9780143122067Naill Ferguson’s work deserves a great deal more study than I’m willing to give it to properly assess his account and assessment of where we in America and Western Europe came from and where we might be going. Ferguson not only covers an enormous span of history in Civilization: The West and the Rest, but does it in bewildering detail for a book of this relatively short (325 pp.) length and subject matter.

An interesting companion piece to this book is Dr. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (see WW, March 2010), which was referred to me by the same buddy who brought me this book. Obviously, the subject fascinates Dave, and I’m glad, or I’d never have read either book. I guess you might call it pre-apocalyptic literature? Anyhow, to Ferguson’s work.

The author asks why the current western hegemony occurred  and whether it will continue. He explores at length some why not’s–Why, for example, did Africa, Asia, South America not emerge as superpowers over the last millennia? Then he asserts some why’s–Why did America and Western Europe dominate instead? He boils the answers to his “why’s” down to six, and formulates them as (aren’t we modern?) “apps.” The west, he says, managed to download these applications, which, in combination, provided the ability and willingness to conquer all:


  1. Competition: [Beginning around 1500] Europe was politically fragmented, and within each monarchy or republic there were multiple competing corporate entities.  [The Asian empires were monolithic.]
  2. The Scientific Revolution: all the major 17th century breakthroughs in math, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology happened in Western Europe. [Even though the Moslem and Asian world was responsible for retaining much of the ancient knowledge that made them possible.]
  3. The Rule of Law and Representative Government: An optimal system of … order emerged in the English Speaking world based on property rights and [political] representation in legislatures. 
  4. Modern Medicine: 20th century breakthroughs all came from the west.
  5. The Consumer Society: The industrial revolution produced both a supply of consumer-pleasing products and resultant technologies for producing more.
  6. The Work Ethic: Westerners were the first people in the world to combine extensive and intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation. 


Ferguson makes compelling arguments for his thesis, though he comes close to committing the classic logical fallacy of confusing coincidence with causality in his sections on both  The Consumer Society (The influence of Levi’s on the fall of the Soviet Union?) and the Work Ethic (Chinese Protestants raise all boats in the Chinese economy?)

Also, he loves to make excellently-written and powerful summations that, although convincing on the page, make me suspicious of their accuracy, so succinctly does he describe complex situations:

The war against Germany was won by a combination of British intelligence, Soviet manpower, and American capital; the British cracked the German codes, the Russians slaughtered the German soldiers and the Americans flattened the German cities. 


    See what I mean?

As to whether we in the west have much of a future, Ferguson’s guess is as good as anyone else’s, and he’s decidedly ambivalent, though tipping toward pessimism.  In terms of population numbers, we don’t have a chance. Economically, things don’t look much brighter. China and India appear about to overwhelm us. Though Japan appeared on the verge not long ago, and that didn’t happen. Still, Japan didn’t have a whole continent of people and raw materials to work with. And so on.

However, some version of the “six apps” might hold together in whatever combination of nations and and peoples transpire over the next decades. Ferguson quotes Churchill as asserting that the central principle of Civilization is “the subordination of the ruling class to the settled customs of the people and their will as expressed in the Constitution.” Perhaps (this is me talking now.) future generations will be able to adapt that statement to their own reality in a way that won’t revert to the savage despotism of the past. However, as Ferguson also points out, our own record in matters of primitive atavism is by no means unblemished. In fact, we Americans/Western Europeans have used our vaunted technologies to slaughter each other and others to an extent unparalleled even by the so-called savage Mongols, et al above whom we hold ourselves as superior in all ways.

Still, whether Western Civilization perishes, mutates, or continues to reign, it remains a matter of some conjecture as to whether it was ultimately a force for good. All in all, I think we’ve done more to improve the lot of ourselves and our fellows than to hurt them, despite all we’ve destroyed. Everyone will be better off if we live on–whether in different form or color. Even though forces which deny science and humanity are strong among us now, they always have been, occasionally even prevailing for a time.

Also, I wonder why Ferguson comfines his argument to nation-states, when it seems to me that it is international corporations, rather than governments who might have the most influence over all phases of “civilization” in the future. For an economist, this seems to me an egregious omission, particularly given his arguments about colonialism, when the corporations seem to me to be practicing a kind of mercantilism that gave birth to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. That said, though, this is a thought-provoking bomb of a book. And to give Ferguson the last word,


Today, as then [1938], the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity–and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.

sitting up clapping