Add to Technorati Favorites

Weekly Index
Research Sites

  • Features
  • Categories
  • Resources
  • About


Last 100 Entries
« Out of Touch with Reality | Main | Honouring the Dead, or Stirring Controversy? »

Of Course There Will Be Blood, or How to State the Obvious

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has a new book out, entitled The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.  On Tuesday, he was in Ottawa, on his book tour, and in a wide-ranging interview in the Toronto Globe & Mail, Ferguson opines on a wide-ranging of matters connected the global financial meltdown.  Apparently he's a now "financial guru" on account of having written about this book and some of his previous work on money and power.  Funny, I would've thought that that makes him an historian of money and financial markets. Anyway, more appropriately termed, he is an historian of empire (and an apologist for it, as clearly argued in his Empire: The Rise and Demise of The British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power and his follow-up, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire), his work on money and markets is just an extension of his arguments about power and empire in his other work.

In the interview, Ferguson makes some good points about how leveraged we are in the West, how deep a hole China is flirting with, and how the subprime mortgage crisis in the States was just so, well, obvious in coming. However, in between discussing things like home ownership in English-speaking countries and fiscal policy making, he also went out of his way to be an armchair general, predicting chaos on the streets due to the economy.

Ferguson argues that "[t]here will be blood, in the sense that a crisis of this magnitude is bound to increase political as well as economic [conflict]. It is bound to destabilize some countries. It will cause civil wars to break out, that have been dormant. It will topple governments that were moderate and bring in governments that are extreme."  He also predicts that the Euro Zone will be hard to keep together, in part because there will be conflict between the Germans and everyone else.  How predictable.  But what he doesn't do is provide anything by way of evidence.  Instead, he falls on ancient shibboleths in predicting doom & gloom.   

This is made all the more disturbing because historians, we are trained not to fall for simple mono-causality in making our arguments.  Ferguson is predicting blood in the streets because of the state of the economy worldwide.  But there already is blood in the streets, and there was blood in the streets when the global economy was booming.  But more to the point, find me a period in history where there is not blood, where there has not been political and economic conflict, when some countries are not destabilised and civil wars do not break out.  Find me a period when governments of a moderate nature are not toppled and replaced by extremist ones.

What Ferguson overlooks, and this is surprising for an historian of power, is that human history is one of blood and gore.  I teach Western Civilisation, which is, for better or worse, primarily an history of Europe, from the ancient Greeks to the Industrial Revolution.  Certainly, it is also the story of cultural confrontation, interaction, and change when Europeans come into contact with Persians, Arabs, Africans, North Americans, etc.  But the core of the course is Europe, and even Western Europe at that.  What the story is, moreover, is one of conflict, war, death, and destruction.  European history is bloody, without question.  The last set of wars on European wars were in the Balkans in the 1990s.  That's a decade ago.  Before that, war was predominant, along with famine, plague, and pestilence.  The last major famine in Europe was in 1922-3 in the Ukraine.  The last major famine in Western Europe was 1845-52 in Ireland.  In terms of human history, even the Irish famine was only a short time ago.

My point is that European history is bloody and revolution, warfare, plague, and pestilence have been a commonality of history there.  In North America, we're a little more insulated.  The last war on North American soil was the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s.  But Asia also has a bloody history of warfare, imperial power, and revolution. Same with Africa.

So for Ferguson to sit back and predict the coming apocalypse on account of the economic downturn, without providing any evidence, any concrete examples, or without looking at more global phenomena is rather simplistic.  He reduces complex phenomena down to simple mono-causality.  There has been blood throughout human history, and there is blood in the streets of large parts of the world today: Asia, Africa, South America, Central America, the Middle East.

None of these conflicts world-wide, nor any that are going to develop in the future, can be reduced to a mono-causality.  Take World War I, for example.  Often, the reasons for the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 is reduced to the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the streets of Sarajevo.  At best, it sparked a diplomatic crisis that brought simmering tensions to a boil; these tensions were based on an arms race between Britain and Germany, economic concerns, and so on.  Similarly today, the economic crisis may lead to some violence, some protest, and the like, but it will not be the causal factor that leads to governments toppling, to revolutions and it certainly won't be the single factor leading to chaos.

And Niall Ferguson, of all people, should know better than that.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>