Thank You, Niall Ferguson

Our wonderful team member, Paula Wong, introduced us to a fascinating way of seeing, which came from the famed British historian Niall Ferguson.

The first thing Paula showed us were excerpts from the following video…

Look how the description of the video on the YouTube page begins… it’s story! 

Do nations, like a good drama, have a beginning, middle and end? Why do civilizations succeed, why do they fail? Is it culture, economics, geography, climate, or an interaction among them? Is reinvention and rejuvenation possible? Our panel of celebrated scholars will examine the forces that propel the lifecycles of empires and how they may apply in today’s world. Many are asking whether the U.S. is past its peak and China will inevitably reclaim the preeminence it enjoyed centuries ago. More broadly, is the global center of gravity moving from West to East? 

And here are some of the comments by Ferguson which began to change our way of seeing. Let’s begin at about the 1:05 mark…

I think most people sitting in this audience have in their minds a more or less cyclical theory of history, even if it’s only a subconscious theory. That a little bit like people, nations or civilizations rise from their youth, they reach a zenith at about my age, and then it’s all downhill.


So people have a tendency to think about the life cycle of civilizations or of nations in those terms as if they’re human.

I think this is completely wrong and not borne out by historical study.

In reality history is characterized by a great deal of nonlinearity. That things can rise very suddenly, then exist apparently on a plateau, and then fall off a cliff.

I think of the history of the Soviet Union.  And one of the ideas that I’ve been exploring in my recent work, it was there in the book Civilization, is the idea that nations and civilizations are complex systems in the strict sense of the term. They are complex. They appear to be in equilibrium, but they are always in fact adapting on the edge of chaos.

And that means that really quite small perturbations can under certain circumstances cause the complex system to collapse.

In other words we shouldn’t think of a life cycle of any complex organization in those terms. We should think not of cycles, but of these sorts of S curves or exponential growth followed by collapse.


Don’t look for smooth curves in history. You’ll see them all the time in projections.  That’s not how history works. It’s a lot of jagged lines. It’s a lot of steep precipitous falls.

Then notice what Ferguson says about America, beginning at about the 22:22 mark…

The civil society that so impressed people when they visited in the United States until relatively recently, not just Tocqueville in the 1830’s, but right into the 1950’s, has atrophied to a shocking extent.

The associational life that used to make this country the envy of the rest of the world, that attitude that problems could be solved by citizens, not by the state, appears to have largely vanished. Read Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart, to understand what I’m talking about.

So although it’s easy to think the US is doing well if you’ve just been to Congo, I think you need to look at the US by comparison with the US.  The US in the nineteen eighties or indeed in the nineteen fifties, and ask yourself are we on the way up or are we, as I was suggesting earlier, rather close to the edge of a cliff, where our institutional degeneration could produce something much more serious than gentle decline.

And then Paula showed us more from Ferguson, beginning at about the 8 minute mark in the video… The Big Interview, With Niall Ferguson, Wall Street Journal … 

I think most people, if you just probe their default intellectual setting, assume that civilizations, like empires, rise, and then they reach a zenith, and then they decline, and then they gradually fall. It is, as you were indicating, a nice gentle curve. In other words, it’s a bit like our lives. We get born and we grow rapidly and then we reach our prime. You and I are in our prime now, I’m afraid we’re going to decline and fall gently into old age.

That’s not actually the way that political institutions, or for that matter, economic institutions work. Institutions aren’t organic entities like individual humans. And it’s not seasonal either. This was Oswald Spengler’s argument, that we would go from spring through summer to winter.

That’s not the way the realm of institutions operate. On the contrary, what we see if we study the history of civilizations is that these things rise more in an exponential way and they reach a kind of peak, after which they can collapse with amazing suddenness. And I’m very struck when I look at everything from the fall of Rome right the way through to the collapse of the North African dictatorships in the last twelve months, or for that matter the near collapse of the Eurozone, I think this is the real path of history, that it’s not about decline and fall.

So… one of the most renowned historians of our day is suggesting a very different way of seeing.

Look what he wrote about the Roman Empire… 

True, Gibbon’s “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’’ represented Rome’s demise as a slow burn over a millennium. But a new generation of historians, such as Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, has raised the possibility that the process of Roman decline was in fact sudden — and bloody — rather than smooth: a “violent seizure . . . by barbarian invaders” that destroyed a complex civilization within the span of a single generation.


“Romans before the fall,” wrote Ward-Perkins in his “Fall of Rome,” “were as certain as we are today that their world would continue forever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.”

Paris and the fall of Rome, by Niall Ferguson, Boston Globe, November 16, 2015

And consider this warning to you Americans…

But what if history is not cyclical and slow-moving but arrhythmic — at times almost stationary but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?

Great powers are complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems “go critical.” A very small trigger can set off a “phase transition” from a benign equilibrium to a crisis — a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse.


[E]mpires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse.

Washington, you have been warned.

America, the Fragile Empire, by Niall Ferguson

Ferguson is on to something. A whole different way of seeing than we had previously seen.

Thank you, Niall Ferguson.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *