interview | niall ferguson

The Cash Nexus
Niall Ferguson
(Basic Books, 552 pages)
the cash nexus cover
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Oxford professor Niall Ferguson has attracted considerable attention, and not merely for his ambitious histories of the Rothschild banking dynasty, the First World War and, now, the history of money and power over the past three hundred years in his new book, The Cash Nexus. In the British press, Ferguson has made the front page for having done all of this at thirty-six, after a career as a popular “right-wing” journalist, and while looking far too good and being far too well-dressed. A recent Guardian profile begins: “I think I may hate Niall Ferguson.” A reputedly huge advance from Penguin for his next three books, as well as a documentary t.v. series in the offing, have only turned up the volume on the kind of spiteful coverage for which the British press is famous.
niall ferguson | photo by rick mcginnis
Niall Ferguson photo ©2001 by Rick McGinnis

In person, Ferguson is certainly as well-dressed as advertised, and handsome, in a British way: In the movie, he’d be played by Colin Firth. At the end of a long day of interviews, he gratefully orders a pint of lager in the hotel bar and reflects on his press at home.

“I’ve discovered that in Britain the book reviews aren’t what matters; the profiles are what matters. The profiles are dominated by questions which seem to go in this order: the size of the advance; physical appearance and then age; and then what his wife does. Of course, it’s ludicrous because, firstly, this endless droning on about the advance has the Chinese whisper effect of increasing the actual amount of money involved, so that I wish I could earn as much as the newspapers say I earn -- I’d be able to retire and never write another book.

The Cash Nexus contains two controversial assertions. The argument that inspired the book was an attempt by Ferguson to question economic triumphalism, a contemporary myth that insists that, after the collapse of communism, it’s blatantly apparent that economic imperatives direct history. On the left, it’s considered an affirmation of the essential correctness of Marx, in spite of the fate of Soviet Russia. On the right, it’s a philosophy that justifies weak government, deregulation, and transnational trade agreements. The irony is that in opposing this notion, Ferguson - a onetime Thatcherite - is in agreement with “leftist” economic writers like Linda McQuaig.

“I suppose the book is trying to show that there are different ways of explaining the relationship between economics and politics. One of them is Marx’s idea, and then there are more modern, late 20th-century ideas like ‘elections are always decided by the economy’ and the general assumptions that all of us almost casually make that everything can be explained by some proximate economic cause, which is an almost reassuring, subtle conspiracy theory that offers a cynical explanation of all events. 

Ferguson’s other accusation is that America, the imperial world power of today, is guilty of “understretch” in its foreign policy, a giant seemingly terrified of exercising its considerable might abroad, for the good of everyone concerned. 

“It may not be politically what people want to hear, but historically I think somebody had to say it. If you have globalization, but the global hegemon just says: ‘Goodbye, we’re going under our nuclear defense shield, the rest of you can go to hell!’, that seems to me just indefensible. If North American culture has any pretensions, whether it’s Christian or liberal in its values, it surely has some concern about the rest of the world’s population, who are very poor and very, very wretched, and live in terrible political circumstances.”

Ferguson is a proponent of a kind of historical parlour game he calls “virtual history”, and has edited a book of the same name, which proposes historical what-ifs like “What if the Nazis invaded Britain?” and “What if JFK had lived?” His last book, The Pity of War, asserts that the war, and the subsequent misery of the 20th century, might have been avoided if Britain had stayed neutral. He’s a fan of chaos theory, and celebrates the ability of history to sustain paradoxes, such as globalization in the face of ethnic nationalism.

“I love that phrase ‘the untied nations’, which seemed to capture what was going on in the last twenty years. It’s a paradox that the world is getting more integrated economically, and more disintegrated politically. Where does that end - in every little state being ethnically homogenous? It seems highly unlikely. But some people dearly believe that’s the direction we’re going. If it’s true, then economically it’s going to be very difficult because there are diseconomies of scale in having umpteen little statelets, all economically homogenous, all with their own little governments and their own border guards. It doesn’t make economic sense, ergo it’s not one nice upward slope here. There are - oh dear, I sound like a Marxist - contradictions in the process of globalization.

“Indeed,” he says, slyly, “a lot of people cope with standardization of the the economic world by retreating into a particularly chauvinistic nationalism. You don’t need to look too far in Canada to see examples of this. It’s so paradoxical to have a summit about integrating all the trade in the Americas, and there you have the leader of the host city hanging up little Quebecois flags to make the point that he is, what was it again? ‘A northern latino nation.’ A fine example of the story I’m telling.”

©2001, 2002 Rick McGinnis