ONE of the most interesting characters in Anthony Powell’s multi-volume A Dance to the Music of Time is the ageing don Sillery, whose subject, like Niall Ferguson’s here, seems to be political science, but whose real avocation is forming useful connections among the undergraduate body. This is the activity which, writ large in the public realm, Ferguson believes to be the real source of power in the modern world. Or rather, it is the dialectical trade-off between networks and hierarchies – with one or other dominant at any one time, and the former very much in the saddle now – which shapes governance and political influence.

Some of this is familiar enough. Hip young gunslingers believe that furious social and professional networking is the key to success. Tired old gunfighters believe that mysterious networks conspire to keep them down and deny them access to power and wealth. At the paranoid end of the scale, secret networks are believed to be responsible for everything from the price of oil to 9/11. This is the murky realm populated by conspiracy theorists, who believe that the Illuminati or the Bilderberg group, or the Catholic Church, or a cabal of Jewish bankers, are controlling things behind the scenes. Powell makes it clear that the whole Sillery legend may be based on a “kaleidoscope of muddled information, collected in Sillery’s almost crazed brain, that his boasted powers had no basis whatever in reality.” Others dismiss him as a mere gossip and snob.

Ferguson does his utmost to unmuddle the information. The Illuminatenorden, for instance, was a real entity, constituted in 1781, and briefly influential, but by no means a secret world government. And yet there have been, at times, informal networks that have exerted a strong informal influence on events, out of all proportion to elected or appointed authority. Ferguson has already written a definitive history of the Rothschilds, and he draws on that material again here. One example would be Lord Milner’s famous “Kindergarten” or “Round Table”, which promoted the cause of imperial federation and thus helped to reshape the Empire. A more recent example is Henry Kissinger, who for a time was the most connected – and thus arguably the most influential – figure in world politics. Not the least aspect of Kissinger’s genius was to know when not to connect himself to events, as in the case of Watergate.

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The theory behind all this isn’t Ferguson’s own but comes from a large and growing body of work on social and economic connectivity. I recognised ideas from Nicholas Christakis’s and James H Fowler’s Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, but there is rather more technical stuff involved as well, involving a kind of jargon not often seen in a history or political science book – betweenness centrality, clustering coefficients, optimal heterophily – but most of them involving nothing more tendentious than the old “six degrees of separation” idea. The book is heavily illustrated, with diagrams showing how someone, say Kissinger again, is connected to specific nodes of influence and authority, whether Richard Nixon or Anwar Sadat, or influential figures from the past. That these diagrams are drawn from citations in Kissinger’s and others’ memoirs somewhat blunts their authority, since such sources must inevitably be subjective and self-serving, but it is a fascinating mode of enquiry even if some of it doesn’t stand up to the claims Ferguson makes.

IT is clear that we have again moved from a more hierarchical world into a highly networked one. Ferguson dates this transition to the 1970s, which is not coincidentally when the personal computer, the early internet and various modes of social media came into existence. The democratisation of opinion and taste claimed for the internet age is both obvious and not proven. Does having 657 Facebook friends represent a high betweenness centrality or just an urgent need to get out more? Is our present connectedness not possibly also an example of what (very old-fashioned name about to be dropped) Herbert Marcuse called “repressive desublimation”, which means that letting us do exactly what we want doesn’t necessarily make us any freer, and probably a lot less so?

The big unasked question of the book is whether the current emphasis on the square really has replaced the dominance of the tower, or whether the old hierarchies are still at the controls. There are other, more detailed questions, and some surprising omissions. Though he looks at circles like the Bloomsbury group and the Cambridge Apostles, Ferguson doesn’t really consider whether some of the great hostesses – some of whom are also satirised in A Dance to the Music of Time – played a significant role in networked politics. And he overlooks rather obvious figures like Colonel Edward M House, who wasn’t a colonel at all, had no official title and yet exerted an enormous influence over Woodrow Wilson and others, especially during the Peace Conference after World War One, largely by his gift for connectivity.

As always, Ferguson is an exhilarating guide, who sweeps the reader past some shaky propositions the way a good country house guide will hurry you past the damp patches and dry rot. It’s a book to read once and then dip into endlessly for historical gossip and for sheer intellectual entertainment.

The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle For Global Power by Niall Ferguson is published by Allen Lane/Penguin, priced £25