THE ACTUAL REVIEW AS OPPOSED TO THE COMPLAINT ABOUT THE TITLE
Niall Ferguson is exhausting. He leaps, darts, pirhouettes, swandives, uses statistics as Molotov cocktails, he quotes, he hectors, he nudges, he booms, he hollers, he balances, he bulldozes, his book is like 500 years of history considered as a switchback ride, most of which is spent upside down going at 120 miles per hour.
The argument of this book is clear. NF wishes to explain why the West dominated the Rest for the last 500 years, and then ask if the West's time is now up. He identifies six features of western civilisation as essential. Here they are.
1. Competition. At the beginning of this story, in 1500, the Western European territories were occupied by a nasty bunch of uneducated murderous louts who would have cut your throat for a ducat but who died of plague before they found their cuirass. Over in the East there were the empires of China and Ottomania which had the science and the tourist attractions. It was clear where civilisation was. But then Westerners discovered the New World and some really violent Portuguese merchant adventurers began creating havoc, followed by Spanish and English versions of the same. Urgent competition broke out between the petty European states. At the same time China stopped trading with the outside world and declined Western approaches.
And this is often how it goes in this book – yes, this outbreak of early colonising fervour in South America and elsewhere was vital to what came next, as was China's inward-turning. Exactly why
these things happened remains obscure.
2. Science. Christianity accepted a church/state division of power –God and Caesar, the pope and the emperor, spirit and matter – and this allowed a secular science to eventually flourish, once Gutenberg had re-invented printing. In contrast, Islam recognised no such division. Science had flourished under Islam but just at the time Western scientists were freed by printing Muslim theologians were successfully shutting down science in Islam. In 1515 Sultan Selim threatened anyone using a printing press with the death penalty. In the 1570s a scientist Taqi al-Din , who designed astronomic clocks and experimented with steam power, got permission to build an observatory. It was the equal of the famous Tycho Brahe's observatory in Denmark. On 11 October 1577 a comet was sighted over Istanbul. They asked Taqi for an interpretation. He said it prophesied a great Muslim military victory. Theologians then said to the sultan that such peering into heavens and prophesying was blasphemous. In 1580 the sultan ordered the observatory to be abolished. End of Islamic astronomy.
This translates to the following statistic – between 1980 and 2000 the number of patents registered in Israel was 7,652. The number of patents registered in all Arab countries for the same period was 367.
3. Property. The history of North and South America provides us with a perfect experiment to see which economic system – the Spanish/Portuguese or the British – worked better. Why did South America not become the economic superpower that the USA did? Because, says NF, of property rights, followed by the rule of law, followed by representative government. Which the North got and the South didn't.
Imagine if Britain had discovered Mexico and Peru and had captured their gold and silver instead of the Spanish. Then the British monarch would have had this vast source of private wealth which would have freed him from dependence on Parliament to vote him his tax revenue. The importance of Parliament itself would therefore have dwindled. Democracy would never have got going. Gold and silver killed democracy in Spain and Portugal.
Labour was scarce in North America and plentiful in the South. Emigrants to North America were given land if they were freemen or if (as most were) they were indentured servants, they could work off their indenture in five or six years, and then be granted land. In South America the Crown owned all the land and simply granted the rights to exploit it to a small conquistador class who immediately turned into the idle rich. They did not plant and farm, as in the north.
The North American Revolution created a federal republic . The South had their revolution 40 years later yet this consigned the whole area to 200 years of division, instability and underdevelopment.
4. Medicine. NF says that imperialism was not all bad – look at the war waged by the colonialists against tropical disease. But some of it was absolutely awful. This chapter was actually a survey of Western imperialism in Africa, and I discovered the story of German Namibia. Here's a great review of the book NF used for this part of the story :http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
4. Consumption. Unlike modern medicine, which was often imposed by force on Western colonies, the consumer society is a killer application the rest of the world has generally yearned to download.
(What's that sound – could it be Gibbon and Macauley spinning in their graves?)
Here we run into another conundrum as we read about the remarkable explosion of human activity called the Industrial revolution, which began in Britain, spread to Europe and then north America. In one century, say 1750-1850, everything went off the charts – factories appeared, population doubled and trebled, wages increased, workers abandoned the countryside for the cities, appetites were discovered and attended to, such as the insatiable desire for clothes and crockery, and in general the idea came about that everyone gets rich if everyone can afford to buy the stuff and then work more and earn more to buy more stuff from more factories, and as we know, this tendency has not stopped, the gadgets and must haves have kept on a-coming, so the name of this chapter is consumption, which is also the name of a disease.
Is this the shape of the Industrial Revolution? :
World's largest cities : in 1800 seven out of ten were in Asia. Peking was bigger than London. In 1900 only one was Asian, all the rest European or American. In 2012 seven out of ten are Asian again. Only one European/North American (New York).
Ferguson lurches ever more hectically from one topic to another as the book proceeds – talking about the post-World War One period he goes from national self-determination to the Bolshevik Revolution to Fascism to the US economy to Hollywood movies to Duke Ellington to Federal banking policies to Keynes to the USSR to the nude in Western art all between pages 227 and 232.
5. Work. NF says it was Protestantism's work-and-save ethic which built up the capital which created the powerful economies in the West. I did not get how frugality, working all the hours and saving co-existed with the consumerism whose demands also created the powerful economies. It seemed a contradiction. But this is what NF is like, by the time you're formulating an objection to the points he slings out right and left, he's off onto something else.
NF gets some kind of prize for the most ridiculously eclectic pop-cultural referencing to be found in a modern history book. Quoting from The Hombres' 1967 single "Let it All Hang Out" he footnotes that the song was later covered by Jonathan King, who is "also noteworthy for having produced 'Leap Up and Down (Wave Your Knickers in the Air)'". From Immanuel Kant to Jonathan King in one book.
And finally :
NF dismisses the conventional notion that civilisations begin, bloom, fade and die in a cyclical manner, slowly, over centuries. He says the USSR is actually the model - civilisations can actually disappear within a decade. Happened to the Incas, happened to the Ming dynasty, various others too.
So, yes, it could happen to "the West" - but since the world had now downloaded our killer apps, whoever takes over from the West, if they ever do, will already be as Western as makes no never mind.
After sounding like another library-snorting Jeremiah to add to our collection, he ends with a sardonically raised eyebrow.
THE PREVIOUS COMPLAINT ABOUT THE TITLE
What was it someone was saying about everything being dumbed down
these days? Look no further, my friends, look no further, should you be seeking proof. I ordered this new history book about the rise of the West and when I ordered it, it was called Civilization : The West and The Rest
but when I unwrapped the paperback version, lo! it's been retitled :Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power
O Niall Ferguson, should I ever encounter you in a public place, I will mock you.
- I've now uploaded the cover so you can shake your skinny fists towards heaven and curse along with me.