(An Annotated review of Nial Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest)
The migration route taken by the Germanic tribes. Germanic tribes were the barbarian hordes from the west that lead to the liquidation of the imperial Roman empire. The rise of the barbarian west as the civilized West is essentially the history of the modern world
British historian Niall Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and the Rest ( Alien Lane, Penguin Group, 2011) is an interesting survey of the world history through 1000 years examining the rise of Western civilization through many historical intersections that were crucial in outsmarting its rival formations.
I would recommend this book as a must read for anyone interested in politics, science or technology as it provides a synopsis of the West vis-à-vis the ‘rest’ in the grand scale of a millennium. It also helps us to reevaluate the ‘fabrication’ called history, which we learned during our school years, especially those indoctrinated in the texts of many superfluous debates that inhabit our pop-media. We need to know about the western ascent because we live in a world overwhelmed by the western influence, and we practice a science-notwithstanding every protestations to the contrary-conceived, bred and quickened by the West.
Another important reason why this book is a must read is that it enable us to reflect upon the strategies the Japanese( from the late 19th century to early 20th century) and the now the Chinese ( from late 20th century onwards) adapted in replicating the advances of the West. It will be a window of strategies India as a nation ought to adapt to replicate what the Japanese achieved and what the Chinese aim to achieve.
Being a monumental survey of world history through a one thousand-year time- line, the arguments are not straightforward. There are many tangential subtexts that intersect the mainstream of the argument. To separate the author’s position from my own comment on the context, and to provide critique of the author’s narrative, I have used italicized text wherever appropriate.
As a general issue in approaching works in humanities, authors quite often get carried away by there own theories and predilections. This pertains partly to the lack of a rigorous logical tool to ‘crop’ and ‘restrain’ arguments ( the kind of mathematical restrain available in exact science like physics) and partly because the very nature of the subject (of the innate complexity that does not allow mathematical reduction, and the consequent qualitative nature of interpretation). Ferguson is also not clean of such a bias. Yet, I feel that a significant part of Ferguson’s arguments would stand scrutiny even after discounting for this universal problem of bias.
Four ‘Killer Applications’
According to Ferguson, the crucial differential between the West and the ‘Rest’ is institutional (I think this as the most important statement of the book, which I would like to revisit again). Using the lingo of the smart-phone age, Ferguson stitches the narrative of Western ascent using what he describes as the six ‘killer applications’, which the West encountered and fostered in the course of its ascent- viz: Trade, Science, Medicine, Work ethics, Property rights and Democracy based on rights of ownership and the Consumerism that sustained market driven mass production and industrialization.
Ferguson considers these ‘properties’ as the ‘differentials’ around which the West diverged from different civilizations/cultures that possessed some of these ‘properties’
Ferguson explains this ‘institutional differences’ in six spheres of activity:
Competition ( or trade)- explaining how West diverged from ancient China
Science( ‘the way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world’) – explaining how the West diverged from the Muslim Ottoman empire
Property rights (and the rule of law based on private property right, which formed the basis of –as the author explains-stable form of democratic governance as seen in United States)
Medicine( ‘ the branch of science that allowed improvement in health and life expectancy’) – explaining the divergence from the ‘Rest’ as a whole
Consumer society( of consumer being the central operating principle of the economy and the industry- as against the whim of the central planners who impose ‘desires and limits of desire’ on people) – explaining the divergence and eventual western outsmarting of the 20th century Soviet ‘empire’
Work ethics ( which the author attributes to the frugality and work-worship of Protestant Christianity)- explaining the divergence of the Anglo-Saxon nations from the rest of the world, in forming the core of the West
Here the term ‘West’ is not entirely geographical, rather it is ‘a set of norms, behaviors and institutions without borders that are blurred in its extreme’. Accordingly there are different delimitations of the West. Ferguson sympathize with the description of the US historian Samuel Huntington ( of the ‘Clash of Civilization’ fame). This consists of Western and Central Europe, North America and Australasia. It excludes nations like Mediterranean nations like Greece ( even though ancient Greece is considered as the fountain head of Western thought) and eastern European countries like Russia.
1) The First Front: Trade – Divergence from Ancient China
The China of the first half of the 1000s was more sophisticated that any nations in the world. Signs of what could be prescient of a major industrial revolution were very much there in China. Water clock, paper, printing press, mechanized textile instruments and gunpowder were all Chinese innovations. Chinese Admiral Zheng He traveled across the Indian Ocean in a ship five times the size of Vaso da Gama’s Santa Maria, years before Gama made his voyage. Chinese navy with a combined crew of 28,000 was bigger than any Western navy until the First World War. However, Zheng He’s voyage was quite unlike that of Gama.
The sea route taken by Chinese Admiral Zheng He in early 1400s, almost 90 years before Vasco da Gama.
He didn’t want to engage in trade, but to ‘go to the barbarian countries and confer presents on them so as to transform them by displaying our power’. In one of his voyage he reached east coast of Africa, only to bring home a giraffe presented to him by the Sultan of Malindi! In contrast, Vasco da Gama’s brief was ‘to make discoveries and go in search of spices’. Chinese confidence in their own self-sufficiency and superiority was such that when Earl Macartney led an expedition in 1793 to persuade Chinese to open their empire to trade with an assortment of items like telescopes, air-pumps and electrical machines, the Chinese Emperor wrote a dismissive edit to the English King stating ‘we have never set much store on strange or ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country’s manufactures’.
Ferguson says that it is this Chinese antipathy for trade with the world that made China retard while the Europe progressed, despite having a head-start in ‘science and technology’ compared to any nation of the world.
Incidentally, however, the 21st century Chinese rulers seem to have realized this mistake and are making amends. Presently, Chinese trade with anyone who is good enough to trade with- whether it is African despots or Burmese generals, irrespective of what ideological poles they are in. Ferguson quotes Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping articulating this position: ‘No country that wishes to become developed can purse closed-door policies. We have tasted this bitter experience—- 300 years of isolation has made China poor, backward and mired in darkness and ignorance. No, open door is not an option’
2) The Second Front: Technology from Science- Divergence from the Islamic Ottoman Empire
The Muslim Ottoman Empire of Turkey was one of the largest and longest of all Empires. It extended from 13th century to early 20th century, from the outskirts of Vienna in the West to Azerbaijan in the East. It had trade monopoly through land and its military and navy was the largest compared to what its contemporary world had ever seen. When the Europe was reeling in the ‘dark ages’, it was the Ottoman Muslims who preserved the ancient Greek ideas (which later would form the fountain head of European renaissance). They had adapted the best of Indian school of mathematics and had made seminal contributions themselves.
Ottoman Empire is one the largest and longest serving empires spanning two continents. Ottoman’s lost to the West in the race of science and technology
However, a ‘great divergence’ developed in the 16th century when Europe was progressing to the next stage of its development. This was the period of Renaissance (literally the ‘rebirth’- of what many believe as the Greek school of thinking). It was the period when the stranglehold of Church was getting weakened, and Europe was thinking of a world beyond the biblical scriptures. During the period between 1500s and 1700s, 29 major breakthroughs happened around ‘ a hexagon bounded by Glasgow, Copenhagen, Naples, Marseille and Plymouth. This ranges from the work of Paracelsus ( physiology and pathology), Copernicus ( astronomy), Galileo ( mechanics), to Hooke ( microscopy), Lippershey and Jansen ( telescope), to name a few.
But this was the time when Islamic clergy were tightening their grip over the Ottoman Empire. What was vogue in the medieval Europe was becoming vogue in (European ) renaissance-era Ottoman Empire. Printing was resisted in the Muslim world, as ‘scholar’s ink’ was thought to be ‘holier than martyr’s blood’. Soon there was a royal decree that threatened with death anyone found using the printing press.
Ferguson says that Muslim scientists, thus, became effectively ‘offline’ being cut-off from the scientific development in the Europe. Soon these intellectual advances were transmuted as military advances. In 1742, Benjamin Robbins published a volume on the ‘New Principles of Gunnery’ based on the principles of physics and mathematics (especially the calculus) developed by Newton. This soon translated to better artillery designs that in no time were to outsmart the ancient cannons of the Turks.
Ferguson sees this as the second front of Western ‘ascent’.
3) The Third Front: Private Property and Democracy- Divergence from Colonial South America
The third ‘differential’ operated between the North and the South America. While the North America developed as the vanguard of the Western civilization, the South America remained a laggard as one among the ‘third world’. Ferguson sees this as the result of a differential development of private ownership and democratic representation based on property ownership.
Spanish and the Portuguese who colonized the Southern Africa didn’t have the disadvantages of the Chinese or the Ottoman Empire. In fact, they were the pioneers who conquered the sea routes, and they were exposed to the scientific revolution of the post-renaissance era. Yet, the Southern states lagged the Northern America.
The Spanish who colonized the South started with the cheap gold and silver that was available in South America, initially plundering the Inca resources, and later establishing their own mines. The colony was managed by a tiny group of Spanish using indigenous labour, while the whole land was owned by the Spanish Crown. In the North, mainly colonized by the British, however, the situation was quite different. According to Ferguson, North America didn’t have the ‘ready-made’ resources of the South. What were in plenty were enormous tracts of land.
The British colonization of the America coincided with a scenario that would have incited a Malthusian population trap (after Thomas Malthus who stated that natural resources are limited to keep up with the population explosion, and that a breakpoint will develop in all closed communities) in the English isles. However, the Malthusian predictions didn’t happen, as there was ‘an exit option for those willing to risk a Trans-Altlantic voyage’ .
Ferguson says that the ‘exported labour’ was more productive in land-rich, labour-poor America . It also benefited those who stayed behind in Europe as it prevented the local wages in Europe from falling down (as Malthus predicted), and soon resulted in progressive increase in wages (because the exodus of labour to the Americas created a healthy balance between supply and demand of labour).
As land and its ownership became the key for initial North American economy, its protection against engorgement became the template of North American governance. The initial parliamentary system in Carolina where the first settlement started was based on the ‘land ownership status’. Voting right was decided based on the ownership of a ‘minimum of 100 acres of land’. However, this voting right didn’t multiply as those who had land dominated the scene, with each person owning hundred to thousand times the amount that make him eligible for voting. For instance, when George Washington executed his will his estate totaled 52194 acres of land. In 1700s this was a revolutionary idea, as in those times every where else a person’s ‘legal’ ( as against extralegal power) power was proportional to his ‘asset’ power.
Ferguson says that the concept of ‘rule of law’ developed- perhaps rather pragmatically –as a method to protect private land ownership. Ferguson seems to suggest that democracy developed and consolidated on this pragmatic goal, rather than on any high pedestal of ideas of liberty and freedom.
I think this is an important point to understand. Democracy as we see today is NOT IMMEDIATELY apparent as an ideal form of governance. In the ages of monarchy, the monarchy was thought as the ideal form of governance (just as we think that democracy is the ideal form of governance).
This not-so-idealistic development of the New World institutions become evident when Ferguson notes that one of the principal incentive for American revolt against the British government was the British government’s opposition to allow further advancement of European settlements into the Indian Americans heart land (eg. towards the west of Appalachian Mountain range).
Ferguson maintains that property speculators like George Washington ( the same Washington who is the one of the founder fathers of USA) could not stomach this. They saw the land occupied by Indian tribes as land of opportunity, which should never be forfeited. Subsequently, Washington himself benefitted from ‘forcible ejection of the Indian tribes south of Ohio river’ (to the tune of 45000 acres!).
European removal of the American Indians was considered a ‘Manifest Destiny’ of civilizing the uncivilized. The lady Columbia carrying the book of the republic and the telegraph cable was considered a divinely predestined order.
Although at the cost of Indian tribes, the North American colonization greatly benefited the poor and the desperate in the English Isles. Many indentured servants, who came to America to work in British property, were given land ownership after completion of the term of their service (as land was in plenty and unclaimed). Thus, North America provided a certain route for the English poor for social mobility. Ferguson records that three fourth of all European migrants to British America during the colonial period were indentured servants.
In South America the situation was the contrary. The silver mines in Peru and elsewhere that was plundered back to Spain, consolidated the imperial authority. The Crown owned all the land. The labour was provided by the expropriated local tribes who were subdued by superior weapons and exotic diseases (small pox, measles, influenza and typhus to name a few). There was no question of property ownership or ‘democratic’ governance. Ferguson says that this inexperience with democratic governance prevented the development of sustainable democratic institutions in South America when the Spanish imperial rulers ultimately made retreat.
Thus, while democracy flourished in North America and ultimately lead to a United States of America, South America reeled under autocrats and military tyrants.
4) The Fourth Front: Consumerism as the operating principle of the economy- Divergence from the Soviet model
One of the key differences in the Soviet model of development and the Western model of development is that in the former the central planners decide what its subjects need to consume and produce, whereas in the Western model consumers are made to choose what is made available to them. Consumers apparently apply their ‘free-will’ to chose what they want ( rather only in an eerie ‘Matrixique’ manner where the consumers believe that they are playing out their choice, while choice itself is determined by what is made available, and what is made ‘desirable’ by a host of advertisement campaigns).
Ferguson says that it is this consumerism and industrialization based on mass-production catering to the consumerist population that made the Western economy outsmart the Soviet model over a period of time.
To put this argument in perspective, the growth of Soviet Union after the revolution until the World War II was one of the fastest of any economy’s growth trajectory. Immediately after the October revolution, in one of his writing, Lenin proclaimed ‘electrification’ of the Soviets as one of his top priorities. This was disclosing the pitiful state of the Soviets in those times. However, just in 5-6 decades, the same nation would catapult the first spacecraft to orbit the earth. This was a tremendous symbolic feat as the resources and the scientific sophistication needed to achieve such an act in the pre-computer era was just stupendous. Soviet Union’s mastery of nuclear energy and missile technology occurred concurrently. This was in addition to the almost impossible feat of stalling the progress and reversing the fortunes of the formidable Nazi Germany in Second World War. What the Western world achieved over centuries of imperialist hegemony, the Soviets achieved in barely 4-5 decades (Remember nations like India and Brazil are still struggling with the technological feat that the Soviets had achieved 70 years ago, when the computing technology was light years behind). This was the most important propaganda score point that the communist block had projected before the newly independent third world nations like India in the middle of the 20thcentury. Nations like India followed the Soviet example in planned development after being impressed by this spectacular growth trajectory.
Similar growth trajectory was achieved in Germany during the Nazi era (what is termed as the ‘rearmament period’ after the World War I defeat). It is also said that the world, which was plunging through the 1930 Great Depression, got salvaged from the economic slowdown by WWII. The common denominator that links the growth of the Soviets, the Nazi Germany and the reversal of the Great Depression is the command style economy following orders from above down. Both in Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany this involved enormous human losses. It is estimated that in Soviet Union about 10 million perished during the Stalin’s regime succumbing either to the firing squads or to the weather in the Siberian labour camps.
However, such command style economy started to falter when the immediacy of a situation like a war or a calamity ceased to exist. This was the situation of the Soviet Union of 1970s-1990s. Soviet model of economy did not produce good quality consumer items, as people didn’t have any choice to decide what they need to consume. This lead to continuously deteriorating standards, leading eventually to an economy that could not run on its own strengths.
Ferguson says that the differential that operated between the Soviet and the West was the design of the economy- one based on top-down command system and the other based on an industry that relied on consumer choices and ‘mass consumption behaviour’.
5) The Fifth Front: Protestant Work Ethics
Ferguson advances German sociologist Max Weber’s theory that the emergence of North America as the leader of the Western world was because of the predominant presence of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christian ethos.
Max Weber John Calvin
Protestant reformer Calvin propounded that human is born ‘damned’ and the only way to redeem oneself from the certain ‘hell’ is to immerse in work. Max Weber attribute the protestant culture of the AngloSaxon community to their rise of industry and trade
To follow this idea, one needs to delve into the history of the development of Protestant movement in Europe.
Protestant ‘reformation’ developed in Germany in 16th century as a reaction to the bureaucratization and commercialization of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther started the movement after being despondent of the practice of ‘indulgence’ where the Church made money – to renovate Bishops Houses among many other things- in exchange of sale of ‘penance’ from what was called the ‘Treasury of Penance’ ( a treasury of accumulated ‘holiness credits’ that Christian holy men from Jesus Christ onwards had aggregated by virtue of their corporal sacrifices). The church had monopolized the biblical services, and only the clergy were allowed to read the scriptures. Martin Luther revolted against this and rejected the idea of exchange of penances as well as the idea of requirement of the mediation of the clergy for rendering the scriptures. His movement advocated literacy and the Lutherans were supposed to read the Bible themselves.
According to the Protestant theology Man was doomed, and only a select few will be ‘elected’ by God for salvation. Work was regarded as a form of service to God, and devotion to it was considered as a means of escaping the damnation that was almost due. Certain Protestants discipline like Calvinist sanctioned taking ‘interest on money saved’ as legitimate (an act considered sinful in early Christianity). It also denounced beggary and discouraged giving alms (for abjuring work was considered sinful). Indeed, Calvinist idea of sin was that it stated that all human beings are born with sin by default- and until each of them try to proactively take care to reduce the ‘sin credits’, all are doomed to hell. One of the ways to mitigate the sin default was to immerse oneself in his work.
Weber’s thesis was that this devotion to work (as Godly service), the religious consent for lending money for interest and denouncement of sustenance living created an ethos that was congenial for the growth of industry (for dedicated labour was in plenty, and efficient enough) and capitalism ( for money was freely available for an interest). Money making was not considered a sin, and indeed was a reflection of ones devotion to work (and ergo to the God)!
It is assumed that initial religious ethos soon translated to secular cultural ethos that characterizes the work ethics of the West. However, Ferguson falters here onwards and argues this as the manifestation of ‘religious belief’ per se.
It is important to understand that the Protestant ideology per se did not aid capitalistic work ethics, but did it as a consequence. There are three issues:
- a) Spread of literacy – whose primary intention was that everyone can read Bible and be ‘one’s own clergy, but which by consequence (or as an collateral effect) allowed people to learn many things besides the bible. b) Spread of printing press– again primarily to disseminate Protestant literature, but which also had the ‘collateral’ effect of disseminating any other kind of literature. c) Devotion to work ( work as devotion) didn’t came to the Protestant beliefs as a ‘primary’ dictate, but as the consequence of the dictate that God chooses only a select few, and the majority are ‘damned’, and that the external sign of this damnation is misery and fall into depravity. Therefore, to prevent the external sign of ‘damnation’ becoming ‘certain’ most of the people devoted themselves to work to become successful and prevent signs of ‘damnation’ ‘manifesting’ on them. Subsequently, this ‘work ethics’ became the part of the culture- as much as an etiquette, without whose observance people were not socially recognized.
Max Weber’s had contrasted this with Hindu culture, where begging and alms- giving is a socially acceptable behavior. Caste system made people who are involved in jobs involving contact with soil and metal as lower caste. They were disallowed exposure to higher language skills and formal education. The Vedic education itself was based on ‘phonetic’ transmission of sounds. As innovation in technology developed amongst those who used tools, while people were incapable of articulating their innovations in a formal language, technical innovations and the science based on it was largely limited as monopoly of individual families who transmitted their ‘intuitive’ knowledge only amongst themselves. As most of the development in science and technology developed by multiple people improvising –at different times and at different places- on the existing core of knowledge, the absence of an effective ‘online’ social knowledge base that was freely accessible to everyone hampered scientific and technological progress.
Because of the ‘online’ nature of the Europe and the United States (in turn because of literacy and more importantly because of a media to spread that- the printing press and the industry around it), the innovations in one part of Europe would rapidly spread to another part and to the US, with back to back replication and improvisation following (remember this was in an era prior to the era of patenting). The development of the steam locomotive in rapid succession in England, Germany, the US and Belgium is a case in point. This would not have happened without the ‘online’ nature of these societies. India, in contrast, was socially and culturally offline. The pan-Indian identity of India was largely established by Hindu philosophical traditions, which was essentially ‘offline’ to the large majority of Indian people. Majority of native scientific and technological innovations remained ‘offline’ without the scope for ‘simultaneous replication or sequential improvisation’. Here the advantage of having a large population (with resultant diversity of talents) was offset by effective compartmentalization and cultural segregation of the society.
Atrocities- a point of Universal Convergence
If the above listed are the points of divergence between the West and the Rest, there is one issue in which the West and the ‘rest’ converge in equal measure.
To give full credits, Ferguson, even while eulogizing the West on every fronts, is very objective in listing the atrocities the West committed in building its Empires and its civilization- an issue upon which, however, it cannot rival any other nation or civilization.
Ferguson explores the central theme of the Western ascent without too much emphasizing its righteousness ( but not entirely, as we shall see later). The rights and wrongs of modernity or even more the ‘post-modernity’ was simply nonexistent in the eras preceding it. To write a treaty in history without acknowledging this is a fatal error which authors (especially textbook history writers) do repeatedly. They do it for variety of reasons, not least of which is political agenda, of making ones ideological position and whose historical icon ‘righteous’ than everyone else.
The colonization of Africa in the 1800s by various European powers- commonly and rather ignobly called ‘scramble for Africa’- illustrates the central theme of all history including that of Western colonization. One of the chief patrons of the ‘scramble for Africa’ was the Belgian King Leopold-II. He coaxed all European powers interested in Africa for a meeting in Berlin in 1884 for ‘formalizing’ the ‘partitioning’ of Africa.
In the Berlin conference, Leopold managed to get an accent for a free Congo state, as a private dominion, in the guise of abolishing slavery and ‘civilizing’ natives. Leopold developed an organization called International African Society to advance this apparently ‘humanitarian’ goals. But once Congo Free State was formed, Leopold’s real motives came to the forefront. He engaged a tyranny of forced labour for collecting ivory and rubber from Congo. He used women and children as captives to make men collect goods for his business. Those who protested were tortured. He engaged a private militia to flush out and liquidate protestors who ran into forests. As the terms of the private militia was to be as economical as possible, they had to collect severed hands of killed rebels to tally against the bullets spend. As these terms could not be met many a times, the militia found it easy to severe hands of women and children as a ‘proof’ of their ‘successful’ operation. It is estimated about 1/5th of the population perished in the whole episode. The situation was so outrageous that colonial apologist like Winston Churchill came up with statements against the Leopold’s regime.
Human exhibits in European Zoo. Europeans did not consider Africans as one of their kind. They were ‘subhumans’ to be exhibited as exotic animals. The ‘subhuman’ thesis is a recurring theme in the European history until its complete burial in the graveyards meant for the Nazis in the WWII
While Leopold acted as the most outrageous character of the Western scramble for Africa, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade does not find mention in the narratives of Western ascent. The discovery of the America necessities a demand for an enormous amount of labour for the new world colonies. While indentured servants and native Indians were made to run the initial settlements, soon they proved insufficient ( while many indentured white servants got freedom at the end of their term, the Indian tribes started to decimate after contracting the exotic diseases brought by the colonists). Africa was seen as a source of cheap labour.
In Congo Free State, soldiers used to chop off hands of innocent citizens to exhibit as proof of combat. The instruction was to chop the hands of dead combatants as proof of genuine action, a documentation intended to prevent misuse of ammunition. The soldiers found a solution to this restriction by chopping the hands of children and women. Congo Free State is the nadir of European ‘Scramble of Africa’.
And not to take away the discredit, Africa, was indeed, the source of slaves for the Arabs who had ‘discovered’ Africa before the Europeans. In the traditions of the Arab pioneers, the European slave traders would station along one or other coasts of Africa, and would trade slaves from the African local rulers, who were keen on supplying their prisoners (whether prisoners of war or criminals) for a price. As this became a lucrative business, African rulers found ‘wars’ as a good business proposition. Soon slave trade turned to be the reason rather the consequence for African internecine wars ( It is further argued that many of the present day seemingly intractable hostilities among African nations/tribes seems to have it origin in conflicts incident to ‘raids’ meant to procure subjects for the European slave trade- a situation quite similar to hostilities that exist between India and Pakistan and that exists between Arabs and Israelites, where a vicious cycle of deceit and violence make sure the hostilities never end, and none can decipher the origin of the ‘sin’).
It is said that the total casualty in the transatlantic slave trade is about 10 million. Of which 6 million died in Africa itself, either in the hand of African slave raiders or the European slavers. The mortality during the transatlantic slave shipment was around 15%. (the conditions were so sordid and inhumane-even by the 19th century African standards- that many slaves used to commit suicide by starving themselves or jumping over to the sea, and it was a routine affair to force feed them to prevent them from killing themselves by starving) Further, more died during the ‘seasoning’ process where slavers made the slaves equip to the rigours of American slavery.
This definitely was one of the worst holocausts the world had seen. Just to compare, the Jew mortality in Nazi Holocaust was about 6 million. The number of people who died in Stalin era in Soviet Union were- according to ‘liberal’- western estimate about 10 million. The number of people who died in Soviet Union during the World war II was 27 million (more than a third of the total WWII casualties). Chengis Khan’s massacres amounts to 40 million, and Timur’s contribution about 17 million.
Ferguson do not comment about the contribution of African slave trade to the ascent of the West (or rather its masthead, the United States) or whether Western intervention in Africa amounts to a holocaust akin to the Nazi Holocaust of the 20th century. This is important as from the middle of the 20th century the key ‘patron’ of the Western world is the United States. In fact, one of the key differentials that shifted World War II from the Axis powers to the Allied powers was the entry of United States to the war. Indeed, once undisputed Britons keenly wished US to enter the scenario to tilt the balance. Ever since the WWII, it was the US, not the British or the French who could put counterweight to the Soviets. This was precisely because of the fact that the US was in a very healthy state vis-a-vis UK or France towards the middle of 20th century. How much did the initial kick of cheap slave labour help this ascent of US behemoth vis-a-vis other imperial regimes? This is clearly a point when we see that it was the New World which was the greatest beneficiary of African slave trade.
However, Ferguson does not address this question. Instead he discusses the ‘Scramble for Africa’ under the title of ‘medicine’ as one of the five differentials that mediated the ascent of the West. At one point Ferguson mentions that the Western colonization of Africa helped Africa by improving its medical indices, including its life expectancy (p 191 ). However, he neatly keeps this reference wrapped in a 46-page narrative of European atrocities in Africa. All through this survey the reader keeps wondering why Fergusons chapter on ‘Medicine’ is but an essay on Western conquest on Africa. Did he imply that the advances of western medicine in containing African diseases from malaria to yellow fever mitigate European atrocities in Africa?
Ferguson’s prejudices unravels when he talk about Marx ( ‘an odious individual, an unkempt scrounger and a savage polemicist, who had an atrocious handwriting, and who depended on Engels, whose evening hobby was- along with fox-hunting and womanizing-socialism’), Stalin ( whose ‘Liquidation of the Kulaks-the landowning farmer class-was an euphemisms for genocide’) and the American students’ campus revolt against US war in Vietnam ( whose true aims ,was for ‘unlimited male access to female dormitories’). He also makes inaccurate conclusions based on inaccurate observations to fit his theory ( e.g. Kerala’s literacy being due to the predominance of the Anglican Protestant Christians).
One wonder whether Ferguson would employ such techniques of hitting below the belt while reviewing his admirers, the British thinker John Locke or any of the founding fathers of the United states.
The Rivals ( the Ascent of the Japan and China)
Ferguson makes interesting observations on the ascent of Japan and now on the ascent of China.
Japanese was so awed by the Western ascent that in the 1800s, they started to tour the West so as to decipher what has made the West so powerful. ‘Was it their political system? Their educational institution? Their culture? Or the way they dressed? Unsure they copied everything. Japan’s institutions were refashioned on Western models’ . The Japanese army uniform, their army drills, their educations system, their business models everything was ‘made as’ West. Japanese swarmed western universities and returned to replicate and ultimately outrival the West in their own games.
The post-Deng Xiaoping China is also doing pretty much the same. The Chinese do business with African despots and oligarchs without any questions asked about corruption or human right abuses. Exactly, the way the European colonist and in the later years the United states used to ally with any kind of tyrants in advance of their economic and military goals. They swarm Western universities and plough back western study designs just the way the Japanese did it half a century ago. For those who disparaged them as an assembly line of Western designer products, they answer by displaying indigenous technology to catapult space crafts to the moon. They accumulate US dollar reserves and treasury bond to hedge against any US ‘concern’ of civil rights and human rights violation!
Truly, China is rising to become a ‘Chimerica’ ( an economic marriage of convenience between China and America, in Ferguson’s own dictionary of neologisms).
In ‘Civilization: The West and the Rest’, Niall Ferguson makes very pertinent observations on the rise of the West, and the nature of the superiority of its institutions. However, he does, many a times, succumb to make ‘amends’ to facts in order to fit his theory.
Just as any other historian venturing to write ideologically inspired interpretation of the history, he overlooks many hiccoughs in his own narrative by hitting below the belt, especially on those people whose ideology he detests. On the contrary, he provides different treatment to his ideologues, being as ‘objective’ as possible. Nonetheless, Ferguson’s book is a must-read course book for any one interested in the rise of the West, and the demise of the Rest. It is also a must-read for anyone trying to refashion the West among the Rest- for the West is not just few intersections in the map of the world, but truly a set of institutions and behaviours, whose replication alone will recreate its marvels.