In his latest book, Niall Ferguson identifies the six vital ingredients which have led to western supremacy. Jack Straw argues that he is too pessimistic about our futureby Jack Straw / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Christmas in Wenzhou: “the most entrepreneurial city in China.” The country’s rise in wealth has been paralleled by a rise in Christianity
Civilisation—The West and The Rest by Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane, £25)
The six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire have been staring at me with mounting disapproval ever since my wife inherited them from her father 25 years ago. They have not been inviting me to read them; rather demanding my attention.
I have started to comply. I finished the first volume before Christmas. Five more to go. The bestselling historian Niall Ferguson, of course, long ago digested all six, and much more besides. But happily for me it is the first volume that contains Gibbon’s polemic against Christianity, which Ferguson paraphrases as “Christianity was one of the fatal solvents of the first version of western civilisation”; so I understood better his point.
In his new book, Ferguson sets out to provide answers to what he says is “perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve”: the rise of the west as the “pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ.”
In seeking to answer this riddle—and that of why Britain was first from the traps—Ferguson is contemptuous of the Whig interpretation of history, “with its assumption that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was divinely ordained.” Instead, his approach echoes the aphorism of historian Frederic Maitland, that “events now long in the past were once in the future,” whose outcome was neither predictable, nor usually predicted. And there is the reminder from Gibbon, repeated like a dismal drumbeat through the book, of the suddenness and speed of the Roman empire’s collapse. The author asks if “our own version of western civilisation [could] collapse with equal suddenness” and give way to new empires of the “rest”—above all of China.
While Ferguson does not appear to argue with Gibbon’s view of the role of Christianity in the decline of the Roman empire, he does distinguish it from the “very specific form of Christianity that gave the modern version of civilisation [one of] its key advantages over the rest of the world: Protestantism, or rather the peculiar ethic of hard work and thrift with which it came to be associated.”
This view, as Ferguson acknowledges, goes back to Max Weber, the early 20th-century academic and founder of modern sociology. Ferguson develops the point in interesting directions. He attributes the record levels of literacy in the southern Indian state of Kerala to the effects of its early Christianity (Christian influence in the state dates to the 1st century AD), and the activity of missionaries from the 19th century onwards. I half knew that. I did not know about the more recent spread of Christianity in China—at least 40m Protestants, with some estimates as high as 110m; and 20m Catholics. “Churches are being built at a faster rate in China than anywhere else in the world.”
Take Wenzhou, a city of 8m to the south of Shanghai, reputed to be the “most entrepreneurial” city in China. “The truly fascinating thing is that people in Wenzhou have more than just imported the work ethic from the west. They have imported Protestantism too”—with 1,339 state-approved churches. “Just as in Protestant Europe and America in the early days of the industrial revolution, religious communities [in China] double both as credit networks and supply chains of creditworthy, trustworthy fellow believers.”
This is a book of great scholarship and painstaking research. Fact after fact brings together a subsidiary theme about the role of clothes in the domination of the west. “The result is one of the great paradoxes of modern history: that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogenising humanity.” Levi’s jeans became both a sign and a metaphor for western domination, and desperately desired by those for whom they were out of reach, especially in the Soviet bloc. My most vivid memory of a camping trip to communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s was having grown men offer me ridiculous sums of money for the jeans I was wearing (there was no sale— I had no others). Here was an empire which sowed the seeds of its own destruction, falling victim to the contradictions that Marx thought would be the fate of capitalism, and descending into the absurdities of requiring, from 1968, “all Czech rock musicians to sit a written exam in Marxist-Leninism.”
As Ferguson describes, the fall of the Soviet empire was even more rapid and unexpected than that of the Roman empire. The western European empires, especially of France and Britain (the subject of earlier works by this author), did not so much fall as fade away.
Ferguson was educated at that centre of dour Scottish Protestantism, the Glasgow Academy school, and there are times when he appears so depressed about our prospects that I anticipated that the following chapter would be called “We’re all doomed.” Parts of the book do make for bleak reading—not least the “de-Christianisation” of Britain and the rest of Europe—in stark contrast to the heart of the west, the US.
There is little doubt that China will overtake the US’s aggregate GDP in a couple of decades, with India not that far behind. At its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Britain consolidated its international reach by investing its astonishing trade surpluses, as much as 7 per cent of GDP. China is now doing exactly the same. If our self-confidence depends on the comfort that most others are much less well off than us, then we surely face decline. But Ferguson argues, correctly in my view, that the west has had “six killer applications”: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. He suggests, though does not say so outright, we should be flattered that the rise of the “rest” is due to their adoption of these six applications.
So, no need for another Gibbon to write his epic about the decline and fall of the west; or not for a while. “The biggest threat to western civilisation is posed not by other civilisations, but by our own pusillanimity—and by the historical ignorance that feeds it,” Ferguson concludes. This book is a provocative, entertaining and important contribution to meeting that ignorance.