While I suspect that David Starkey would violently object the two current giants of television history in terms of providing a worldview are the left leaning Simon Schama and the combative neo conservative Niall Ferguson. Their dust up at last years Hay festival was a colourful sparring session between two big intellects firing verbal potshots at each other and a joy to behold. Schama concentrated on providing a robust defense of Barack Obama while Ferguson spent much of his allotted time dissing the President's now famous speech delivered in Cairo in 2009. Indeed he has described it as "touchy feely nonsense" and has in recent weeks sent out lurid warnings about Obama's failure to anticipate the demise of Mubarak and to come to terms with what Ferguson sees as the potential rise of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and the possible "restoration of the caliphate and the strict application of Sharia". Strong stuff, but Ferguson does like a good row. (see his feud with the nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman)
These themes above are the heart of this new book "Civilization: The West and the Rest" since Ferguson comes from the controversial standpoint that Western dominance has on the whole been a progressive force and that on the basis of a cost benefit analysis the good outweighs the bad (it is a constant theme in all his books). He recently argued that "the rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade. They showed zero sign of developing the country's economic resources....and the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn't have any credibility at all." This is a bold, confrontational, contentious and provocative thesis and his new book reinforces these arguments postulating that there were six killer "apps" which propelled the West to a position of predominance. These were competition, science, property, modern science, consumption and work ethic all with a dedicated chapter in the book.
Space precludes a detailed debate on each theme but for example he contrasts how China was the world's most advanced civilization in the 15th century but stagnated and was overtaken by Dutch mercantilism and the rise of capitalism employing his six "skills". He will equally generate a furious response to the view that scientific development was "by any scientific measure, wholly European". Other ideas that the spread of the market was as influential in the rise of the West as the role of force tends to neglect that the often were inseparable and rather evil twins. Just look at the bloody history of German East Africa prior to the First World War, But even more close to home Ferguson has himself previously recognized in another part of his prodigious output that "When imperial authority was challenged - in India in 1857, in Jamaica in 1831 and 1865, in South Africa in 1899 - the British response was brutal".
That said all Ferguson books, whether you love or hate his arguments, are immensely readable and his historical sweep is vast. There is little doubt that he relishes the big strategic themes and his tone is one of super confidence and often compulsively provocative not least in his view that the West must relearn some of its old tricks to maintain its position. His ability however to take a small example and write it large often leads to accusations of research selectivity and the fact that the successful Chinese business city Wenzou also has 1,400 churches is used to tie some of his "apps" together in what is a very unconvincing argument. The title for this narrative is oddly lifted from another very recent book by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton albeit the latters theme was Islamic terrorism. Similarly other historians such as Ian Morris, Eric Ringmar and John A Hall have covered these issues with much more subtlety and nuance. Yet Ferguson's strengths are his readability, populism and his headlong assault on some sacred cows. His weaknesses are the employment of the sweeping generalization and a strong streak of cultural arrogance. You can clap loudly or boo vehemently at Niall Ferguson when the television series to accompany this book starts on Channel 4 on March 6th.
I picked up a copy of this book on Friday and finished this afternoon(Sunday) which shows just how readable this book is, not too wordy, not assuming too much fore knowledge yet never talking down to the reader. In common with his previous books, Mr Ferguson is not shy about making definitive claims and he backs them up with many facts, of course perhaps with his own take on them. I am not sufficiently well read to dispute a lot of what he says, I will leave that to other reviewers, but all I can promise anyone who chooses to read this book is that you will enjoy the experience whether or not you agree with the author's conclusions.
There are a plethora of books out there detailing the differences between the "West" and the "East" and this one doesn't go in so much for cultural influences per se as stating the fact that the western style of "civilization" in the author's eyes at least, is due in most part to mercantile, industrial, military and perhaps most surprisingly religious developments, in particular the "protestant work ethic". This is a recurring theme throughout the book and doesn't entirely convince to be fair but is certainly a case well made.
I suspect there will be many critics of the content of the book but surely few of the style in which the arguments are made. I am not in total agreement myself with a lot of them, but the over-riding enthusiasm with which he puts his ideas across, made this for me, in the hoary old phrase, a right riveting read.
on 2 January 2013
In `Civilization', Ferguson seeks to explain how a backward set of territories on the western-most tip of the Eurasian continent in around 1500 was able to produce the most extraordinary growth in living standards and to dominate the world over the following 500 years. His answer is that six complexes of institutions, with their related ideas and behaviours, are responsible for the success. The `killer apps' are competition (among Europe's many states), science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.
Other states have only managed to emulate the success of the West insofar as they have assiduously copied (or `downloaded' to stick with the computer terminology) the six apps. There is no doubt, Ferguson argues, that this imitation is allowing the rest of the world to catch up rapidly, but he says the West is far from finished if it can continue to apply all six, for none of its rivals is doing so. Iran may have discovered science, China the consumer society and Russia modern medicine, but none has the rule of law and freedom of speech, Ferguson says.
He sees the greatest danger to the West coming not from its external rivals but from within, from its people's lack of knowledge about and faith in the civilization built by its ancestors. `Civilization' is very well written, with a wealth of fascinating historical detail and examples, but the remedy it proposes to the West to stave off its decline is somewhat conservative and wistful. Will simply turning back to an alleged Golden Age propel the West forward?
on 6 May 2011
People of a certain age always denounce the way the teaching of history in schools nowadays has changed, from a continuous narrative of woad-painted Ancient Britons, Perkin Warmneck, Good Kings, Bad Kings, Britain becoming Top Nation etc, to a discrete handful of unconnected modules about Hitler, the Slave Trade and "imagine you are a Roman centurion, how does it make you feel". In many cases, my own included, this criticism is made from a position of total ignorance of what actually goes on in schools. Professor Ferguson, however, has children of his own and is a celebrated historian, so he knows what he is talking about, and in his preface to Civilization, his latest book, he explains that he has written it with this exact sorry state of affairs in mind.
Civilization (subtitled "The West and the Rest") is designed, then, to be accessible to an intelligent 17-year old wanting to know, essentially, what happened in the 600 years between the Beginning of Modern History, and the West becoming joint Top Nation, and why the same thing didn't happen worldwide. Ferguson attributes our success to a half-dozen key factors, groovily named "killer apps" here to appeal to the younger generation. I'm too much of a Luddite to have more than the vaguest idea of what an App is, but Ferguson here uses it to mean a sort of subject heading, by which the very broad narrative of 600 years of global history can be subdivided into six parallel narrative threads, each thread dealing with the development of a discernible, hugely successful meme which has on the whole been adopted early on by the West, and only much later, if at all, by the Rest, to the Rest's detriment. Thus allowing the West to feel comfortably superior. The six Apps he chooses to structure the book in this way are competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.
It helps if you're convinced by the underlying thesis, which is that civilization prospers best within the law, but without the imposition of certain barriers - barriers of ignorance, superstition, caste, favouritism, trade restrictions, and most of all (Ferguson's own speciality) the barrier of the finite nature of present-day resources (I read somewhere that credit was a four-dimensional vehicle for delivering goods from the future to the present. Unfortunately at the time of writing it looks as though many of those goods were delivered from Never-Never Land). But anyway, quite apart from this, I can see that this book will make brilliant television. The epic inclusiveness of the project lends itself perfectly to the screening of a vast, varied montage of archive material, while that same inclusiveness means that also, sooner or later, the book will touch upon some small niche subject upon which everyone thinks he's a bit of an expert, bringing out the barrack-room lawyers in all of us and making for compelling debate. Speaking personally this doesn't bother me too much, as I don't claim much historical expertise, but do tend toward Ferguson's endorsement of classical liberalism, so can enjoy this book simply as an enormously informative and entertaining read. But I can see that for readers of a different political stripe the author's voice might come across as, um, provocative; while one can't help but feel that some touches, such as the flagrant airbrushing-out of the Duke of Wellington, are in there purely to wind up some rival academic.
The only real argument I have with this book, and I'm not going to dock it a star for this, is the final chapter of the Sixth Killer App, the Protestant Work Ethic. Because, I don't think you can quite treat faith as an App. In regard to the other Apps, the historian can validly say these are successful memes, they may be the very best available, they may be among many other even better memes we haven't yet discovered, we don't know, but nobody else has got better memes so far, and here's the evidence. But, when Ferguson starts talking about the rise in Christianity in China, you have to conclude that either some great shift is taking place in the battle for souls on the planet, or, alternatively, that we're registering a pointless biomechanical effect that means nothing at all; and either way I don't think it is a subject that really lies within the scope of this book. I also can't quite share his pessimism about the rise of China alongside its growth in churches, even if it means we eventually lose our place as Top Nation. If millions of Chinese are really turning to a life of charity and humility while at the same time getting better at making cool stuff for the rest of us, I for one have read enough science fiction to feel that there are many worse ways we could have kicked off into the 21st Century.
on 6 April 2011
Who else wishes that good historians could stay away from television? This is a spin off book and little more, on a subject that Ferguson - my favourite historian of the moment - could have tackled in a far more serious and rigorous way.
The bottom line is that this book fits in with a TV series, and you can see the skeleton of the TV series throughout - the 'killer aps', the scant development of arguments, the highly visual backdrop to each section (you can imagine him striding through markets or staring broodily into the middle distance surrounded by ancient ruins).
As a result, the arguments are undercooked and it doesn't feel as though Ferguson engages with them with his full intellect.
Yes, there are insights and splashes of detail and argument, but they are few. The essay that makes up the conclusion is the first time that it feels like Ferguson is really tackling the subject head on, although it feels bolted on to the rest of the book. The logic behind the medicine chapter is tortured and the consumerism chapter feels whimsical - that is not to challenge the intellectual underpinnings of these chapters: it's rather to say that they've got lost in making the TV series.
I think I'd learn more from sitting opposite Ferguson with a pint, listening to him explain these things properly. That's what I mean by him dialling it in, as supporting material for the main project - serving the great god of TV.
If he'd tackled the subject with his full force, we'd have ended up with a book as good as those that he mentions - the ones by David Landes, Jared Diamond (although deeply flawed) and Paul Kennedy.
on 13 April 2014
The key theme here is what made the West the predominant power from 1500 - 2000: There are six killer apps. Whilst I have no problem with the apps themselves they make a good deal of sense, the explanation of how they helped the West dominate the rest is not always well argued.
1) Competition - well argued and well structured focusing on the isolationist policies of the Chinese
2) Science - well argued using the Ottoman Empires resistance to change. It would have been interesting to compare with some of the far Eastern empires too.
3) Property - This compares and contrasts the ownership of North America (USA) with South America and here it becomes more challenging given that these are colonies of two Western powers. The contrast is interesting and informative, but it's not really the West and the Rest it's why one bit of the west was more successful than another bit.
4) Medicine - The development of medicine in the West has been hugely influential in increasing life expentency and it would have been interesting to see a discussion of people like Pasteur, Fleming, Jenner et al moved forward compared with medicine in other parts of the world, but this focuses on many of the atrocious acts of Empire particularly the Germans.
5) Consumption - back to intersting, the power of clothing and lifestyle during the cold war, clearly something that USSR couldn't hope to compete with.
6) Work ethic - again interesting, although I didn't find the protestant work ethic that compelling - I suspect that it was one factor out of a number that came to bear.
It's an interesting read, and whilst the majority of the chapters are valid, if you've read some of Ferguson's other books, you can't help but feel that this was squeezing book from his previous works.