Civilizations rise and fall, but Harvard University Professor Niall Ferguson has made a virtual cottage industry out of the impending fate of the West in the twenty-first century. In his fifth book in this vein, “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” he measures our current stall against the material advances of the East—especially China—and finds reasons for both alarm and hope.
Twentieth-century historians, including Oswald Spengler, saw regular, rhythmic cycles with specific stages among the world’s civilizations, but Ferguson proposes that science suggests amending that view. Civilizations, he writes, are “complex systems” (like the weather, or more broadly, climate) wherein huge changes may be wrought in a very short time by specific events.
Therein is the reason for alarm: Will the West’s economies right themselves in time after the market catastrophe of 2008 to withstand the rapid economic onslaught of China? If they cannot, “complex systems” suggests the “fall of the West”— currently led by our American “empire”—could be quite precipitous.
Where Ferguson finds some hope is in the mixture of distinctive components and behaviors (“six killer apps”) that have fostered the West’s rise—competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Not just individually but in combination, he believes, they account for the ascendancy of the West over the “rest” (including China and the Muslim world) during the past six centuries.
Likewise, an acknowledgment of and rededication to the values that underlie these behaviors could buy us time, but it is short. Speaking as an historian and Westerner, he advises not just turning to the lessons of history but returning to our foundational documents. (He applauds the persistence of American religiosity, especially Protestantism, as anchoring our work ethic, but sees little hope for slacker Europeans; as a Brit, presumably he does not include himself in this assessment.)
His is not a rigorously argued case, however. While he devotes chapters to each characteristic, he frequently digresses to other subjects or trends that interest him. Some cases do stick to the intellectual ribs (for example, his account of why Símon Bolívar was not and perhaps could never have been the “Washington” of Latin America, given the failure of imperial Spain to leave behind any republican legacy).
The book’s discursiveness perhaps betrays its co-origination as a documentary, also accounting for his choices of particular, often striking accompanying historical art and photographs.
Ferguson’s knack for colorful turns of phrase also sometimes bares the political prejudices of a closet polemicist. Consider: eugenics, he remarks, “was not some backward-looking reactionary (racist) ideology; the scientifically uneducated embraced it as enthusiastically as people today accept the theory of man-made global warming.”
When Ferguson emphasizes the critical role of respect for individual property rights in the rise of the West (especially with regard to Britain and the United States) he also mentions the rule of law and due process, but he does not place them front and center. And although he outlines the broad advance of the wealth of the American middle class in the twentieth century up until 1979, he does not note that this also somehow coincided with a once steeply progressive income tax, which today’s Tea Partiers would regard as socialistic.
Nor does it seem to occur to him that in light of the lagging of real middle-class wealth since the 1980s, perhaps the idea of effort and reward (not to mention the rationale for inviolate “property” itself) might bear revisiting before our workers wear themselves out spinning their wheels, when they have wheels to spin.
The godfather of property rights, John Locke, posited, “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the Common.”
It is easy to see how Bill Gates and his colleagues and employees created something of tangible worth, justifiably considered “intellectual property,” and meriting reward, when they applied intellect and effort to “nature.” But what of smoke-and-mirror games like securitized mortgage derivatives that almost brought down Western economies but produced enormous wealth for their “inventors”—who continue to function as usual, enabled by their entitled view of private property?
Rather than treating the latter behaviors as requiring any fundamental inquiry, Ferguson seems to see them as simply a dangerous anomaly: “Capitalist competition has been disgraced by the recent financial crisis and the rampant greed of the bankers.” But what if the greed is endemic? What can or should we do? They are fitting questions for the speculative historical inquiry in which the author engages.
While applauding the Protestant work ethic, he takes to task Americans’ failure to save. Yet when the Federal Reserve holds down the prime interest rate—benefiting corporate borrowers even more than home buyers—it also cuts the savings rate of interest. Who then can blame American consumer/savers for investing in homes whose value was in large measure artificially inflated rather than in low-return savings accounts?
Part of our “exceptionalism” as Americans is our cockeyed optimism—even assuming, against growing evidence to the contrary, that our lots will be better than our ancestors’. It is a belief that has propelled us through bad times before. Is it now made naïve by stupid public policy?
Instead of taking a hard look at what all this implies, we continue as a divided people to suffer with a divided government lacking the imagination to address problems with appropriately courageous policy. While China secures natural resources worldwide and invests in its own infrastructure, instead of regrowing our own, we engage in the zero-sum game of cutting spending and refusing to raise taxes even for programs beneficial to all.
Ferguson breezes past that old rhythm-and-blues historian Arnold Toynbee even as he quotes him, but it is sobering that Toynbee might have had it chillingly right when he wrote that civilizations finally commit “suicide” when “leaders stop responding with sufficient creativity to the challenges they face.”
In that light, “Civilization” may serve as a diverting but somehow unsatisfying suicide note. (Martin Northway)
“Civilization: The West and the Rest”
By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press, 432 pages, $35