Tuesday, January 23, 2018

#23 / The Tower And The Square

The Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy
Basically, I am writing this posting because I like the picture, which I find evocative. The image above appeared in the January 13-14, 2018, hard copy edition of The Wall Street Journal. It was associated with a book review by Deirdre N. McCloskey

McCloskey advertises herself as a "well-known economist and historian and rhetorician," with her website stating that she has written seventeen books and around four hundred scholarly pieces on a wide-ranging set of topics, from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy. McCloskey self-identifies as a “conservative economist, Chicago-School style," and further states that she is "a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man."

Whatever other merits her scholarship may have, McCloskey writes a good review, at least based on the one I am referencing here. The book she has reviewed is The Square and the Tower, by Niall Ferguson, who is "a British historian and political commentator." According to McCloskey, Ferguson's book is "brilliant."

I don't know whether McCloskey is right about the brilliance of Ferguson's book, since I haven't read it. I do, however, like the idea of analyzing social, political, and economic arrangements based on a Tower/Square dichotomy. It seems like a good metaphor to me, at least as depicted in the photo of the Piazza del Campo. The shadow of the "Tower" looms darkly and ominously over the sunlit "Square," with the Tower standing for "hierarchy" and the Square standing for "networks," which presumably means ordinary people organized at the individual level. 

According to McCloskey, Ferguson has a negative view of all those unruly networks: 

The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of the Jacobins,” and we bring out the guillotines. “It is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy,” [Ferguson] contends. He also declares himself against “the confident assumptions . . . that there is something inherently benign in network disruption of hierarchical order.”

Mr. Ferguson’s book studies in fascinating detail how the Square undermines the Tower, for good or ill—regularly ill, he says. In Siena, Italy, Mr. Ferguson notes, the tower for the city hall overshadows the central square (once the central market) where the famous and un-refereed Palio horse race plays out twice yearly, as if the rulers were saying, “Play on, mere populo, in spontaneously agreed-upon bets on horses or on business deals. But remember that it’s the hierarchy in the tower that runs the show.” Until a new network undermines it.

While I agree that there is positive value in organization and order, the attributes given to the Tower in Ferguson's metaphor, and while I also agree that the disruption of existing political, social, and economic arrangements is never automatically benign, I take pretty much the opposite view from Ferguson. To my mind, the genuine life of any society springs from this truth: we are all in this life together. The Square, in other words, is where we begin everything, and the Tower is a social, political, and economic construction that, once built, often comes to assert that its importance is greater than the existence of all those who brought it into being. When that happens, when the shadow falls on that sunny public space, it chills and discourages human activity, and yet it is from the Square that all life and all human creation must ultimately emerge. 

When we relinquish our political initiatives to the Tower, cold tyranny and oppression will surely follow. That truth, I think, is what is so powerfully represented in that metaphoric picture of the Tower's shadow on the Square in Sienna. 

That shadow of the Tower is casting its chill darkness everywhere, these days. That shadow extends far beyond Sienna. I feel it here. 

When we feel that chill, when the shadow strikes down upon our public space, that is not the time to flee the Square. As the Tower looms, and casts its ominous, cold, and dark shadow on us, that is not the time to fly away, or to seek refuge in some private venue. 

When our public Square is invaded by the shadow of the Tower, that is the time when we must bring our friends - our many, many friends. We must come the Square, with our friends, and gather there. And then, in the warmth of our coming together, we can decide what we will do, together, to rearrange the architecture of the Tower's oppression.

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