Monday, November 28, 2011

Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West & the Rest

Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) describes six "killer apps" that defined Western civilization and led to its preeminence in the 500 years between 1500 and 2000. Ferguson is a lively and engaging writer who steps into the sweep of a 500-year history with verve and flair. Ferguson is not adverse to controversy, and he doesn't shy away from making judgments. This has made him a controversial figure within the ranks of some historians. In addition, he moonlights as a commentator on current events. Nevertheless, I think we can disagree with him and still find him very persuasive.

Ferguson argues that competition, property rights and liberty, modern medicine, the Scientific Revolution, consumer goods, and the work (or word) ethic distinguished Europe and its progeny (North America and Australasia) from its rivals in the Ottoman empire and China, both of which were surely were more advanced than most of Europe as of 1500. Indeed, the "great divergence" begins about 1800.

Some have criticized Ferguson for underplaying the detrimental aspects of European colonial empires. However, I find these criticisms unpersuasive. Ferguson, who certainly has a combative streak in him, argues that colonialism, for all its downsides, nevertheless has some good sides. In some sense, this is simply a truism. Ferguson certainly notes some of the horrors associated with colonial rule. He does not spend much time dealing with the day-to-day indignities that colonialism entailed. Nevertheless, his critics seem to miss the point. That point is that Western civilization brought cultural, scientific, and industrial advances to portions of the world where they would not have arisen or where they would only have arisen much later.

Perhaps Ferguson is most interesting in this work when he talks about where we go from today. Has he argues in his book, Japan was the first of the Asian nations to take up and apply the "killer apps" of the West. Other Asian nations have done so quite successfully, and China is now in the midst of making an incredible transformation. Ferguson notes, however, that few of the Asian nations have "downloaded" all of the apps. For instance, China has only a limited sense of private property and no real democracy. Russia has some vestige of democracy, but no real sense of property rights. Ferguson suggests that in order for any nation to get all of the benefits of this heritage, all of the "apps" must be downloaded and run.

Ferguson also delves into where we might head from here. His greatest concern is that empires in the past have often collapsed quite suddenly. Rome, the Soviet Union, and numerous other examples show a sudden and drastic collapse as opposed to the stereotype of a slow decline. He ponders the possibility that current Western nations may suffer the same fate. Knowing that it is very difficult to predict the future (a point about which I think that he would agree), one can only speak conditionally; nonetheless, this prior pattern causes some concern. By the way, Ferguson delves into complexity theory and sudden tipping points that might cause collapse, an important and fruitful perspective.

This book makes a fine companion to Ian Morris's book. Both deal with the transition that distinguished Western Europe and its offspring from the remainder of the world. This is one of the great historical phenomena. It is the dominant narrative of the past 500 years, and Ferguson conversation in an engaging and worthwhile manner.

In sum, I highly recommend this book, and I enjoyed a great deal. If you're looking for a good overview of what happened and why, this is it an excellent place to start.

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