The bad news is that plagues are a constant companion to human civilisation. The good news is that we are getting better at explaining their causes and treating them without recourse to superstition.
When the Black Death ravaged Europe in the 14th century, troupes of flagellants proceeded from town to town, surrounding local churches, beating themselves with spiky, iron-tipped leather scourges. They saw the disease as divine punishment and prayed fervently for release from its clutches, all the while aiding its dispersal across the land. The medical treatments they needed were nearly 600 years away.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought its share of irrational fanaticism. There is something medieval about paranoid mobs felling mobile phone masts in the belief that 5G signals are responsible for the disease. But that minor skirmish is far from the frontline in a battle that science is winning, at least until the next disaster strikes. The march of progress gives cause for optimism; the certain recurrence of disaster less so. That tension is the subject of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, Niall Ferguson’s excursion into the history of horrible afflictions.
It is not a gloomy book, although it dwells often on our collective failure to learn from past mistakes. Ferguson’s interest is the patterns and systems that emerge from the repetition, to which end he skips quite breezily through a rich catalogue of gruesome, miserable experiences: floods, earthquakes that swallow whole cities, volcanic eruptions that bring humans to the brink of extinction, wars, famines and an array of lower-division horrors. The sinking of the Titanic and nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl exhibit at microcosmic level much the same “fractal geometry of disaster” discernible in the macro calamities.
Ferguson’s rundown of disasters combines the man-made and natural kinds, exploring the boundary between the two. Sometimes it is distinct. The Romans did not provoke Vesuvius, whereas the Germans did invade Belgium in 1914. But in many cases, humanity is the accomplice to mass suffering from what looks ostensibly like natural causes, as when the Spanish flu ripped through barracks and trenches towards the end of the first world war. The virus racked up a much higher body count than bullets and artillery. Likewise, terrible politics can manufacture calamity out of nature, as when Stalin’s collectivisation policy led to famine in Ukraine and sustained it with repression.
There are few cases where responsibility can be attributed so directly. There is usually too much chaos and complexity for any individual to have agency over the sweep of events. With some caveats, Ferguson endorses the view expressed by Tolstoy in War and Peace, that Napoleon was the slave of historical forces beyond his comprehension, not their master. Leaders can be morally accountable for calamitous errors of judgment and, as with Hitler and the Third Reich, epoch-defining atrocities. But culpability is not all of causation. The origin of most catastrophes is elusive. There are too many threads going back too far, but also apparently stable situations can spiral abruptly out of control. It can take centuries for empires to decline, as happened with Rome, but they can also unravel overnight. The USSR passed from superpower status to non-existence in a matter of months.
If there are no patterns discernible with hindsight, the individual living through some traumatic event has practically zero chance of making sense of it in real time. Mercifully, the human spirit is primed to get on with life in almost any circumstances. Sometimes, the best available explanation is expressed in a formula that Ferguson traces back to a San Francisco gang member cited in a master’s dissertation from 1964: “Shit happens.”
Ferguson would hardly be fulfilling his remit as a historian if he stopped there. He does identify recurrent traits from the vast back catalogue of misfortune. When it comes to finding fault, he is particularly exercised by bureaucratic failure, which he finds in cases of industrial accident and, most recently, in British and American responses to Covid-19.
There is no disputing the harm that can be done by institutional inertia, group-think and mediocre middle managers pursuing perverse incentives (or just trying to shirk difficult choices). The Challenger space shuttle disaster makes a good case study. Pressure to meet a launch target overrode known concerns about a design flaw that proved fatal. But when it comes to the pandemic, Ferguson starts to reveal his conservative aversion to big states. He is not exactly forgiving of Donald Trump (“manifestly idiotic” is the verdict on one episode of maladministration), but the former president is treated more as a pathetic accessory to the disaster than a motor of it. In the UK context, Boris Johnson’s equivocations and delays are leapfrogged in eagerness to find fault with scientists and officials advising the prime minister.
Notably absent, too, is recognition of the fiscal background to Britain’s pandemic – the possibility that Covid wreaked more harm because the public realm had been depleted by decades of budget cuts. Ferguson’s speciality is financial history, so he surely has a position on that point, but we don’t know what it is. There are other flashes of political partisanship that feel out of place in a historical account. The death toll in care homes is cast, gnomically, as “a paradoxical result of fetishising the National Health Service at the expense of institutions beyond its aegis”.
Ferguson is sceptical of lockdowns on the basis of their economic impact, embracing the familiar fallacy that government suffocated livelihoods in exchange for an insufficient dividend in lives saved. In reality, failure to lock down would have drastically increased the economic harm by prolonging the whole ordeal. But on this, too, there is an ideological tell in Ferguson’s description of Covid regulation as “varying degrees of house arrest” – a formula that conflates necessary public health measures and authoritarian spite.
By the author’s admission, the pandemic section of the book is unfinished and vulnerable to refutation by post-publication events. But by that stage in the narrative there is already a sense the book has drifted from its original purpose. What began as a taxonomy of doom evolves into a hawkish foreign policy treatise on the coming cold war with China. It is a bracing polemical finale that seems to round off a different book to the one that started in philosophical meditation over death as life’s unshakable shadow.
Perhaps a more satisfying conclusion was simply unavailable. Doom covers an impressive sweep of history at a lively narrative clip and weaves a lot of disparate strands together into an engaging picture, even if they cannot, in the end, be arranged into a meaningful pattern. While it would have been a tidier volume if all of mankind’s historic woes had been drawn into a coherent model, with predictability and rules, it is to Ferguson’s credit as a historian that he accepts the futility of that endeavour. He is wise, in the end, not to posit a grand theory of catastrophe, when his exploration of the subject proves the absence of any such thing.