So which dystopia are we living in? Most educated people have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. So influential have these books been that we are inclined to view all disconcerting new phenomena as either “Orwellian” or “Huxleyan”. If you suspect we shall lose our freedom to a brutally repressive state, grinding its boot into our faces, you think of George. If you think we shall lose it to a hedonistic consumer culture, complete with test-tube designer babies, you quote Aldous.
However, a superior work of science fiction to both is the earlier masterpiece We, by the Russian satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin. Written in 1920-21, in the early, turbulent years of Bolshevik rule, We is astoundingly prescient. In the “One State”, individual humans are mere “ciphers” clad in standardised “unifs”, with numbers instead of names. All apartments are made entirely of glass and curtains can be drawn only when one is having state-licensed sex.
The secret police, the Bureau of Guardians, are ubiquitous. Unlike in Orwell’s Soviet Britain, where there are ways of dodging the telescreens, surveillance in the One State is incessant and inescapable. Unlike in Huxley’s eugenics-based utopia, pleasure is mandatory and joyless.
The central character of We, D-503, is a mathematician and engineer working on the construction of a spaceship, the Integral, but tortured by the suspicion that not all human life can be reduced to mathematical formulae. D-503’s life begins to unravel when he is seduced by a femme fatale, I-330, who introduces him to the forbidden pleasures of alcohol, tobacco and unscheduled sex.
Confronted by a rebellion led by I-330 — which threatens to break down the Green Wall between the One State and a hitherto hidden natural world — the all-powerful Benefactor orders mass lobotomisation of all ciphers. The only way to preserve universal happiness, he argues, is to abolish the imagination.
“What have people — from the very cradle — prayed for, dreamt about, and agonised over?” the Benefactor asks D-503. “They have wanted someone, anyone, to tell them once and for all what happiness is — and then to attach them to this happiness with a chain.”
Orwell frankly acknowledged his debt to Zamyatin; Huxley implausibly denied having read him. At the very least, Zamyatin deserves equal billing with them as one of the masters of dystopian science fiction, not least because he anticipated the nightmare panopticon Stalin would build in the ruins of the Russian empire. (By the time Orwell was writing, the nature of the totalitarian beast was all too apparent.) Jailed twice for his dissident views, Zamyatin was permitted to go into exile in 1931. He was lucky.
I have spent much of my career trying to imagine possible futures by applying history to the present. This year, however, I have been experimenting with an alternative approach, which is to apply science fiction. Sci-fi was a genre I loved as a boy but more or less gave up when I went to university, in the mistaken belief that it was insufficiently serious. In truth, there are few more illuminating literary forms.
From HG Wells to Margaret Atwood, hundreds of great minds have looked into their crystal balls, imagining the possible consequences of vast catastrophes and new technology. Studying the past helps us see ways the world may repeat itself, but we need science fiction to envision what will be novel about the future.
Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell all essentially agreed that the power of the state would inexorably grow. The only question, as Huxley said to Orwell in a letter he wrote after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, was how brutally coercive the state of the future would be.
“The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion,” wrote Huxley (who, by the way, had taught Orwell French at Eton many years earlier). “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power . . .
“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
As I reflect on the world in 2019, I am struck by the wisdom of those words. In Xi Jinping’s China, we see Totalitarianism 2.0. The boot on the face remains a possibility, of course, but it is needed less and less as the system of social credit expands, aggregating and analysing all the digital data that Chinese citizens generate.
“The political and legal system of the future is inseparable from the internet, inseparable from big data,” Alibaba’s Jack Ma told a Communist Party commission overseeing law enforcement in 2017. In future, he said, “bad guys won’t even be able to walk into the square”. Example: some classrooms in China are now equipped with artificial-intelligence cameras and brain-wave trackers to monitor pupils’ concentration levels.
The sole consolation, if it’s human freedom you love, is that democratic states seem less capable of this kind of thing — though I suspect it’s more a result of incompetence than the separation of powers, the rule of law or the spirit of liberty. True, we need to be worried about the private-sector panopticons under construction at Google and Facebook. (If you doubt that the Silicon Valley giants have totalitarian tendencies, just take a look at Google’s leaked presentation The Good Censor.)
But technology in the service of making people money seems ultimately less dangerous than technology in the service of making citizens “happy”. The gaiety of the planet has been much enhanced in recent weeks by the travails of WeWork, a wildly overhyped tech company that rents out shared office space. Supposedly worth $47bn (£38bn) just a few weeks ago, WeWork has postponed its initial public offering. Last week, Larry Ellison, a founder of the tech giant Oracle, called it “almost worthless”.
The long-haired Israeli co-founder of the company, Adam Neumann, once declared that WeWork’s “mission” was “to elevate the world’s consciousness”. Another of his sayings is that “the energy of we [is] greater than any one of us, but inside each of us”.
Ah, yes, the energy of we. While I can just about imagine Zamyatin’s Benefactor saying this — or Huxley’s Mustapha Mond, for that matter — Neumann is ultimately more of a Douglas Adams character. We may well be destined for dystopia, but as long as we’re not all lobotomised, there’s a fighting chance that the future will be more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than hell on earth.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
In 15th-century Peru, we learnt last week, children were sacrificed to propitiate the Chimu gods in an attempt to end natural disasters caused by the climatic phenomenon we now call, appropriately enough, El Niño. In our time the roles have been reversed. Now children warning of an impending climate catastrophe are the ones that have to be propitiated. Now it is they who demand sacrifices.
The arrival of Greta Thunberg in New York on Wednesday was one of many recent events that illustrate how rapidly modern environmentalism is degenerating into a millenarian cult.
Greta, 16, is in New York at the invitation of the United Nations, having already established herself as a public figure in Europe by leading mass truancies to protest against climate change (“Fridays for Future”). Rather than flying, she sailed across the Atlantic in an “emissions-free yacht” to spare the Earth’s atmosphere the exhaust from a plane that was flying to New York anyway, with or without her.
“Just before 3pm,” reported The New York Times, “a shout went up from those waiting in the intermittent light rain to greet her . . . most of them young activists. The boat’s black sails had come into sight just blocks from Wall Street, the heart of the global financial system whose investments in fossil fuels are one of the main targets of climate protesters.”
Amid the drizzle, the bankers cowered before the wrath of Greta. From the headquarters of the once-mighty Goldman Sachs came the feeble tweet: “We’re committed to helping win the race and proud to welcome @GretaThunberg to New York.” They’ll be sacrificing the oil company accounts on Tuesday.
“Sea levels are rising and so are we!” the young activists chanted, according to the priceless Times report. Once safely ashore in Manhattan, Greta lost no time in urging Donald Trump “just to listen to the science, [as] he obviously doesn’t do that”.
Science. Or perhaps science fiction. There is at first something unnervingly reminiscent of John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos about Greta. The pigtails. The unsmiling stare. But then you learn that she has struggled with mental health conditions, including high-functioning autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This makes it hard to criticise her.
Yet what does it tell us about our world that Greta is about to add the UN general assembly to the list of august bodies she has addressed in the past year, after the Pope, the World Economic Forum and the European parliament? “I want you to panic,” she said at Davos in January. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.” That is not the voice of science. It is the voice of a millenarian cult leader.
The end of the world is not nigh, however.
Now, I am not about to deny that climate change is happening or that global warming is going to have adverse effects in the foreseeable future. Not even Bjorn Lomborg, the sceptical Danish economist, says that. The point, as he argued in a recent, brilliant presentation at the Hoover Institution, is that — as in the past — we humans are capable of adapting to climate change in ways that can significantly mitigate its adverse effects.
It would be foolish to do nothing to prepare for a warmer planet. But it would be more foolish to pretend that we are doing something that will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions when we are not.
Greta’s carbon-neutral Atlantic crossing is a case in point. As yachts require crews, it is almost certain that more people will end up flying across the Atlantic as a result of her stunt than if she had caught a scheduled flight. The Paris climate accord is a scaled-up version of this. Even if adhered to, it will scarcely increase the share of global energy that comes from renewable sources. The effect on average temperature will be negligible: just 1% of what would be needed to limit the rise in global temperature by 2100 to 1.5C.
It would be even more foolish to take, on the basis of apocalyptic visions, extreme precautions that end up costing more than inaction would. Subsidies to renewable energy have a cost. Cutting CO2 emissions has a cost. Those costs in terms of forgone growth could exceed the costs of climate damage if we overreach in the way that, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal would. The key point, as Lomborg says, is that vastly more people die as a consequence of poverty each year than die as a consequence of global warming. A CO2 emissions target is not the optimal target if meeting it would trap millions in poverty, not to mention ignorance and ill-health.
Back in the 1400s people in Peru believed that sacrificing their children would reduce rainfall. Not only did that not work. Regardless of their grim, murderous rites, they were soon to be hit by a far worse natural disaster than rain, namely the various lethal pandemics that swept the Americas after the arrival of Europeans. We know climate change can happen, because it followed hard on the heels of this “great dying”: the collapsing population in the New World reduced carbon dioxide levels as large areas of land returned to the wild, leading to the so-called Little Ice Age.
I have said more than once in recent years that our era has more in common with the 16th and 17th centuries than with any intervening period — and not just because of the splendidly Stuart-style constitutional crisis currently gripping the British Isles. It is the early-modern world all over again, not least because the effects of the internet on popular belief so closely resemble the effects of the printing press.
The challenge of millenarianism — as Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore pointed out in my favourite sketch from Beyond the Fringe — is what to do when the end of the world fails to happen.
Greta is right about one thing. The chances are virtually nil that the governments of the world will do as she asks. While the West virtue-signals, China, India, Brazil and others will continue to attach more importance to growth than to curbing emissions. The planet will grow warmer, just as it grew colder in the 1600s. And we shall adapt, taking advantage of the technological innovations that will gradually improve how we generate and store electrical power and ward off flood waters.
It is 2059. To the embarrassment (but, I hope, relief) of Greta Thunberg, now 56, her great expectations of the end of the world have not been fulfilled. Jair Bolsonaro didn’t torch the Amazon. Trump didn’t incinerate the planet. You should come back to New York to celebrate our survival, Greta.
But, this time, fly.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Norman Stone at Oxford in 1994
My first German lesson with Norman Stone was — like so much about Norman — unorthodox. “Meet me at 11am in the Worcester College bar,” he had said. It was 1986, I think, and I had embarked on a doctoral degree at Oxford, mainly because my three years as an undergraduate hadn’t seemed quite enough. Norman had just arrived from Cambridge to take up the Oxford chair in modern history. Someone at the history faculty had recognised kindred spirits, so I had been assigned to him. The technical term was “advisee” — not a word commonly associated with the Worcester bar.
At some point in my final year, I had decided my doctoral thesis must be on some aspect of German history, if only so that I would have to learn the language. In those days there seemed to be three options when it came to foreign expertise. The Cold Warriors and fellow travellers learnt Russian and went to Moscow. I already loathed the Soviet Union enough not to want to do that. The aesthetes (“weeds” in Norman-ese) learnt Italian and went to Florence. I knew there was no future in the Renaissance. So I chose German and went to Hamburg, which had worked as launchpad for the Beatles.
It seemed a safe bet that, however docile the West Germans might seem from a distance, they and their long-standing “German question” would at some point be back. In any case, the most interesting historians of the previous generation had tended to write about Germany, including the arch-rivals Hugh Trevor-Roper and AJP Taylor.
Norman’s reputation preceded him — and not just the fact that he knew all three of the above languages, and several more besides. In those pre-internet days, communications between Oxford and Cambridge were comparable to communications today between rural Vermont and Vladivostok. Clearly, the Oxford committee that appointed him had not done much due diligence beyond reading Sir Geoffrey Elton’s effusive letter of reference. But I had friends who had been undergraduates at Cambridge and so possessed first-hand knowledge of Norman’s Byronic style. I knew roughly what to expect. I was nevertheless unprepared for the combination of Guinness and Nietzsche.
It turned out that Norman’s method of initiation into the language of Goethe, Schiller, Dichter und Denker was to consume two preprandial pints of Ireland’s beloved stout and then, having repaired to his rather chilly set of rooms, to attack Also Sprach Zarathustra.
And so the Stone Age of my life began. At times, it was downright madness. True, the British historical profession in those days was bibulous by almost any standards, except perhaps those of the Russian army, and Norman was by no means the worst drinker I worked with in my youth. Whereas others would descend into incoherence or unpleasantness, Norman under the influence was nearly always delightful (provided he could also chain-smoke). Indeed, drunk, Norman could be so dazzlingly brilliant that I came to dread the rather morose interludes when his wife, Christine, or his doctor or his liver would insist on a period of abstinence.
A year or two after I had finished my DPhil — by which time I had landed my first teaching job at Cambridge — I invited Norman to come back to his old stamping ground to address the Peterhouse History Society. He agreed, but I knew him well enough by then to know how contingent such a commitment was. At lunchtime on the day he was due to speak, I rang to remind him. He had, of course, forgotten. However, there was just time for him to jump in a taxi (he loved shouting, “Charge!” at taxi drivers, and I am sure they did indeed charge him a fortune in the course of his life), and he arrived in time for dinner.
What I had not bargained for was the bottle of whisky he insisted on having — most of it consumed before the meeting had begun. I recall little of what he said — it was the early phase of the break-up of Yugoslavia, so it probably had to do with Bosnia, about which he had agreed to write a piece for this newspaper. The most memorable part of the occasion was the after-party in my rooms on Trumpington Street, which culminated in Norman’s (rather good) performance of Don Giovanni, sung while he was lying on my floor. He went to bed at 3am.
The next morning, just after dawn, my phone rang. It was Norman. Could I get him a pack of cigarettes as a matter of urgency? And could I bring it to Maurice Cowling’s rooms across the road? Head pounding, I obliged. Never shall I forget the sound that greeted me as I climbed the stairs to Cowling’s: blaring out of his old stereo was the opening of Act III of Wagner’s Siegfried, almost but not quite drowning out the hammering of typewriter keys. Norman was up and hard at work on his Bosnia piece. Cowling greeted me with a facial expression that combined irony, geniality and malice.
Later, I was entrusted with five pages of manuscript and a fax number. On my way to the college secretary, who possessed Peterhouse’s only such device, I looked at what he had written, and recoiled in horror. So numerous were the typographical errors, mostly a result of missed keys, that it might have been written in Serbo-Croat. But what could be done? The deadline was imminent. So the pages were sent. The next morning a perfectly cogent article appeared under Norman’s byline — a reminder that, more often than is commonly admitted, mercurial men like Norman are saved by unsung sub-editors.
Guinness and Nietzsche, scotch and Wagner, and I hazily recall a similar night of bordeaux and Céline — this was Norman’s way. At a time when academic culture was already beginning its shift from Regency to Victorian morals, he personified all that the hatchet-faced exponents of gender history and “the cultural turn” detested. As a reader of draft chapters and writer of letters of reference, he was as unreliable as any professor I have known; I required a parallel, more dependable Doktorvater (Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann) to survive.
But missing all deadlines was the least of it. The #MeToo movement lay in the future, which was just as well. For Norman in his prime, one would have needed a #MeThree movement.
For all his flaws, Norman was a genius: history’s Flann O’Brien. As his obituarists noted last week, he was a truly exceptional linguist and was never happier than when sharing the quirkiest feature of the latest language he was learning. Very drunk, he veered from one tongue to another, often to baffling effect. But it was what he said, more than the languages he knew, that set him apart from nearly all his contemporaries. Although The Eastern Front 1914-1917 was his best as well as his first book, Europe Transformed 1878-1919 was a masterpiece of synthesis and has proved an invaluable guide to our own times. Ever wondered why tariffs have made a comeback, or why Italian politics is so hard to predict? It’s all there, and the fun Norman had with the Italian word trasformismo has come in handy time and again.
In addition, Norman could justly claim to have come up with the best examination question ever set in the Cambridge history tripos: “Romanticism: masculine, feminine or neuter?”
He was also, despite or perhaps because of his unorthodox methods, a wonderful adviser. The hardest part of a doctoral dissertation is not the writing of it but the original conception. Norman’s genius was quite destructive: he was pitiless in shooting down mediocre ideas, of which I had many, with the lethal question “So what?” and a gesture he had learnt in Prague (or was it Bratislava?) that involved rolling his eyes, sticking out his tongue and shrugging his shoulders, all at the same time.
My original plan had been to write a thesis about satirical magazines in late 19th-century Vienna. Norman skewered that: “You’ll never be able to translate the jokes.” He steered me instead towards economic history, urging me to do “number-crunching”, as it would teach me economics. This was life-saving advice. My bet on Germany came up trumps when the Berlin Wall fell just two days before my DPhil viva voce examination. But I wouldn’t have been able to make much of the opportunity, had I not grasped the economic difficulties it would create for the West Germans.
Norman was brilliantly right on this issue when Margaret Thatcher sought his advice, at a time when she and other European leaders were worried reunification would make Germany a superpower. He sought to reassure Thatcher that, in taking over East Germany, West Germany was only getting “six Liverpools”. That was vintage Norman: funny, and penetrating to the heart of the matter. Even better was his answer as to why he had moved from Oxford to Ankara, Turkey, in 1997: “You have to understand that, in the depth of my being, I’m a Scotsman and feel entirely at home in an enlightenment that has failed.”
Of all the “media dons” who flourished in the 1980s, Norman was the most wickedly clever, and the academic left hated him as much for the cleverness as for the wickedness. But Norman exulted in its disapproval. He once told me: “I wear my enemies like medals.” And that is how I shall always remember him: Guinness in one hand, Nietzsche in the other, cigarette balanced on lower lip — and the heads of Oxford’s dullest dons dangling from ribbons on his barrel chest.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
‘Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed captain of school for next half). I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
Thus Martin Hammond, the master of Boris Johnson’s house at Eton, in a letter addressed to Johnson père in 1982. Boris took much the same approach to life at Oxford, where I met him a few years later. It was the same story in Fleet Street; in parliament; as a junior minister; as mayor of London; as foreign secretary — and I have no doubt that it will be same story if, as now seems all but inevitable, he is elected Conservative leader and fulfils his life’s ambition to be Britain’s prime minister.
It is true that Sir Winston Churchill was also something of a maverick at Harrow, where, according to a contemporary, he “consistently broke almost every rule made by masters or boys, was quite incorrigible, and had an unlimited vocabulary of backchat”. A few years ago Boris dashed off a very bad book about Churchill, the main purpose of which was to draw attention to resemblances between himself and Britain’s greatest prime minister. For me, the book only confirmed the chasm between them.
In any case, as Andrew Roberts notes in Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Winston did better at Harrow than he later claimed, winning a prize for reciting 1,200 lines of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome without error — whereas Johnson was notorious for fluffing his lines at Eton. Cruelly neglected by his parents, Churchill flourished under the influence of Robert Somervell, who taught him English grammar.
Now there is a man who deserves our admiration: the man who taught English to the young Churchill, who in turn became one of the language’s greatest masters — second only to Shakespeare, in my view. Somervell, like Hammond, dedicated his life to teaching. He did not aspire to be prime minister, for teachers are generally modest types. But should we admire only the ambitious?
To be a teacher is to forgo fame. You might aspire to become a headmaster; you do not dream of No 10. This is the time of year when, regardless of the political goings-on in Westminster, the school year draws to a close and the more grateful sixth-formers shake their teachers’ hands as they set off into the world. Let us therefore turn away from the attention-seeking antics of the power-hungry — there will be more than enough articles about Boris this weekend — and give thanks instead for the unsung heroes who are great teachers.
Earlier this month, The Times reported, Sharon White became chairwoman of the retailer John Lewis, just days after Sonita Alleyne was elected master of Jesus College, Cambridge. What these two high-flyers have in common, aside from being neither male nor white, is they were both pupils of Gerald O’Connell at Leyton Senior High School for Girls in east London, then classed as a severely disadvantaged school (the opposite of Eton, in other words). It was O’Connell who urged them to apply to Cambridge.
“When teaching boys that age and in that area,” O’Connell told The Times, “you had to be quite tough. With the girls, as a young male teacher, it was best to use flattery to form an emotional bond, then get them to worry about disappointing you and letting you down. It’s emotional blackmail but it works. I went a bit far one day and all the girls ended up crying when I said I would be heartbroken if they didn’t do well in their exams.”
The best teachers have just that kind of insight into the dark place that is teenage psychology. I was the rebellious type in my early teens. Not long after Anarchy in the UK had been released by the Sex Pistols — it was 1976 — I bought a cheap electric guitar and ineptly cut my hair in the punk fashion with my mother’s nail scissors. I was one of the worst boy soldiers in the history of the Glasgow Academy’s combined cadet force.
History — then as now — had the reputation of being a boring subject at school. (It’s no accident that the history teacher in the Harry Potter books, Professor Binns, is so boring that he has died without noticing it.) Yet my history teacher, the late Ronnie Woods, had the gift that makes a great teacher. He understood that a bunch of recalcitrant Glaswegian boys would respond only to a mixture of theatre and terror.
Ronnie would begin each lesson with an explosive flourish, spinning the blackboard around to reveal a multicoloured lesson plan. He had catchphrases — “The question is sacrosanct!”— that I remember to this day (even at university level, most history essays are bad because students simply fail to answer the question).
Ronnie was in tune with our adolescent addiction to humour, well aware that we were imitating him behind his back — as we imitated all our teachers — and furnishing us with ample raw material. But there were also the odd flashes of ferocity that are needed to keep boys in line. Once in a while, Ronnie was not averse to administering the dreaded belt or tawse to the outstretched hand of a transgressor, pour encourager les autres.
Then there were the vital nuts and bolts. Ronnie showed us how to take notes, how to plan an essay, how to defend it in discussion. It was from him I learnt that the obvious answer to a historical question is rarely the right one, and never the interesting one. Above all, Ronnie had the vital quality that he truly wanted his star pupils to triumph.
We lost another great teacher last week, the Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, who died at the age of 79, having taught a striking proportion of the biggest names in economics today. Fellow economist Lawrence Summers recalled how, in 1973, Feldstein “decided to take a chance on hiring a dishevelled college sophomore as his research assistant. Marty was infinitely patient with my many questions about his research and remarkably tolerant of my inability to keep straight his data on international social-security comparisons.”
Either man would have been a better Federal Reserve chairman than the present incumbent, and both came close, for Harvard is one of the few educational institutions in the world where the teachers do dream of the corridors of power.
But let Marty be remembered — along with Robert Somervell, Ronnie Woods and thousands of others — as a great teacher, always patient and tolerant. Cultivating teenage talent is a noble vocation. And if some of the talent remains incorrigible . . . well, don’t blame the teachers. If, as prime minister, Boris Johnson continues to act as if “free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”, it will not be Martin Hammond’s fault.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford