Book Review – Civilization: The West and the Rest

February 10, 2012 9:23 am

The combination of economic stagnation and political paralysis in both America and among European Union member countries makes any book about the fate of the West timely reading. The potential for western civilization’s slow demise is one of the themes of Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. But Ferguson is a historian and so before he explores the West’s future fate he sets out to explain western dominance over the past 500 years or so. Why was it, Ferguson asks, that a continent comprised of small, conflict-ridden states was able to spread its dominion over the entire planet? His thesis is that western power can be traced back to a set of advantages, competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and the work ethic.

Ferguson’s analysis is occasionally compelling, especially when he discusses the important differences between 15th century China and Europe. As he explains, following centuries of innovation, China ceased sea voyages of exploration and instead sought to establish ‘internal harmony.’ A centralized authority combined with the absence of external threats eliminated the sort of incentives that might have propelled further exploration and innovation. In Europe, by contrast, it was precisely the lack of political unity and the constant threat of war that created the conditions for military, scientific and navigational advances. China stood still. Europe set out to see the world and this, Ferguson contends, made all the difference.

Author Niall Ferguson

For all his learning, there are some serious flaws with Ferguson’s analysis. The most obvious is that western dominance would have been impossible without conquest. Any credible historian wouldn’t dare deny that imperial Europe conquered and brutally subjugated different peoples. Ferguson is no different, but he underestimates colonialism’s importance and repeatedly comes perilously close to rationalizing this endeavour. He does so overtly when he suggests that colonization inspired vital advances in the understanding and treatment of various communicable diseases and therefore improved health among colonized peoples. But he does so in a more subtle way by not really engaging with the history of those continents – North America and Africa especially – prior to their first contacts with the West. Ferguson’s story is therefore more than a little one-sided and is reminiscent of those history books that treat European-discovered continents as little more than blank slates. Yet so much recent historical writing is meant to correct this misperception. Basil Davidson, the great historian of Africa, made it his life’s work to reclaim the continent’s history before its initial contact with Portugal and the long history of colonization and dispossession that followed. As Davidson’s scholarship makes clear, when Portuguese ex-plorers first set foot on Africa’s west coast, the continent was comprised of kings and kingdoms and featured trading relationships between different countries. Egypt was one of the cradles of civilization. Yet Europeans essentially removed Egypt from their understanding of the rest of the continent. The effect was to enable European claims that Africa was “without civilization” prior to their arrival and therefore hardly worthy of independence. Ferguson’s analysis of Africa demonstrates no such nuance.

Is Western civilization in a process of decline?

Is Western civilization, Ferguson wonders in the book’s final chapter, in a process of decline? Here too, Ferguson’s answer is interesting but incomplete. He correctly takes issues with those theories of collapse that insist on a predictable trajectory of rise and fall. Nevertheless, he insists we are witnessing the erosion of the institutions and the ideas that served to give rise to western dominance in the first place. Western governments are bankrupt and fiscally irresponsible. Western consumers are so indebted that there may be little capacity to sustain continued economic growth. The western capacity for hard work and thrift celebrated by the German sociologist Max Weber is waning. Asian peoples, by contrast, demonstrate an unrelenting drive to work hard and save money. Asian students consistently score higher than their western counterparts on science and math literacy tests. Most Asian governments are awash in revenue.

Also available as in audio book format.

Yet Ferguson again underestimates the more fundamental sources of, say, China’s ascendency and the West’s relative economic stagnation. China’s rise and the West’s decline cannot be properly understood outside of the context of globalization. Western governments are heavily indebted, to be sure, but that has much more to do with eroding tax bases and rising costs as with poor fiscal management. China’s workforce does indeed display a heroic capacity to work and save, but China’s sustained growth has as much to do with western industry’s perpe-tual search for cheaper labour. What’s more, conceiving of globalization as an ongoing process allows one to anticipate China’s future challenges. Indeed the country is beginning to contend with some of the same tensions that are more characteristic of western democracies. Workers’ demands for increased wages and better working conditions have started to facilitate the flight of capital out of regions of the country. What happens to China’s export model of growth when the country’s currency rises in value, as it some day must? China, for all of its current advantages, will soon discover more of globalization’s discontents.

Civilization: the West and the Rest by:Niall Ferguson is available through The Penguin Press, 2011, 402PP.


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