21st-century Sage: Niall Ferguson and the Western Malaise

by Mark Wallace

Niall Ferguson wrote a book in 2000 entitled The Cash Nexus, the phrase derived from Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), and it seems the influence of the prototypical Victorian Sage is strong in the right-wing historian/ economist. In his article “Rue Britannia: Debt used to make us Great” in the Sunday Times of last week (17 June 2012), he was in full neo-sage mode as he identified the “malaise” at the heart of western society, and issued dire warnings for the consequences of our current recklessness.

                            Niall Ferguson

Thomas Carlyle                                                                  Niall Ferguson

The sage approach is characterized by first referencing a current social issue: for example, worker unrest in Chartism; for Ferguson, the issue is, of course, the economic difficulties engulfing various western states. Then, he makes the classic sage move: considering the problem not in itself, but as a symptom of a society rotten to the core. Financial problems are “nothing more than symptoms of an underlying instittutional malaise”. Like Carlyle, Ferguson harks back to a time when society was well-ordered: for Carlyle, it was feudalism; for Ferguson, it seems to be any time between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the dusk of the British Empire. This was a time of “legislating for economic development” and when “even war became an increasingly profitable activity […] There was no default. There was no inflation. And Britannia bestrode the globe”. But now, Ferguson repeats, we have arguments over austerity and stimulus as “a consequence of a more profound malaise”.

But the sage must not only condemn, he must also make clear the dangers of our path. For Carlyle, that lay in class antagonisms, which would end in revolution and anarchy if not appeased by the prophesied “Aristocracy of Talent”. For Ferguson, the fear is that the west is on the way to being overtaken by China. He informs us that the average American was 20 times richer than his Chinese counterpart in 1978, but is now only 5 times richer. Truly a sobering statistic. The dangers of Chinese economic power are not expressly identified, but that it is not desirable is clear (he has been more explicit on this elsewhere).

There is always blame that must be apportioned by the sage. Carlyle lambasted the Idle Aristocracy, characterized as “Sir Jabesh Windbag”. This class had  abdicated its responsibility to lead, and had to be overthrown, for the real aristocracy to take over, or mob-rule and another French Revolution would be the outcome. For Ferguson, the blame also falls on the acting aristocracy of our time, the governments and financial decision-makers who have broken the covenant between the generations and are in the process of leaving the coming generations in financial ruin.

There is one desirable way out for Ferguson: “a heroic effort of leadership”, one that would persuade “not only the young but also a significant proportion of the parents and grandparents to vote for a more responsible fiscal policy”. That word, heroic, how evocative it is in a Carlylean context! (See On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (clue’s in the title), or pretty much anything else he wrote). Who Ferguson is talking about is not quite clear, though he does at one point observe: “If young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be in the Tea Party.” They’re not, though, rather they are still in thrall to the cash nexus, but perhaps, even still, they are only holding out for a hero, and when such a person appears above the political horizon, the western world will bends its collective knee before him and pay due homage. Carlyle would certainly have liked to think so.

In summation, this post has simply tried to pick up on some similar rhetorical devices in use in Ferguson and Carlyle, as part of our ongoing attempts to trace Carlyle’s influence, such as it is, from the 1830s to the present day. In his appeal to national pride and his idealization of the British national past, his appeal to morality (implied in his description of “the present system” as “fraudulent”), his diagnosis of a sickness in our present condition, his apparent nostalgia for warfare and his investment in the idea of heroic leadership, he gives us ample reason to believe that there is at least one neo-Carlylean amongst the celebrated intellects of our time.