Friday 24 November 2017

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

Published by Allen Lane in the UK £25

James Pressley

'CIVILISATION' is a brawny study of how the West came to dominate the globe over 500 years. This might sound like an odd theme to trumpet amid China's relentless rise and America's descent into financial purgatory. In truth, the timing makes it a must read.

Niall Ferguson is aware that the West risks going the way of Rome. Civilisations, he argues, are complex and asymmetrically organised systems -- operating between order and disorder, they can look stable then suddenly collapse, like a sand castle.

The West rose, he argues, because it developed six overpowering advantages as its rivals grew weak: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.

Ferguson takes us on an ambitious and engaging tour, showing Portuguese sailors rounding the Cape of Good Hope, conquistadors plundering Latin America, and Britons reaching North America as indentured servants.

By "competition", Ferguson means the decentralisation of political and economic life that motivated hundreds of European states to seek opportunities in distant lands, invent military technologies and break financial barriers. Ships became flying fortresses, Italians experimented with new forms of government borrowing, and the Dutch cooked up joint-stock companies.

"Being divided themselves," Ferguson writes, "Europeans were able to rule the world."

Rulers promoted science to safeguard national interests. Thus, Frederick the Great was quick to commission a German translation of a groundbreaking work on ballistics by Benjamin Robins of the East India Company. Robins recommended that gun barrels should be rifled and bullets egg-shaped.

Chinese and Islamic innovators, who gave us breakthroughs including movable type and algebra, were meanwhile stifled as their civilisations turned inward.

Ferguson is at his best when exploring how property rights bolster economic success. Here we find a cogent explanation for why North America became a powerhouse while Latin America laboured under poverty and inequality. Iberians came as elites bent on extracting gold; Britons arrived as settlers hungry for land and imbued with powerful ideas about how people should rule themselves -- through property rights protected by representative government.

On medicine, Ferguson is less persuasive, partly because his chapter on the subject digresses.

The author slips back into his narrative groove with the birth of the consumer society -- the magical spot where worker and consumer become one and the same -- and the work ethic, the Protestant marriage of hard labour and thrift.

Protestantism is now mushrooming in China, home to the world's biggest Bible printer, Ferguson says. That may offer a clue to the West's future.

"The biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilisations," he concludes, "but by our own pusillanimity -- and by the historical ignorance that feeds it."

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