History is a vital tool for policy making, and a sweeping study of past catastrophes offers lessons for this pandemic and the ones to come.
It is characteristic for conservative historian Niall Ferguson to have produced an exceptional history during a pandemic. Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe is a sweeping chronicle of global disasters large and small from the dawn of recorded history to the end of 2020; a detailed account not only of previous pandemics, but an embryonic analysis of the moment we are currently living through and “a diary of the plague half year.” For those seeking to ground themselves in historical context after the topsy-turvy events of the past year, Ferguson’s latest offering will prove invaluable.
Doom, Ferguson told me in an interview, is his attempt to induce us to self-awareness with regard to how we think about disasters. “I really would love to get people to think differently about things like disaster preparedness,” he said. “If I believe in anything it’s that history is a policy tool as well as a source of intellectual diversion, and although I don’t expect policymakers to read this book, there is a category of person whose job it is to read books for the policymakers and I honestly think this is an important book for those who have to think about disasters in any domain of public policy.”
Ferguson begins, appropriately enough, with the inevitability facing all of us: death. As death in the West has become increasingly contained to sterile medical institutions, we face more fearfully the reality of mortality. Ferguson refers to religion as “magical thinking,” but it is significant and largely unremarked on that we no longer possess the collective metaphysical frameworks that once served to contextualize catastrophe. Not only is public faith in government receding; increasingly, the public itself has no faith to speak of. Conspiracy theories flourish in populations where everyone seeks to create their own truth; the internet has created an infinite number of tailor-made narrative possibilities.
Ferguson also details, with extensive and dismal data, how terrible humans are at thinking about disasters. He accounts for and debunks the best theories of cyclical history, noting that catastrophes are often unpredictable and abnormally distributed, ensuring that retroactively applied theories inevitably fail in the particulars. His recounting of the history of Cassandras—or as the faithful would call them, prophets—is particularly depressing. The tragic figures who tried and failed to warn people of impending doom are a testament to the obstinacy and perpetually unwarranted optimism of human nature. No sooner has a volcano erupted or an earthquake struck, and people are rebuilding in its shadow or on a fault line.
But as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Ferguson details previous pandemic health measures: non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, quarantines, and travel restrictions have been utilized since time immemorial to reduce disease transmission. (Incidentally, the much-maligned Old Testament has quite a bit to say about quarantines as containment for contagions.) Our responses to these allegedly unprecedented times are also in many cases startlingly identical to those in previous disasters. Daniel Defoe records the crackpot theories conjured up during the bubonic plague; during the Spanish Flu, which killed 675,000 Americans, mandatory health measures gave rise to organizations such as the Anti-Mask League. In 1630, Urban II even excommunicated the Florentine sanitary commission for banning religious processions during the plague.
Networks, which Ferguson examines in Chapter 4, are not only significant in how viruses are spread, but also how ideas travel. “The thing that makes this disaster different is that unlike, say in 1957 [the Asian Flu pandemic], the internet plays this new role of disseminating contagions of the mind that greatly impede rational discourse about public health or indeed anything else,” Ferguson told me. “Watching theories about the virus, remedies for the virus, and the vaccines spread really seem to be taking us into new territory. In some ways the infodemic has been as big a problem as the pandemic itself. We have a machine for disseminating crazy ideas far more powerful than existed in the 1940s or 1950s.” (Ferguson details our evolving networks and their social impact in his 2019 book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook.)
Ferguson also debunks “the science delusion,” the postmodern religion our leaders genuflect to in virtually every press conference. Science is a tool, not a belief system, and these tools have had a hard time keeping pace with us. “Empire forced the pace of research into infectious diseases,” Ferguson writes, “but it also forced the pace of the globalization of the world economy, creating new opportunities for diseases, not all of which submitted to vaccination or therapy.” In short, diseases have evolved with our civilization and adapted to our behavior.
In the face of disaster, we often like to blame our leaders, but Ferguson points out that the satisfying psychology of political incompetence does not account for how little control democratic leaders actually exercise over the populace, much less pandemics. He notes that smaller disasters like the Titanic and Chernobyl are helpful as microcosms to illustrate “the combination of operator error and managerial error” contained in most catastrophes. In short, anonymous bureaucrats in bloated government agencies are often as much at fault as anyone else. In times of disaster, we want villains, not bumblers. It is more often the latter rather than the former.
He rebuts the idea that the botched initial responses of the U.S. and the U.K. were due to populist politics. Rather, it was the fact that pandemic preparedness turned out to be a sick joke, especially when contrasted with Taiwan and South Korea, who learned their lessons from SARS and MERS. The economic fallout of the crushing lockdowns will not be fully understood for years. Ferguson is not all doom and gloom—he disagrees that the U.S. is predestined to decline in the face of China’s rise. “In a number of respects, the crisis has shown the persistence of American power: in financial terms, in the race for a vaccine, and in the technological competition,” he writes. “Rumors of American doom are once again exaggerated.” On the other hand, Ferguson fears that such rhetoric could push the cold war with the PPC into a hot war at some point.
Particularly interesting is Ferguson’s analysis of how information is suppressed, especially with regard to how Taiwan confronted both the pandemic and the infodemic. When bombarded by Chinese propaganda, the Taiwanese produced their own viral content ruthlessly mocking it. They managed to avoid lockdowns by contact tracing, rapid testing, and empowering the public to gather and share information. “Our approach, on both accounts, has been dreadfully lacking,” Ferguson told me. “We completely bungled the early part of the pandemic and ended up copying the PRC with lockdowns. We didn’t pay any attention to what Taiwan was doing, partly because the WHO refused to admit that Taiwan existed.” At the time of the book’s writing—October 22, 2020—Taiwan had seven COVID deaths, and New York had tallied 33,523.
Better pandemic preparedness is the obvious answer to our current catastrophe. Less welcome to advocates of a surveillance state is Ferguson’s key conclusion—that growing government power and metastasizing wokeism is a particularly ominous development. There is an element of truth to the fears of those concerned with the “Great Reset” and other such theories.
“The big disasters that we likely face are actually related to totalitarianism, because that’s the lesson of the 20th century,” Ferguson told me.
Pandemics killed a lot of people in the 20th century, but totalitarianism killed more. It disturbs me that in so many ways, totalitarianism is gaining ground today not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society. That seems to be the disaster we really need to ward off. Why am I a conservative and not just a classical liberal? I said this to Steven Pinker the other day—because classical liberalism won’t stop wokeism and totalitarianism. It’s not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilization and defences against that particular form of disaster.