Networks and the struggle for power. Interaction between hierarchical structures - states - and non-hierarchical structures - social networks - throughout history.

Niall Ferguson and Mira Milosevich-Juaristi

On 13 September 2018, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the dialogue "Networks and the struggle for power. Interaction between hierarchical structures - states - and non-hierarchical structures - social networks - throughout history" with the participation of Niall Ferguson and Mira Milosevich-Juaristi on the occasion of the presentation of Niall Ferguson's book "La plaza y la torre" published by Debate.

Niall Ferguson holds the Lawrence A Tisch Chair in History at Harvard University and the Wiliam Ziegler Chair at Harvard Business School. He is also a professor at Jesus College, Oxford University, and the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Considered the most brilliant British historian today by the Times and one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, his works include Colossus (Debate, 2005), The British Empire (Debate, 2005), The War of the World (Debate, 2007), The Triumph of Money (Debate, 2010) and Civilisation (Debate, 2012).

Mira Milosevich-Juaristi is a Senior Researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute. She holds a PhD in European Studies from the Complutense University of Madrid and a Diploma of Advanced Studies in the area of International Public Law and International Relations from the same university. She holds a degree in Sociology and Political Science from the University of Belgrade. She has taught postgraduate courses in Political Science and International Relations in the Doctoral Programmes of the Instituto Universitario de Investigación José Ortega y Gasset.

The Square and the Tower is a history of the organisational networks that have changed the world and an invitation to sceptical reflection on their role in our society. Most of the story is hierarchical: it has to do with popes, presidents or prime ministers. But what if this is the case simply because they are the ones who created the historical archives? What if we are omitting and relegating the influence of powerful but less visible organisational networks? The 21st century has been proclaimed the Networked Age, but in this book Niall Ferguson reminds us that there is nothing new about social networks. From the time of the printing presses and the preachers who brought about the Reformation to the Freemasons who led the American Revolution, it was organisational networks that disrupted the established order. So, far from being a novelty, our era is more like the Second Network Age, with the computer occupying the central role once occupied by print. Those who expect a utopia of interconnected "netizens" may therefore be disappointed. Networks are prone to clustering, to contagion, but above all to disruption, and the conflicts of the past find disconcerting parallels today, in the time of Facebook, the Islamic State and the Trumpian world.


On 13 September 2018, a dialogue on social networks and the struggle for power was held at the Rafael del Pino Foundation on the occasion of the presentation of the book by Niall Ferguson, Milibank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, "The Square and the Tower". According to Ferguson, the title of the book was inspired by his visit to the Italian city of Siena, whose piazza is a perfect image of the dichotomy between power and influence. The square of the countryside (influence) is where people meet, trade, socialise. Above it, the tower casts a shadow that represents the political hierarchy. Ferguson explained that what led him to write this book was the realisation, while working on his biography of Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Nixon and Ford, that there had to be something to explain how a Harvard professor became, over the course of a few years, the second most powerful man in the United States after the president. And he found the answer to this question in Kissinger's ability to establish a network of contacts, which served to propel his political career. The second motivation for writing this book was his unfamiliarity with the workings of networks. But when he went to Stanford he was able to come into contact with the people who have built the largest networks in the world and learn from them how networks work. That made him go back to his previous work and reinterpret it in the light of this new knowledge. For Ferguson, history can illuminate the consequences of actions. That is why one has to be precise when studying it and understand that, in addition to power, one has to study people's activities, because people are not isolated from each other. The transmission of ideas and political revolutions are best explained from this point of view. If we study the past, it is not because it is interesting, but because from it we want to better understand the present and foresee the future, as far as possible. The question is how we do this in a rigorous way. Many historians, politicians and commentators today are obsessed with the 1930s without having studied it properly and compare any event with those years, which leads to a very narrow and hackneyed way of looking at history, without having understood very well the time they use to construct these analogies with the times of the Great Depression. In this sense, it should not be forgotten that Kissinger came to power having studied history very well, because that makes politics easier. We see this now with the US administration, whose members comment on how the study of the Vietnam War allows them to understand the problems they are having with Iraq. Historians have to link the past to the present. If you apply this principle to the present, Ferguson continues, you have to bear in mind that the impact of the personal computer and the internet today is similar to the revolution brought about by the advent of the printing press, because they allow communication in a more decentralised way, as information and communication technologies are decentralising. Social networks have done the same. In both cases, the tower lost power to the detriment of the square. In the past, governments could easily control the media; now it is only possible in cases like North Korea, where the internet is banned outright. When the printing press came along, the transmission of ideas became faster and cheaper, which had a very important impact on history, for example through the Lutheran reformation. The Internet is the same; the difference now is that everything is ten times faster. So we should study the similarities between Gutenberg and Zuckerberg. In fact, in the 16th century, printing enthusiasts said that the printing press would only bring progress and happiness. In the 21st century, technology enthusiasts say something similar about the internet. But the impact of new technologies brings with it major clashes, tensions, problems, challenges... The creation of a new network also means polarisation, the spread of fake news, and so on. But the same thing happened when the printing press appeared. The big difference with the past is that before there was not as much decentralisation as there is now. However, we also have to take into account that the network is dominated by a few platforms, to which, in addition, users provide an astronomical amount of data for free, which is then used by those same platforms. It is now also unlikely that a social network will be egalitarian, due to the different number of connections between one and the other. This latter perspective helps to understand events such as Brexit or Trump's election victory, where social networks have proved to be very powerful instruments and allowed Trump, or the Brexit campaigners, to triumph over the dominant hierarchies because they sought support on the networks. This took the elites by surprise, even though Barack Obama's election victory in 2008 was blamed on his use of social media. However, Ferguson points out, things cannot be left as they are, because 60% of Americans do not read newspapers, but get their information via Google or Facebook, which gives these platforms a power unprecedented in history. This information situation, moreover, can lead to a profound destabilisation of democracy. Even if an attempt is made to rule the world through Facebook, we would quickly have another Thirty Years' War.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.