Review: Niall Ferguson, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe”

In Harpers, Rebecca Panovka recently reviewed the new novel from the writer Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise. “There is a reason,” Panovka mused, “world-historical ruptures, like the one collectively experienced in the spring of 2020, tend to produce big, ambitious books…The task of the great pandemic novel, if such a thing were to exist, might be to start metabolizing the unprecedented disruptions caused by the COVID-19 response”. Let it suffice to say that Panovka found Yanagihara’s sally less than convincing.

On the other hand, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, the latest from multi-institutional historian Niall Ferguson, does earnestly make such a metabolic attempt. It appears the book was finished around October of last year for publication in the spring of this one. With his characteristic eye for scope, Ferguson attempts to formalize why societies throughout time and across space have struggled to deal with catastrophic occurrences – whatever that actually means. He marshals long traditions of writing in fields like economics, epidemiology, archaeology, etc etc to explore how gaps in our thinking or the unrestrained desires of elite classes or the fault in our stars lead us to bumble through disaster. Like I said, it’s a wide book.

The interested would be wise to recognize aforehand that Ferguson’s writing can be…self-aggrandizing. Part one of the introduction, “Confessions of a Superspreader,” is mostly an itinerary of Ferguson’s fantastic world-spanning travel – “I used to joke that the lecture circuit had turned me into an ‘international man of history,'” he sniffs. In that same introduction one can find a recounting of just how right he was about COVID-19 in the early days, a list of his impressive earlier books and their relevance to the book before you, details on his pandemic-induced flight from the Bay Area to “Montana” (the Bay Area’s general success in keeping COVID tame notwithstanding), and a rhetorical question asking “Why write history now, when the story is not yet over?” Why indeed.

Now I’m being overcruel; in truth, I find it hard not to admire Ferguson for precisely the panache he brings to history writing. His interview on Conversations with Tyler gave, I think, a good sense for the kind of Old World intellectual he really is, the type to talk about what AJP Taylor meant to him and to muse aloud about why the English let the Dutch come over and conquer them for free in 1688. Contemporary historians are of course rigorous researchers, doggedly devoted to unearthing minutiae of minutiae in the archives, albeit in service of arguments which seem perhaps to cleave away from their intellectual opponents’ stances less and less as time goes on. The book that won 2020’s Bancroft Prize, Andy Horowitz’s Katrina: A History 1915-2015, spends half its runtime describing the political career of the district attorney of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a place which has never contained more than 26,000 people.

Again I’m being overcruel – Katrina is an excellent book and the strange career of Leander Perez is a good and important story. Where Horowitz really excels, and where his book dovetails with Ferguson’s Doom is in its theory of catastrophic history. To Horowitz, the notion that Hurricane Katrina was some force majeure which caused great suffering for the residents of the Gulf Coast in 2005 and about which we all need to feel sorry is misguided. The catastrophe did not begin with a temporary intensification of windspeed in the western Atlantic ocean, nor did it end when the rains subsided and the Lower Ninth Ward could begin to drain. The catastrophe was human, and political, and tied up in the choices made by Louisianans and their leaders for a century hence. The catastrophe began with patterns of settlement encouraged by the GI Bill, and was hastened by the failure of the Army Corps to finish their plans for the seawalling of Lake Pontchartrain. It was only worsened when, in response to dramatic weather, St Bernard Parish closed the bridge to New Orleans, CNN claimed snipers and looting in the streets, and the Bush administration failed to provide relief for renters.

Ferguson realizes this essential insight as well, and as such his work investigates human responses to exogenous events. One of his strongest sections is a takedown of theories of cyclical history, which have been falling in and out of fashion since Giambattista Vico. Ferguson admires more the longue durée work of Jared Diamond, which doesn’t try to capture time until collapse as some regular function of a handful of civilizational variables; by contrast, it is useful to understand that common phenomena will enact common pressures on people no matter where or when they live. In our time, most historians will defer to climactic pressures as nudges towards catastrophe, but of course, history is always of its own time, and there’s no more reason to believe climate is the ultimate answer than any other pressure.

Another light for Ferguson is the nature of authority in crisis, and what he’d like to say about authority in our own time. Sir Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic is cited more than once and Ferguson suggests that where early modern religious institutions once chased away local magical superstitions, the “belief in science” mantra espoused during the pandemic, chiefly by well-meaning American liberals, may mark a return of magical thinking to modern mentalities.

So while Ferguson’s got a good head on his shoulders about all this, and manages to get the right potshots in against his pretender intellectual opponents, I find that Doom ultimately fails for lack of substance. Though it attempts a history of catastrophes, it ends up more like a literature review of intellectual traditions which might be applied to understanding catastrophe. He swings from big name to big name, one field to the other, summarizing their findings and asking the reader to go “Hmm!” but never brings the juice of historical evidence to bear on his broad theory. What’s more, it’s predictable – when he starts to discuss cognitive biases which might affect leaders in catastrophic scenarios, it’s easy enough to guess he’ll bring up Kahneman & Tversky, and indeed he does.

When history writing becomes more industrial than academic, as indeed it may have for Ferguson, I suppose it’s only fitting that one book or another will fall flat. Still, popular history, if nothing else, ought to delight and educate. Doom does neither. If you need to get caught up on the historiography of empire studies go grab this thing off your nearest shelf. Otherwise skip it.

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