The Rest and The West, Not a Love Story.
In “Civilization: The West and the Rest”, Niall Ferguson demonstrated a wonderful grasp of human history, but a shortsighted view of the future of this species. His basic premise in the book surrounds the recent 500 year ascent of what many refer to as “western civilization,” (read the U.S., and the Eurozone) relative to what he describes as a relatively stagnant “east,” (read Russia and Asia).
Ferguson tells the story of many unique peoples and places through what are arguably some of the most profoundly influential periods in human history, from the reformation of the Catholic Church, to the displacement of the Ottoman Turks, the rise of Germany, the Space Race, and its accompanying arms races, to name just a few aspects of history Ferguson considers.
The author makes competent use of beautiful full color illustrations, with plates divided into three categories across the text, which depict art and literature from the Late Middle Ages, natural and man-made monuments, and authentic photographs of both victims and heroes throughout the period. He also includes many relevant lists and tables to support his points and sub-points, including comparative graphs for such topics as the decline of work ethic or of church attendance in the twentieth century, to such obscurities as the evolution of the rate of fire for French infantryman during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is also worth mentioning that at no point does Ferguson leave the reader suspended in anecdotal geographical fog, as the book also contains useful maps for referencing at least the generality of most areas of discussion.
Ferguson concludes, after his laborious journey through time, that “west” succeeded where the “east” failed, without significant exception, as measured in the areas of technological and economic development, agriculture, and quality of life, because of “six identifiably novel complexes and behaviors[or just “areas”]…” common to the west, but not the east. In the author’s listed order, these are competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism, and the Protestant work ethic. Ferguson collectively refers to these as the “Six Killer Apps” and concludes that as the west loses its momentum, and the east embraces innovation in these key areas, as he argues they have been slow to do, the balance of geopolitical power gradually, and perhaps irreversibly begins to shift in their favor. In all, his argument is compelling, and certainly well constructed, and attentively presented, but as with all predictions, his is a guess, and one waged through the bisecting lens of a westerner.
Ferguson begins his argument with Competition, building from a question asked by Feng Guifen, invoking the age-problem created by the coupling of innovation and power-struggle, “Why are they small and yet strong? Why are we large and yet weak?...” Ferguson answers this question in the context of an easterner looking west, through the reformation, and the scientific and industrial revolutions. The over-arching point the author makes in this chapter is that the fragmentation and chaos that kept western Europe from fully unifying under just one or two lordships through these periods, into such vastly unmanageable territories as Russia and China, provided for the constant internal strife and rivalries that incentivized and rewarded the (often desperate) pursuit of advantages. In this sense, the east was largely undisturbed, beyond the reigns of Huns and Turks, and became what the author might have called “sedentary”, preferring the easier and less destructive path of adaptation and equilibrium with their environments with an eye to the preservation of the whole, over the western tendency to control and manipulate one’s environment in pursuit of self interest. This view might be analogous to the older brother, who had grew up in a rough neighborhood fighting bullies, explaining a younger sibling’s shortcomings as a function of having grown up under softer, more stable conditions. It is a logical argument, to the extent that it suits the older brother’s opinion of himself, but not in that it accurately conveys reality. A counter argument would be that the decline the west now faces was just as programmed into its destiny by the choices made fighting those rivalries, as was the ascent of the west ordained by the inbred urge to compete. For a more than casual example, one of the most controversial stories in the news at the time of this review is the Russian attempt to annex Crimea and destabilize the Ukraine. These areas were as Russian as London was English for nearly as many hundreds of years, but lost to Germany and partitioned in the first world war when the Bolsheviks had the common sense to ask the question Nicholas II would not: How in the hell did we get sucked into this crazy war in the first place? The Bolsheviks are rarely given the historical credit due them from the west for the pragmatic ability to sacrifice such long held regions for the purpose of restoring peace and order to a Russia all but torn to pieces by the Kaiser and all but bankrupted by the last Tsar. The west doesn’t remember joining a war provoked by terrorists; it only remembers that it won that war. The west forgets that Russia lost these lands as a result of the destabilization of an inlying border region caused by Turks and Westerners hell bent on drawing out the Germans, which the Russians fought nearly to the peril of their own civilization. The west misses the point that the feverish fear of communism, slowly dripping red across the map, was stoked primarily by the European royalists (against whom all western revolutionaries and democratic movements fought for basic rights and freedoms) who sought to preserve themselves by keeping the Russian autocracy alive. It is not an eastern construct, but a western perversion of history, that though the enemy of Bolshevism was also the enemy of Democracy, (that enemy being divine right monarchy), communism would become the anathema to democracy in the western minds. This phenomenon can only be explained by acknowledging the real outcome of western ascendency—that in truth, it was the bourgeoisie who won in the west, and certainly not the common man. Wealthy industrialists and war profiteers essentially hijacked the narrative of liberty and freedom, duping the poor and middle classes of westerners into the false sense of geo-political superiority with such niceties ad banners and songs, while never once letting go of the death-grip they had obtained in their respective world markets. In truth, perhaps quality of life is “better” in the west, if measured in material ways, such as blue jeans and rock music, but the author doesn’t attempt to answer this question through an easterner’s eyes. Beyond the basics of clean water and food, it is an arrogant assumption to suggest that the common easterner looks to the west with envy. Though surely to some degree this must be the truth in some instances, to assume that westerners outpaced the east as measured so rigidly by only what the west values, reflects an intolerably subjective view of history. Another common western vanity is the default assumption that easterners define themselves in the shadow of western supremacy. Agreeably, at the time of this writing, western sanctions seem to have little effect on the Russian agenda, and in fact, the media is not shy about where and why the west is prepared to back down or compromise. Perhaps Mr. Ferguson might have less wastefully labored to explain why westerners are so quick to embrace the illusion of global superiority, right up unto the fall. Perhaps the currently observable phenomenon of western decline is more accurately explained in this context. The days of Manifest Destiny have long since passed, along with the Monroe Doctrine that sensibly capped this philosophy when the time was right. Maybe the real phenomenon is the west’s painfully gradual realization of mortality. Maybe we can’t solve the world’s problems with any more efficacy than we are able to subjugate its rampant instinct toward self determination. Perhaps the west, like the recent incarnation of Batman, is finally being forced to face its own limits, while rediscovering why it once sought to preserve such virtues as boundary and restraint in its youth.
On the whole, it is difficult to criticize such an academically thoughtful text, but some of Ferguson’s conclusions simply reek of western exceptional-ism. The most glaringly offensive of these must certainly be the Protestant work ethic as an explanation for periods of strong western growth. Another of the westerners self-serving arguments, this suggestion completely ignores the influence of black slaves and Chinese rail-workers, who suffered an intensity of labor inconceivable even to protestant factory workers of the late nineteenth century. These toiled their whole, short, miserable lives away, acquiring the wealth and building the infrastructure for an America that would enable the permanent installation of the Industrialists, effectively guaranteeing that even as free and enlightened citizens, the American worker would be always remain to some degree a second class citizen, and at best an auxiliary player in the American political system.
Ferguson predicts (at length) that, essentially, as the west slips from the peaks of Olympus, they (collectively) leave a void, which naturally, the East will rush into fill, using tried-and-true western methods of imperialism and economic liberation (or usurpation). What he seems to miss is that outside of the westerner’s convenient view of his or her own history, there is actually no East or West, and that in spite of this dualistic tendency to rivalry, what sickens the goose slays the gander. If America declared bankruptcy tomorrow, or if the Euro-zone suddenly destabilized, the consequences would not be confined to any geographical complex. The same holds true for China, or Russia, or any of the major players in world politics who might be described as “too-big-to-fail.” Nial’s four solutions (consume, import, invest, and innovate MORE) only drive this cycle towards one or both of its obvious conclusions: Collapse, or artificial show-down. As war is historically very good for industry, one must hope that the industrialists that drive the world under their ferocious whips to the arbitrary pace of ego-maniacal madness, see the error of their ways, and begin looking to the future of their labor force through less divisive, more pragmatic eyes.
Image Source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01850/civilizatoin_main_1850655f.jpg