Niall Ferguson’s Civilization

CivilizationIn a review of Howard Zinn’s wildly popular A People’s History of the United States, Thomas Sowell once quipped that, reading it, you’d have no idea what attracted so many people to America’s shores. Much the same criticism can be levelled at how history is now taught in classrooms throughout the Western world: whereas once the ugliness was downplayed or ignored, it is now the special emphasis of pedagogy that every student graduate with a familiarity with Western sins. Colonialism, imperialism, racism and slavery are treated as uniquely American and European phenomena (the Ottoman Empire is, of course, ignored, as with most of Africa’s history prior to its colonization by Europeans) and everywhere, explicitly or implicitly, the pat judgment prevails that all societies, all religions, all modes of living are more or less equal. Noble as this sentiment may be, it quickly devolves into contradictions when it is put to the test in the real world, depending, as it does, on an almost total ignorance of other cultures. Today’s graduates have a laundry list of Western grievances but flounder when pressed to explain exactly why democracy first took shape in the West, or why the great humanist movements of the 20th century took root in America and Britain. They are keenly aware of America’s history of slavery and wholly unaware of the role America and Britain played in ending slavery abroad. So when someone like Niall Ferguson, an Oxford-educated British historian and financial analyst, attempts to explain the West’s incredible rise to preeminence between 1500 and the present in terms that actually flatter Western society and Western institutions, the response is predictably divisive.

Ferguson defines six “killer apps” that separated the West from rival civilizations and sparked its rise: Competition, Science, Property Rights, Medicine, Consumption and Work Ethic, with chapters devoted to explaining the relevance and co-dependency of each. The chapter on Competition, for example, contrasts the geography of China with Europe’s to make a point about the development of nation states:

China had three great rivers, the Yellow, the Yangzi and the Pearl, all flowing from west to east. Europe had multiple rivers flowing in multiple directions, not to mention a host of mountain ranges like the Alps and the Pyrenees, to say nothing of the dense forests and marshes of Germany and Poland.

The differences in geography made it all but impossible for any one state to dominate Europe, but this also doomed its many nations to constant fighting: “In all the years from 1500 to 1799, Spain was at war with foreign enemies 81 percent of the time, England 53 percent and France 52 percent.” But warfare, despite its obvious consequences, has unintended benefits. It punishes stagnation and rewards innovation. Innovation requires experimentation, and experimentation leads inevitably to science. Waging war effectively also requires sophisticated forms of governments and institutions capable of raising and paying for expensive military campaigns:

Another fiscal innovation of world-changing significance was the Dutch idea of granting monopoly trading rights to joint-stock companies in return for a share of their profits and an understanding that the companies would act as naval subcontractors against rival powers. The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, and its eponymous English imitator were the first true capitalist corporations, with their equity capital divided into tradable shares paying cash dividends at the discretion of their directors. Nothing resembling these astoundingly dynamic institutions emerged in the Orient. And, though they increased royal revenue, they also diminished royal prerogatives by creating new and enduring stakeholders in the early-modern state: bankers, bond-holders and company directors.

Pay close attention to that last sentence, in particular. The idea that different institutions and governing philosophies can enlarge or reduce a people’s “stake” in their nation is vitally important to the concept of democracy (and, I would add, an important indicator of the ill-health of our own society).

Ferguson returns to the idea of people as “stakeholders” in his chapter on property rights, where he contrasts the evolution of North and South America: “The real significance of the conquest and colonization of the Americas is that it was one of history’s biggest natural experiments: take two Western cultures, export them and impose them on a wide range of different peoples and lands – the British in the North, the Spanish and Portuguese in the South. Then see which does better.” Needless to say, the variables in such an experiment are many, but Ferguson does a convincing job arguing that the success of the United States had much to do with how freely it granted settlers vast tracts of land, as compared to how a minority of the settlers of South America held land titles. Add to this the system of governance adopted by the United States that gave every land owning citizen a vote (and, crucially, only one vote, irrespective of how vast their acreage), and it’s easy to see why Americans could feel so invested in the success of their new nation.

Civilization is narrative history, which is to say that Ferguson is weaving his collected facts and anecdotes into the larger story of Western ascendence, his story, and many who find the story unappealing are apt to dislike it on these grounds alone. (For a particularly hostile review, see this exchange between Ferguson and Pankaj Mishra in the LRB.) Sentences like, “By any scientific measure, the Scientific Revolution was a wholly Eurocentric phenomenon” are unlikely to win Ferguson many allies, particularly among academics fond of criticizing our “Eurocentric” curriculums, but the study of Western ascendence, unhindered by empty moralizing, may very well hold the key to understanding our present and improving our future.