Friday 23 March 2018

Review: Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson

Allen Lane, €29.99, Hardback

Niall Ferguson combines a history chair at Harvard with a commitment to popularising the subject through television, writing the hugely successful Ascent of Money, as well as fronting the accompanying small-screen version.

His new book accompanies a series which begins tomorrow night on Channel Four and the title is a conscious echo of Kenneth Clark's famous Civilisation programmes, first broadcast 40 years ago on the BBC and a popular repeat for decades thereafter.

The patrician Clark was promptly dubbed 'Lord Clark of Civilisation' for his pains and his focus was narrow. Civilisation meant, in the main, the high culture of the West as then understood: sculpture, music, architecture.

Ferguson is less likely to be mistaken for an establishment toff and has yet to suffer at the hands of the satirists. His conception of civilisation is broader, his canvas the Rest as well as the West and the Glasgow accent has survived in an intelligible variant.

The 'book-of-the-series' often connotes sketchy coffee-table offerings with lots of pictures. Not this time, however. Ferguson has produced a standalone effort at Big History which would find lots of readers had there been no accompanying TV show.

He seeks to explain the fluctuating fortunes of the world's great civilisations, against the backdrop of the contemporary obsession with the decline of the West (Europe and North America, roughly) and the arrival of the Asian century.

World history, as taught when I was at school, was a pretty linear and European affair. It went like this. Long, long ago, there were sophisticated folks called Greeks and Romans who were the only occupants of the ancient world. But they screwed up and there was a Dark Age.

Happily some of their best books were preserved by holy monks in Ireland and Scotland. These medieval monks were Catholics. Christopher Columbus then discovered the US, which was unoccupied.

The English discovered Africa and India, occupied by pagans who were exploited for their own good. Ireland was denied its fair share because the English always behaved badly towards Ireland. The Scots and Welsh had no hand in any of this because they are Celts.

Along the way the English discovered coal and steam engines, became rich, caused the Famine and eventually went away, at which point history came to an end, to be followed by news. There were doubtless Dutch, French, German, Portugese and Spanish versions of the same story, which did not feature non-white people at all until the 19th century, because they had not been discovered.

I have no idea what Irish schoolchildren are taught today, but I hope it covers more of a Ferguson-style canvas. Until about the 1600s, Europe was, in world terms, a pretty backward corner of Eurasia.

The most sophisticated civilisation was in China. The Islamic world had just commenced its long decline having outshone its Christian neighbours for several centuries, and there were several advanced civilisations in the Americas. The dominance of the West is recent, has lasted only a few centuries and may be over.

As China becomes a great power, this should be seen as a return to the natural order of things rather than as some amazing and unforeseeable shock. The sudden and decisive emergence of Europe as the leader, along with its ungrateful North American ex-colonies, of the modern world has been attributed to causes as diverse as the scientific revolution, the technology of shipping, fortunate location, a more business-friendly religion and greater competition between micro-states.

The mystery is how China, on every available metric the most advanced civilisation about the year 1500 (more urbanised, richer, better technology), fell away and yielded economic and cultural dominance without a fight as the modern world created itself in Europe's image.

To a degree, China was in the wrong place to exploit the riches of the new hemisphere -- the Pacific is just much wider than the Atlantic. But China's Confucian rulers seem to have chosen an inward-looking strategy over the option of colonising, by force or trade, the rest of Asia and the Indian Ocean. They could have built an empire but chose not to.

Europe's rise owed much to the export of diseases fatal to indigenous cultures in the 16th-18th centuries, especially to the Americas, and in East Asia persisted through the 20th century with the successful export of communism. Without these, the Aztec, Inca and Maya cultures in the earlier period and China in the 20th century could perhaps have successfully resisted the West.

What comes next will hardly be a rise to dominance of Asia in mirror-image of the rise of the West since the middle of the last millennium. The West and its technology have incorporated the Rest in an economic and political system which is irrevocably global.

Colm McCarthy lectures in economics at UCD

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