Niall Ferguson’s Civilization – A Review

28/01/2013

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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