In the early moments of the first episode of The Ascent of Money, presenter Niall Ferguson wonders: “Shouldn’t this series be called The Descent of Money?”
Money matters: Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money is a Channel 4 series. Dewald Aukema / Chimerical Media
There is a good reason to ask this question. The television series, to be aired in India by Fox History and Entertainment, has been adapted from Ferguson’s book of the same name and comes in the wake of the worst financial crisis in more than seven decades. The bubble of banker hubris was well and truly pricked even as ordinary folk were driven towards bankruptcy and unemployment. That is why the question Ferguson asks in the first episode is a pertinent one: We have just been reminded of the dark side of money.
The financial history of the world is a gripping tale, with euphoria and panic mingling to create moments of creativity, pain and revolution. The Medici family of bankers in medieval Florence funded Michelangelo and other Renaissance masters. The reckless spending by the French monarchy and the shady schemes of their main financier John Law were part of the convulsions that led to the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. And there would have been no telecom revolution or Google without the dotcom madness in late 20th century Silicon Valley. Of course, the world needs money and bankers even in more staid times to keep the wheels of economy turning.
Ferguson is wonderfully placed to recount such ancient and modern tales. A British historian who teaches at Harvard University, he is also a popular pundit and a frequent commentator on the current economic crisis. His recent clashes with economist Paul Krugman have been entertaining and illuminating.
If there is an underlying message in The Ascent of Money, it is this: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Ferguson’s whistle-stop tour through financial history shows the reader how the tulip mania of Holland in the 1620s is quintessentially the same as the rush to buy Enron shares in 2000. Others—most notably Charles Kindleberger in Manias, Panics and Crashes—have trudged over much of the same territory. Yet, Ferguson’s story does not seem stale.
But these parallels between the old and the new seem to have forced The Ascent of Money into a narrative trap. In the two episodes that the channel sent to this reviewer, the story obsessively keeps moving between the past and the present. This is just part of a slightly frenetic and jerky feel to the episodes. The overuse of some images—skyscrapers, the concrete canyons of Manhattan, darkened trading rooms and green-lit stock tickers—is puzzling.
The name of the series forces me to compare it with an earlier effort: Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, a history of science filmed in the early 1970s. Its narrative flow was chronological and the presentation was calm. In comparison, The Ascent of Money is too edgy.
But Ferguson’s obvious learning and intelligence come through despite these niggling problems, and ensure that you keep listening to what he is telling you.
The Ascent of Money premieres on 30 July at 10pm on the Fox History and Entertainment channel.