By Niall Ferguson

It’s simply impossible that when Niall Ferguson decided to write a book about the gradual rise to dominance of Western civilization after 1500 – “quite simply, the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ . . . the story at the very heart of modern history” – he thought he was doing anything new. Many historians, including many popular authors of general history (like Ferguson), have been over this ground before. Nevertheless, Western Civ’s latest champion sets the stage with breathless exclamations about how this is a subject that poses “perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve,” and one of immense import for estimating “with any degree of accuracy the imminence of our [that is, the West’s] decline and fall.”

It’s hard to be as prolific as Ferguson has been in recent years and be original. Instead, what you have to do is dress up old arguments in new clothes. In Ferguson’s case this means resurrecting ideas such as Max Weber’s theory of the influence Protestantism had on the spread of modern capitalism, and then seeing a connection between this and the popularity of Christianity in present-day China. Exactly what that connection is is left a bit fuzzy, with implication left to do a lot of the heavy lifting. But you get the picture: a lot that’s old, a bit that’s new, much that’s borrowed . . .

Also handy, especially when the reader (who has likely heard all of this before) begins to nod, is a gift for slick (if facile) analogies and tendentious rhetoric. The former are inelegantly handled, with Ferguson packaging his key ingredients for the West’s triumph as six “killer apps.” So, for example, the scientific revolution was fostered by a European “network” while the Islamic world remained “offline.” Today, however, the tide is turning as the West’s apps are being “downloaded” by the Rest.

Is it possible that one day we will all be speaking like this? If so, our decline and fall may come sooner than we expect.

As for the rhetoric, it is what one may expect from a self-described “fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang.” One has to smile at the description of how “the bloodthirsty Aztecs were laid low by Hernán Cortés,” which makes it sound like the conquistadors were involved in some kind of humanitarian intervention in Mexico. Just as quirky is the hatchet job done on Karl Marx. Marx, we are told “was an odious individual.” Why? Because he was an “unkempt scrounger and savage polemicist.” We are also told that he had lousy penmanship and couldn’t win at playing the stock market. I’m not sure how any of this makes him odious, but there is perhaps a small clue in the summation, where Marx is found guilty of being supported by the money of the Engels family and then biting the hand that fed him. Such ingratitude is something no one could ever accuse Ferguson of.

More disturbing are passages where the attempt to be clever or provocative reveals a complete lack of thought. Example: “If the Cold War had ever become hot,” we are told, “the Soviet Union would very likely have won it.” Does Ferguson really need reminding that if the Cold War had ever become hot both the Soviet Union and the United States (as well as much of the rest of global civilization) would have been turned to ash? Nobody, least of all either of the two superpowers, was going to “win” World War Three.

While these are, admittedly, minor points, the major points are no better. Instead of Jared Diamond’s geographical and environmental determinism what we get is institutional determinism, with developments in economics, politics, and science setting the pace. The discussion, however, is too sweeping to drive any of Ferguson’s arguments home, and anyone who knows a bit of history may feel beset by doubts. The Roman Empire is often held up as a shining example of a past peak of Western civilization (or, to return to the grating netspeak, “Western Civilization 1.0”), but its greatness was achieved, and for centuries maintained, through monolithic state planning with little in the way of interstate or commercial competition (the first of Ferguson’s killer apps). Another killer app is medicine, but the chapter on medicine is basically just a broad reconsideration of colonialism. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s need to make annoying little jokes often wrestles itself into the driver’s seat. “At one and the same time,” that is, the late 1960s, “America was both born again and porn again.” Groan. And by the way: what meaning does Ferguson see this paradox as revealing? He doesn’t say.

Civilization was apparently conceived both as a project aimed at young people and a companion to a television series, which may explain the strong sense one has of things being dumbed-down for a not-very-bright audience. As a result, little is done here to correct the impression of Ferguson’s own decline from once-promising young historian to glib twit. Even the conclusion, which muses on the rise of China and the fall of empire (by way of a laughable application of Gibbon to the contemporary scene), seems a tacked-on throwaway. One puts the book down feeling as though a real opportunity has been lost, for despite the hoariness of the subject there are questions relating to it that are still worth exploring.

The fact is that we are all living in the world that industrial capitalism made. History is indeed written by the winners, and this is our dominant economic and intellectual paradigm. It is, in other words, a cultural matrix that it is nearly impossible to think ourselves outside of. One consequence of this is the oft-repeated line about how, while this may not be the best of all possible worlds, it is the only one possible. There are no alternatives, as the saying goes. Is this true? To what extent did the Rest choose the Western model and to what extent was it forced, either by gunboats or soft power, upon them? How popular are Western values, even among other cultures and civilizations that have adopted them (or whose elites have adopted them)? Is some further evolution likely? One feature of books like these is their pessimistic tone, the sense they carry with them that all empires must decay and go the way of Nineveh and Tyre. The assumption is that no further progress is possible: that since this is the only model of truly civilized life the only direction we can go from here is down, replaced in our turn by a new tribe who will finally beat us at our own game.

I don’t think such a cycle is inevitable. I am, however, inclined to think the collapse or at least decline of the present structure is, seeing as our current civilization is simply unsustainable on its own terms. It would be nice to find an app for fixing that.

Review first published online November 7, 2011.

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