Naill Ferguson – Civilization Is the West History, the whole series

I have given quite a lot of coverage to the individual episodes of Niall Ferguson’s series Civilization, Is the West History?, so I thought it made sense to round it all off with a review of all six programmes as a whole.   Each of them explores a particular aspect of how the West has come to dominate the world for the last 500 years.  But the title, the tone and even the advertising of this series project lay claim to a high ambition. The aim is surely not just to explain how things got to be this way, but to tell us where things are going.  And we do surely need an answer to the question in the title.  Has domination of the world by the West now run its course and possibly be going into reverse.

So what are we to make of the series as a whole?   Is the case it makes believable?  Is the West in fact history and destined to lose its predominant position in the world fairly shortly?  And perhaps most important of all, is it worth plowing through six hours of video to find out.

But before I start, just a quick note about the spelling of Civilization.  Ferguson has chosen to spell it the American way.  As he spends most of his time in the States, this might well have started out as a simple accident.  No doubt he has an American spell checker on his word processor.  But to have kept the American spelling throughout production at Channel 4 in the UK, including in the titles for the broadcast episode must have been a conscious decision.

At first I thought that it might simply be that the producers had an eye on future sales.   Fair enough – America is a big market so the commercial logic is sound enough.  But on reflection I don’t think that can be the real reason.   It isn’t as if Americans wouldn’t understand the Anglicised spelling and I have a feeling that Americans would not be particularly bothered and some may even quite like the foreign spelling. In any case it would hardly have been much trouble to have different labels for the different audiences.

I think it is more likely that Niall Ferguson is sending out a message to his fellow Brits that he is comfortable positioning himself in the mid-Atlantic.  Okay, okay – we’re impressed.  You are an international celebrity.   Well done.   I don’t get to jet about as much as Ferguson does, but I can spell things the American way too, and have done so on my blog.  I feel more important already.

So, on to the series.

My first thought is that although nearly all the episodes worked very well as individual television programmes, I am not sure that all six hung together that well overall. Some went completely off topic – the one about medicine for example hardly covered the nominal subject at all.  Others, like the one on science in particular, were a bit superficial. They were all a bit disjointed and didn’t really tell a single story.  This is a bit surprising because there was a pretty conscious effort to set the programmes in different locations that carried the whole series around the world from China at the beginning back to China at the end.  But the trouble is I think simply that to fit the format, you have to get an hours worth of telly out of each individual factor.  This isn’t an easy thing to do.

But enough of the generalities, did the approach of identifying six killer apps work?  ( I will call them factors from now on if you don’t mind, killer app is a neat aphorism, but it gets to grate after a while.

So the basic question of the series is why did the countries of Europe, particularly Western Europe, come to dominate every measure of world power from around the end of the fifteenth century?  It wasn’t something that anyone at the time would necessarily have predicted.  China, India and the Ottoman Empire were all more advanced in 1500.  It would have been a brave punter who would have bet on the divided and often poverty stricken Europeans even retaining their independence let alone achieving a leading position.

And yet it was the Europeans who would create the industrial and commercial revolutions that would then enable them to create worldwide empires and dominate with ease almost the entire planet.  At the start of the Twentieth century almost the whole globe was either occupied by European powers or was settled by European colonists.   Of significantly sized countries only Japan and China bucked the trend.  And China was far from being in a good state.  Japan made the situation even clearer. It avoided Western domination by adopting Western methods wholesale.

What had happened?  It was just about the biggest event in history since humans left Africa.  The world for the first time had become a single interlinked culture, with the West in the driving seat.  We are still working through the implications today.  So looking at the factors that gave rise to it does sound interesting.  But were there six?

I can’t help thinking that six was a number chosen to fit the format.  Six does sound like a nice round number for a series.  Is it really likely that there were six distinctive advantages all of which were equally necessary? It doesn’t seem to me that that is at all the way the world works.  And can they simply be identified and adopted by other cultures consciously?  Again, that doesn’t seem very likely either.  And is it at all likely that what works in one century in a particular set of countries will continue to work for ever?  Again, it seems a bit unlikely.  My feeling is that it can’t possibly be six separate factors.  I bet that if the answer to this question is ever known it will turn out to be just one factor, or two at the most.

And there was one very notable omission. Throughout the six programmes there were very few references to Japan. Any serious examination of the issue surely ought to look into how, uniquely outside the European tradition, Japan was able to become one of the World’s great powers in the space of a couple of generations.  How did Japan pull this off?  And why did no other country?  This seems to me to be a key question and one that can hardly be ignored in any serious examination of what it is that makes a country powerful.   And yet, ignore it is exactly what this series does.  Was this because it didn’t fit in with some of the conclusions?

But lets look at the six factors and see what we think.

Competition was the first he identified.   The series opens with a comparison between London and Shanghai. The comparison is not flattering to London.  In the fifteenth century, China was much more advanced.   It was also much larger.  A casual visitor would find China a lot more impressive.  But they wouldn’t have seen that beneath the surface China was more monolithic, stiffling trade and exploration.  London was run by, well, it is hard to say really.  China had an emperor and was surrounded by a huge professional bureaucracy.

Large highly bureaucratic organisations are neither efficient nor dynamic.  And they tend to be stable only for a certain period of time.  Their inability to adapt leads in the end to collapse when conditions change or simply when the cost of the bureaucracy becomes too great to be borne.  Surveying history provides plenty of examples of this, but Ferguson’s can’t be faulted.  Nowhere was as organised, bureaucratic and generally big and unwieldy as Imperial China.  By contrast the Europe of the Renaissance was a patchwork quilt of small kingdoms all desperate to find the knack that would give them the edge. It is little wonder that they were came up with more innovations.

But the really crucial difference was how they used their seafaring technology.  The Chinese, when the emperor took it into his head to do so, built large technologically sophisticated ships and put to sea in a big well organised fleet.  The admiral Zheng He commanded ships that may well have been 200 feet in length, dwarfing anything else in the sea, and traveling as far abroad as Arabia, Africa and India.

This fleet was designed to impress.  It can’t have failed to do exactly that.  Any port it approached would have been overawed by the power and prowess of the emperor of China.  It projected prestige.

The much smaller vessels put to sea by the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and later the English and the French were not out to impress anyone.  They were engaged in trade and were looking for commercial opportunities rather than photo opportunities.  They didn’t want to turn heads, they wanted to turn a profit.  The desire for riches kept them coming back year after year, and the riches they took back home transformed their society.  Meanwhile, the emperor lost interest in his fleet and disbanded it.  An opportunity to rule the world was missed.  But then ruling China is a big enough job for most people.

This whole story really rang true.  Governments throughout history right up to the present day have loved projects that make them look good.  They are less interested in more bread and butter activities that keep the economy turning.  Bragging rights often been more important to rulers than the welfare of the people they rule. Had the emperors unleashed the trading instincts of its people they would probably have circled the globe in search of opportunities.  But by suppressing competition, they effectively sentenced their empire to stagnation.

Science is the next factor to come under the microscope.  It was encouraged in Europe, but neglected in the Islamic world.  As a result the Ottomans went from being the terror of Europe, able to lay siege to Vienna as late as 1683, to the sick man of Europe.  Their fall from power and influence was largely because they fell behind technologically.   It is a plausible enough story, but it seems to me that this is simply a subset of the competition story in the first episode.  It wasn’t as if the Turks in particular, or Muslims in general were inherently any more opposed to science as a culture than the western Europeans were.

Ferguson illustrates his point by referring to a story about a state of the art  astronomical observatory in Constantinople which was built 1580 but later destroyed at the behest of a muslim cleric.  Is that so different to the trial of Galileo only 50 years later in Rome?  It seems to me that this could easily have gone either way.  The observatory was built in the first place after all – in a truly anti-scientific culture it would never even have been conceived of.  It wasn’t that European leaders early on were huge fans of science, they were just looking for anything that could give them the edge in a conflict.  I remain unconvinced that the rise of science was a cause of the West’s success, I think it was much more like a consequence.

The third programme moved to the Americas.  The thrust of this one was that property rights were the key reason why the United States became powerful and wealthy while the states of South America fell behind despite having more natural resources available to them.  This one stands up pretty well.  When you see a valley where the land is still owned by the same Spaniard families that acquired it at the time of the conquest, with Indian inhabitants living in much the same poverty that they have for centuries, it isn’t hard to buy the idea that the land tenure system in South America is the reason for economic stagnation.  Interestingly Ferguson gave a lot of emphasis to the way the legal system protects property rights but fails to consider the role of the distribution of that property.  You have to wonder how the peasants in the Andes valley would benefit from more strongly established property laws if they themselves don’t actually have any property.

Medicine, according to the fourth programme, allowed Europeans to live longer and conquer Africa.  This was an interesting and thought provoking episode.  But it didn’t really have much to say about the actual premise.  The programme we did get about how Darwinism laid the foundations for the Nazi genocide was an interesting one, but completely irrelevant to the question in hand.  So lets have a go at filling the gap.  Medicine to me seems to be, ultimately, a product of economic power not really a source of it.  People in the West live longer and enjoy better health than people in undeveloped countries.  I don’t have any figures to back this up, but I wouldn’t mind betting that as the West has got richer they have spent more money on their health.  I don’t doubt it helps to be healthy, but I think it isn’t the key to why the West dominates the world.

In what was the most convincing episode of the series we were introduced to the consumer society.  In fact none of us need to be introduced to it because it is a huge part of our everyday lives.  We live in a world where producers vie with each other to make things we want so they can make a profit selling them.  The example given was jeans.  Jeans started as straight forward working clothes for American farm labourers.  But thanks to films and marketing they became cool and desirable all around the world.    Economies of scale made them cheap.  The well developed consumer market made them ubiquitous.   Everyone wanted them, even Communists.   Communists in the West wore them on demonstrations.   Communists behind the Iron Curtain had to bring in special measures to deal with crimes provoked by a desire for jeans – the planned economy never managed to replicate them effectively.

The point Ferguson is making is that the consumer society created a stimulus for innovation and gave Western society goods that people wanted, and it turns out that people in other societies want as well.  Everyone around the world now dresses the way people in the West dress.  Everyone wants the goods the consumer society produces. and are willing to go to some lengths to get them.  And it is the desire for the goods that Western civilization produces that is pushing more and more for the Western way of doing things to become the simply the way of doing things.

It isn’t until the last episode that we finally get to the provocative question that the whole series is based around.  Is the West history?  Have we turned a corner that means that after 400 or more years of continually growing power and influence are we now looking at a future where the West will go into reverse?  We see Ferguson standing in the ruins of an Inca city and referring  grandly to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  What is the significance of the comparison?  It turns out, just to show that it is possible for Western civilisation to decline. It has done so before.

What is the mechanism by which the West might lose its position?  This brings us to the sixth and final factor that led to the rise of the West.  The Work Ethic was originally associated with protestant sects leading them to work hard and save a lot.  This gave an impetus to early industrialisation.   Americans and Europeans have now lost this solid virtue.  We’d rather go shopping.  Meanwhile others, particularly the Chinese, have acquired it and are beavering away to replace us.

I felt a bit let down.  Is that all he could come up with?  If nothing else it sounded a bit like what every generation that has ever existed has said about the good for nothing youngsters it has had the misfortune to give rise to.  I can remember hearing that sort of thing from older people when I was young. Now I am old I can’t help thinking I can sort of see how they must have been thinking.  But I have to say I was hoping for something a bit more profound.  It isn’t really surprising that richer people don’t work as hard.  That is sort of part of the benefits of being rich.  I don’t suppose that poor people work hard to acquire riches with the intention that once they have got them they plan to carry on working hard.

In the end I found myself wondering if for all his studies and his undoubted energy and skill at presentation, that Ferguson himself has actually got no more idea of whether the West is in decline or not at the moment than I or anyone else has. I am glad for the journey he has taken me on.  It must have been hard work.  I am really grateful for six hours of top notch entertainment.  I enjoyed watching it and I learned a lot. The thing is though, I  find there are still plenty of unanswered questions I want to find out more about. But I think I need to look elsewhere for answers.


Filed under Niall Ferguson

6 Responses to Naill Ferguson – Civilization Is the West History, the whole series

  1. Obviously we're not rich here in the UK, as we have the longest working hours in Europe. Still.

    The problem here is that investors expect quick returns on their investment, whereas building a profitable business takes time. Also, any business that does turn a profit is bought out by private equity and frontloaded with unpayable debts for the purposes of tax evasion. But la!

    Charles C. Mann reckons the rise of the West was due to the globalisation following the discovery of America. I'm reading all about it now in 1493, or I'm supposed to be, anyway!

    While Islam may have had a stranglehold on science, was it any more strangly than that of the Catholic Church? Neither religion allowed scientists to chop up human bodies and figure out how they worked.

  2. I think the point about science was that although the Catholic Church did try to suppress certain areas of investigation, its writ didn't run over the whole of Europe. So in places like England and Holland it thrived with official encouragement and even got funded by central government in a couple of German states. Mind you I am not at all sure that scientific developments were a result of economic activity rather than a cause.

  3. Anonymous

    His-storian Ferguson forgot to mention 1/5 of the Earth's Landmass called Russia. Did it not fit any of his simplistic arguments?

  4. Good point about Russia. He does have a tendency to leave out stuff that doesn't support what he is saying. Japan gets ignored as well to a large extent.

  5. Anonymous

    If you write a history book that explains the world using only English sources, this shows that either the world truly is english-dominated or you just don't care about anything that is not English.

  6. I think that is a good point Anonymous. And it is even worse in my opinion because he ignores a lot of stuff in English that doesn't agree with his worldview.

Leave a Reply