Toward a Unified Theory of Stalin, the Teamsters, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Facebook


The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook, by Niall Ferguson, Penguin Press, 563 pages, $30

Penguin Press

The imposing Torre del Mangia is a 289-foot tower rising over Siena's city hall. Below, the Piazza del Campo serves as the Tuscan town's market square, civic meeting place, and entertainment venue. Together they form the metaphor in the title of The Square and the Tower, the British historian Niall Ferguson's new book about networks, hierarchies, and how they have interacted throughout history.

How hierarchies operate is not a conceptual mystery. The emperors of Rome, the caliphs of Islam, the autocrats of the Kremlin, the armies of Napoleon and Eisenhower, the corporate managers of General Motors, the bosses of the Teamsters Union: In each case we see a Mr. Big at the top of the tower directing lieutenants, satraps, prefects, and legates, all the way down to the grunts at the bottom. Hierarchies arose at the beginning of human civilization, but the "zenith of hierarchically organized power," Ferguson writes, "was in fact the mid–20th century—the era of totalitarian regimes and total war."

Yet hierarchies do not rule perpetually without challenge. Ferguson argues that since 1446, three disruptive changes have made it increasingly easy for large numbers of people to interact and collaborate over time and space—that is, to network. The first was the printing press, whose output swept across 15th century Europe and then beyond. The next was the 19th century telegraph cable, which allowed messages to flow from London to Bombay in four minutes. (The telephone, the fiber optic cable, and the satellite download dramatically accelerated this revolution.) The third change is the instantaneous communication of the internet.

Networks are obscure, ephemeral, clandestine, acephalous, and potentially subversive, built around nodes connected by "edges" to other nodes in a manner that produces activity without centralized control. As in Ferguson's "square" metaphor, they are flat, dispersed, and operate beneath or apart from a tower-like superstructure. Moreover, networks can be part of other networks—and they can be created, manipulated, captured, and annihilated by hierarchies. The Russiagate scandal, for example, hinges on the idea that the leaders of the Russian hierarchy have supported and manipulated a network of largely autonomous cyber-trolls.

Ferguson produces several examples of hierarchies defeating challenges from networks. Take Lenin and Stalin's relentless crackdowns after the Bolshevik Revolution. Their regime shrilly denounced any dissenting network—the peasant-led Social Revolutionaries, the kulaks, the Cossacks, the Kronstadt anarchists—as counterrevolutionaries, traitors, bloodsuckers, vampires, and "unreliable elements" of the Communist Party itself. Under Lenin, the Bolsheviks carried out as many as 300,000 political executions in just their first two years of power. Stalin's reign was even bloodier, and three of his own secret police chiefs were eventually taken out and shot. Once the all-powerful Communist Party became established, few Soviet citizens dared to belong to any unauthorized network.

In discussing these events, Ferguson exhibits an enormous range of historical knowledge. The people parading across his pages include Spanish conquistadors, Malayan guerrillas, the Swiss mathematical prodigy Leonhard Euler, Admiral Wang Hong, the Bavarian Illuminati, Hitler and his gang, Nelson Mandela, George Soros, Paul Revere, Henry Kissinger, Mohammed Atta, the Tuscan painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and hundreds more.

These vignettes can be fascinating but sometimes run aground. Many of the book's 60 chapters appear to be instances of an author taking the opportunity to mention something of interest from his research, whether or not it readily illustrates his theme. He devotes one chapter, for instance, to the origin and social habits of an elitist Oxford/Cambridge in-group called the Conversaziones. The historian spends a remarkable amount of writing describing the sexual peccadilloes of the Apostles, as they called themselves. The fact that they included a Soviet spy ring is notable, but their contribution to understanding the workings of networks does not seem very significant.

But some of the networks he discusses are clearly relevant. One is Alcoholics Anonymous. This group offered "a twelve-step path back to sobriety," Ferguson writes, "but its real strength lay in the therapeutic network effects of regular meetings at which experiences of addiction were confessed and shared." Ferguson attributes its success to its "quasi-religious and wholly unpolitical character" and wonders whether, had it somehow been linked to communism, J. Edgar Hoover would have placed it under surveillance.

Ferguson is enthusiastic about ­criticizing hierarchical rule, or at least its authoritarian excesses, but he is also quick to finger the dark side of networks bent on hatred, plunder, violence, and, in our day, cyber-terrorism (think of ISIS or the WannaCry virus). At one point he writes: "The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of the Jacobins." Ferguson, a disciple of Edmund Burke, is no admirer of ­Jacobins.

While it's not difficult to heuristically appreciate the archetypes of hierarchy and network, the "square" and the "tower" are inherently blunt tools for the analysis of social and political movements and organizations. There are hierarchies within networks, networks within hierarchies, and a vast range of commingled life forms that defy simple taxonomy. Henry Kissinger, Ferguson's favorite networker, was of course the foreign policy director of the United States government hierarchy.

But there is a conflict in Ferguson's own thinking about hierarchies and networks as well. "The near-autarkic, commanding and controlling states that emerged from the Depression, the Second World War, and the early Cold War exist today, if at all, only as pale shadows of their former selves. The bureaucracies and party machines that ran them are defunct or in decay. The administrative state is their final incarnation," he writes. "Will the new networks liberate us from the shackles of the administrative state, as the revolutionary networks of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries freed our ancestors from the shackles of spiritual and temporal hierarchy? Or will the established hierarchies of our time succeed more quickly than their imperial predecessors in co-opting the networks, and enlist them in their ancient vice of waging war?"

The fact that today's most celebrated cyber-networks (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) are centrally controlled by hierarchies suggests that networkers' power to control, influence, or undermine those hierarchies may be limited.

Ferguson concludes that "unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another," the alternative to a world run by networks, some of them villainous, is a "pentarchy of the great powers"—like the 19th century alliance among Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Great Britain—in which the members "recognize their common interest in resisting the spread of jihadism, criminality, and cyber-vandalism." But where is the assurance that these Platonic guardians, these hierarchs, will act in society's best interest rather than their own? The multitude of available networks today plays an important role in checking and even bringing down culpable hierarchies, he thinks. If the hierarchies start banding together, what then?

Ferguson recognizes this dilemma, but he doesn't have a reassuringly workable answer. Nonetheless, his book raising the question is well worth the reading.

NEXT: Do Family Values Stop at the Rio Grande for Conservatives?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The ‘Net IS the hierarchy, man!

  2. An exercise for libertarians to ask of their non-libertarian friends, using the vocabulary offered in this book, and look at the estimates in this list…

    Grocery store… 95% network, 5% tower (ditto for Kmart, Walmart, etc.)
    Health care… . . 25% network, 75% tower
    Education… . . . . 5% network, 95% tower (changing slightly now with on-line learning)
    Your DMV… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100% tower

    WHERE are your interests more efficiently served? YOUR real, individual interests!?!?!?!

  3. “19th century alliance among Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Great Britain”

    What alliance was this? The first alliance they were all part of was NATO when Spain joined in 1982.

    1. There was a loose alliance, held together by the desire to keep all other countries out of the loop. But it’s not a very good list. Italy didn’t exists as a nation until 1861 and was pretty weak. Germany didn’t exist as a nation until 170 and upset the apple cart. Spain was weak and fading for pretty much the entire century, which started as a vassal of Napolean which lost most of its South American colonies and ended defeated and stripped of its remaining colonies by the US.

      A better example would have been France Britain and Russia, with Britain mainly trying to keep them balanced regardless of politics, which failed once Wilhelm II upset the game because he thought he had been appointed Kaiser by God and thus didn’t have to think or plan becaise God wouldn’t let him fail.

      1. 170 should be 1870.

      2. It wouldn’t have involved both Germany and Spain; they weren’t relevant at the same time. It wasn’t during the Napoleonic Wars and not before the end of the Franco-Prussian War.

        I was thinking that the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente might have been the intention, but Spain wasn’t involved.

        It’s probably meant to be the Berlin Conference but that didn’t involve any alliance and also included Belgium and Portugal, who were more important than Spain in Africa.

    2. It seems like the wrong century to me.

      The sentence ends “…in which the members “recognize their common interest in resisting the spread of jihadism, criminality, and cyber-vandalism.” Those are problems of the 21st century not the 19th.

      1. Take out the part separated by m-dashes and you realize he’s talking about today’s Great Powers alliances. Which I think he should have pluralized in that part, there’s always various shifting alliances between and among the various players.

        1. Yes, I believe that if he had written “… 19th century alliances…” it would have made a lot more sense. Thanks for pointing that out. I knew there was something missing to make it make sense but I couldn’t quite see what.

          I think it is interesting that he does use those five countries since they are in a rather informal alliance to deal with all of those issues (though it is somewhat facilitated by their membership in NATO and the EU).

          Also interesting that while they see these things as serious they have some problems with working with the US since they like their intelligence(snooping)/police approach over the American military one. Of course when they need heavy lift capacity and firepower they knock on Uncle Sam’s door.

  4. The key to gaining control over a network is by yelling “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP” as loud and long as you can to wear down their patience until you can finally get a word in edgewise. Then, outlaw the “Heckler’s veto” so no one can interrupt you. Easy-peasy.

  5. Niall Ferguson writes good books. Thanks for letting me know he has a new one 🙂

  6. Good to see all the Weigelian dipshits in the JournoList celebrating Karl Marx’s 200th birthday and showing their true colors!

  7. AA’s strength is that it is not hierarchical. There are no leaders. No one can be kicked out. Each group is self supporting. It doesn’t get involved in politics. It leaves people alone and gets the same in return. It’s probably the most libertarian organization out there.

    1. Aren’t there cases of people being assigned to AA by courts?

      1. If someone is banished to the forest do you blame the trees?

        1. This may be rare on the Internet, but I was asking a non-rhetorical question, as in “I wonder if you could give me some information to help me understand this issue better”?

          1. Sorry for being a smartass. My point was that the courts and AA are not in league with one another.

            Ken gave a good answer.

            It happens, and it isn’t AA’s idea. More of a recognition that the program has a better track record than any other addiction treatment. As I said below, no one can get kicked out. All are welcome for whatever reason they choose to come. Be it their own idea or an attempt to avoid prison.

            “The only requirement for membership is a desire to quit drinking.”

            1. above, not below

              You get the point. I hope.

            2. AA’s track record is no better than problem drinkers deciding to simply stop drinking. Results are the same.

              1. There’s no reason to assume that the same approach will work for everybody.

                Because plan A works for 10% of population A and plan B works for 10% of population B, that doesn’t mean plan A would work for 10% of population B or vice versa.

                1. I understand none of it works for Charlie Sheen, but he’s a Vatican level warlock assassin.

                  1. Filled with tiger’s blood.

      2. I think you’re given a choice–and I think it’s taken into consideration for sentencing.

        If someone at AA will sign off to show that you’ve been attending meetings, and you show that you’re genuinely struggling to overcome your substance abuse problem, then you may get out of the halfway house sooner than you would otherwise–for running into those people while you were drunk.

        I’m not sure that’s a terrible thing–especially if the alternative is mandatory sentences without consideration for individual behavior and individual circumstances.

        Sometimes people should be treated like snowflakes (no two are alike) even if they shouldn’t be treated like snowflakes (like they’re going to melt if you so much as sneeze at them).

        1. I suppose that could be a good thing, as long as the AA are considered witnesses on the subject of rehabilitation, not an arm of the justice system as such (a fine distinction I suppose).

          1. Even from a purely libertarian standpoint, finding private alternatives to government prisons is a thoroughly libertarian thing.

            I fail to see the problem.

            1. I had a vague recollection of some convicts being forced into particular private rehabilitation groups with ties to the local courthouse gang, but perhaps that wasn’t an AA thing.

              1. Perhaps there are corrupt AA groups as there are corrupt anything. We’re talking about men.
                But the way the organization is structured it would be difficult. Each group is autonomous. They don’t take orders because there is no central authority to give them.

              2. I appreciate the concern about that.

                . . . not sure any government facility staffed by members of the prison guards’ union can’t be described the same way, as well. It isn’t the fact that a private company makes a profit that’s the issue. It’s a question of whether the prisoners’ rights are being respected.

                So long as you have prisons, you cannot prevent people from having a financial interest in getting paid to supervise prisoners. The important thing is to make sure that prisoners’ rights are being respected. Subjecting them to the care of a government employee union isn’t necessarily the best way to accomplish that.

                Making labor mandatory is an excellent way to invite abuse.

                1. Most meetings collect donations to help prison inmates. The money is used to purchase literature. All the work in organizing meetings and such is voluntary. Nobody gets paid.

                  1. The point was that even if . . .

                    EVEN IF!

                    . . . the problem isn’t people making a profit.

                    The problem is never people making a profit.

        2. It’s usually not a problem thing, but there are cases where people get popped for DUI who don’t really have a serious drinking problem, but just had some bad luck. But at least it’s free and better than more fines or time in a jail or halfway house.
          The really bad ones are where people are ordered by the court into treatment that costs money. There is some nasty cronyism going on there between the courts and the drug rehab industry.

        3. If people who end up in AA through the courts weee very savvy and didn’t have troubles ..they would realize that most people who sign their sheets are just drunks like themselves and they could sign them their selves…there’s no accountability between AA and the courts and those pieces of paper…it’s anonymous

      3. I think they get sent to Pathfinders or whatever local equivalent is slipping kickbacks to the judge or the DA – AA doesn’t charge enough to provide meaningful bribes.

      4. They used to be, but AA includes enough religious elements that they decided they couldn’t force them anymore.

    2. AA operates within a set of principles, which makes the network sustainable, because principles carry ideas forward with minimal arbitrary control.

  8. The key contribution of the internet isn’t improving communications. It’s enabling censorship and spying to be done by circuitry, not people.

    1984’s telescreen system wasn’t really feasible, not enough eyeballs available. Today’s totalitarian state has effectively infinite eyeballs at it’s disposal. Not terribly smart ones, but getting smarter all the time.

    1. There’s also the infinite, persistent memory. Only three people ever saw it and all of them have forgotten it, but the internet remembers that comment you made 25 years ago about how you didn’t trust your neighborhood busy-body because there’s something really suspicious about a black guy using such a white name as Brock O’bama.

    2. So the vast increase in productivity, innovation, and global trading that have improved the lives of billions of people are not the key contributions of the internet, but rather its the FBI reading about your cousin’s wedding on facebook.

  9. “The fact that today’s most celebrated cyber-networks (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) are centrally controlled by hierarchies suggests that networkers’ power to control, influence, or undermine those hierarchies may be limited.”

    Yeah, what happens when the network becomes all pervasive and escaping it becomes impossible?

    We may all live to see the day when financial transactions, communication, and transportation cannot be effectuated without the knowledge of and permission from an all pervasive network.

    1. I’d add one other thought to this observation:

      “Genetic drift scales with the inverse square root of population. This means that genetic drift is ten times faster for a population of ten thousand than for a population of a million. The scaling is the same for any kind of random mutations. If we observe any measurable quantity such as height, running speed, age at puberty, or intelligence test score, the average drift will vary with the inverse square root of population. The square root results from the statistical averaging of random events.”

      —-Freeman Dyson


      The basic structure of that scaling law seem to work on much more than genetic mutation. Dyson goes on to show that innovation and spontaneous order work the same way.

      Show us a network covering all of our interactions–the whole country or the whole world–and we might expect that scaling law to stifle the possibility of innovation like we haven’t seen in modern times. And it isn’t just that an all powerful network seeks to fight creative destruction. It’s just that change needs to be so profound to have an impact on such a large network that it becomes increasingly difficult for any changes to really matter and increasingly unprofitable to waste resources looking for them.

      1. P.S. We think of today as an age of change, but the pace of change has has slowed dramatically over the last 30 years in terms of revolutionary changes. We send messages instantaneously around the world. Big deal?

        My grandfather was born in the days of horse and buggy. His father was a missionary to China. It took them more than a year to get from Boston to Shanghai. My grandfather lived to take a commercial flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. That’s revolutionary change.

        Unless or until someone invents a commercial warp drive, we may never see change on that pace again. For instance, what difference, really, will genetically engineered children make–if they can’t make any revolutionary changes because they’re subject to the same limitations of an all pervasive network?

        And the chances of them discovering such changes, given what is possible, as Freeman Dyson points out in that piece I linked, becomes more unlikely as the size of the network grows.

        I’m not exactly a techno-pessimist, but I can clearly see the flaws of techno-optimism. Technological progress is certainly no libertarian substitute for people who value freedom for qualitative reasons.

        1. That’s an interesting point about the pace of change. The really big changes that got us here today are things like electrification, automobiles and air travel and the telephone and telegraph. The wide use of semiconductors as well. I don’t think there have been many technological shifts as significant as those things. Instantaneous communication and rapid travel made the world one place that could coordinate activities effectively over great distances. The internet and all of that add a lot, but they are kind of extensions of the huge technological developments of the early 20th century in a way.

    2. what happens when the network becomes all pervasive and escaping it becomes impossible?

      It already is, isn’t it? I don’t mean cyber-networks, but the actual social networks that we are in by virtue of being social beings.

  10. “Ferguson produces several examples of hierarchies defeating challenges from networks. ”

    Stalin was more of a network guy than he was a hierarchy one. He was successful in bypassing the hierarchical structures put in place by Lenin like the politburo and the central committee, and ran the country through informal alliances with those he trusted.

    1. Except he didn’t trust anyone. Executing his top secret service enforcers isn’t the act of someone who trusts. And they were fools to trust him.

      1. “Except he didn’t trust anyone.”

        He did trust some. Kaganovich, for example, died in the 1990s. Lived long enough to watch Seinfeld. He was with Stalin since before the October revolution and worked on a whole range of tasks, including the famine and dekulakization in Ukraine. As for the many who didn’t survive, trusted or not, they overwhelmingly deserved the fate that lay in store for them.

        1. mtrueman|5.6.18 @ 11:20PM|#
          “He did trust some. Kaganovich, for example, died in the 1990s.”

          How long did it take to cherry pick the one example of someone who avoided execution?

          1. Not long. Kaganovich is well known as ‘the last of the bolsheviks.’ He’s even better known as Stalin’s henchman who’s responsible for overseeing the Ukrainian famine.

    2. “Stalin was more of a network guy than he was a hierarchy one.”

      You are not lacking for stupid posts by any means at all, but that is one of the most laughable.
      Yeah, Stalin was *always* looking for input from others… hah, ha, haah, ha, giggle, snort…
      What a fucking ignoramus…

      1. “hah, ha, haah, ha, giggle, snort…”

        This is the internet. Just plain old LOL is more than adequate.

        1. LOL is trite. This deserved much more.

  11. the “zenith of hierarchically organized power,” Ferguson writes, “was in fact the mid?20th century…”

    During the building of Egypt’s great pyramids, some historians think that construction consumed almost the entirety of what passed for the state’s GDP.

    If that is the case, the ancient Egyptian system was a superbly efficient hierarchy.

  12. “Toward a Unified Theory of Stalin, the Teamsters, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Facebook”

    STEP 1: Emojis

    STEP 2: Bury union boss in cement

    STEP 3: Pour vodka down the drain…so you can use the bottle to make a Molotov cocktail.

    Step 4: Decide if you want to “like” or “unlike” Hitler

    Step 5: Snitches get stiches, lol

    Step 6: No drinking on the job…killing people requires sobriety and focus

    Step 7: Don’t spike the punch, spike the tires of non-unionized trucks

    Step 8: Find people who give your book of speeches less than five stars…kill these people

    Step 9: In lieu of sobriety tests, cops have to accept driver’s statement that “I’m not drunk officer, now get my truck out of the ditch before the pink elephants crap all over it.”

    Step 10: Never mind abstaining from alcohol, no food or drink of any kind for enemies of the people

    Step 11: Tell me more about the worldwide network of surveillance

    Step 12: Get drunk on power, not booze

  13. “While it’s not difficult to heuristically appreciate the archetypes of hierarchy and network, the “square” and the “tower” are inherently blunt tools for the analysis of social and political movements and organizations. There are hierarchies within networks, networks within hierarchies, and a vast range of commingled life forms that defy simple taxonomy. Henry Kissinger, Ferguson’s favorite networker, was of course the foreign policy director of the United States government hierarchy.”

    Fortunately, I cannot remember the title of the book on which I wasted a week or so last year. It was by a ‘noted’ author who was well schooled in history, and spent most of the book humble-bragging regarding his knowledge while advancing the claimed theme of the book not one bit.
    I did finish it; it was recommended and I kept hoping to find the reason for that. Recommendations from that person are now ignored.
    Anyhow, this sounds similar enough I wonder if it wasn’t a book by Niall. Regardless, I’ll read this right after that other non-page-turner “War and Peace”. Unless there is a revised edition which removes the N-pages of worthless rambling.

  14. Defy Taxonomy!

    Now that would look good on a tee shirt.

  15. great post thanks for sharing this wonderful post
    tutuapp apk

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.