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Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall…
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Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011)

by Niall Ferguson

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For such a small book it packs a lot of history into its pages. The information used to back up his arguements make sense. ( )
  charlie68 | Nov 1, 2013 |

The elevator pitch for Niall Ferguson's "Civilization: The West and the Rest" is simple: Western civilization has risen to dominate world affairs over the last five hundred years, a record unmatched in world history and at odds with its population and geography relative to other countries and civilizations, due to six "killer apps" that have provided an advantage on the international stage. Further, it may be the West's loss of those same "apps" that is leading to decline now.

Ferguson pegs the rise of the West to dominance at about the same time as the discovery of the Americas, and so, having just finished a look at that chapter of history in "1491" and "1493", I decided to take a closer look at Ferguson's argument. What was the secret of the West? And could we really be headed towards decline or collapse?

Where many histories today focus on the specific "modules" of history, drilling down to look closely at specific persons or events (think Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" on Abraham Lincoln's political management or Horowitz's "Midnight Rising" on the John Brown raid at Harper's Ferry), Ferguson takes another tact by looking at the broad strokes of history to find themes, the grand "narratives" of history, as he calls them. Where other historians dig into the details, Ferguson wants to look at the big picture. As he explains in the preface:

"Watching my three children grow up, I had the uneasy feeling that they were learning less history than I had learned at their age, not because they had bad teachers but because they had bad history books and even worse examinations. Watching the financial crisis [of the late 2000s] unfold, I realized that they were far from alone, for it seemed as if only a handful of people in the banks and treasuries of the Western world had more than the sketchiest information about the last Depression. For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose."

With that flippant, matter of fact, almost "devil-may-care" attitude then, Ferguson determines to take the reader through a grand narrative of the last five hundred years, identifying six "killer apps" that Western civilization adopted to rise to a dominance unmatched in breadth and duration in human history. It is this broad overview, as told in Ferguson's urgent and quick-witted voice, that makes the extended argument so interesting and in an age of multicultural relativism, refreshing. Welding his argument--not just about the cause of Western civilization's success, but also that "the historian can commune with the dead by imaginatively reconstructing their experiences" to inform and predict the future--Ferguson spins together the documents, events, and personalities to form a narrative, a story, about why the West succeeded in the face of larger, richer, and, at the onset, more wealthy civilizations.

The "tools" to which he attributes the rise of the West are likened to "apps," downloadable software that augment computers and mobile devices. By looking at the narrative, Ferguson finds the roots of the West's success, as well as why, perhaps, the West as begun to decline while other civilizations advance. Not specific to the West, but, like the real world apps in the metaphor, the values can be "downloaded" by any culture for similar results, and in the closing Ferguson addresses the adaptation by non-Western cultures that have done, and are doing, just that with success.

The "apps" Ferguson finds, while not necessarily surprising, are informative: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumption and the birth of the "consumer society" (“without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable”) and Max Weber's Protestant “work ethic”. While the narrative is anything but chronological, Ferguson's grasp of history and the sweeping strokes with which he paints the narrative provide fascinating reading. One cannot sense, however, that Ferguson, almost anything but apologetic, is on the verge of glorying in the success of the British Empire during its hey-day as a colonial power, noting with statistical explanation the improvements brought to the world through Western influence, whether it be in medicine, literacy, and education. Or blue jeans, for in the end, one side effect of rise of the West is not diversity, but conformity as cultures imitate and emulate Western styles, habits, and philosophy.

Ironically to this writer, who sees such deep and lasting value in the political institutions of the West, Ferguson notes that one area where the West has not been uniformly imitated is the political.

"Only in the realm of political institutions does there remain significant global diversity, with a wide range of governments around the world resisting the idea of the rule of law, with its protection of individual rights, as the foundation for meaningful representative government."

In other words, we'll take your blue jeans, your medicine, even your work ethic, but you can keep the Bill of Rights and representative government, they say. Indeed, it is that imitation of the West that has brought China from the depths of the Cultural Revolution to heights today when its economy can weather the financial crisis without more than a hiccup.

After Ferguson's narrative through the six "apps", then, we reach the essential question suggested by any study of the West's rise: is the West now in decline? And if so, is it too late to reverse?

Perhaps not. Although China's rise seems ominous, and indeed, Ferguson cites China's relative nonchalance towards doing business with the dictators and warlords of the world business "it's just business" as evidence that China is more concerned about rising than its popularity, China still faces problems that could arrest its progress, especially from social unrest, political pressure from its growing and unrepresented middle-class, or friction with its neighbors in Asia.

Noting that a "retreat from the mountains of the Hindu Kush" (Afghanistan) seems to proceed the fall of any empire--be it Alexander's, British, Russian, or most recently American--Ferguson is unwilling to give up on the West, yet. No, the things that set the West apart are no longer distinct, but nor has the entire package of "apps" been embraced.

"The Chinese have got capitalism. The Iranians have got science. The Russians have got democracy. The Africans are (slowly) getting modern medicine. And the Turks have got the consumer society. But what this means is that Western modes of operation are not in decline but are flourishing nearly everywhere, with only a few remaining pockets of resistance. A growing number of Resterners [Ferguson's name for non-Westerners] are sleeping, showering, dressing, working, playing, eating, drinking and travelling like Westerners. Moreover, as we have seen, Western civilization is more than just one thing; it is a package. It is about political pluralism (multiple states and multiple authorities) as well as capitalism; it is about the freedom of thought as well as the scientific method; it is about the rule of law and property rights as well as democracy. Even today, the West still has more of these institutional advantages than the Rest. The Chinese do not have political competition. The Iranians do not have freedom of conscience. They get to vote in Russia, but the rule of law there is a sham. In none of these countries is there a free press. These differences may explain why, for example, all three countries lag behind Western countries in qualitative indices that measure‘national innovative development’ and ‘national innovation capacity’."

True, the West is not without its faults, he says, but our downfall will come from within, not from external pressure. It's the loss of the "killer apps" by our culture that will, in the long and short run, lead to our continued decline. Don't mistake the adoption, however, by others as the reason for the decline of the West. Rather, it is the West's abandonment of the values that brought them prominence that is leading to the decline. Here, again, Ferguson picks up the theme in his preface--we must learn from history. If we are to maintain the great values that gave the West its rise, we must study and learn the great works--the documents--that teach those values.* Add up all the values, and, like any follower of Churchill, it adds up to courage and action.

"Today, as then [1938 and the German Nazi threat to Western civilization], the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it."

__________________________

If you're interested in a brief version of Ferguson's views on the six "apps" that he discusses in the book, check out his speech at TED.

__________________________

* Ferguson's recommended "standard works" for Western civilization are:

The King James Bible
Isaac Newton's Principa
John Locke's Two Treatises of Government
Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations
Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France
Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species
William Shakespeare's plays
Selected speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill
Also, if he could select only one of the above, it would be Shakespeare's collected works.
Related articles



( )
1 vote publiusdb | Aug 22, 2013 |
Just why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?” One of the most intriguing questions is why the West suddenly dominated the World after the 1500s which is the crucial question Ferguson addresses here. Ferguson has written one of the best of his several works. He artfully dissects reasons why the West dramatically increased its power and strength over the rest of the world. At present, he says, we are experiencing “the end of 500 years of Western predominance,” and he foresees the possibility of a clash between the declining and rising forces. He wonders “whether the weaker will tip over from weakness to outright collapse.”

Several of Ferguson's works are relevant to his concerns here.

In Empire, Ferguson showed how the Americans lacked manpower for their overseas military efforts, the Americans suffered from an attention deficit and would not pull for their country over the long haul, and perhaps most importantly, the Americans were plagued with a financial deficit.

In Colossus, Ferguson demonstrates that Chimerica, the idea that America can fund its deficit infinitely without severe repercussions, was seriously flawed.

In the Ascent of Money, Ferguson shows the world-wide financial crisis was brought on by a complex of factors but old-fashioned liquidity was the problem during the era of supposedly more secure financial networks.

For his work here, there are six civilizations: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, and Western (following Melko and Eisenstadt, p. 3). These entities are remarkably resilient despite outside influences and extensive interactions between cultures.

Yet, beginning around 1500, something remarkable happened that has not occurred like anything before or since. The West exploded. In 1500, the West accounted for only 10 percent of the land and 16 percent of the world's population. By 1913, Western nations controlled nearly three fifths of all territory and population and a staggering 79 percent of global economic output (p. 5). "The rise of the United States saw the gap between West and East widen still further. By 1990 the average American was seventy-three times richer than the average Chinese" (p. 5). Both the models of governance and economics were Western, whether the civilization was Eastern or Western.

Imperialism does not explain Western dominance. The Ottoman, Safavid, and Ming dynasties existed at the same time while the West and non-Western empires practiced various forms of imperialism thus this does not account for the West's dominance. An important factor to consider are institutions: consider the test cases of Germany, China, and Korea. In each case, if you impose communist institutions on a culture, people suffer; on the other hand, if Western capitalism flourishes, the very same culture flourishes and prospers.

According to Jared Diamond, the monolithic Chinese empire stifled competition whereas in Europe competition bred excellence and advances. According to Ferguson, this is an "appealing" but not a "sufficient" explanation (p. 12).

According to Ferguson, there are six "mainsprings of global power": 1) competition; 2) science; 3) property rights; 4) medicine; 5) the consumer society; and 6) the work ethic. He calls these the "killer apps" (p. 12) of Western dominance.

Property Rights
Property rights are key. Locke argues that if even seven people are gathered together and their beliefs coincide; they constitute a church. Therefore, all beliefs should be tolerated and through the reasonableness of Christianity some may see the truth (p. 113). In the tolerant example provided, in North America, the United States grew in liberty and expanded. In South America though, the area was characterized by "division, instability, and underdevelopment. . . . " (p. 115) "conflict, poverty, and inequality (p. 119). Ferguson addresses the issue of difference. At root is the issue of land. In his early career as a South American Washington, the Liberator Simon Bolivar failed to appeal to non-whites and they rallied to the royalist cause. It was only after two unsuccessful attempts at forming a Republic that Bolivar developed a strategy to unite all people of color. In his efforts he found unlikely supporters among Irish and British freedom fighters. 7,000 U.K. supporters were attracted with promises of freedom and land (p. 121).

Three difficulties plagued Bolivar even after he successfully repulsed royalist forces. South Americans had had no practical experience running their own affairs as the American colonists had enjoyed for decades before their Revolution. Peninsulares had so controlled governance that the creoles had little experience (p. 123). At one point, Bolivar is quoted by Ferguson as stating that the American experiment could never work in Latin America. He states that there is little in common between the English American and the Spanish American (p. 124). Bolivar's vision was not a land-owning Republic with the rule of law but a life-long dictatorship of Bolivar.

The second problem was the unequal distribution of land. A creole elite, merely 10,000 people, 1.1% of the people, owned nearly all the land (p. 124). In 1910, on the eve of the Mexican revolution, only 2.4% of the rural population owned any land (p. 124). In contrast, in 1900, the rural population in the United States owned 75% of the land. Throughout the British Empire the same general statistic of land ownership remains consistent. Up the present, it continues to be one of the primary distinctions between British-influenced areas and Latin America.

Finally, racial antagonism and division doomed Latin America from unity (p. 125). Creoles resented former slaves and vice versa. The indigenous peoples made up a larger component of Latin America than in North America and they were not integrated, or displaced as in North America, into Latin American governance.

Bolivar's grand vision disintegrated into factional disputations and the unity achieved by the United States never occurred. Bolivar depressingly but accurately described the future of Latin America and it was bleak. "The newly independent states began their lives without a tradition of representative government, with a profoundly unequal distribution of land and with racial cleavages that closely approximated to that economic inequality" (p. 127). Unfortunately, when Hugo Chavez celebrates his connection to Bolivar, the dictatorial, sham democracy, and his nationalizing pursuits, Chavez is on sound historical grounds. Bolivar did not create a republic and he was no Washington.

Medicine
Those contemplating the evils of imperialism might consider the advance in medicine assisting the world's people's to live longer. For example, in 1800 the average life expectancy was 28.5 years, and in 2001, Western medicine lengthened life expectancy globally to 66.6 (p. 146). During the colonialist period life expectancy increased during occupation and has declined in the post-colonial period (p. 147).

One of the most dangerous books ever was Rousseau's insistence in The Social Contract that the Noble Savage should not be restrained and he advocated for the General Will. Edmund Burke had early on seen the danger in the French Revolution and consequently wrote against it. "Revolutions devour their own children" (p. 153). Tocqueville pointed out how France was not America: "in sum, they chose Rousseau over Locke" (p. 154).

Work
One of the most intriguing aspects of China's rise according to Ferguson is the simultaneous popularity of Christianity (pp. 277-88). The Chinese authorities have long been wary of religious movements but Christianity is making significant inroads among the population. According to one scholar, the Communists looked into why the West was pre-eminent, and various reasons were advanced: guns, politics, economics, "but in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful" (p. 287). Christianity and transcendence leads society to understand tolerance, equality, environmental protection, among the leading ideas advanced by the West. "The XIVth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Part was presented with a report specifying three requirements for sustainable economic growth: property rights as a foundation, the law as a safeguard and morality as a support" (p. 288). It is the West that has lost faith in itself.

To illustrate his points in the conclusion, Ferguson invokes "The Course of Empire" which is a five-part series of paintings created by Thomas Cole in 1833-36 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Course_of_Empire). Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 by Paul M. Kennedy, http://www.librarything.com/work/12599/27116122) develops this American concern, that the Republic is at an end and Ferguson deals with current ideas about the decline and fall of civilization. Kennedy identified "imperial overstretch" as the issue to contend with (p. 298). Then there is Green theorist Jared Diamond's Collapse to consider as well (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond: http://www.librarything.com/work/1070881/27115644). Ferguson disagrees with Diamond's long-term, catastrophic Green collapse; in contrast, Ferguson states civilizations can collapse over night.

This is the most alarming aspect of Ferguson's work: civilizations, as in nature, are complex systems which can collapse quickly and virtually overnight. He illustrates this point with numerous examples from the Roman Empire to the fall of Great Britain. Civilizations collapse.

Contra Diamond, Ferguson maintains that "The civilizational supercycle of birth, growth, and eventual death is a misrepresentation of the historical process (p. 299)." Civilizations are complex systems (p. 299) and "to understand complexity, it is helpful to examine how natural scientists use the concept" (p. 300). Ferguson employs a useful analogy, "To use the jargon of modern physics, a forest before a fire is in a state of `self-organized criticality'" (p. 300). It is teetering on the edge of disaster but no one knows the size nor distribution the fires. Consider how a smallish event, the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. led to a worldwide economic phenomenon (p. 301; or, in the case of a large conflict-ridden Empire, the Soviet Union, persisted for decades but then with no warning or insight by any pundits collapsed in six months (p. 303). Supporting Ferguson's point, the Ottoman Empire likewise flourished for centuries but then collapsed quickly with the beginning of the Turkish Republic.

Most importantly, the story of the West and the rest is explained by Ferguson's six killer apps: "mainsprings of global power" (pp. 305-306). Once the killer apps are downloaded, as in the case of Japan, other economies took off as well. India, once its abysmal socialist experiment ended, invoked free-market principles and benefited tremendously as a result.

According to Ferguson, "the financial crisis that began in the summer of 2007 should therefore be understood as an accelerator of an already well-established trend of relative Western decline" (p. 308). The financial situation of the United States is blinking red and according to Ferguson a relatively minor impetus could plunge the entire system into an immediate tailspin. Our debt is held in foreign hands, primarily China, and other nations such as Japan could pull themselves out of a crisis since they have held onto their own liabilities.

China will consume more, import more, invest more abroad, and innovate more (p. 316). Just as crucial is what could go wrong for China and there are four hypotheses. China could decline as Japan did although before the last two decades Japan was predicted by some to surpass the U.S. Second, China may be plagued with social unrest. A third possibility is that the middle class may demand a bigger piece of the political pie. And finally, China's aggression may drive neighbors into the hands of the U.S.

As Ferguson pointed out earlier, civilizations collapse quickly and although the West no long maintains a monopoly on advantageous cultural developments there is an endurable package of Western ways of being.

"This Western package still seems to offer human societies the best available set of economic, social and political institutions--the ones most likely to unleash the individual human creativity capable of solving the problems the twenty-first century world faces" (p. 324). It is this package that has done the best job of finding and highlighting talent. "The big question is whether or not we are still able to recognize the superiority of that package" (p. 324).

The Western texts that should be most instructive and promoted in the schools are:

The King James Bible
Shakespeare
Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
Isaac Newton, Principia
Charles Darwin, Origin of Species
Abraham Lincoln
Winston Churchill

“The biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity — and by the historical ignorance that feeds it” (p. 325). Ferguson calls for a return to traditional education, since “at its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation” (p. 324) — by which he means Great Books, and especially Shakespeare. The greatest dangers facing us are probably not “the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions,” he writes, but “our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors” (p. 325).

"Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?"
Orhan Pamuk
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orhan_Pamuk
1 vote gmicksmith | Nov 11, 2012 |
The introduction to this book excited me because the author posed a question I'd often pondered: why did Europe overtake Asia? Guns, Germs and Steel avoided the question as that text slipped from "Eurasia" to "Europe" hoping no one would notice. Would I finally get an answer? Sadly, no. China turned inward, but why? Still a mystery.

This book is an epic undertaking. I can't say the author strayed from his thesis becuase his thesis (the six killer apps) was broad enough to encompass a lot. But, he never answered his central question about the West vs. the Rest. Are our differneces the result of institutions or or culture? Are these really two different things?

Mr. Ferguson is an engaging writer. He's done a lot of research and is a well respected author. Maybe he didn't want to answer his question about the West losing ground because he admires western civilization and retains a sense of optimism. As he says, there are a "plurality of futures." ( )
1 vote LynnB | Nov 6, 2012 |
Western civilization’s rise to global dominance is the single most important historical phenomenon of the past five centuries. All over the world, more and more people study at Western-style universities, work for Western-style companies, vote for Western-style governments, take Western medicines, wear Western clothes, and play Western sports. Yet six hundred years ago the petty kingdoms of Western Europe seemed like miserable backwaters, ravaged by incessant war and pestilence. It was Ming China or Ottoman Turkey that had the look of world civilizations. How did the West overtake its Eastern rivals? And has the zenith of Western power now passed?

In Civilization: The West and the Rest, acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson argues that, beginning in the fifteenth century, the West developed six powerful new concepts that the Rest lacked: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. These were the ‘killer applications’ that allowed the West to leap ahead of the Rest; opening global trade routes, exploiting new scientific knowledge, evolving representative government, more than doubling life expectancy, unleashing the industrial revolution, and hugely increasing human productivity. Civilization shows exactly how a dozen Western empires came to control three-fifths of mankind and four-fifths of the world economy. ( )
  RobinThoman | Sep 29, 2012 |
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The reheated Weberism – a sign of Ferguson’s nostalgia for the intellectual certainties of the summer of 1914 – turns into another lament for Western civilisation, whose decline is proclaimed everywhere by the fact that the churches are empty, taxes on our wealth are high, the ‘thrifty asceticism’ of Protestants of yore has been lost, and ‘empire has become a dirty word.’
 
It reads very assuredly on high finance – Ferguson's true field. (He came into imperial history accidentally – invited, again, by TV.) For anyone expecting an imperialist rant – Ferguson has a certain reputation along these lines – the chapter that covers colonial Africa will come as a surprise. Africa "brought out the destructive worst in Europeans . . . The rapid dissolution of the European empires in the postwar years appeared to be a just enough sentence".
added by mikeg2 | editThe Guardian, Bernard Potter (Mar 25, 2011)
 

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A history of Western civilization's rise to global dominance offers insight into the development of such concepts as competition, modern medicine, and the work ethic, arguing that Western dominance is being lost to cultures who are more productively utilizing Western techniques.… (more)

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