-world war one Europe, another notable network touched on Pizzaro and his small band of brothers who destroyed the ruling Inca Empire. what did I learn don't under estimate the single human individual and beware of the ruthless self interested leaders in power. As we move fully into the instantaneous digital information age, just take notice of your own political landscape that surrounds you and make sure you and your community is safe.


This is a big book in many ways. Niall Ferguson is a British historian who takes on complex issues. In this book he attempts, mostly successfully, to describe the characteristics of networks and hierarchies. He begins with a discussion of the Illuminati - there is a lot of confusion about who the Illuminati were - a small group of German intellectuals in Bavaria who thought that with the right amount of thinking almost any problem could be solved. Like most of their like they were a) secretive and b) assuming that their ideas were the one right way to make the world right. Ferguson then goes through a fascinating narrative about the Masons and how networks in various parts of history changed things in remarkable ways.

He makes a couple of points which should not be lost. First, technology at many points in our history had a profound effect on changing major portions of life - often destroying hierarchies. For example, with the invention of moveable type the effect on economies at the time was greater than the technology revolution we are experiencing at this point. We all know about Moore's law and the declining costs of technology - but Gutenberg's invention reduced the cost of printed materials by a larger amount - the effect on economies at the time was significant. Books dropped in price by something close to 90%.

Second, he does a review of world history from the Peace of Metternich which relates networks and hierarchies. In a series of chapters he covers a lot of history and offers some interesting conclusions on the \ tensions between hierarchies and networks and how those tensions influenced developments in Europe, Asia and the US. He reminds American readers of the comments of DeTocqueville about the propensity of Americans to form voluntary organizations and that inhibiting effect on the growth of government. He argues that there was a determined effort to change the American approach to social services with some significant consequences.

He then offers some comments on the role of networks in our current era - especially the effects of Facebook and Twitter on how we communicate. He presents some amazing statistics on how effectively Clinton and Trump used networks in the 2016 election (Hint - Clinton was not as adept as Trump was).

This is the kind of book that one should read and then re-read. It is worth the second time, to make sure that all of his arguments are pulled in.

The final section offers some of his comments about how we should use both hierarchies and networks in the current environment. I am not convinced of many of his conclusions. That being said I should repeat this is a profound book.


Drawing on the best modern scholarship, this book seeks to rescue the history of networks from the clutches of the conspiracy theorists, and to show that historical change often can and should be understood in terms of precisely such network-based challenges to hierarchical orders.

In both the Introduction to and the Afterword following the meat of The Square and the Tower, author Niall Ferguson invokes the image of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Tuscany – a medieval square that hosts informal and public events in the town – and the adjacent Torre del Mangia; a literal projection of secular power that looms over the townsfolk as they gather. Ferguson's thesis for this jaunt through history is that scholars have traditionally concentrated on the doings in the tower (if only because the big names in history tended to do their work there and were, therefore, recorded) but that the major upheavals always start in the square; in other words, Ferguson's goal is to concentrate on the networks that challenged and overthrew hierarchies throughout Western history. As I understand from other reviews, this isn't exactly groundbreaking historiography, but as we seem to be in a period of ever-dependent networking, and as I haven't read enough history to be bored by yet another overview of the Reformation, the World Wars, the 2008 Recession or Brexit, I found it all very interesting (if sometimes dull in jargon and repetition).

There is a lot of history in this book and I'll just record here some of the things that I found interesting. It's not surprising that Ferguson pretty much begins with Gutenberg – the printing press unleashed the first networked age, and when Luther came along, his treatises brought down the centuries-long dominance of the Catholic Church. What's interesting, to me, was the idea of the power vacuum this left – the ensuing cycles of hierarchies and the networks that took them down that has continued to our own time. We travel through the Age of Explorers and the birth of truly global trade. We learn that Paul Revere was one of several midnight riders that fateful night, but it was his superior networking (technically explained with nodes, and edges, and degrees) that has kept his personal legend alive. The French had a different kind of Revolution: networking brought down the aristocracy, allowing for the rise of Napoleon, which networking among the people brought down again. Ferguson explains how the British Empire employed networking to keep the peace amongst its vast holdings with minimal supervision. During WWI, Germany attempted to call the world's Muslims to jihad; exhorting them to drive the British out of the Middle East. And while that might have spurred the fervent defense of Gallipoli, it was the British superior gift for networking (Lawrence of Arabia, et al, on the ground) that eventually gained the local Muslims' trust and support. At the same time, German cells were trying to interfere in Russia's governance: To an extent that most accounts still underrate, the Bolshevik Revolution was a German-financed operation, though it was greatly facilitated by the incompetence of the Russian liberals. This statement is eventually followed up by the claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 80's began in the East European regimes that had been forced to borrow heavily from Western banks; which were by this point relying on new information technologies from Silicon Valley and international networking at Davos. In this way, German networking brought about the Soviet hierarchy (and through “blowback”, their own descent into autocracy) and the networking of international finance brought it down. From the Cambridge Apostles to Cambridge Analytica, George Soros breaking the Bank of England, the inability of the Coalition Forces to defeat al-Qaeda until they realised they would need to build a network to fight a network: there is so much history here that I can't possibly record it all.

Also unsurprisingly, Ferguson claims that the rise of the internet has brought about a networking revolution on par with Gutenberg and his printing press – and he doesn't necessarily find that to be a positive in our modern age. Not only have we made ourselves incredibly vulnerable to cyberattack, but we've created new and powerful hierarchies by transferring all of our money to the internet billionaires who don't answer to anyone, and we spend our networked time communicating with each other uncivilly and untruthfully. Developing countries are more likely to use the internet to spread terrorism than autocracy-busting revolution, and developed countries use the internet to confirm that we're missing out on the good life. In response to a decline in perceived quality of life, President Obama brought in measures (from ACA to Dodd-Frank) that strengthened the administrative state and added untold layers of bureaucracy and lawyer-fattening compliance regulations, leading to:

Intergenerational inequity in public finance, hypertrophic growth of regulation, deterioration in the rule of law and corrosion of educational institutions – taken together these lead to a “great degeneration” of both economic performance and social cohesion. In short, the administrative state represents the last iteration of political hierarchy: a system that spews out rules, generates complexity, and undermines both prosperity and stability.

In addition, the American government used anti-terrorism legislation and the ubiquity of the internet to spy on its own citizens (as proved by WikiLeaks, Assange, Snowden, etc):

To an extent that disturbs libertarians on both left and right, the US government exerts control and practises surveillance over its citizens in ways that are functionally closer to contemporary China than to the America of the Founding Fathers.

With this oppressive overreach of the hierarchy, how could the networks in the fringe corners of the internet not respond? Ferguson calls Brexit “a dress rehearsal for the US presidential election of 2016”; both cases in which networks of opposition took down entrenched hierarchies – the Leave vote thwarting the will of the elected government in London, and both Bernie Sanders shaking up the Democrats and Donald Trump opposing the will of the Republican Party; Trump himself prevailing over (the hierarchy's choice) Hillary Clinton with a superior network of supporters who could take his message from the internet to the pub. (Although he didn't have confirmation at the time of the book's release, Ferguson presciently suggests that Cambridge Analytica probably had as much of a role in targeted advertising via Facebook in America as it had in Britain.) So, all of this would seem an argument in favour of networks further disrupting the oppressive hierarchies, no?

The lesson in history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy...unless one wished to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some sort of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.

From the Pentarchy of nations that kept a stable peace in Europe after the Thirty Years War to the UN's Security Council that has so far prevented a third World War, Ferguson argues for the efficacy of a truly global hierarchy (instead of our current, dangerous, opposing spheres of influence) because, after all, a hierarchy is just a special kind of network in which nodes communicate up and down but never connect laterally. And while Ferguson might be right in this conclusion, I don't know if he proved it. Still: I really enjoyed the history lesson; this felt quite long, sometimes dull, but somehow vital.