Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Civilization and Its Contents – an evening with Niall Ferguson

The topicality of Niall Ferguson’s books possesses an uncanny - bordering on conspiratorial prescience - quality. As with Colossus and the war in Iraq and the Ascent Of Money following publication after the 2008 financial crisis, Civilization dances in concert with the events of the Euro Zone crisis in Athens and Rome as well as the increasing sense that ‘the West’ led by the United States is on a relative decline vis-à-vis Asia. Ferguson, whose is as able a public speaker as a weaver of grand narratives from seemingly disparate sources, made a teasing allusion to this very timing as he opened the post-festival session at a packed audience at Southminster United Church.


The very premise that Ferguson poses needs to be underscored: why is it that a group of countries on the western corner of the Eurasian landmass, come to dominate the ‘rest’ of the world in the past 500 years? The very telling of a grand narrative, especially clothed in the supposed derisive clothing and viewpoint of success tends to elicit a collective pooh-poohing from Western intelligentsia (interestingly, this self-denigration also seems to be a very ‘Western’ phenomenon. Many Indians, Arabs and Chinese often don’t feel an inkling of shyness in touting their respective civilizations contributions to the world). Ferguson’s approach is to first address why this supremacy occurred. Many vexed discussions have already taken place on instances of European colonization’s injurious effects. However, an analysis as to the evident ascent or the “great divergence”; which was not at all evident in the late fifteenth century, is of greater utility. As Ferguson explains in his preface


This is not a history of the West but a history of the world, in which Western dominance is the phenomenon to be explained...No serious writer would claim that the reign of Western Civilization was unblemished. Yet there are those who would insist that there was nothing whatever good about it. This position is absurd...We must also resist the temptation to romanticize history’s losers.


While many commentators have blithely (and obligatorily it seems) dismissed his use of the term “killer apps” as uncouth, it does appear on sustained reflection as a rather robust yet elastic analogy in that “apps” appear straightforward whilst simultaneously being a multi-factorial and complex code of software. Besides, while his teenage children may yet have to slough through his fairly demanding book, the accessibility of his oral presentation and TV program win the day with their clarity. These apps, responsible for the sudden paradigm shift, are competition, property rights, the rule of law, science, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.  


While the approach is different from Kenneth Clark’s classic Civilisation from the late 1960s (Ferguson’s first history book) with its fixation on art and architecture, Ferguson is more interested in the factors which directly led to the material prosperity of common citizens. Art and architecture after all are the visible expressions of a civilization, not its sinews.       


The app of internal competition is of note since Europe was far from monolithic the way the Chinese Ming dynasty or the successive medieval caliphates and the later Ottoman Empire were. The fragmented nature of different regional city-states meant that there was a great deal of localised autonomy of not only in government, but also amongst the active mercantile class. This meant that the search for greater access to desired goods à la “the spice race” spurred an intense innovation which was rooted in this internal competition. In contrast, the large centralizing authority in China for instance, was what cancelled the great naval captain Cheng He’s voyages after the death of Emperor Yongle. As Ferguson states


From 1500, anyone in China found building a ship with more than two masts were liable to the death penalty; in 1551 it became a crime to even go to sea in such a ship.


This scenario would be impossible in Europe where no reigning monarch, not even the Holy Roman Emperor could limit, let alone prohibit overseas exploration. In Shusaku Endo’s seminal novel ‘Silence’ set in 16th century Japan, the only ostensibly fictional Father Rodrigues - a Portuguese Jesuit priest writes, “The feudal lord (in Japan) has unlimited power over his people, much more than any king in a Christian country...the landowner has absolute power...and he can kill at will anyone he does not like and confiscate all his property.” (William Johnston translation from the Japanese).


The second aspect, if one uses the Endo quote as a launch-pad, is the primacy of the rule of law which guaranteed property rights which was not subject to arbitrary appropriation by anyone wielding power. Some of the more pointed criticism of Ferguson on property rights has been on the dishonouring of land treaty agreements in the Americas between European and Aboriginals. The discussion of property rights in the context of current Native Americans, the reserve system and the problems these communities face merit serious discussion, but it would need far more space that this column allows. The distinction of the economic success of the British influenced North America which extended property rights and the southern Spanish and Portuguese colonies which did not, is clear. Ferguson goes to great detail in this chapter of the book as to what could have happened had the properties colonized by the respective powers were reversed and his conclusion that it was indeed “widely distributed property rights and democracy” (which was embedded in the notion that owning property led to rise of representative government) of the British which proved superior to the “concentrated wealth and authoritarianism” of the Spanish and Portuguese. Indeed, Brazil’s current rise is tied to the reforms of property laws in that country.


It is also in this chapter where Ferguson dissects the impact of slavery in both societies. As host Adrian Harewood would open with this very question in his interview and discussion, Ferguson notes that slavery itself was not one of the 6 apps because while it did lead to a level of profit for the exploiters, it was not a novel phenomenon: many other societies practiced it without experiencing the “great divergence”. He would go on to say that it may have even be


Far from being indispensable to its success, slavery and segregation were handicaps to American development...


While it is a “great stain” on Western Civilization, it alone couldn’t account as distinguishing feature contributing to Western dominance.


The Scientific Revolution does owe a great debt to medieval Islamic empires which not only preserved classical Greek and Roman texts but also produced much original contribution. However, the advent of modern science was a Western European phenomenon. The advent of the printing press (which the Ottoman Empire banned for over two centuries) and the openness to texts and information buoyed the spread and rooting of knowledge. One of the key components of this advantage was the translation of this knowledge into military advantage. It seems almost certain that with the decline in the education of science and while the rest of the world’s progress is apace, it is far from certain how long this edge will endure.


The consumer society (while sounding pejorative) was and is essential in ensuring that the Industrial Revolution actually occurred. Without demand, especially starting with the mechanised production of textiles, the need for industrialization in other areas would likely not have occurred. A very vivid anecdote as presented by Ferguson was how the Soviet planned economy seemed incapable of producing blue jeans which many of its citizens wanted. Ferguson further extrapolates this point in stating that the backlash against Western clothes in places such as Turkey and post-revolutionary Iran as indicators of deeper loathing of the symbolism they embody (pun intended).


The final app of the work ethic has been one espoused by Max Weber in his study of the American Midwest where the now famous “Protestant work ethic”. While this is indeed tied to religious faith – where a modern day equivalent would be the numerous Chinese Christian entrepreneurs who’d prefer to deal with their coreligionists – Christianity and its Protestant variant alone is deems insufficient to fully account as a change, according to Ferguson. For Christianity was indeed present in Europe long before the 15th century, and yet much of it was the Dark Ages. Ferguson does admit that the decline of religion in Europe did coincide with the decline of working hours. In the United States, religious observance seems to continue unabated – perhaps a reason being that no one denomination was from the nation’s inception, monopolized; again bringing the app of competition into the religious marketplace. While Ferguson would later impishly pronounce that religion as a factor “is not that important”, he sounds as if he doesn’t fully mean it. While professing to be an atheist, Ferguson displays remarkable fluency in the practices and phenomenon of religiosity. This is a topical concern in China, where a growing Christian population leaves the Communist leadership unsure as to how it relates to their position of authority. Post-Maoist China requires an ethical framework, and religion does appear to lend it structure to fill this need quite ably. A follow-up question which is equally pertinent is whether economic liberalization leads to political liberalization as well. Family structures while important, do not seem to be a standalone factor as well since for every Cosby Show and Leave It To Beaver, there’s Sicily and Somalia.


Ultimately, it’s the rule of law which can’t be imitated or mimicked in a sustained manner without a commitment to ethics and liberty. This is the app which emerges as the ‘X factor’.  


While being accused by more than a few of imperialistic snobbery Ferguson in fact hardly what caricatures often make of him. His provision of bewildering detail from many angles is surprising not only as it evinces circumspection but in how he manages to not come across as convoluted but cogent. The latest controversy involves a spat with Pankaj Mishra whose essay in the London Review of Books casts a sweeping, caustic stroke. While sandwiching a review with quotations from F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby evinces literary sophistication, it does little in contributing to the conversation of the shifts that are taking place, especially as it seems to come from a worldview espousing any concession to ‘Western’ beneficence as heresy.   


It’s important to note that Ferguson’s narrative is not triumphalist. These apps are ideas which are surprisingly “open sourced”. Indeed, the first country to ‘download’ then en masse was Japan and even with the set-back of its defeat in WWII, it still overtook the UK’s overall GDP in 1964. The path blazed by Japan is now teeming with many others, notably India, China and Brazil with Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Chile and Russia all not too far behind. Ferguson does admit that this means that the overall dominance of the West after its run of 500 years is coming to a close. But it would seem a certain folly to delete the apps that made the West successful while others eagerly download it.  


Far from prophesying that the current trends as inexorable (“I am not proclaiming a Chinese century”) Ferguson’s work instead is a paean to the notion that nothing need be inevitable. That economic and civilizational emaciation can be reversed. That it is institutions bereft of corruption composed in promoting the aforementioned killer apps which are consequential. That historical literacy, along with a renewed vigour based not on false hope, but on what has worked before, and what continues to work, need to be embraced and practiced. If we try.