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The feats and failures of hierarchical power: Stalin, Xi Jinping, Macbeth
Countries with top-down power hierarchies get things done quickly—but they just can't last.
Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the Center for European Studies, Harvard, where he served for 12 years as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation Distinguished Scholar at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
He is the author of 14 books. His first, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation 1897-1927, was short-listed for the History Today Book of the Year award, while the collection of essays he edited, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, was a UK bestseller. In 1998 he published to international critical acclaim The Pity of War: Explaining World War One and The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild. The latter won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History and was also short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Literary Award and the American National Jewish Book Award.
His latest book is The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (2017).
Niall Ferguson: When I am trying to explain to some young person what a truly hierarchical system looks like, I talk about Stalin. Joseph Stalin ran the Soviet Union with—as is well known—an iron grip.
But it wasn’t just his ruthlessness that was remarkable, it was the way in which he structured governance so that it was almost impossible for any two Soviet citizens to have a private relationship that was not in some sense known to and subject to Stalin.
So he was the node through which all other nodes had to go to communicate and Stalin, who was famously paranoid, was suspicious about any interaction between the Soviet citizens, and especially between a Soviet citizen and a foreigner, that he didn’t know about. Because even having a conversation, and it was an un-political conversation about art and literature, without, as it were, the permission of the Soviet regime was a crime.
So the problem of Soviet society under Stalin was that he was all-controlling and aspired to be omniscient, tapping the relatively rudimentary telephone network of the Soviet Union on a routine basis to find out what people were saying. And technically speaking, a hierarchy like this is just a weird kind of network, in which one node has the maximum possible centrality and other nodes have minimal contact with one another other than indirectly through the central node.
We shouldn’t, I think, suggest a false dichotomy. It’s not as if there are networks here and hierarchies here; it is a continuum and technically they are all different kinds of network. A distributed network is a highly decentralized one; a hierarchical network is the one like the Soviet Union where a single node aspires to know everything and control all communications.
If you want to see the advantages of a hierarchical system of government, take a trip to China and you will see a system which is extraordinarily hierarchical. Xi Jinping is the top man and there’s a kind of pyramid of power that stretches down beneath him all the way down to a base of Communist Party members, who may be no more than the people who keep an eye on their apartment block.
This system is good at doing engineering projects. If this system decides on building high-speed rail networks around China, it can do it with astonishing speed. If the system decides that it’s going to build cities in the expectation that there will be a population to inhabit them, it can do that.
And so one of the most impressive aspects of the last 30 years of human history has been the spectacular growth of the Chinese economy. And that has been, in large measure, the result of a highly effective hierarchical system of planning.
Now, that wasn’t really supposed to happen because in 1989 Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the "end of history" and communism was supposed to be scrapped and we were all going to live in liberal-capitalist systems. The Chinese didn’t get that memorandum—they must not have translated 'The End of History' into Chinese—and they decided that they would revitalize the notion of democratic centralism of the Lenin-ist party and use it to modernize the Chinese economy.
Of course, you would be naïve if you went to China today and didn’t see some of the problems with doing that. The problems of pollution have been a characteristic feature of modern Chinese life, there’s been really large-scale environmental damage done—not just to air-quality—by the extraordinary pace of industrialization in China and the vast investments that there have been often in rather dirty, industrial capacity.
There’s also the problem of corruption. This is an everyday topic of conversation in China; a one-party hierarchical system of government isn’t accountable, it’s above the law, and officials have routinely skimmed off huge sums of money to line their own pockets.
None of this comes as any news to people who read Hayek’s great book 'The Road to Serfdom'. Since the mid-20th-century, classical liberal scholars have said that the planned economy is bound to be inefficient and it’s bound to lead to corruption and other abuses of power. I think most people who think that way—and I include myself in that group—were taken by surprise by the success of China’s economic growth strategy.
Can this system endure through the 21st century? That is a huge question for China’s leaders, and indeed for the world. If you are, like me, skeptical about that level of political centralization you’re kind of sitting waiting for something to go wrong, because the defect of hierarchical system of government tends to be that it’s not responsive to signals from down below, that top-down governance tends to be somewhat deaf. Not only does it not necessarily get market signals, it may miss out on political dissidents, political discontent.
Or to put it differently, you’ve created, through rapid industrialization, the biggest middle class in all of history, the biggest bourgeoisie in history. And if Karl Marx were here sitting next to me I think he’d agree that that was very hard to reconcile with the system devised by Mao Zedong to centralize power in the hands of a single party. Marx would expect the bourgeoisie in China to do what the European bourgeoisie did in the 19th century: demand property rights and therefore the rule of law to protect property rights—and therefore some elements of representation in government. So even from a Marxist perspective something has to change.
So hierarchical systems of government over time tend at some point to suffer a loss of legitimacy, a challenge from below, and we saw it in the history of the Soviet Union, but we’ve seen it elsewhere in much less sophisticated hierarchical systems like the military regimes of Latin America or the presidential regimes of the Middle East, which came to grief, in some cases, well before the Soviet Union did.
A really interesting feature of hierarchy that doesn’t get understood, I think, nearly well enough is that if you are a hierarchical ruler you are right to be paranoid. And it’s not just that paranoid people tend to become dictators, it’s more that if you’re a dictator you need to be paranoid, because the real threat to a hierarchy is a successfully organized social network.
A social network independent of the hierarchy of the big guy is the real threat. One saw that, for example, in Poland. Why did Poland, of all the communist regimes, get into trouble first? Because there was a really well-organized civil society, all voluntary associations—some religious, some not—that formed a network, even before the Solidarity Trade Union came along.
That’s lethal to a hierarchical system, which is why Stalin was right, if you want to put it this way, to be paranoid about social networking that he didn’t control or didn’t know about.
He understood that it doesn’t take too many additional edges in the network to destroy the dominance of that central node. So one way of thinking about this is: imagine a pyramidal structure, imagine something kind of like a Christmas tree, and there’s the big guy like the fairy on top of the Christmas tree. But imagine that on this Christmas tree the lights are just connected to the fairy, they’re not connected to one another, and therefore the fairy decides if the lights go on or off. It’s a peculiar kind of Christmas tree. That’s essentially a hierarchical network.
It wouldn’t take too many connections, as it were—lateral or horizontal connections—between the lights to reduce the centrality of the fairy on the tree, and ultimately you could end up illuminating the tree without needing the fairy altogether.
So I think that’s why dictators, hierarchs, need to be paranoid. Read the plays of Shakespeare. The suspicion that always seems to haunt any of Shakespeare’s kings is that there is some kind of plot, some cabal, some conspiracy going on. And if you read the history of European monarchy very often those suspicions were well-founded.
What we call social networks looked like conspiracies to absolute rulers, and that’s why very often in history the term seems to overlap. What looks like a social network to you and me, if we’re in it, looks like a plot to the king.
If you want to understand what a truly hierarchical political system looks like, just look at Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, says historian Niall Ferguson. Stalin wanted to be all-powerful and omnipresent; he tapped phones, policed relationships and spied on everything—he was totally paranoid, says Ferguson, and for good reason. Social networks are lethal to top-down hierarchies and dictatorships, which is what makes this model of governance so unsustainable. But there is an exception that has stunned observers, Niall Ferguson included: China. Under leader Xi Jinping, China's economy has soared over the last 30 years, but it is now vexed with the largest middle class in history. Can this system endure through the 21st century? That's a huge question for China’s leaders, and for the world. Niall Ferguson is the author of The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
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Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
- Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
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