Niall Ferguson’s credentials to write the history of the world’s civilisations —according to him, there have been “two dozen civilisations over the last ten millennia” but only five survive: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Islamic and Western—are not just impeccable, they are intimidating. An Englishman, he is one of the world’s most eminent historians, and has two professorships at Harvard, at the University and Business School; three senior fellowships at Oxford, London School of Economics, and Stanford, plus sundry other academic distinctions. Equally astounding is the number of books with such sprightly titles as Ascent of Money, The War of the World and The World’s Banker that he has published, all before the age of 46. For more reasons than one, it is necessary to add that four of his books are also popular TV series. His latest, Civilization: The West and the Rest is also as big a success on the small screen as it is a best-seller.
No wonder, Civilization is an eminently readable book, written in powerful, if challenging prose, and full of a mass of vivid and vital details. It is also a remarkable achievement to be able to telescope the complex history of no fewer than five centuries into less than 400 pages. That said, two principal weaknesses of the book must also be pointed out. First, Ferguson’s concept of civilisation has much less to do with arts, architecture, literature and music and a lot more with wealth and power, which is rather strange, especially when compared with Kenneth Clark’s celebrated work on the same subject.
Secondly, since the study is meant simultaneously for print and television, each chapter is written as a television capsule, and often in the language of the internet. Such style detracts from scholarly substance. Nor is this the best way to teach history to the younger generation.
Ferguson’s theme is important: From the seventh century to the 15th, China and India were far ahead of the West in almost all respects. The Ottoman Empire extended up to the gates of Vienna. And then some “small countries on the western fringes of the Eurasian landmass and the United States conquered the rest of the world, Asia, Africa and Southern America, or dominated it without having to conquer it. Why?” He answers his own question by citing six attributes of the West that inevitably led to its dominance of the world for the better part of 500 years. He calls these attributes “killer applications” or, in computer jargon, “killer apps”.
The first of these is competition, that gave birth to both nation-states and capitalism. The second, science, almost completely Euro-centred from Copernicus to Newton, gave the West “a major military and technical advantage”. The third “killer app”, safety of property, needs to be discussed in some detail, if only because, in Ferguson’s view, this required rule of law was an essential part democracy, the best form of stable government. Somewhat outlandish is his argument that protection of property was the basis of the American Revolution. One would have thought that the Americans wanted to be rid of European colonialism.
Medicine, the fourth, was beneficial primarily to the West but also to its colonies. The fifth, consumer society, according to Ferguson, was vital because manufacturers discovered that workers were also consumers who would themselves provide the demand for the output of the Industrial Revolution, something Karl Marx—“an odious individual” and “unkempt scrounger”—failed to notice. Incidentally, Marx is not alone to be meted out this treatment. Gandhi also attracts the author’s displeasure because, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, the Mahatma had famously replied: “That would be a good idea”. Ferguson’s sixth and last “killer app” is Protestant work ethics.
All in all, Ferguson’s thesis adds up to a paean for the West. Indeed, if he sometimes sounds like America’s “neo-conservatives”, it should be no surprise. For, in two books—Empire and Colossus—published back-to-back during the Iraq War, he had advised the US to imitate “Victorian England and become a liberal empire”. By now he must have changed his views because he takes note of the reality that the world’s centre of gravity is shifting from the West to the East, and that China’s GDP would soon exceed America’s. But he argues, accurately, that even then China’s per capita income would be only 19 per cent of that of the US. In India’s case the proportion would be considerably lower.