Just why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?
I’ve always been a sucker for big history told through the lens of big arguments. Like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Robinson and Acemoglu’s Why Nation’s Fail, Niall Ferguson stretches over centuries of history to argue his version of how the modern world was made. Specifically, he argues that the rise of the West over the past 500 years can be explained by six unique factors:
- Competition – a decentralization of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for both nation-states and capitalism.
- Science – a way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over “the Rest.”
- Property rights – the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government.
- Medicine – a branch of science that allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies.
- The consumer society – a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable.
- The work ethic – a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5.
There is something unsettling about Ferguson, the chauvinistic apologist of European colonialism who married Africa’s greatest critic of Islam. While he echoes many of the same arguments made in Why Nations Fail, such as the difference in property rights between North and Latin America, he makes no effort to counter Robinson and Acemoglu’s thoroughly researched argument that European colonialism was the prime cause of “extractive institutions” throughout the developing world. Nor does he take into consideration Jared Diamond’s compelling arguments that natural factors, such as Europe’s fertile soil and disease immunity, gave the region a head start toward industrialization and modernity. Nor, for that matter, does he adequately counter Samuel Huntington’s “Great Divergence,” which argues that the West emerged as the clear global leader only in the 19th century (for Ferguson the divergence began back in the 16th century with the proliferation of the printing press and the reformation).
Ferguson is far from an objective historian. He doesn’t just make an argument as to why the West has been the dominant global force over the past 500 years; he also makes an impassioned plea to continue studying Western Civilization at a time when many scholars argue convincingly that academia should reach past the hegemony of Eurocentrism. He is concerned that Western Civilization doesn’t have a foundational text in the same sense that Islamic Civilization (“the cult of submission,” he claims) has the Koran, Hindu Civilization has the Vedas, and Chinese Civilization has the teachings of Confucius. He criticizes academics who claim that “imperialism is the root cause of nearly every modern problem.” Indeed, he dedicates a not-minor portion of the book to celebrate the positive aspects of imperialism, insisting that the “Western package still seems to offer human societies the best available set of economic, social and political institutions – the ones most likely to unleash the individual human creativity capable of solving the problems the twenty-first century world faces.”
The second half of the book feels as if it were rushed to meet a deadline. Both the writing and the argumentation become sloppy. He goes off on historical tangents that have little to do with the alleged argument of the chapter. It’s as if he had a burning desire to share his thoughts on Napoleon with his readers, but didn’t know where to fit it in. Still, the book is an enjoyable and accessible compilation of big history stretching across centuries and continents. And it’s filled with fascinating trivia tidbits.
It’s a strange sensation to read a persuasive book by an author who you want to punch in the face. (Last year he suggested that John Maynard Keynes was not able to imagine the future because he was gay.) And yet there is something compelling about both his arguments and his form of argumentation. As William Skidelsky wrote in his review:
Ferguson’s self-confidence – which, if it wasn’t accompanied by considerable charm, might be downright insufferable – is no doubt partly a matter of temperament. But it also has something to do with the kind of historian he is. His approach to the past is overwhelmingly materialistic. Questions of right and wrong, or indeed of personality and psychology, don’t appear to preoccupy him greatly. What gets him going is hard data, facts and figures – the stuff, in other words, that is most measurable (and, by extension, provable).
His arrogance is appalling, but his method is appealing. Despite the many flaws that Pankaj Mishra points out in his review of Civilization, I will probably continue to read Ferguson books in the future, always with the temptation to punch him in the face.