Civilization: The West and the Rest


Niall Ferguson

2011

I’ve always been one to defend the best ideas of the Enlightenment from attacks by rabid relativists, but I’ve also tried hard to separate the good from the bad.

I’ve tried to differentiate from the kinds of rational thought that brought us the scientific method and the end of the repressive conjunction of religion and monarchy the bankrupt notions of European racial and moral superiority that “justified” colonialism and empire.

Some others worry not so much.

Francis Fukuyama and Niall Ferguson are today’s two great triumphalists, key apologists for the “ideals” of the Anglo-American West, and both have popped up in recent online articles.

And there’s much to dislike in Ferguson’s book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, which is essentially a whining lament that we in the West don’t fully appreciate the evident superiority of our culture — and worse, we don’t take enough advantage of the power it  has given us. Ferguson is little more than a cheerleader for an unfashionable self-image: the West is the Best!

And, if we’re not mindful of protecting our greatness, Ferguson warns, we may go the way of previous empires — unlike almost everyone else, he uses the word “empire” frequently and proudly. Rome, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union collapsed not slowly but precipitously, and the same could happen to us, despite our manifest and manifold superiorities, if we’re slack.

Just about the only passage I can quote with which I wholly agree is Ferguson’s statement that “No serious writer would claim that the reign of Western civilization was unblemished. Yet there are those who would insist that there was nothing whatever good about it. This position is absurd.”

Yes, a complete rejection of the ideas of the Enlightenment is absurd. But so is an account of world history in the last five hundred years that, with the exception of a lament for the regrettable but understandable institution of slavery, paints over all of the excesses and flaws of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism.

Ferguson argues that “empire is not a historically sufficient explanation of Western predominance.” And he dismisses the ideas of books like Guns, Germs, and Steel and Why the West Rules, for Now, books that reject racial or systemic superiority in favour of geography, climate, and other features of the physical environment.

Instead, Ferguson writes: “In this book I want to show that what distinguished the West from the Rest – the mainsprings of global power – were six identifiably novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviours.”

The six core differences that Ferguson identifies are Competition, Science, Property Rights, Medicine, The Consumer Society, and The Work Ethic.

Capitalism is good. The Scientific Revolution was wholly European (with some slight thanks to Muslim scientists of the Middle Ages), bringing both industrial growth and modern medicine. Personal Property, the Free Market, and the Protestant Work Ethic are inherently superior ways of organizing things. No wonder the West rules!

Here’s just one of the book’s many passages that both compress and skew the history of civilization:

The critical point is that the differential between the West and the Rest was institutional. Western Europe overtook China partly because in the West there was more competition in both the political and the economic spheres. Austria, Prussia and latterly even Russia became more effective administratively and militarily because the network that produced the Scientific Revolution arose in the Christian but not in the Muslim world. The reason North America’s ex-colonies did so much better than South America’s was because British settlers established a completely different system of property rights and political representation in the North from those built by Spaniards and Portuguese in the South.

Predictably for a free market economist, Ferguson identifies the books of Adam Smith as “the greatest achievement of the era.”

He writes, with evident pride:

That mass consumerism, with all the standardization it implied, could somehow be reconciled with rampant individualism was one of the smartest tricks ever pulled by Western civilization. But the key to understanding how it was done lies in that very word: Western.

And,

Western science shifted the paradigms; others either followed or were left behind. Western systems of law and the political models derived from them, including democracy, displaced or defeated the non-Western alternatives. Western medicine marginalized the witch doctors and other faith-healers. Above all, the Western model of industrial production and mass consumption left all alternative models of economic organization floundering in its wake.

You get the idea, and there’s much more where that comes from. Ferguson isn’t shy about his biases. He writes that government, with its “insatiable appetite for taxing our incomes and our wealth and wasting a large portion of the proceeds,” is an enemy of progress.

And then there’s his constant bland amorality in the face of all of the documented abuses and excesses of imperialism and colonialism: “Empire has become a dirty word, despite the benefits conferred on the rest of the world by the European imperialists.”

That’s an idea you don’t see in print very often these days!

In the end, Ferguson puffs like a peacock:

Western civilization is more than just one thing; it is a package. It is about political pluralism (multiple states and multiple authorities) as well as capitalism; it is about the freedom of thought as well as the scientific method; it is about the rule of law and property rights as well as democracy.

No wonder Pankaj Mishra warns us to Watch this man.

Mishra calls Ferguson “homo atlanticus redux,” on a mission “to rescue the word from the discredit into which political correctness had apparently cast it.”

Mishra notes Ferguson’s popularity in the United States, where, in a nice phrase, Ferguson “became a wise Greek counsellor to many aspiring Romans.”

To explain the contingent, short-lived factors that gave a few countries in Western Europe their advantage over the rest of the world requires a sustained and complex analysis, not one hell-bent on establishing that the West was, and is, best.

Foremost among his many criticisms, Mishra accuses Ferguson of ignoring or underplaying the downside of the spread of Western political and economic systems to the rest of the world. In colonial times, these systems were “imposed on societies historically unprepared for them,” with disastrous results:

The raising of conscript armies, for instance, which helped protect national sovereignty and the expansion of political freedom in the West, could, and more often than not did, strengthen monarchical despotism in the East. Though essential to the growth of Western capitalist economies, notions of absolute property rights turned millions of communitarian peasants in Asia into cheaply hired hands.

And, Mishra notes, “even as he deplores the West’s decay and dereliction, he sees signs everywhere of its victory: the Resterners are now paying Westerners the ultimate compliment by imitating them.”

My own opinion can be stated quite succinctly:

Fukuyama version of triumphalism is dry and droning, but after a few hundred pages of Ferguson’s celebratory “history,” dry and droning seems much more like a virtue than it did at the beginning.

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