How to Feel Sorry for Niall Ferguson


Niall Ferguson’s latest gaffe is of course laughable.  It goes like this.

Keynes was gay, he didn’t have children, so he couldn’t care about the future; thus he urged us to squander our resources in the name of immediate gratification rather than long-term growth.  His economic theories promoted moral dissolution as well as economic dissipation.

That’s my paraphrase and amplification, to be sure, but my experience with the other side—the folks who believe fervently in more saving, increased private investment, and less government spending as the obvious cures for what ails us—convinces me that, Ferguson’s abject apology notwithstanding, there is a connection here between the economic and the moral planes of his statements which is worth tracing.

To put it more plainly, when Ferguson reduces Keynesian political economy to the personal life of John Maynard Keynes, he’s developing, not inventing, long-standing tropes that treat macroeconomic problems as moral calendars to be cleared by the decisions of individuals—as when politicians and theorists alike equate government spending and family budgets.

Just take a look at Paul Ryan’s proposals to dismantle the welfare state.  You can’t read them as the idiosyncratic ravings of a 19-year old high on Atlas Shrugged, because the Republican Party as such endorsed them, before, during, and after Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.  The prefaces are full of statements like this: “A government that buries the next generation under an avalanche of debt cannot claim the moral high ground in the world.”  And this: “From a moral perspective, these [entitlement] programs are failing the very people they are intended to help.”

I’m not trying to remind you that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher, or that economists can’t escape the moral implications of their spreadsheets.  I’m reminding us that in the last election season, Ferguson praised Ryan in the most effusive manner possible, in the infamous Newsweek cover story (“He blew me away”), and in doing so indicted America—his adopted country—as the “50/50 nation,” where, enabled by the welfare state, half the people had sunk to the level of the dole.  Notice: more than 47% of the population were mere hedonists, glad to be getting something for nothing, happily wasting resources that future generations will need.


But Ferguson’s apology makes it clear that his conscience was animated because his unconscious first got the better of him—in a truncated, grotesque, inarticulate form, he expressed the moral philosophy that is both premise and product of the economic theories he sponsors: Without saving or thrift, there can be no future, so Keynes obviously didn’t care about the future (meaning he didn’t care about the grandchildren) because he opposed the deferment of gratification we call saving or thrift.  Ferguson and countless others have said this many times before now.

There’s nothing new here, in other words, except the almost explicit correlation with homosexuality; but the connotation of decadence, a word that has no meaning without its sexual implications, has been there all along.  And why wouldn’t it be?  If you’re locked into the equation of macro and micro—the public good is the sum of private decisions—how do you explain the apparent decline of the work ethic except as a matter of moral decadence, assisted, as in suicide, by the state?  And how else to reverse the decline except by recourse to state power?

People with families and children are more likely to sacrifice present desires and needs in the name of the future because they have to, of course, but also because they want to, because they get pleasure from doing so, by observing and validating, in a word reliving, what they have relinquished—the insane and unruly needs of infancy.  That is why gay marriage is such a good bet on the future of capitalism; that is why the power of the liberal state will soon be on the side of homosexuality insofar as it can be disciplined by the rituals and vows of monogamy, which permit family as well as children (you can produce the latter without the former).

Still, what Ferguson said was egregious and embarrassing, even in view of what we might call, with apologies to Judith Butler, the new homo-normativity. But he has characterized his own extemporaneous remarks as “doubly stupid,” and pronounced himself “disappointed”—in himself.   Why, then, did he make them in the first place, if they were so obviously a violation of his own standards?


Finally, I get to play psychoanalyst.  Niall, you couldn’t help yourself.  The repressed will always return with a twist, with a vengeance, and usually, if Freud is right about jokes and their relation to the unconscious, they will return with a shocking, comic flourish.  Whatever you have repressed, no matter how trivial, will become a big secret, the kind that bursts forth under the most unlikely circumstances.  An ex-girlfriend put it this way: “Secrets always have coincidence at their disposal.”

The secret in your case, Niall, is the suppressed rage you feel against all those who are getting something for nothing—consuming without producing—by way of “entitlements”  or fake disability claims.  You believe these people are using up the resources that future generations will need.  You don’t think it, you believe it.  You believe that spending without regard to the compound interest that saving provides is like seeking pleasure without a higher purpose, like having sex without any reproductive resolve.  You believe that these are not just dangerously hedonistic pursuits, mere spastic moments in the elaboration of consumer culture—like Paul Ryan, you think they’re quite possibly immoral acts.

Now, Niall, you’re an historian, clearly you know that court society and its idiot offspring, our contemporary aristocracy of celebrity, are predicated on indiscretion, in both senses of the word—unlicensed sexuality and unbridled gossip, each an empty category without the other.  If kept private, discreet, and titillating, all hedonistic acts—seeking pleasure without a higher purpose—remain random events.  They’re just clandestine love affairs without effect on the larger (bourgeois) culture; indeed they validate the moral standards of that culture insofar as they remain “transgressive,” that is, exceptions to the rule.  When they become not just public but normal, lacking cultural or legal sanction, they become the rule.  That’s what you’re up against.  Are you getting this?

Look, the decline of civilization itself must follow, as you, Niall, have tried to prove in your last two books!  Meanwhile, though, blame—always remember, it’s the last resource of the dying animal—must be placed.  “What caused this?”  That’s the question consciousness makes us ask.  That’s the question you were answering when you made those stupid impromptu remarks.

But now you need to turn it around.  Ask yourself, “Do I really want to place all my bets on the integrity of the family, knowing what I know (as an historian) about its extreme variability over time and its present state?  Do I really want to reduce the macro to the micro, the public to the personal, and deduce universal moral principles from this conflation?”

Because if you do keep doubling down on this long shot, in the familiar manner of your conservative colleagues, you’ll keep saying things you will have to admit are stupid, after the fact.  You’re behind the times, Niall.  Civilization is not at risk because John Maynard Keynes makes more sense of the world—the future—than Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman.  Civilization is not at risk because sexuality finally begins to conform to the variety of human experience.  You know this at some level of your being, but you can’t admit it except when you’re apologizing, after the fact.  Beware, then: this awful knowledge will keep erupting from your unconscious in flagrant ways until you have become the Rush Limbaugh of academe, a bully without a pulpit, a minor disgrace.

So, my advice to you is very simple.  Shut the fuck up.



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7 responses to “How to Feel Sorry for Niall Ferguson

  1. Nice. One thing I’m not sure about is how these guys manage to maintain their smugness while they spout such poison. The Freudian angle captures the Conservative who adopts the high moral tone from the bully pulpit, true. But Ferguson is not that kind of Conservative. Instead, he’s the sneering, smug one that thinks socialism results only from a certain childishness of the intellect. He knows the joke but generally won’t say it, for fear of being rude (and possibly also out of fear you won’t pay to come hear him talk). In a way, he truly is a ‘pop’ Conservative. And that’s why this has hurt him so much, and why he has had to apologize. But not sure how Frued speaks to that.

  2. nicholaskiersey

    Reblogged this on #OCCUPYIRTHEORY and commented:
    James Livingston’s take on post-‘stupid’ Ferguson. Not sure about the characterization of Ferguson as harboring ‘rage,’ however. It just doesn’t fit right. After all, Ferguson is one of those smug Conservatives. You know, the ones who stay very cool while they spout their poison. The Freudian angle captures the Conservative who adopts the high moral tone from the bully pulpit, true. But Ferguson is not that kind of Conservative. Instead, he’s the sneering, smug one that thinks socialism results only from a certain childishness of the intellect. He knows the joke but generally won’t let on in good company, partially for fear of appearing rude and partially (I suppose) out of an awareness that you’ll be offended (and then you won’t pay to come hear him talk). In a way, Ferguson truly is a ‘pop’ Conservative. And that’s why this has hurt him so much, and why he has had to apologize. But Ferguson the quietly enraged? I’m not sure.

  3. Thanks for this — I’ve been reading more than I should about Ferguson and this helps to provide an explanation for his utterly idiotic outburst. Two thoughts:

    1) Might it be significant that he said this at an “investment conference” — i.e., a sort of gated community for the well-off — as opposed, say, to an academic conference? Like Mitt Romney’s comment of the 47%, Ferguson’s “slip” took place at what he might have felt was a safe place, a room filled with like-minded boys where he no longer needed to keep up the tedious civility that, one hopes, he maintains in the classroom. And, like Romney, he discovered that there are no safe places anymore.

    2) During a 2011 interview in the Guardian [], Ferguson was asked about his reaction the the treatment of his relationship with Hirsi Ali in the British tabloids. The report on his reaction supports your conjecture that he would seem to be one angry fellow: “I ask whether Ferguson has been surprised by the reaction their relationship provoked, the gossipy articles and so forth. His tone changes again and he suddenly sounds angry. “I was nauseated. Just nauseated. It makes me quite ashamed to be part of a culture that regards the private life of a professor as something that should be in the paper. It’s just so tawdry.” Apparently, fantasizing about what John Maynard Keynes and his “ballerina wife” might have been doing (reading poetry) and what the weren’t (“copulating”) doesn’t trigger Ferguson’s gag reflex. Analyze that?

  4. jonnybutter2

    Best laugh all day. Thanks

  5. Love this post.

    As a Canadian, I find it hard to self-promote, but readers may be interested in a much cruder taken on Ferguson I wrote a couple of days ago:

    • Mike

      Allow me to pick two complimentary nits with this comment:

      “Polite Canadian” is a punchline. There’s nothing exceptional about good manners, and certainly nothing exceptionally Canadian about them. Your manners only prove your Momma raised you right — and you can tell her I said that — no matter where you’re from.

      Reproductive futurism as a reactionary ideal, the notion that “fantasy subtending the image of the Child invariably shapes the logic within which the political itself must be thought” is complimentary of — certainly not cruder than — Jim’s absent Ego and external Super Ego claim. I am reading your post along side Jim’s now for the third time and I can see that working this out is gonna take years off my productive life. And, as I kind of hate my job, what a treat that is!
      These posts are, together, far more interesting than either could have been alone. Well done, and thank you for that.

  6. D. Bunker

    The comment was one thing, but for Ferguson to align himself with Ruthless Ryan – quite another. Very telling. It wasn’t the entitlement earners who broke the U.S. and global economies, it was the predatory capitalists and the Republican Party.

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