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Is the West best?

May 13, 2011

Niall Ferguson’s recent Channel Four series ‘Civilization: Is the West History?‘ has caused considerable comment, partly due to his cringe-inducing ‘killer apps’ conceit and partly because he is known for his right-wing views and unfashionable defence of colonialism. As a few people have asked for my views on the series I thought I would write this response.

The series is made in the Channel Four house style (i.e. by people who still think that time-lapse shots of urban traffic are exciting, three decades after Koyaanisqatsi) with irritatingly repetitive editing and a self-consciously ‘controversial’ presenter. In fact Ferguson’s unappealing on-screen persona seems to be essentially a Jeremy Clarkson impression, although his Scottish accent occasionally slips through. He is constrained by the nature of television to focus each episode, not only on one of his ‘apps’ (which are what a normal person would call an innovation or idea) but also on one geographic area and one period of time. For instance, the rise of western science is seen in relation to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the increasing influence of Islamic orthodoxy through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although some of these juxtapositions are revealing the sometimes artificial structure makes his thesis appear more simplistic than it is.

A painting from the Chinese age of exploration.

Or it would, if one could work out what his thesis actually is. On one level he seems to be attempting to answer an important question and one which needs to be understood by anyone attempting to understand the modern world or trying to change it, namely, what are the causes of the most noticeable fact about human history up to this point, the dominance of the globe by Western culture and civilisation? Ferguson’s answer is to identify six factors (competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic) which he feels are responsible. This, however, is not an answer to why “the West is best” but rather how the West became dominant. The obviousness of this list is made apparent in an opening scene where a classroom of bored teenagers come up with most of the list for him. The really interesting thing would be to investigate why these things appeared in Europe and not elsewhere. Aside from the odd muttering about “conservative Confucianism” he does not really offer any explanation.

Luckily though, the question has been addressed by, for instance, Jared Diamond. In Guns, Germs and Steel he argues that the basic factor in Western dominance was geography. In the fifteenth century China entered an age of exploration, sending huge ships on voyages of discovery as far as East Africa. This abruptly ended at the whim of an Emperor and within a few years Europeans began their own exploration. As Diamond and Ferguson argue, the difference was competition. European nations were in constant competition with each other particularly, at this point, for spices (the arrival in Anatolia of the Turks had effectively cut Europe off from the east) and no European leader had the power to prevent Europeans building ships. Thus, in this case, the fragmentation of Europe gave it an advantage over the unified and integrated China. Having identified competition as the prime factor Ferguson ends his investigation. Diamond, however, goes on to suggest that the reason behind this is simply one of topography. Europe is a fiddly place with many islands, peninsulas, mountain ranges and other natural barriers (think of the Swiss, hiding for centuries behind their mountains). Europe is thus difficult to unify politically and likely to give rise to small independent states (please remember that most of the Roman Empire was outside what we would now call Europe, most of Germany and eastern Europe always remained unconquered). China, on the other hand, has a relatively uniform coastline and accessible interior and has thus been unified for millennia. This is why the whim of a Chinese Emperor could lose his country the chance to establish world dominance. (It seems reasonable to assume that the Chinese were only a few years away from ‘discovering’ America. How’s that for a counter-factual?)

Having failed to really examine the root causes of Western dominance Ferguson does show the ways in which it is being challenged by ‘the rest’, principally China. In one of his more interesting conceits he tells the story of the Cold War by focussing on jeans. Denim became a symbol of American freedom and as such was highly valued behind the Iron Curtain. The popularity of these blue trousers becomes for Ferguson an index of the spread and success of consumerist civilisation. An irony which he does not point out is that to the Greeks and Romans trousers were considered to symbolize barbarianism, favoured as they were by the tribes beyond their borders. Now that China manufactures clothing on a massive scale, jeans can no longer be seen as intrinsically American but rather a global uniform. Similarly, other aspects of Western achievement have been appropriated in other parts of the world, reducing the West’s monopoly on power and wealth. In this sense then Ferguson seems to be offering a revision of Fukuyama’s famous ‘End of History’ thesis. While the Western capitalist model has triumphed this does not necessarily mean that the West will maintain its position. In fact, the very success of the West means that nations like India and China will be able to catch up.

It would seem to follow from this that there is little for the West to fear. If its values have spread so efficiently then a dominant China will pose little threat to the European way of life because it is only by adopting this way of life that China can succeed. Ferguson seems to differ. For reasons which he fails to explain he seems to believe that continued Western dominance is imperative. He argues that the decline of the West is a result of complacency and an undervaluing of its own achievements. It could certainly be argued that scientific progress is under greater threat in the West, from religious fundamentalism on one side and the pseudo-science of alternative ‘medicine’ on the other, than elsewhere in the world. India certainly seems to be preparing to become a leading scientific nation. One might also consider the difference in voter turnout between Western democracies and the relatively young democracies of the non-Western world. The central theme is one of decadence and this is why Ferguson repeatedly harks back to the fall of Rome (although he never actually discusses Roman civilisation). This decadence, however, is undoubtedly a result of the very success of consumerist capitalism which he sees as so civilising. Though aware of this problem Ferguson can only suggest that people save more and run up less debts. This is a very responsible suggestion but one which runs counter to the needs of the corporations and financial institutions whose greed is the fuel of consumerism. Essentially, as the last few years have shown, Ferguson’s ideal of civilisation is untenable.

One virtue of the series is that it covers world history. Television in Britain seems to reflect the National Curriculum in concentrating almost solely on the Tudors and World War II (both periods offering great opportunities for national pride). In bringing to the screen the stories of, for example, French and German colonialism and Simon Bolivar Ferguson has done a service to viewers. It is a shame, therefore, that these things are seen through such a biased prism. He fails to see anything to condemn in Britain’s nineteenth century role as drug-pushers to the Chinese and hypocritical defence of this as ‘free trade’. In discussing the ‘development gap’ between North and South America he fails to note that US foreign policy has been directly aimed at stifling democracy in the south. His discussion of the Ottoman court invokes all the clichés of Orientalism and he describes, for example, Turkish armies as ‘hordes’. None of this is very surprising in a series from Channel Four who seem to consistently confuse pointless controversialism with freethinking. Having said all this, I lost any respect for him halfway through the first episode when he wrongly attributed Shakespeare’s phrase “this sceptre’d isle” to Henry V. He cannot be much of an expert on Western civilisation if he is so ignorant of its greatest achievement.

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From → History

One Comment
  1. I feel I ought to apologise for writing ‘biased prism’ in the last paragraph. It’s a vile phrase and I had meant to change it during the rewrite but obviously got distracted.
    I must try harder.

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