Thursday, April 12, 2012

Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest

Niall Ferguson is a prolific author, with a seemingly endless flow of ideas. I found his The Ascent of Money (2008) a useful and interesting general work on debt and finance, and I have drawn on it in my own thinking about the financialization of the American economy. I also appreciated his earlier work The Cash Nexus (2001), on how warfare contributed to the parallel development of economic and political systems. In this newest book, though, Ferguson’s productivity and intellectual creativity seem to have gotten out of his own control.
Civilization poses two questions that are very much in the air these days: How did the West achieve its global dominance?  Is the period of this dominance reaching its end? Ferguson argues that Western ascendancy came from six sources: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic.
Comparing Europe to China, he argues that the competitive nature of the former’s multiple states spurred it to be more active than the highly centralized eastern power. He maintains that Europe’s decentralization of both political and economic life spurred the development of both modern nation states and the wealth-producing system of capitalism. In considering the development of science, he compares the European attitude toward knowledge and technology mainly with that of the Ottoman Empire. This attitude, according to Ferguson, gave the Europeans and then the Americans a military advantage over the rest of the world. Stable systems of property rights, respected (for the most part) by governments not only contributed to economic growth, but also formed bases for representative governments. He maintains that Western progress in medicine improved health and life expectancies in Western societies. This not only contributed to European opportunities to dominate other parts of the world, but it also created benefits for colonized lands. The consumer society created a demand for goods that pulled the Industrial Revolution forward. Finally a work ethic, which Ferguson, following Max Weber, began with Protestant Christianity and promoted social cohesion, in addition to economic productivity.
Some of Ferguson’’s ideas are fairly conventional, such as the argument that the division of Europe into multiple competing states made it more adventurous and creative than the old stolid empires of the world. Other ideas are intriguing and raise good questions about today’s accepted wisdom. For example, I believe he makes a good case that Western colonialism was not the fount  of all evil, as is generally the view in contemporary “post-colonial studies,” but in fact made some valuable contributions to human well-being. I also thought his revision of the old Weberian argument about the Protestant ethic and capitalism raised excellent points about the moral bases of market activity.  Ultimately, though, while the book has many valuable insights, Ferguson lurches from one to another with much of a system other than his six characteristics. These six, moreover, are simply a list and he never ties them together with anything so comprehensive as a theory.
In his conclusion, Ferguson focuses on his second question and seems to imply that China may overtake the West, and he raises the possibility that the West could experience a collapse, rather than a decline, due to its internal weaknesses. He points out that civilizations are complex systems and a failure in one area of a system can set off a chain of destructive consequences. This is an interesting argument, and worthy of a book in its own right, but Ferguson never develops it fully.
Civilization generally reads like a notebook of thoughts for developing a book, or perhaps several books. Those looking for interesting suggestions and stimulating points will find many of them, but those looking for coherent explanations are likely to be disappointed.

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