Meanwhile, in the real world…

Niall Ferguson, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

Allen Lane, 192pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781846147326

reviewed by Houman Barekat

Bringing together a series of talks given for BBC Radio’s prestigious Reith Lectures, The Great Degeneration is a plain-speaking rallying cry from one of Britain’s most high-profile public intellectuals, urging a return to the first principles of liberal political economy. The relative success of the West, Niall Ferguson explains, has hitherto been attributable to the efficacy and dynamism of its ‘good institutions’; by contrast, countries afflicted by economic underdevelopment, dictatorship or human rights abuse invariably have ‘bad institutions.’ Of course, if you happen to regard the strength of a country’s institutions as stemming from - rather than causing - a set of contingent circumstances, then the whole formulation is little more than an irrefutably brilliant tautology. But now is not the time to quibble: the West’s ‘good institutions’ - encompassing everything from the rule of law to educational provision to financial markets - are turning bad. You heard it here first.

Writing in a measured and gently persuasive register, the popular TV historian is hardly your archetypal foaming-at-the-mouth neo-liberal. If anything, he tries a little too hard to be congenial - this is, after all, the man who asked us to think of Western civilisation in terms of its six ‘Killer Apps’. To help us understand, like. But a disarming turn of phrase can only do so much, and after a while the content speaks for itself. Ferguson rails against red tape, public spending, and financial regulation; he bemoans what he perceives to be a slowdown in the rate of technological innovation; he asserts that the West, with its increasing proclivity for statist solutions to the economic challenges of the day, is drifting inexorably towards a Chinese-style model of state capitalism. If the Tea Party movement had better PR and better hair, it would probably look something like Niall Ferguson.

The Great Degeneration draws its inspiration from two luminaries of 19th-century liberalism - the British economist Walter Bagehot and the French historian Alexis De Toqueville. The latter visited the United States in 1831 and wrote a book about it: Democracy in America (1835) was a paean to the self-sufficiency and vitality of US civil society, which the author contrasted favourably against the stagnant social structures of revolutionary France. The eponymous thesis of Ferguson’s book is that the great Western democracies are in danger of forfeiting that singular dynamism that had set them apart from the rest. Institutional decay is the diagnosis; the state, apparently, is the primary cause of the rot, ‘the real enemy of civil society.’ The closest he gets to particularising his vision is an impassioned chapter on the subject of secondary and higher education, in which he calls upon UK policymakers to abandon their squeamishness about privatisation and follow the example of countries like Brazil and India, where private education providers are currently doing a roaring trade. There has perhaps never been a better time to pummel the public with this kind of polemic: a technocrat innocently going about his or her business might very easily mistake it for a bona fide budget deficit reduction strategy. It is, in fact, pure ideology.

Niall Ferguson cleaned a stretch of beach one time. He did it without the aid of the state. He just got a few people together and made it happen. From this experience he extrapolates to a general position that the state ought to step away from public life:

‘true citizenship … is also about participating in the ‘troop’ - the wider group beyond our families - which is precisely where we learn how to develop and enforce rules of conduct: in short, to govern ourselves. To educate our children. To care for the helpless. To fight crime. To keep the streets clean.’

Before you’ve had time to join the dots, he actually comes out and says it: Ferguson is a staunch advocate of Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative, with its specious promise that private interests, clubbing together for the greater good, can and should usurp the social functions of the state. Thankfully, most people in Britain are not quite gullible enough to swallow it. Piggybacked into power on the slenderest of mandates courtesy of a coalition government, the ideologues of the Big Society are in something of a precarious position in UK politics. Even their own putative constituency appears unconvinced, perhaps even a little embarrassed, by their platitudinous rhetoric. They are to the right what the anarcho-syndicalists are to the left: sad, nostalgic utopians, prancing about in a 19th-century dream world.

Though Ferguson portrays himself as a pragmatist (‘I take the world as I find it,’ he ruggedly proclaims early on) a certain naïve idealism pervades The Great Degeneration. The litter that was clogging up his local beach had, for the most part, come from the sea, where it had been dumped by private interests. Grassroots action to mitigate it is one thing, sorting out the problem at source quite another. Ferguson is right to draw attention to a marked decline in the rate of membership among local clubs and societies as a concerning indicator of a gradual impoverishment in the quality of social life. Quite what this has to do with an overweening state is, however, a question of political preference. For this reader at least, that growing sense of insularity - the dilution of ‘the wider group beyond our families’ - is more convincingly explained as a function of the highly individualised culture of late capitalism. It is, furthermore, rather hard to take a lecture on social responsibility from avowed Thatcherites like Ferguson - people who spent the past thirty years building an entire way of life around selfishness. Whereas Margaret Thatcher had at least the consistency to insist that there was ‘no such thing as society,’ her 21st-century acolytes are taking it upon themselves to preach to the rest of us about where we’re going wrong as a community of people.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, IMF-inspired initiatives are actually bringing Ferguson’s vision to life, with devastating consequences. In June, the Greek branch of Medecins Sans Frontières reported a 1,450% increase in the number of HIV/AIDS cases since 2010, a staggering surge largely attributed to the suspension of a government-funded needle exchange programme for Athens drug addicts. The statistic offers a stark reminder of the human cost of ‘austerity’ economics: when you roll back the state, some people literally have nowhere to go. No doubt Ferguson would have them freely associate their way out of trouble. This fraudulent discourse of civic self-help has taken dangerously deep roots - it is easy to forget, for example, that the term ‘austerity’ itself is in fact a pernicious euphemism, denoting something that is very often much worse than austerity.

I started reading The Great Degeneration just as Hurricane Sandy began its battering of the US East Coast; by the time I had finished it, the US electorate had returned to office the man Ferguson labels the ‘chief mandarin’ of our creepingly orientalised society. The book felt almost risibly out of step. Elite academic institutions like Harvard and Princeton churn out hundreds of Niall Fergusons every year; it’s probably fair to say that relatively few of them hail from New Orleans. The victims of Katrina actually lived the neo-liberal dream - they, and many of the millions who watched it on TV, are in no particular hurry to go back to that kind of blissful self-sufficiency. These voters don’t see occasional state intervention - in the form of basic infrastructure, support for industry or, for that matter, health insurance - as some portentous Orwellian spectre. That said, the right-wing idealism that informs The Great Degeneration is never far from the surface. It has terrific purchase in the United States, with Republicans and Democrats alike. Obama’s party - like Labour in the UK - is firmly committed to ‘austerity’ economics; but it still counts for something that neo-liberalism’s keenest missionaries haven’t managed to impose their vision in its full glory. Traditionally, the political spectrum in its entirety shifts to the right in a crisis: it is no surprise, therefore, that in the current climate we should find ourselves grateful for small mercies.
Houman Barekat is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, which is out this month.