Disoriented: Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilisation’

The historian’s new book says Western civilisation used words more often than swords to dominate the world.

Niall Ferguson writer/author - Dan Hind article
Author Niall Ferguson’s (R) advises the West that “retreat from the plains of Mesopotamia has long been a harbinger of decline and fall” of civilisations [EPA]

Niall Ferguson’s latest, Civilisation: The West and the Rest, comes with a good deal of fanfare.

It has a major television tie-in in Britain, a clutch of admiring reviews and profiles, and a series of emphatic media performances from the author.

Such is the build-up that when one turns to the book itself, it is hard to avoid a sense of anticlimax. Instead of an energetic challenge to the received wisdom, we find a conceptually baggy and largely predictable canter through global history from 1500 to the present day.

The author’s stated aim in writing Civilisation is to explain why:

the little states of Western Europe… produced a civilisation capable not only of conquering the great Oriental empires and subjugating Africa, the Americas and Australasia, but also of converting peoples all over the world to the Western way of life – a conversion achieved ultimately more by the word than the sword.

Over the course of the book, another theme emerges – the idea that this once all-conquering civilisation, like the Roman Empire that preceded it, is in danger of collapse.

‘Killer apps’

Ferguson tries to enliven proceedings by organising his account around “killer apps”.

These he defines as the “identifiably novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviours” that gave first Northern Europe, and then the United States, an edge over their global rivals.

Doubtless, the reference to smart phones would have seemed daringly up to the minute when it was first proposed but it already feels a little tired.

At any rate, these killer apps are: political and economic competition; science; property rights; medicine; the consumer society; and the work ethic.

It would be easy to quibble. Does economic, as distinct from military and political, competition really explain that much about European expansion?

I know he needs to make room for admiring remarks about Adam Smith, but still. Successful industrialisation depends on restricting imports until domestic industries are strong enough to compete successfully for foreign markets.

Alfred Marshall, one of the founding fathers of liberal economics, had no problem recognising the obvious, that the British embrace of free trade was essentially self-interested. I don’t see why Ferguson can’t.

Conquest by culture

There are deeper problems with the book’s organising assumptions.

Ferguson quotes Fernand Braudel saying that a civilisation is a “cultural area” in which can be found a wide range of “goods” – architectural styles and techniques, skills, dialects, styles in sex and cuisine, beliefs and so on.

But, if he is referring to civilisation in this sense, it isn’t clear what it means for one civilisation to conquer or subjugate another.

Conquest is the business of particular political organisations, not of civilisations. The spread of cultural goods is a complicated process, and I am not sure that the popularity of, say, Japanese food in London, is best understood in terms of conquest or subjugation.

Given the reference to Braudel, it is baffling that Ferguson describes the Roman Empire as “Western civilisation in its first incarnation”.

Elements of the civilisation we associate with Rome existed long before the Empire. And elements survive, in the Middle East more than in Europe, long after the fall of Rome – indeed long after the fall of Constantinople.

Western civilisation is no more a political entity than Roman civilisation was. To imagine something called Western civilisation as the Roman Empire reincarnated is to toss incommensurable notions together in a way that promotes anxiety rather than thought.

Then again, Ferguson also talks about different “Western cultures”. So this Western civilisation contains more than one “cultural area”, perhaps.

It would be interesting to know exactly what these cultural areas are, and how they relate to “Western civilisation”.

If, by Western civilisation, Ferguson means the state system organised in Washington then he should perhaps say so.

At any event, we are entitled to a clearer explanation at the outset. As it stands the book sometimes seems more like a salad than an argument.

Confusing narratives

There are other difficulties with Ferguson’s terms of reference.

Before the First World War, the idea of the West was not especially influential. The British and the North American ruling classes were at least as keen on the fantasy that they were the inheritors of the Anglo-Saxons, or even the Teutons.

Their pretended descent from the freedom-loving inhabitants of the Northern forests helped justify their prejudices against the Irish and the Italians as well as the Indians and the Chinese.

When war broke out in 1914, it was often framed as a conflict between Allied decency and Prussian barbarism, or, if you were a German, as a clash between England and France’s effete, commercial civilisation and Germany’s youthful, industrious kultur.

It is only later that it comes to look more like a European or Western civil war.

The West was, like NATO, a useful way for America to bind the countries of Western Europe to itself after the Second World War.

If you think that Western civilisation is centuries old, note how its supposed borders have changed in a few decades.

Sixty years ago, Japan was the archetype of the East: inscrutable, regimented, and cruel. Now we learn from Ferguson that it modernised by becoming, in important respects, Western.

A little more than twenty years ago, Cold War intellectuals defined Western civilisation against the oriental slave culture of Soviet Russia.

Now Russia no longer seeks to challenge America’s global pre-eminence. It is commonplace to acknowledge, as Ferguson does, the debt of communism to the library facilities of the British Museum.

From these unpromising premises flows a narrative that confuses and obscures more often than it surprises or provokes.

Ferguson fails to set out the dynamics of the Atlantic trade in slave labour and agricultural commodities – surely important to the history of development in Europe and North America.

Similarly, he passes up the opportunity to explain exactly how the British conquered India. And readers will be disappointed if they are hoping for a sophisticated analysis of the circuit of predatory trade with China created by the East India Company.

Given that Ferguson begins by comparing the tiny states of Europe with the vast empires of Asia, his failure even to mention Plessey or the Opium Wars is peculiar going on perverse.

The English, Ferguson tells us, were “luckier in their drugs” than the Chinese. Luck had very little to do with it, as he surely knows.

An incomplete explanation

European states did come to dominate much of the rest of the world in the period after 1500. Those seeking to understand why should certainly pay attention to their institutional arrangements.

So when we consider the conquest of South America, it is important to take into account the fact that the kingdoms responsible were products of the highly competitive politics of the Iberian peninsular.

In this, Ferguson has a point, though he surely underplays the aggression and cultural chauvinism that this competition generated.

At the height of their powers, Spain and Portugal lacked almost everything that Ferguson takes to be distinctive about Western civilisation.

If the creation of the Atlantic trade radically increases European wealth, then an explanation of European global expansion should surely explore in greater detail how it was achieved.

Similarly, improvements in medicine made it possible for the European powers to extend their control over most of Africa. But the conquest of Latin America and India predated the development of effective tropical medicine.

Institutions and killer apps can only form part of the explanation Ferguson wants to provide. Geography, ecology, not to mention the close grain of what happened to happen, must be reckoned with.

It’s no good making a great fuss over the impact of Locke’s ideas in North America without mentioning that his 1669 constitution for Carolina, with its aristocratic grades and insistence on social stability – “all the children of Leet-men shall be Leet-men, and so to all Generations” – proved equal parts wishful thinking and gobbledygook.

Faced with the prospect of toiling to recreate English patterns of land ownership, settlers in North America ran away and squatted on the grand scale. So much for property rights.

Enlightened scepticism 

The shortcomings of the book as a work of history go some way to explaining its weaknesses as an exercise in contemporary analysis.

When Ferguson worries that we are menaced by “our own loss of faith in the civilisation we inherited from our ancestors”, he sounds uncannily like the forlorn elegists of Ottoman or imperial Chinese power.

He wants us to repeat after him that ‘perhaps the greatest achievement’ of the Enlightenment was Adam Smith’s ‘analysis of the interlocking institutions of civil society’.

Then after a suitable pause we can intone that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract was “among the most dangerous books Western civilisation ever produced”.

‘Adam Smith good, Rousseau bad’ is a statement of faith, for sure. As such it does a disservice to both them and us. Our salvation is not to be found in simple-minded readings of canonical texts.

We need to engage critically with European history and with the cultures and ideas of the wider world. You know, like Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau did.

There are serious problems in Europe and the United States.

No amount of parsing the difference between French and German rule in Africa, or berating historians who “habitually confuse famines or civil wars with genocides and gulags” will solve them. (As an aside, I am not sure that it is a distinction that makes all that much difference to the victims. The famines in British India were not natural events. Nor is it self-hatred for an Englishman to find the enthusiastic racism and violence of the English abroad more disturbing than that of the Germans or the Japanese.)

It isn’t faith we need, but enlightened scepticism. The patrons of science, the state and the corporation, now seek to frustrate its transformative potential.

Medicine has degenerated into a scramble for patents and increasingly corrupt exercises in public relations.

The American government abducts people and tortures them while proclaiming its commitment to universal values.

The economies of Britain, Ireland, the United States and elsewhere have become hosts to a vast, and vastly larcenous, financial sector.

Faced with these enormities, the media rush to tell us what famous people get up to in private or, like Ferguson, they call on us to close our eyes and believe and reaffirm our faith in their version of Western civilisation.

When in Rome?

In recent years, Niall Ferguson’s books have had a habit of being published at exactly the right moment, and of saying not quite the right thing.

In 2003, his Empire offered a stirring defence of the liberal world system created by Britain in the nineteenth century just as the avowedly liberal Anglo-American occupation of Iraq was presiding over a disaster of sectarian violence.

In 2008, he brought out The Ascent of Money at the very moment the financial system was descending around our ears.

Now, while the peoples of the Middle East are calling with one voice for democracy and the end of foreign interference, Civilisation arrives to warn us that “retreat from the mountains of the Hindu Kush or the plains of Mesopotamia has long been a harbinger of decline and fall”.

Ferguson need not worry. Western civilisation is not, and cannot be, a second Rome.

The institutional innovations he calls killer apps have spread across the world, they belong to it, and they will doubtless change over time.

Perhaps American power is no longer the decisive factor in world affairs it once was. But the nations and cultures of Europe and North America aren’t Rome, and they are not about to vanish.

If the idea of the West fades, we should not mistake this for the end of civilisation.

Civilisation is alive and well, in Mesopotamia as in Middlesex and Massachusetts. The ideas and institutional forms of Europe have something to contribute to it, as do those of other nations and cultures.

And if civilisation is still with us, then so too is barbarism. It is our task to understand the difference.

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two well-acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is also a regular contributor to The Guardian.

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

Hind’s ‘The Return of the Public’ was first published by Verso, the UK publishing house.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.