Friday, December 23, 2011

An Historical Perspective

Niall Ferguson is a Harvard-based historian who has written multiple books and presented accompanying TV shows, which each seem to have caught precipitous waves of popular sentiment upon publication and broadcast – most notably, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), a book about the British Empire viewed as a balance sheet (negatives and positives); The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008), a book about global financial history, published at the height of the banking crisis; and, most recently, Civilisation: The West and the Rest (2010), a book the West's rise to a position of global dominance and the possibility that it might decline and fall in the wake of emerging powers such as China and India.

Ferguson's contention is that for the past 500 years the most important story in global history has been the dominance of the West (Western Europe and latterly the United States and Australia) over the Rest. Adopting modern Web 2.0 business speak, he outlines the Six Killer Applications or Killer Apps that he believes have assured Western dominance, which the rest of the world has now 'downloaded' ensuring a precipitous increase in wealth and living standards. The Apps or - to adopt the parlance of academia - 'Ideas Embodied by Institutions', seem almost hand-picked to annoy the kinds of right-on Leftists who like to assert that white European (but especially British) and American Protestant Christians are among the most malign creatures to have ever walked the Earth.

The ideas or institutions he chooses are: Competition, Science, Private Property, Medicine, Consumption and the Work Ethic. Some of these were present in other societies at different times, but only in the West could one find all six. 

Competition, he says, is what led the comparatively small, poor, warring states of Western Europe to expand eastward to India and westward to the Americas - Britain, Spain, France, Portugal and Holland all had empires - while monocultural China, which was a far more advanced society than any of its 15th Century equivalents, inexplicably retreated, becoming insular.

The Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century owed a great debt to the work of scholars and innovators in the Middle East, which preserved and built upon the knowledge of the Roman Empire, forgotten to the European Dark Ages. But the works of Leibniz, Newton and Spinoza were a distinctly European affair because the Christian church was more open to compromise than its Islamic equivalent. This meant that the printing press, possibly the most important information technology of all time, spread throughout the West in the 16th Century. Ferguson parallels the rise of Prussia, which was at the forefront of modern military innovation, with that of the Ottoman Empire, which rejected the scientific advances and suffered a centuries-long decline.

The chapter in which Ferguson tells us that Private Property Rights were the most important tenant for the founding of the modern democratic state raises a lot of questions. Primarily, why did I not pay more attention during my Enlightenment course? In order to explain the impact that different models of ownership can have upon political outcome he compares and contrasts what happened in Latin America, which was collonised by the Spanish and the Portuguese, with what happened in North American, which was collonised by the British. In doing so he references works by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, along with numerous documents associated with the French and American Revolutions - all of which were on my university reading list. Now I feel like I need to go back and read them all again (along with Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith) just so I can be on the same page as my more studious peers. Listen to your teacher, kids!

Modern medicine is one of the most important and often neglected benefits of imperial rule, Ferguson tells us. Wherever Europeans went they took their medicines, and life expectancy around the world in the late 19th century doubled as a result. This is a point that can be better understood in the broad swath of history Ferguson addresses, as opposed to in the particular, wherein European regimes did horrible things to native peoples, in Africa, in particular.

Consumption, which Ferguson allies to the Industrial Revolution, was the reason why Britain became by far the most wealthy country in the world in the 19th century he asserts. Expressing his disdain for Marx, he explains that it was consumer demand (as opposed to the subjugation of workers by a malign economic machine) which led to rapidly increasing living standards, prosperity and wealth. He does endorse the excesses of Capitalism or the sometimes overbearing marketing that has come to define it in the West, but posits that it was Capitalism and Consumerism, not state Communism, that gave people financial independence and, therefore, creative freedom and political expression.

This is also intimately linked to the last of the West's Six Killer Apps, something that Ferguson says is now diminishing in the West: the Work Ethic. Provocatively, he links the work ethic to Christian and, more especially, Protestant ideals. 

In his final analysis, Ferguson turns his attention to China, now predicted to become the world's largest economy by 2030, and its seemingly symbiotic relationship with the United States. Ferguson's message is clear - the Rest have caught up by recognising the best in the West and we would be well advised not to loose faith in the institutions that have done so much good for the world.

Of course, I am in no position to confirm nor disconfirm any of Ferguson's conclusions. But I find much of his central argument convincing, and want to read more. "A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within," runs the famous quote. I think that we in the West, and, in Britain, in particular, would be well advised should stop beating up on ourselves quite so much. Recognise the problems and try to address them, of course, but stop with the self-flagellation. That is my very simple prescription. If you want a historical perspective, I recommend you read Ferguson's - An Historical Perspective - Keyword description


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