Book Review- Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Fergusson
We are increasingly witnessing the rise of pop historians. Take a cursory glance at a random list of ‘most influential global thinkers’ prepared by journals selling strategic punditry and other profound pontifications to the transnational elite and their domestic sepoys. Two or three among this variety of historians will surely feature in any such list. If we analyze a bit, a pop historian’s immense popularity is a combination of their undoubted erudition, crafty catering to certain kind of ideological predilections and locating historic events within the realm of the prevailing political sensibilities of influential power elites. An ubiquitous presence in mass media also helps the pop historians build their profile and positions themselves prominently in popular consciousness.
Closer home we do have classic examples of historians fitting this variety and we did try demystifying them in an earlier post titled “The Importance of being Ramachandra Guha”. And on the global stage we have seen the emergence of Niall Fergusson, a dashing, energetic and a well-regarded economic historian, who is also an unapologetic, unabashed advocate of western civilizational supremacy. Or to be more precise – protestant Anglo Saxon civilizational supremacy. But what adds an unexpected twist to the Fergusson persona is that even while singing paeans to glorious greatness of Western civilization he isnt impervious to a ruthless examination of current day realities. He clearly understands that Chinese juggeranut is now unstoppable – he is sometimes even accused of being a closet Sinophile for his fulsome admiration of a resurgent nation in which the greatest economic transformation project, with potential to lift more than a billion people out of wretched impoverished existence, is presently underway.
Currently Niall Fergusson is darling of the rightwing conservative intelligentsia across both sides of the Atlantic. Decline of American superpowerdom accompanied by the phenomenal rise of China as an economic powerhouse has clearly unnerved the conservative commentariat in America which long assumed that America’s pre-eminence in world order is the end of history. And with the current Obama dispensation focused on deemphasizing American exceptionalism, they desperately need a credible voice who can frame an intellectually coherent script that unrepentantly highlights American greatness. And in Europe, which is under the demographic onslaught from migrants of certain religious persuasion and also economically on what looks like an irretrievable decline, a vacuum existed for someone who can persuasively challenge dubious left-liberal constructs like multi-culturalism and essentially link the Christian character of continent with centuries of supremacy. Enter Niall Fergusson.
Personally this writer has been enormously enriched by Huttington’s seminal “clash of civilizations” theorising – it provides a unique framework to understand geopolitical fault lines. Given a predisposed fondness for civilizational book genre, I found” Civilization: The West and the Rest” the latest book from Fergusson (who is a proving to be a prolific author) a very engaging experience. Of course pages and pages of this book oozes of Anglo Saxon imperialist triumphalism and superbly executed but subtle whitewashing of dreadfulness perpetrated under the colonial project. But the enormity of the task Fergusson has taken upon himself and how well he has carried it off with elan certainly deserves admiration. Historical landscape that he seeks to cover is pretty expansive and Fergusson does justice to that though we miss depth coverage of events sometimes. The book is written in easy to read, lucid style, which is an invaluable asset especially if the task is to rekindle the dwindling interest in history among the young.
May be Mahatama Gandhi, in a moment of exaggerated sense of moral superiority, when asked what he thought of Western civilization remarked “I think it’s a good idea”. Rhetoric apart it cannot be denied last few centuries clearly belonged to the West – the ascedancy was shaped by great innovations, inventions and institutions in which the inhabitants of a small geographical landmass in western Europe played an pivotal role.
Fergusson suggests that 6 ‘killer apps ‘(marketing jargon borrowed from technology world and sounding slightly incongruous in a book about civilization) developed by the west as the reason for their civilizational supremacy for the last few centuries. In words of Fergusson these six “killer applications” that “the Rest” lacked were:
• Competition: Europe was politically fragmented, and within each monarchy or republic there were multiple competing corporate entities.
• The Scientific Revolution: All the major 17th-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology happened in Western Europe.
• The rule of law and representative government: This optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures.
• Modern medicine: All the major 19th- and 20th-century advances in health care, including the control of tropical diseases, were made by Western Europeans and North Americans.
• The consumer society: The Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments.
• The work ethic: Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation
The book ‘s narrative begins by pointing to the fact that West was nowhere in the reckoning even as early as 15th century in the global sweepstakes. Chinese and Islamic Middle East was clearly ahead of West. Then ascendancy of West then begins, thanks to some fortuitous war victories, convergence of favourable events as well some cleverly made conscious choices. The Dutch transformed their tiny little nation into a influential economic powerhouse. Thanks to a well developed banking system and vibrant stock market as early as 17th century Amsterdam was a bustling commercial center. Ofcourse history has repeatedely shown economic clout needs to be necessarily buttressed with a strong military presence that facilitates transnational trade. Dutch did that remarkaby well till Britishers gained supremacy. Jews, who tended to be dominate financial business, were reeling under the Christian fanatisicism engendered anti-semitism, leading to their prosecution in Iberian peninsula. Amsterdam with its tolerant ethos proved to be a magnet for those escaping religious violence. This enabled them to flourish in to commercial hub. Many such things happened in different parts of Western Europe which helped build ideas and institutions that accounted for western civilizational supremacy
The chapter on property rights is quite interesting. He clearly demonstrates contrasting approach between English and Iberian approach to the ‘Europeanisation’ of American landmass and how the English model of representative constitutionalism was clearly superior. In the North America any new immigrant who productively used the land eventually could attain ownership while in the Catholic Spanish dominated South, spread of property rights was highly restrictive and very few affluent had stranglehold over the land.
Its also clear that the default denomination that Fergusson celebrates as part of Western civilizational supremacy is Protestanism and its quite evident that he does not think very highly of Catholicism as a source of civilizational excellence and justifiably so. It pretty clear that renaissance in West itself was fundamentally rooted in its opposition to Catholic church. Another interesting insight which he provides is on the heightened religious fervor in America vis-a-vis declining religious intensity in Europe. While secular ethos of US constitution is intact, the competitive religiosity to gain followership by various denominational group operating in private spiritual supermarket space helps in Christianity flourishing in America while in European Church, intrinsically linked to the state, lack energy
Advances in Medicine is rightfully highligted as source of supremacy but not much is written on how colonization was enabled by devastating outbreak of smallpox among native population thanks to germs brought by invading Europeans and for which natives had no genetic resistance
While its true that some of Anglo-Saxon principles have been adopted as global consensus and civilizations like India which have come in contact with West have benefited in a very limited way, Fergusson is not immune from making some outrageous claims – apparently China’s spectacular growth story is because of internalisation and implementation of the killer applications that he outlines. He makes another completely astounding claim that its the increasingly embrace of Protestant Christian values in China that explains the extraordinary work ethics of that country. Surely the apparatchiks are bound to be angry as they rightfully sees Christanity as an alien ideology that has the potential to destabilize their nation building project – they reluctantly allow Churches, which have indigenous command and control structures to operate so as ensure that Church does network with subversive elements and hasten the implosion of the state. China’s rediscovery of their Confucian pragmatism is what explains they claiming back its rightful place in the comity of nations.
And if you are Indian reader of this book you would have to search for stray references about it in this book. Clearly he dosen’t think that India has arrived or possibly India is an experiment which challenges his “six killer apps for superpower” explanation and so willfully avoided.
Finally we need to say that Fergusson is on very safe ground. If West triumphs and regain its preeminence, he could contend that its because they re-embraced his 6 killer apps with renewed vigour. And if Chinese success story continues, he can safely say that China is the new West.