Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest


Jason Collins


June 20, 2011

With the cover of Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest stating that it is “Now a Major Channel Four Series”, I should have foreseen the pace and structure of the book would be designed for entertainment and not presenting a painstakingly worked-through framework. Ferguson attributes the West’s ascension to six “killer apps”: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and work ethic. As the West possessed all six of these apps, it was able to dominate the world for 500 years, with no other region possessing the full combination.

For the first three, Ferguson undertakes a pairwise comparison with other regions - the competition in Europe compared to China, the use of science in the West compared its suppression in the Muslim world and the introduction and broad spread of property rights in North America compared to the centralised and highly concentrated property ownership in South America. While each of these comparisons provides a strong argument about why these features are important, it sometimes leaves open the question of how this comparison would apply to other countries.

Take the explanation for property rights. Ferguson attributes the difference in property rights in North and South America to differences in the way the colonial powers allocated land. In the North, almost any new immigrant could eventually be a property owner and the institutions introduced supported the productive use of this land. In South America, a few people monopolised the land available, with most of the population effectively serfs. This comparison works well, but why did many other British colonies, such as those in Asia and Africa not have the same benefit. Ferguson may have a simple explanation, but I would like to hear it (My guess would relate to prevalence of indigenous people, one of the factors in the North-South America divide. For the United States in 1825, less than 4 per cent of the population was indigenous, allowing land to be freely allocated to new immigrants).

Ferguson does come to Africa in his discussion of medicine. However, this is where the television series drivers seem to have taken over. While Ferguson suggests the West introduced new medicines to Africa, there is little discussion in how this aided the West’s advantage. Instead, much of the discussion focuses on eugenics and the use of African troops in War. Interesting topics, yes, but the discussion I was expecting was missing. If anything, medicine’s introduction appears to be a benefit, unless you consider that there may be Malthusian consequences to higher population.

My usual critique of these kinds of books is that they spend too much time considering the incentives and actions of States and not enough of the people within them. On this, Ferguson comes closer to examining the incentives and actions of people than many other grand histories (such as Morris’s Why the West Rules … For Now), but he does not weave this fully into his narrative. For example, in his discussion of competition, he notes the competition between states in Europe that is absent in China. He then notes the competition within European states, such as the city versus the crown and the professions against each other. There is competition at all levels. However, he does not match this with discussion of what competition occurred between people in Chinese cities. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire may have suppressed science at the State level, but why were Muslim entrepreneurs not engaging in innovation to compete in commerce?

I found the most interesting topic to be the last - Ferguson’s discussion of religion. Ferguson argues that the work ethic in the West largely reflected the spread of Protestantism. This topic allows Ferguson to discuss whether the West will decline. As Ferguson notes, religion is declining in Europe, as “4 per cent of Norwegians and Swedes and 8 per cent of French and Germans attend a church service at least once a week, compared with 36 per cent of Americans, 44 per cent of Indians, 48 per cent of Brazilians and 78 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans.” While the American-European comparison is Ferguson’s main point, the sub-Saharan African figure stands out. Ferguson also talks of the rise of Christianity in China. However, having noted these trends, he also points out that the focus of religion in the United States has changed from one of saving and service to one of consumption. His discussion of the topic left me confused about how he saw these trends playing out. Are these changes in religious trends driving growth? It also highlights the usual correlation-causation question. Does someone work harder because they are a protestant or are they a protestant as it appeals to hard-working people? Or is there another relevant factor?

Ferguson does not convert these observations into bold predictions. He spends some time noting the complexity of global political systems, with small changes possibly leading to sudden, discontinuous changes. While the decline of empires may seem slow and obvious in retrospect, the fall is often sudden and unforeseen. As Ferguson writes:

It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple over-determining causes. Rather, civilizations behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse. To return to the terminology of Thomas Cole, the painter of The Course of Empire, the shift from consummation to destruction and then to desolation is not cyclical. It is sudden. A more appropriate visual representation of the way complex systems collapse may be the old poster, once so popular in thousands of college dorm rooms, of a runaway steam train that has crashed through the wall of a Victorian railway terminus and hit the street below nose first. A defective brake or a sleeping driver can be all it takes to go over the edge of chaos.

The sum of these parts makes for an interesting book. However, it is one to be read for entertainment and some interesting ideas. Those looking for a grand history of everything will be disappointed.