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Niall Ferguson’s Civilization – A Review


Niall Ferguson’s Civilization – A Review
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Just before Christmas I picked up a copy of Niall Feguson’s latest book and TV series1 Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power.2

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power.

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power.

I knew Ferguson by reputation only – he threatened to sue one reviewer who accused him of racism3 – but had not actually read any of his work before. He is a neo-liberal Scottish historian who has made a career in the Anglophonic world for being a right-wing voice in a discipline dominated by left-wing scholarship. His television series have been incredibly popular, as have the books which have spun off from them. Yet there have been questions raised about the depth of scholarship and academic worth of these outputs.4

The book itself is well written and engaging. I got through it quite quickly and was genuinely interested what Ferguson had to say on his “six killer apps” of Western civilization – competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic – and how they contributed to the “ascent of the West” which he describes with a flourish. The problem, however, is the premise of the entire work. The idea, as he says in the introduction, that ‘the imminence of our decline and fall’ means that we must look at what made “us” so successful.5 The automatic presupposition of superiority is precisely the issue which opens Ferguson up to charges of racism, even if he himself would prefer us not describe the issue in such emotive terms.

I have no problem accepting the idea that these six aspects of Western behaviour allowed the various city states and feudal kingdoms of Europe to financially and politically dominate the globe. Although this short book has to make rather sweeping generalisations for the basic narrative to fit the demanding schedules of popular publishing and televisual documentary tropes, the general premise is sound. The concept of ownership allowed British law to protect property and from this a concept of individual rights; medical science allowed for more densely-populated cities and industrial expansion; the consumer society stimulated both supply and demand to uphold the general system of Western economics. This is not really open for much debate. Many a political scholar from Marx to Gandhi has made these observations. The problem is the meaning attached to these ideas. The consequences of them. The way in which we as a people remember what has happened, why it happened, and what should be done in the future.

Ferguson would have us believe that, despite the odd snafu, Western empire was broadly “a good thing”. Without the expansion into Africa and America, we would not have developed many of the comforts and necessities we take for granted today. This claim cannot simply be dismissed. There is an undeniable truth to the idea of progress. But as any undergraduate historian is taught, progress is entirely dependent on the measure one uses. Such Whiggish interpretations of the past have been dismissed for decades. What if we apply a different measure. Homicide; the deliberate or negligent spread of disease; war; the destruction of native cultures; the creation of wage slavery and the death of subsistence; the inequality of wealth between the richest and the poorest. On all of these measures, the twentieth-century stands as the greatest and most emphatic monument to the rapacity of empire and all that it stands for.

Even if we take Ferguson at face value and heed his call for a re-examination of our past to beat off competition from the Orient, we find that we are doomed to fail. One of the measures of success that he cites is the declining gap between the rich and the poor by the twentieth century – as if the fruits of empire were being spread more equally among citizens. (Of course, citizens of the mother country, not the downtrodden colonies.) This brought more people into education and into the higher offices of state, something that the stagnant civil service examinations and corruption had supposedly destroyed in early-modern China. Yet this is a man who openly supported the policies of the past two Republican candidates for the White House and believes in an economic system shown to have accelerated this gap faster than at any other time in our history. How do these ideas square? Indeed, Throughout the book one is left with the impression that, had the West maintained the subjugation of certain peoples, it could continue to prosper. There is a paradox here – that the good of all mankind is dependent on some of mankind being “inferior” to the rest. This can at times make uncomfortable reading, when the celebration of triumphs almost inevitably means that someone, somewhere must have lost out.

Lines such as ‘The Jewish role in Western intellectual life in the twentieth century… was indeed disproportionate, suggesting a genetic as much as cultural advantage’6 make the reader’s jaw drop with disbelief, and do nothing to defend the author against claims of racism. But the issue of “common sense” cannot be dismissed throughout the book. Our cultural upbringing in the West and the way we measure “success” means that many of Ferguson’s claims are, at face value, “correct”. I agree with him that we must ‘resist the temptation to romanticize history’s losers’7, but much of the book suggests that he has not understood the critique of empire and modernity that he seeks to pooh-pooh. On page 5 he argues:

There are those who dispute that claiming all civilizations are in some sense equal, and the West cannot claim superiority over, say, the East of Eurasia. But such relativism is demonstrably absurd. No previous civilization has ever achieved such dominance as the West achieved over the Rest.8

This fundamentally misunderstands the debate. Nobody has (to my knowledge) argued that the West did not secure political and economic domination over vast areas of the globe. By many industrial, financial, bureaucratic and demographic measures, the West outperforms “the Rest”. The claim is that this does not make Western civilization subjectively, objectively or morally better than the Rest. Which is not ‘absurd’ at all. Many other ways of organising human society can be seen as equally valid – they only become inferior against the units of measurement presented by the author.

Ultimately, Ferguson provides historians with a very important and pertinent challenge. As he argues:

It is not ‘Eurocentrism’ or (anti-)’Orientalism’ to say that the rise of the West is the single most important historical phenomenon of the second millennium after Christ. It is a statement of the obvious. The challenge is to explain how it happened.9

Ferguson, I believe, fails to do this in an academically engaging way. He fails because he equates state power with moral “good”. He equates scientific modernity’s ideas of progress with “good”. In doing so, he fails to fundamentally question why and how the West came to dominate. The exploitation and destruction of other peoples is seen as an unfortunate consequence of empire, not integral to its operation. This is the criticism that he seems completely unable to challenge, and shows no sign of having genuinely engaged with the literature on the subject. Even a cursory study of Dialectic of Enlightenement, first published before the author was born, would have explained the general critique of modernity which his book seems determined to overturn.10

Ferguson is right – we must not be afraid to re-examine empire and the benefits it bestowed on both the West and the Rest through scientific innovation. Many of us are protected from the climate, starvation and sickness like never before. But at what price? And if we are to fall behind China and the East, why is this such a big problem? Unless Ferguson is afraid that they will do to us what we did to them. But, hey – progress is progress, right?

  1. Channel 4, Civilization: Is the West History?, first broadcast 6 March 2011, 8pm.
  2. Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, (London : Penguin, 2012), ISBN: 9780141044583.
  3. The Guardian, “Niall Ferguson threatens to sue over accusation of racism”, 26 November 2011, 21:25 GMT.
  4. See Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “Right Man’s Burden” in Washington Monthly, June 2004. See also Wikipedia’s entry on Ferguson, specifically the section on “Criticisms”.
  5. Emphasis mine. Ferguson, Civilization, p. 18.
  6. Ibid, p. 235.
  7. Ibid, p. xxvi.
  8. Ibid, p. 5.
  9. Ibid, p 8.
  10. Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London : Verso, 1997) ISBN: 9781859841549.
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9 thoughts on “Niall Ferguson’s Civilization – A Review”

  1. Martin says:

    Very interesting review Gareth. One which I think gets to the heart of the problem with Ferguson’s work. I would, however, add two caveats:

    First, that as historical scholarship, Ferguson’s work in general also fails to take the ‘actor’s perspective’ seriously. During the nineteenth century, the idea of ‘the West’ did not exist. The closest equivalent I imagine would be ‘European’, though even here we have to be careful as the boundaries of exclusion fluctuated over both time and context. The notion of an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ is very much an elite notion built on contemporary concerns – it thus runs roughshod over important divisions in the past to produce a smooth narrative for the present.

    Second – and I think of greater substance – is that I would dispute the accuracy of Ferguson’s “six killer apps”. Taking medicine, which is possibly the weakest link in the chain, there has been plenty of historical demography which rejects the importance of medical science to the general increase in health and longevity over the C19th and eC20th century. McKeown and Record’s work is particularly pertinent here. Aside from this, we would have to consider the role that changing classification systems, alterations in detection rates, and shifts in other accounting mechanisms play in our current knowledge about health and death in the past. And this is to say nothing of the ‘unknowable’ (and the paradigm-dependent), such as virulency of disease, ecological changes etc. In short, medical science likely had very little to do with city and population size.

    Similar arguments could also be made about industry in general. There is a certain sense with the ‘pro-Empire’ literature that contact with imperial countries improved the scientific and industrial capabilities of dependant colonies. Even on Ferguson’s preferred metrics,(and thus ignoring your excellent critique) this argument has flaws. For one, it casually ignores the fact that imperial expansion – based simply upon the more efficient organisation of violence – often wiped out any indigenous innovation in industry. For example, before British rule, Indian manufacturing processes in a number of fields – most prominently cotton – were far more impressive than those used in what Ferguson terms ‘the west’. With imperial expansion, however, such a local manufacturing base was destroyed to make way for British/imperial goods, and thus such techniques were prevented from ‘progressing’ or ‘improving’ any further.

    I understand that as a ‘popular’ history book that there is little space to complicate the narrative. However, I get the sense that even if he had such a luxury, Ferguson would opt not to use it…

    1. On the first one, you’re right, although the idea of “Christendom” or “Whiteness” would have existed by the late-18th century. But the basic point remains – he’s reading back rather than looking more deeply at the beliefs of the people at the time.

      On the second, I think “public health” as a phenomenon (sanitation, water purification, sewerage) is part of the “medical” aspect of industrialisation. It’s the most poorly worded of the “apps”, but I think he’s got a point on that one.

      But the problems in Ferguson’s work extend far beyond that!

  2. chris says:

    I liked your review and analysis of N Ferguson’s Civilisation-
    the west and the rest. Spot on.

    I watched the first two in the Tv series. I am not greatly familiar with his work- I suppose
    his economic histories may be very insightful [ since I gather this is his
    background] but his tackling of such a huge topic- comparative history- the comparison
    of the achievements of different civilisations no less, lacked depth and were I
    think in places quite biased[ program 2: I don’t read Ottoman calligraphy but I
    know sloppy hand writing? Huh? Something certainly was going on, but what
    exactly? can we really build a case from
    just this one piece of evidence? Simplification/ broad generalisation from
    sparse evidence.

    It was not long before I saw tv series had an agenda. When I
    did a prelim search I found that he was Harvard based, sympathetic to the neocon cause and Pax Americana as the inheritor of the mantle
    of western civilisation or rather empire….in
    fact it became apparent to me that he seemed to confuse the two ideas:
    civilisation and empire/colonisation. His
    program so far as I have viewed it seems more about empire and less about
    civilisation which I don’t recall him actually defining. Also he seemed
    conflicted about the role of religion- good or bad? Or actually, the role of
    religion in society was/is more complex
    than this simple dichotomy…But such fine distinctions have no place in the
    account. As you note he seems to equate
    empire with moral superiority……Of course all history is written from the author’s
    point of view, except I think there were some insidious messages encapsulated
    in this series and some inaccuracies dressed up as facts- or at least partial truths[
    program 2; why he included the end section I cannot fathom unless there was an
    agenda: Israel bastion of the west against ?? the barbarian hordes of islam no less is the
    message I got. What of justice/treatment
    of the vulnerable- surely a measure of civility? What of UN resolutions/rules
    of law? What of war crimes? What of Palestinians Christians? And the green line
    vs the separation wall which does not
    follow the green line but divides the occupied west bank, protecting illegal Israeli
    settlements-]. Which makes me think his scholarship was either sloppy or
    dishonest- at least subservient to his
    agenda. The programme on China- the British/Europeans
    got tea or coffee [ something innocuous , I cannot recall]’ while the Chinese
    got opium’? Er? what about the Opium Wars?? And the Chinese being forced to
    allow the Brits to sell opium??] . N Ferguson has a gift for reducing/condensing
    complex ideas /events, then twisting them into neat bites- I would say propaganda
    packages…..these will remain in the
    young minds he hopes to reach[rather brainwash]. Our Empire is good….we do wrong,
    but the ends justify the means….As you point out, according to NF’s own thesis,
    we in the west, should not be worried if we get overtaken by the East’s superior application of killer
    apps. Its progress afterall….a few eggs
    get broken along the way….

    Secularism is the answer? Too simple…. We have Hitler and Stalin
    [ Saddam’s hero rather than Muhammad. SH was not a real ‘believer ‘ until
    facing the gallows- contrary to NF’s placement of him in the line of bad
    muslims…. All atheists/materialists as
    far as I know. …NF confuses state and religion. The Ottomans were not just salves to their religion. They did not just have religious law/Sharia
    but devised a separate civil/admin law
    code…to run everyday affairs. these
    codes were very comprehensive.. The religious leaders were largely appointed by
    the sultan and were basically giving him the interpretations/justifications he wanted. Religious and state institutions
    became corrupted by power as much as narrow-mindedness. But this is a complex
    topic…the example of of the astronomer whose observatory I recall was the
    victim of personal and professional rivalry as much as a narrow interpretation
    of religion. Examples of such things may be found everywhere.

    There was too little emphasis on the fact that without all
    the achievements of previous civilisations [ including the dreaded Islamic
    ones] being transferred by largely
    peaceful means to ‘the west ‘ , the west would have got nowhere…. The world we
    live in is built on the achievements of all past civilisations…..not just western achievements.

    It is interesting that he has taken the killer/coercive
    template for his model of the growth of civilisation. He seems to believe that
    only through violent competition, is real
    progress made…I think this is demonstrably untrue. Cooperation versus competition. Civilisations are also
    built through cooperation as much as competition [and coercion ]….not
    necessarily deadly competition either. Looking at individual civilisations [ their
    rise and fall etc] more closely and in depth to understand what went on rather than
    forcing a few factoids into a preconceived modal, would potentially yield more
    interesting insights into our own civilisation..but I think NF is not
    interested in ‘truth’ so much as furthering an agenda..

    Which brings me to the most insidious message: I think NF is
    an apologist for empire[ these days the American with its many wars of choice/aggression
    in contravention of all international laws and its own laws…] and the genocidal policies which often flow
    from empire. I think he is advocating
    might makes right; ends justify means….[ so long as its Europeans dishing it
    out] Civilisation equals empire which equals the use of force and grabbing
    others resources esp if the inferior groups are not using their resources
    according to ‘our ‘ standards/values. Its Ok for a superior [ so called] group
    to force itself on others[ a situation he condemns in others- those nasty Ottoman
    hordes banging ion the gates of Vienna]. Ethnocentric and myopic – yes.

    1. chris says:

      PS i should have added that NF’s view of the basic dynamics of civilisations seem to owe something to the ‘clash of civilisations’ notion originally coined if my memory serves me, by bernard lewis [ the man who has built a reputation on a very partial and jaundiced view of Islamic history and its peoples]. Its a very simple us versus them, recipe. The East/Orient [ esp the ‘Islamic world’] is the Other as Edward Said put it.Ironically NF ignores the diversity of the Islamic world and its own historic experiences,,,,,,and the scope of his discussion- just a few hundred years is rather arbitrary- i mean the jury is out on how things will go in the next hundred years….NF has taken up the whitemans burden when it was rightly discarded years ago as an arrogant conceit.,

      1. Not sure I can argue with any of that!

        I think the most worrying thing for me (pulling out of the practical world for a second and into the “methodology”) is the complete lack of understanding about the “left-wing” critique of the processes and actions which Ferguson seems to admire so much. It would be one thing for him to say that the left is too simplistic when it dismisses everything about the West (such as the more positive things like anti-biotics, the internet, free speech, pizza). It’s quite another to completely misunderstand the basics of Marxism. Or to equate anyone who doesn’t agree with him with some loony fringe of the 1980s Labour Party.

        But as you point out very clearly, there are far deeper problems than this. I’m unsure whether Ferguson is unaware of the critique – which makes him a terrible historian – or whether he’s deliberately distorting them – which makes him a terrible historian and a liar.

        As he’s quite litigious, I won’t comment either way. 😉

  3. Prpfessor Funky says:

    Thank you for an excellent review. There is much to applaud in NFs book and it is true that “western civilization” has contributed mightily to the advance of humanity on many fronts. But, as you say, NF seems to be saying all these good things necessitate empire and thus must necessarily be bought at the expense of its victims. It is a sort of conservative view of the tragic, I suppose.
    But there is much unintended irony in this book. The theme is that great wealth and “success” necessitates what Marxists might call “primitive accumulation”. Indeed, NF is simply echoing Marx’s own praise of capitalism as a mega wealth creator but at the expense of the proletariat of the world.
    The secret to “success” is that property must trump equality, whether on the global or national level (hence his support for neo-con philosophy is quite consistent). Indeed, he boils down John Locke’s Treatises to essentially that (including the latter’s enshrining property rights over slaves).
    He compares the New World’s two experiments: the “successful” North American model to the failed South American one; due, in the latter case, to only erratic protection of property rights (with dig against Hugo Chavez, as illustrative aside). Ironically, he subverts his theory when he explains that American success was based on widespread property ownership a la Jeffersonian ideal of a small landholding gentry while South America inherited a grossly unequal system of landownership from the Iberian motherland. In other words, despite obvious disparities, in North America, it was a kind of baseline economic and political equality that ensured “success”. So much for the necessity of inequality!
    Though unintentionally corroborating his leftist nemesis, he rejects, of course, the point of Marx’s praise of capitalism: thanks to this wealth, we can now secure a decent life for everyone on the planet. We can bridge the gap between the extremes of wealth globally and nationally. But that is anathema to NF. For him the point is to have no point; it’s all about accumulation leading not to redistribution but to… more accumulation. It is a philosophy of means devoid of any actual goal or purpose. In this regard, he is the perfect spokesperson for the neo-cons.
    I’ve always found it amazing – almost quaint – how American scholars evade the reality that they have been the imperial masters of the 20th century. At least Fergusson seems ready to admit that, but only because he is also saying that empire is not so bad. We can thus maintain our republican virtue while continuing to spread “success” world wide. Well. at least until China picks up the mantle!

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