Excerpted from NIALL FERGUSON:
“Clashes between hierarchies and networks are not new in history; on the contrary, there is a sense in which they are history. Indeed, the course of history can be thought of as the net result of human interactions along four axes.
The first of these is time. The arrow of time can move in only one direction, even if we have become increasingly sophisticated in our conceptualization and measurement of its flight. The second is nature: Nature means in this context the material or environmental constraints over which we still have little control, notably the laws of physics, the geography and geology of the planet, its climate and weather, the incidence of disease, our own evolution as a species, our fertility, and the bell curves of our abilities as individuals in a series of normal distributions. The third is networks. Networks are the spontaneously self-organizing, horizontal structures we form, beginning with knowledge and the various “memes” and representations we use to communicate it. These include the patterns of migration and miscegenation that have distributed our species and its DNA across the world’s surface; the markets through which we exchange goods and services; the clubs we form, as well as the myriad cults, movements, and crazes we periodically produce with minimal premeditation and leadership. And the fourth is hierarchies, vertical organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control, and communication. These begin with family-based clans and tribes, out of which or against which more complex hierarchical institutions evolved. They include, too, tightly regulated urban polities reliant on commerce or bigger, mostly monarchical, states based on agriculture; the centrally run cults often referred to as churches; the armies and bureaucracies within states; the autonomous corporations that, from the early modern period, sought to exploit economies of scope and scale by internalizing certain market transactions; academic corporations like universities; political parties; and the supersized transnational states that used to be called empires.
Note that the environment is not wholly a given; it can be shaped by, as well as shape, humanity. It may well be that, in the foreseeable future, our species’ impact on the earth’s climate will become the dominant driver of history, but that is not yet the case. For now, the interactions of networks and hierarchies are more important. Networks are not planned by a single authority; they are the main source of innovation but are relatively fragile. Hierarchies exist primarily because of economies of scale and scope, beginning with the imperative of self-defense. To that end, but for other reasons too, hierarchies seek to exploit the positive externalities of networks. States need networks, for no political hierarchy, no matter how powerful, can plan all the clever things that networks spontaneously generate. But if the hierarchy comes to control the networks so much as to compromise their benign self-organizing capacities, then innovation is bound to wane.
Consider some examples of history along these four axes. The population of the entire Eurasian landmass was devastated by the Black Death of the 14th century, a natural disaster transmitted along trade networks. But the impact was very different in Europe compared with Asia. The main difference between the West and the East of Eurasia after 1500 was that networks in the West were much freer from hierarchical dominance than in the East. No monolithic empire rose in the West; multiple and often weak principalities prevailed. Printing existed in China long before the 15th century, but its advent in Germany was explosive because of the network effects generated by the rapid spread of Gutenberg’s easily replicated technology. The Reformation, which was printed as much as it was preached, unleashed a wave of religious revolt against the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It was only after prolonged and bloody conflict that the monarchies were able to re-impose their hierarchical control over the new Protestant sects.
European history in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was characterized by a succession of network-driven waves of innovation: the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. In each case, the sharing of novel ideas within networks of scholars and tinkerers produced powerful and mainly positive externalities, culminating in the decisive improvements in economic efficiency and then life expectancy experienced in the British Isles, Western Europe, and North America from the late 18th century. The network effects of trade and migration were especially powerful, as European merchants and settlers exploited falling transportation costs to export their ideas, as well as their techniques and goods, to the rest of the world. Thanks to those ideas, this was also an era of political revolutions. Ideas about liberty, equality, and fraternity crossed the Atlantic as rapidly as pirated technology from the cotton mills of Lancashire. Kings were toppled, aristocracies abolished, and churches dissolved or made to compete without the support of a state.
Yet the 19th century saw the triumph of hierarchies over the new networks. This was partly because hierarchical corporations—which began, let us remember, as state-sponsored monopolies like the East India Company—were as important in the spread of industrial capitalism as horizontally structured markets. Firms could reduce the transaction costs of the market as well as exploit economies of scale and scope. The railways, steamships, and telegraph cables that made possible the first age of globalization had owners.
The key, however, was the victory of hierarchy in the realm of politics. Why revolutionary ideologies like Jacobinism and Marxism-Leninism so quickly produced highly centralized hierarchical political structures is one of the central puzzles of the modern era, though it was an outcome more or less accurately predicted by much classical political theory. Whatever the democratic aspirations of the revolutionaries, their ideologies ended up as sources of legitimation for autocrats who were markedly more power-hungry than the monarchs of the ancien régime.
True, the energies unleashed by the overthrow of the Bourbons were (just barely) insufficient to overcome those produced by the British synthesis of monarchism and the pursuit of Mammon, which restored or revived the continental monarchies, including, temporarily, the Bourbons themselves. But the old order was only partially restored. Napoleon had taught even his most ardent enemies an unforgettable lesson, as Clausewitz understood, about how an imperial leader could wield power by commanding a people in arms.
For a time it seemed that a modus vivendi had arisen between the new networks of science and industry and the old hierarchies of hereditary rule. Half the world fell under the sway of a dozen Western empires, and much of the rest was under their economic sway. But optimists, from Norman Angell to Andrew Carnegie, felt sure that these empires would not be so foolish as to jeopardize the benefits of international exchange. After all, it was partly by taxing the fruits of the first era of globalization that the empires could finance their vast armies, navies, and bureaucracies. This proved wrong. So complete was the imperial system of command, control, and communication that when the empires resolved to go to war with one another over arcane issues like the status of Bosnia-Herzegovina or the neutrality of Belgium, they were able to mobilize in excess of seventy million men as soldiers or sailors. In France and Germany about a fifth of the prewar population ended up in uniform, bearing arms.
The triumph of hierarchy over networks was symbolized by the complete failure of the Second International of socialist parties to prevent the World War. When the leaders of European socialism met in Brussels at the end of July 1914, they could do little more than admit their own impotence. What the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus called the alliance of “thrones and telephones” had marched the young men of Europe off to Armageddon. Those who thought the war would not last long underestimated the hierarchical state’s ability to sustain industrialized slaughter.
The mid 20th century was the zenith of hierarchy. Although World War I ended with the collapse of no fewer than four of the great dynastic empires—the Romanov, Habsburg, Hohenzollern, and Ottoman—they were replaced with astonishing swiftness by new and stronger states based on the normative paradigm of the nation-state, the ethno-linguistically defined anti-imperium.
Not only did the period after 1918 witness the rise of the most centrally controlled states of all time (Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich and Mao’s People’s Republic); it was also an era in which hierarchies flourished in the economic, social and cultural spheres. Central planners ruled, whether they worked for governments, armies or large corporations. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), the Fordist World State controls everything from eugenics to narcotics and euthanasia; the fate of the non-conformist Bernard Marx is banishment. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) there is not the slightest chance that Winston Smith will be able to challenge Big Brother’s rule over Airstrip One; his fate is to be tortured and brainwashed. A remarkable number of the literary heroes of the high Cold War era were crushed by one system or the other: from Heller’s John Yossarian to le Carré’s Alec Leamas to Solzhenytsin’s Ivan Denisovich.
Kraus was right: The information technology of mid-century overwhelmingly favored the hierarchies. Though the telegraph and telephone created vast new networks, they were relatively easy to cut, tap, or control. Newsprint, radio, cinema, and television were not true network technologies because they generally involved one-way communication from the content provider to the reader or viewer. During the Cold War the superpowers were mostly able to control information flows by manufacturing or sponsoring propaganda and classifying or censoring anything deemed harmful. Sensation surrounded every spy scandal and defection; yet in most cases all that happened was that classified information was passed from one national security state to the other. Only highly trained personnel in governmental, academic, or corporate research centers used computers, and those were anything but personal computers. The self-confidence of the technocrats at that time is nicely exemplified by MONIAC (the Monetary National Income Analogue Computer), a hydraulic device designed by Bill Phillips (of Phillips Curve fame) that was supposed to simulate the effects of Keynesian economic policy on the UK economy.
There were moments of truth, particularly in the 1970s, when classified information reached the public through the free press in the West or through samizdat literature in the Soviet bloc. Yet the striking feature of the later Cold War was how well the national security state managed to withstand exposures like the report of the Church Committee or the publication of the Gulag Archipelago. George H.W. Bush, appointed head of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1976—in the midst of the Church Committee’s work—went on to serve as Vice President and President. Within a decade of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation had a former KGB operative as its President. The Pentagon proved to be mightier than the Pentagon Papers.”