Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilization’

Guest post by Nathan West*

Civilization: the West and the rest, by Niall Ferguson is a fascinating book, which I wholeheartedly recommend because it offers an original take on the West’s rise to global dominance and an interesting view about what constitutes the biggest threat to Western civilization.

As Professor Ferguson sees things, it was not at all obvious some five hundred years ago that the West – meaning, roughly, the European countries (and now the US and Canada) – would dominate the planet. In fact, China and the Muslim Ottoman Empire were, for a considerable time, both more advanced and more prosperous than Europe. With that in mind, Ferguson sets out to explain how it is that the West came to dominate the world and, having done so, he examines the question whether it can maintain its dominance.

To illustrate China’s impressive achievements, Ferguson discusses, among other factors, Chinese exploration. We learn that in the early 15th century, China built a massive treasure ship, nearly 5 times the size of Columbus’ ship, the Santa María. It was part of a fleet “of more than 300 huge ocean-going junks […which] were far larger than anything being built in fifteenth-century Europe,” with 28,000 man combined crew, thus making China’s navy the largest in the world until the time of World War I. (p. 54). The fleet sailed far and wide “to Thailand, Sumatra, Java and the once-great port of Calicut (today’s Kozhikode in Kerala); to Temasek (later Singapore), Malacca and Ceylon; to Cuttack in Orissa; to Hormuz, Aden and up the Red Sea to Jeddah.” However, when Emperor Yongle died, the voyages were suspended and exploration effectively came to an end. “From 1500, anyone in China found building a ship with more than two masts was liable to the death penalty; in 1551 it became a crime even to go to sea in such a ship.” (p. 54).

China’s technological prowess was not limited to sea exploration. China brought the world printing, among many other useful inventions:

It was the Chinese who first revolutionized textile production with innovations like the spinning wheel and the silk reeling frame, imported to Italy in the thirteenth century. […] Other Chinese innovations include chemical insecticide, the fishing reel, matches, the magnetic compass, playing cards, the toothbrush and the wheelbarrow. […] Jiao Yu and Liu Ji’s book Huolongjing, published in the late fourteenth century, describes land and sea mines, rockets and hollow cannonballs filled with explosives. Even as late as 1788,  British iron-production levels were still lower than those achieved in China in 1078. (p. 52).

Notwithstanding these impressive achievements, China lacked the qualities which, according to Ferguson, allowed the West to eventually dominate China. Since the book is about Europe and the West, China and the Muslim Empires serve mainly as the foil for showing what allowed the West to gain its advantage.

Ferguson’s explanation of the decline of China and the Ottoman Empire highlights the fact that in both countries, society turned inward. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, the clerical class came to dominate, and, in the name of religion, precluded even the use of such inventions as the printing press. By the time the Ottoman Empire came to understand its looming demise, it was too late to salvage the Empire, which collapsed after the Ottoman defeat in WWI.

The role that religion played in the demise of the Ottoman Empire can also be seen in the fact that, while Muslims were not permitted to use the printing press, non-Muslims were permitted to do so – a point Ferguson does not mention. In fact, non-Muslims had been using the printing press from early on, as noted by Bernard Lewis in his brilliant study The Muslim Discovery Of Europe. This innovation was denied to Muslims because the sacred language of Islam, Arabic, used the same characters as the language spoken by Muslims including those we now call Turks. It is also to be noted that the printing press did not spread to the Arab regions – at least for its Muslim population – until the 19th century. For the Arabs, Arabic was the written language and it was the religion’s sacred language. Hence, it was not to be desecrated by the printed page.

To the extent that Ferguson appears to place the bulk of the blame for the decline of the Ottoman Empire (and, to some extent, China) on religion, I think he is surely mistaken, although religion’s impact ought not be underestimated either. As Professor Lewis notes with reference to Islamic civilization, curiosity about the unknown has not been a trait of very many societies throughout history; rather, inward directed societies are the norm in history. Thus, investigation of the unknown is one thing that sets European societies apart from other societies. It is therefore the “normal” lack of curiosity in the Muslim regions, not Islam, that should be regarded as a major reason for the failure of the Islamic world to keep up with the West.

Ferguson, in pointing to internal causes, hopes to undercut the argument that imperialism was the dominant cause for the West’s rise. Obviously, the Ottoman Empire was also an imperial power, as Lewis rightly notes.  Ottoman policy brought their empire to the outskirts of Vienna as late as the 1680s only to be turned back, once and for good, in 1683. After that, it was one humiliating defeat after the next. Importantly, however, the decline of both China and the Ottoman Empire preceded imperial dominance by the West.

Most of Civilization focuses on answering Ferguson’s central question why the West came to dominate the world, and on pages 308 – 309, he presents a short summary of his answers:

Why did the West dominate the Rest and not vice versa? I have argued that it was because the West developed six killer applications that the Rest lacked. These were:

1. Competition, in that Europe itself was politically fragmented and that within each monarchy or republic there were multiple competing corporate entities

2. The Scientific Revolution, in that all the major seventeenth-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology happened in Western Europe

3. The rule of law and representative government, in that an optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private property rights and the representation of property-owners in elected legislatures

4. Modern medicine, in that nearly all the major nineteenth- and twentieth-century breakthroughs in healthcare, including the control of tropical diseases, were made by Western Europeans and North Americans

5. The consumer society, in that the Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments

6. The work ethic, in that Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labour with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.

When Ferguson refers to “the Rest”, he has in mind civilizations other than those associated with European societies, the United States, Canada and Israel. More specifically, he has in mind Asian and Muslim societies and South America although, quite obviously, the rest would also include Africa.

Of the above six “killer applications,” I think that applications 1 and 5 are comparatively original with Ferguson. Application 1 attributes a considerable amount of the fortune of European states to the rivalry among them. The rivalry concerned not only their ongoing disputes, including incessant wars, but also the competition for markets to exploit by, for example, sending ships throughout the world to explore and colonize. Hence, if Spain sent ships out, Portugal needed to do so as well; and so did England and the Dutch. This dynamic also involved a rivalry over learning and technology.

At least in part, this intense rivalry was a product of the size and geography of the various European states. While both China and the Ottoman Empire were large and not in substantial competition with a group of other states of similar civilizational characteristics, European states were small and in close proximity to each other.

Regarding Ferguson’s “killer application 5”, he discusses the consumer society and the rise of consumerism. Interestingly, he points to clothing as particularly important and shows that having more than one set of clothes – including stylish clothing at relatively low cost – mattered. The availability of clothing for the masses improved lives substantially and that was a driving force in building the economic power of the West.

In the case of the West, inventions such as Isaac Merritt Singer’s famous sewing machine proved to be rather important, both economically and socially. Ferguson makes a point of mentioning that Singer was Jewish; indeed, he repeatedly tells us about Jews and their many important contributions. He also highlights unfair writings about Jews. In discussing famed sociologist Max Weber – who regarded Protestant Christianity as a driving force behind capitalism –Ferguson points out Weber’s prejudices. The fact that Jews often excelled as entrepreneurs was something not well explained by Weber’s theory, and Ferguson argues on page 268:

Even more problematic was Weber’s scathing sideswipe at the Jews, who posed the most obvious exception to his argument. The Jews, according to Weber, ‘stood on the side of the politically and speculatively oriented adventurous capitalism; their ethos was . . . that of pariah-capitalism. Only Puritanism carried the ethos of the rational organization of capital and labour.’

Ferguson also writes glowingly (albeit briefly) about Israel (pages 110–111):

Israel, which claims Jerusalem as its capital, is menaced on all sides by Muslim forces that threaten its very existence: Hamas in the occupied territories of Gaza (which it now controls) and the West Bank, Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon, Iran to the east, not forgetting Saudi Arabia. In Egypt and Syria Israelis see Islamists making inroads against secular governments. Even traditionally friendly Turkey is now clearly moving in the direction of Islamism and anti-Zionism, not to mention a neo-Ottoman foreign policy. As a result, many people in Israel feel as threatened as the Viennese did in 1683. The key question is how far science can continue to be the killer application that gives a Western society like Israel an advantage over its enemies.

To an extent that is truly remarkable for such a small country, Israel is at the cutting edge of scientific and technological innovation. Between 1980 and 2000 the number of patents registered in Israel was 7,652 compared with 367 for all the Arab countries combined. In 2008 alone Israeli inventors applied to register 9,591 new patents. The equivalent figure for Iran was fifty and for all majority Muslim countries in the world 5,657. Israel has more scientists and engineers per capita than any other country and produces more scientific papers per capita. As a share of gross domestic product its civilian research and development expenditure is the highest in the world. The German-Jewish banker Siegmund Warburg was not wrong when, at the time of the Six Day War, he compared Israel with eighteenth-century Prussia.

Apart from confusing trademarks – which are registered – with patents – which are granted – Ferguson summarizes here the true story of Israel’s success that is described in Senor’s and Singer’s best-selling book, Start-Up Nation and also in George Gilder’s fascinating book The Israel Test. Gilder has also written an excellent summary of Israel’s technical prowess and its roots, titled Silicon Israel, where he notes:

In under 25 years—starting from those first modest tax reforms of the mid-1980s—Israel has accomplished the most overwhelming transformation in the history of economics, from a nondescript laggard in the industrial world to a luminous first. Today, on a per-capita basis, Israel far leads the world in research and technological creativity. Between 1991 and 2000, even before the big reform of 2005, Israel’s annual venture-capital outlays, nearly all private, rose nearly 60-fold, from $58 million to $3.3 billion; companies launched by Israeli venture funds rose from 100 to 800; and Israel’s information-technology revenues rose from $1.6 billion to $12.5 billion. By 1999, Israel ranked second only to the United States in invested private-equity capital as a share of GDP. And it led the world in the share of its growth attributable to high-tech ventures: 70 percent.

Even a year or two later—while the rest of the world slumped after the millennial telecom and dot-com crash and Israel suffered an acute recession—its venture capitalists strengthened its lead in technological enterprise. During the first five years of the twenty-first century, venture-capital outlays in Israel rivaled venture-capital outlays in all of the United States outside California, long the world’s paramount source of entrepreneurial activity in high technology.

Today, Israel’s tech supremacy is even greater. A 2008 survey of the world’s venture capitalists by Deloitte & Touche showed that in six key fields—telecom, microchips, software, biopharmaceuticals, medical devices, and clean energy—Israel ranked second only to the United States in technological innovation. Germany, ten times larger, roughly tied Israel. In 2008, Israel produced 483 venture-backed companies with just over $2 billion invested; Germany produces approximately 100 venture-backed companies annually. The rankings registered absolute performance, but adjusted for its population, Israel comes in far ahead of all other countries, including the United States.

Such would seem to lay waste to Max Weber’s notions about the Jews. Gilder’s point is similar to that made by Ferguson about Israel; except that Ferguson notes the seemingly obvious (at the time his book was written), viz., that technological prowess is fleeting and that Israel’s lead will, over time, be increasingly challenged by a slowly awakening Arab world. Ferguson’s views about the Arab world were written, it is to be noted, before the so-called Arab Spring. However, it seems more likely to me that, for some time to come, the Arab world will set itself further behind as it sorts out its political problems. And, judging the world today, Ferguson would surely be right on point were he to say that, just now, religion will be the cause that delays the rise of a more modern civilization in the Arab world. That, if nothing else, is what can be expected as the forces of religion come to power in historically significant countries such as Egypt, with a program that seems to look back to medieval times.

But ultimately, Ferguson is writing about today, and he tells us about the past to influence our thinking today. While the bulk of his book focuses primarily on the “killer” applications that enabled the West’s rise to dominance, his real topic is the question whether the West will retain its position. He does not answer the question outright, though he speculates about China’s rise and a looming possible collapse of the West since he thinks that the West’s problems might lead to a sudden unexpected collapse.

It is noteworthy that, in an odd sort of bow to Max Weber, Ferguson notes the dramatic rise in the number of Christians in China over the course of the last twenty years. Perhaps there are even more true believers today among the Chinese than among citizens of the Western European states – a smaller percentage, no doubt. In any event, there is a substantial number of such people among China’s entrepreneurial class; a curious fact, indeed. Despite his reservations about some of Weber’s ideas, Ferguson does see religion – in particular, Protestantism – as having a positive correlation with entrepreneurship and the rise of Western civilization. However, different from Weber, he does not see an exclusive relationship between religion or even Protestantism and capitalism.

According to Ferguson, if China is indeed coming to the fore, it is due to its adoption of Western ways. However, why he sees the rise of China, apart from its dictatorial nature, as a challenge to Western civilization when, in fact, the Chinese are embracing Western ideas, is somewhat mysterious. He seems to forget that it is the “killer” applications, not their location (as the West came to include the US but not South America, on his telling) that is decisive. This is a contradiction that Ferguson has just not thought through sufficiently.

Ferguson certainly fears for the future. The last portion of the book addresses theories about history. He critiques cyclical theories of history and finds them lacking. He also discusses views with which he was associated in the recent past. In a 2004 New York Times article titled Eurabia?, Ferguson wrote:

What the consequences of these changes will be is very difficult to say. A creeping Islamicization of a decadent Christendom is one conceivable result: while the old Europeans get even older and their religious faith weaker, the Muslim colonies within their cities get larger and more overt in their religious observance. A backlash against immigration by the economically Neanderthal right is another: aging electorates turn to demagogues who offer sealed borders without explaining who exactly is going to pay for the pensions and health care. Nor can we rule out the possibility of a happy fusion between rapidly secularized second-generation Muslims and their post-Christian neighbors. Indeed, we may conceivably end up with all three: Situation 1 in France, Situation 2 in Austria and Situation 3 in Britain.

Still, it is hard not to be reminded of Gibbon — especially now that his old university’s Center for Islamic Studies has almost completed work on its new premises. In addition to the traditional Oxford quadrangle, the building is expected to feature ”a prayer hall with traditional dome and minaret tower.”

When I first glimpsed a model of that minaret, I confess, the phrase that sprang to mind was indeed ”decline and fall.”

Ferguson is also quoted on the blurb to Bat Ye’or’s book, Eurabia: the Euro-Arab Axis: “Future historians will one day regard her [i.e. Bat Ye’or’s] coinage of the term ‘Eurabia’ as prophetic.” As he notes in Civilization, there has been a decline in the number of children in Europe. While this is made up for in the labor force, at least in part, by immigration, many of the immigrants come from Muslim countries and include a good number of people who are not Westernizing or are even susceptible to the influence of radical Islamists. However, Ferguson does not view these developments as the cause of the West’s potentially looming demise. Rather, his discussion of Islam in Europe is part of his observations about the decline of religiosity in the West and the argument that religiosity – and, in particular, Christianity –contributes to spur enterprise and capitalism.

As a specific theory of the decline of civilizations, Ferguson believes that theories which posit the probability of an event – like the probability of a magnitude 7 earthquake on the Richter Scale (e.g. a once-in-100- years event for, say, Los Angeles) –  provide a better model. In this theory, a single event, not a slow decline (as sometimes associated with the fall of the Roman Empire), might remove the equilibrium that holds a civilization together. So, one might say there is a possibility of a once-in-a-thousand-years event whereby Western civilization would come crashing down. Yet, with the rise of China, which is based largely upon its own and Asia’s adoption of many of the “killer” applications of Western civilization, a dark age seems hardly likely to be on the horizon.

It is difficult to critique a general theory of the demise of civilization. Not only would one need to be a master historian to address the relevant issues in order to explain the demise of past civilizations, but there is surely insufficient evidence upon which a historian or anyone else might build anything but an ad hoc theory to explain or, better still, predict a civilization’s collapse. Today, the West might seem in danger of collapsing, with possible scenarios including a slow, steady decline due to inadequate economic growth, population decline, the migration of hostile populations in search of employment, a decline in work ethics or various other factors discussed in Civilization. Some unexpected once-in-a-thousand-years event might push the West over the cliff, so to speak. Perhaps, however, we are experiencing temporary problems, due to temporary economic woes and rapid changes all around. While China’s civilization appears to be on the rise, this is likely due its adoption of Western ideas; yet, China, like Japan today, might experience stagnation, which is a possibility Ferguson himself acknowledges.

Rather than worry about such matters and the validity of Ferguson’s theories – which is surely the weak spot of the book – there is still much worth reading in Civilization. The book provides a useful analysis of what helped Western civilization to flower and prosper. By that measure, Civilization is a phenomenal success, whether or not Ferguson’s analysis is correct in all of its details. The book offers plenty of interesting material to make it well worth your time, and I thus wholeheartedly recommend it.

One of the most provocative aspects of Ferguson’s book is surely that it praises the positive attributes of imperialism. This reminded me of Ibn Warraq’s excellent book Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. While Warraq does not advocate imperialism or colonialism, his point is that some good came from imperialism and that the motives of those involved were sometimes altruistic and beneficial – at least if one accepts the proposition that Westerners ought not be excluded from addressing what ails non-Westerners. On Warraq’s telling, the West made great contributions, backed by individuals with a genuine interest in learning about and understanding non-Western societies. Ferguson seems to go further, noting important advances for non-Western societies that could arguably cast imperialism in a beneficial, albeit still problematic, light.

At the same time, Ferguson does not ignore dark chapters, such as what the Germans and Belgians did in Africa; though the British and French, on Ferguson’s telling, were quite a bit less blood-thirsty. Moreover, Ferguson asserts that WWI was an outgrowth, in part, of European imperial policy, with the harsh tactics used in Africa impacting on how the Europeans fought. And, of course, in WWII, Germany had practice at genocidal policies and even concentration type camps it had built in Africa. One might add, as argued in The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus, by Vahakn N. Dadrian, that Germany’s behavior in WWII was in part related to its support of the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal treatment of the Armenians – and, of course, the “lessons” that could be learned from this conduct, including the failure of anyone to hold accountable those who were responsible. No matter how Ferguson tries to rationalize these grave developments, they clearly undermine any attempts to view imperialism in a positive light.

Last but not least, it is noteworthy that Ferguson’s book ends with an important point (p.  326):

In 1938 those barbaric and atavistic forces were abroad, above all in Germany. Yet, as we have seen, they were as much products of Western civilization as the values of freedom and lawful government that Churchill held dear. Today, as then, the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.

Indeed, it is for us to make or destroy our civilization. And, while not said by Ferguson, the effort spent by many on maligning Israel, which is driven in part by historical ignorance, in part by bigotry and in part by our cowardice in the face of such ignorance and bigotry, serves the enemies of Western civilization. It does not have to be that way.

* * *

*Nathan West is the pen name of an attorney who wishes to keep his identity private.

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