The Sun Sets in the West
Civilization: The West and the Rest
Allen Lane, 2011
Sometimes it seems that Niall Ferguson cares as much about asking the interesting question as he does about finding the right answer. With Civilization, he has settled on “the most interesting question a historian of the modern era can ask”: how did the West come to rule the globe for the last 500 years, and as a “subsidiary” query, is the party now over? Except the latter anxiety isn’t really subsidiary; it’s what makes the first question so important and Ferguson’s answer so compelling. Bracketing his narrative of Western ascendance with two powerful Chinas, Ferguson declares that we are now living through “the end of 500 years of western predominance”. If we care at all for the achievements of Western civilisation—capitalism, science, the rule of law, and democracy—then we must improve our “understanding of, and faith in, our own cultural heritage.” This is a triumph of didactic, popular history. We should be thankful that we have someone of Ferguson’s talents to bring history to the masses, but glad that he is not our only prophet of the past.
There is no denying that historical perspective is vital, if only to remind us that we’ve all been here before. Samuel P. Huntington, another great theorist of civilisations, once noted that the theme of “America’s decline” had haunted American political culture since Sputnik, through Vietnam, the 1973 oil shock, and the Cold War (to which we can now add 9/11 and the financial crash). On this side of the Atlantic, it was the interwar period that witnessed a deluge of declinist treatises, among them Sigmund Freud’s Civilisation and Its Discontents, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, and Leonard Woolf’s Barbarians at the Gate. Contemporary anxieties of entropy and collapse found expression in the universal narratives of the rise and fall of civilisations. In a 1931 radio broadcast, speculating on the approaching calamity, the historian Arnold Toynbee morbidly enthused: “we are convinced that our precipice is anyhow going to be the greatest fall of man there has ever been – a very Niagara … The crash of Modern Civilisation! Why, that will lick creation!”
Like Toynbee, Ferguson does not shy away from preaching his sermon from as many platforms as possible. Where Toynbee embraced Broadcasting House and the affordable paperback, today’s TV Don is as comfortable in a newspaper column or in front of the camera as he is in his several university seats. He writes in the preface of his “uneasy feeling” that “people currently living [are] paying insufficient attention to the dead.” He laments the fact that his children are “learning less history than I had at their age”, for which he blames school courses that value “the formulaic analysis of document excerpts” over the great narratives of the past. Paraphrasing Alan Bennett, he complains that today’s young historians “get a handful of ‘fucking things’ in no particular order.”
As an alternative, Ferguson identifies the “six killer applications”—competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society, and work ethic—that allowed the West to dominate the world for 500 years, and organises his chapters accordingly. This format, it soon becomes clear, is as much about Ferguson’s de haut en bas flirt with the iPhone generation as it is about fitting neatly into a broadcasting schedule.
Such pandering is to be expected and indeed commended, given Ferguson’s earnest commitment to enlightened public discourse. The applications are a nice gimmick, but his attempt to cram 500 years of history into this rigid structure often leaves the impression of not getting quite what you downloaded. The French Revolution and imperialism are both crammed into the chapter on medicine in an attempt to argue that “the original French civilising mission had been based on the idea of universal citizenship.” A wonderfully ambitious chapter on consumption encompasses the Industrial Revolution, 19th-century nationalism, and a jaunty romp through Europe’s 20th century of conflict and revolt, all woven together with a fascinating parable on the economic importance of a decent pair of jeans. Although Ferguson’s “grand narrative” is good fun, you are often left turning the pages the wrong way to find out how you’ve gone from reading about John Lennon to Sigmund Freud in a chapter about work ethic.
If Ferguson is to be excused this structural sloppiness it is because of an engaging and combative prose style. True to his Glaswegian roots, he is not shy of confrontation. Marx is dismissed as an “odious individual” because he sired an illegitimate son and scrounged off Engels, “for whom socialism was an evening hobby, along with fox-hunting and womanising.” Rousseau’s The Social Contract, a book that sought to establish the legitimacy of political authority, is condemned as “among the most dangerous books Western civilization ever produced” because it undermined, well, political authority.
Through Ferguson’s patchy objectivity-filter slips the odd political polemic. To go with his broadsides against “New History” is an outburst at “governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for taxing our incomes and our wealth and wasting a large portion of the proceeds.” Worse still are the endless forced puns and attempted witty inversions—invariably clumsy summaries of complex points, intended, no doubt, to be delivered on screen in wry pseudo-scotch brogue, eyebrow raised, sending the weary watcher off to the latest ad break.
This forced humour is grating and inappropriate; Ferguson’s writing and ideas are engaging enough without halting word play (“the Sceptic Isle”; “the Protestant word ethic”; “warnography”). On one page alone, during an interesting comparison between a godless Europe and a God-fearing America, Ferguson makes two such infuriating quips (“America was both born again and porn again”; “Now it’s not your kicks you get on Route 66 – it’s your crucifix”). This isn’t so much the West and the rest; it’s the West and the jest.
For all his idiosyncrasies, Ferguson provides a convincing narrative of Western ascendancy. Customary use of counterfactuals and comparisons (“Why, in short, was Bolívar not the Latin Washington?”) invites reflection on the relative contribution of each app to Western domination, and generally, agreement with his fundamental argument. First and foremost an economic historian, he is at his best when writing about money and power.
Which, as it turns out, he does for the majority of the whole book. Ferguson is the modern paragon of EH Carr’s historian-as-fisherman; he casts his rod in the waters of the rich and the famous, and comes up with some prize catches. The contention that Africa’s colonial subjugation was “as much the achievement of the mission school, the telegraph office and the laboratory as of the Maxim gun” chimes with 19th-century propagandists of empire, but they are not the only fish in the sea. His admittedly limited justification of imperialism has merits, but it relies heavily on statistics that prove the benefits of medicine for indigenous life expectancy and combating smallpox. What of the other killer apps of Western civilisation, such as self-determination and property rights, which were forcibly denied these “resterners”?
Ferguson is too good a historian to have overlooked the narratives that are absent from this book. They were simply not part of the story of the West that he wanted to tell. He is aware that his version of events reflects the biases of “the archetypal beneficiary of Western predominance”, and doesn’t really care in any case. The result is an assiduously researched, eloquent defence of Western values that will inform and entertain the general reader and occasionally infuriate the specialist.
But the practice of history isn’t just about cracking the odd joke and asking the interesting questions; it is also about challenging authority and gaining a sense of perspective. For the generation of Toynbee, Spengler, and Freud, the barbarians at the gates were the recent experience and real threat of unprecedented warfare and the rise of European fascism; Ferguson’s demons are a crisis of capitalism and “the ascending Chinese dragon”. These are not trivial concerns, but before Ferguson charms us all into his fight for Western civilisation, we should ask whether this is the only narrative of the last 500 years, and remember that civilisation has been here at least once before.
Ollie Cussen graduated in 2010 with an MPhil in Political Theory from Pembroke College, Oxford.