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June 01st 2011 print

Daryl McCann

Superior but Brittle


Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane, 2011), 402 pages, $49.95.


On March 7, 1989, thirty-two-year-old Winfried Freudenberg’s makeshift balloon crash landed, securing him the posthumous honour of last person to die escaping across the Berlin Wall. A month before, on the night of February 6, Chris Gueffroy, aged twenty, was shot ten times in the chest while attempting to flee East Berlin in the vicinity of the Britz district canal. All four East German soldiers involved in the murder of Gueffroy were duly presented with a GDR medal and 150 East German marks. What brave souls like Gueffroy and Freudenberg did not know—and, according to perhaps the most important thesis in Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, could not know—was that eight or so months later, on the night of November 9, 1989, an opening would miraculously appear in the Wall.

Ferguson’s contention is that the rise and decline of a given civilisation does not obey a decipherable or predictable rhythm in the way thinkers as diverse as Hegel, Marx and Spengler have postulated: 

What if history is not cyclical and slow moving but arrhythmic—sometimes almost stationary, but also capable of violent acceleration? What if historical time is less like the slow and predictable changing of the seasons and more like the elastic time of our dreams? Above all, what if collapse is not centuries in the making but strikes a civilization suddenly, like a thief in the night? 

It is true that in the case of the German Democratic Republic, and soon after the Soviet Union itself, a decades-old socialist project came undone almost overnight. The GDR’s Head of State, Erich Honecker, and his Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke, were both keen to pursue the Tiananmen Square option but the other members of a panicky Politburo sidelined them, before proceeding to commit political suicide. By June 1990 the armed forces of East (not West) Germany were diligently dismantling the Berlin Wall and in October of that year the GDR vanished from the face of the earth. How could Gueffroy or Freudenberg have been expected to know that the East German regime, always so fiercely Stalinist, would suddenly give up the ghost?

Ferguson’s argument is that a civilisation, like the human beings who inhabit it, is infinitely complex. The smallest development can be enough to throw the equilibrium of the whole enterprise into disarray: “a single grain of sand causes an apparently stable sandcastle to fall in on itself”. The possibility of an unexpected and abrupt collapse of the status quo, therefore, is never to be ruled out. According to Civilization: The West and the Rest, the decline of the Roman empire (Western civilisation Mark I) was not a “slow burn” as Edward Gibbon would have us believe. Up until 406, when Germanic forces crossed the Rhine and penetrated Italy proper, the western Roman empire retained a certain “normalcy”. In the next fifty years, though, Rome lost control of Britain, Spain, much of Gaul and its choicest colonies in northern Africa. As late as 468 Emperor Leo I was (unsuccessfully) battling to retain Carthage. Eight years later Rome became the fiefdom of King Odoacer of the Scrii, and the game was up. The western Roman empire, by this account, took no more than a generation to fall.

The decline and fall of the British Empire was similarly precipitous. In Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), Ferguson locates the origins of a “creeping crisis of confidence in Empire” in the fallout from the First World War, starting with Ireland: “a collapse of British self-confidence, hand-wringing, second thoughts, a messy concession, another concession” in Britain’s first colony “sent a signal to the Empire at large”. The impossible financial burden inflicted on the United Kingdom by the Second World War certainly played an important part in Westminster’s decision to surrender up the empire in less than two decades, but Ferguson contends that it was in the inter-war years that Britain first began to lose faith in itself as an imperial power. In short, the empire was not so much wrested from Britain by indigenous independence movements as relinquished. This might be contentious enough, but the suggestion in Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World that India and elsewhere experienced a net gain from their time under British rule caused apoplexy amongst progressive thinkers. 

Civilization: The West and the Rest will definitely not placate Ferguson’s critics on the politically correct Left. Throwing relativism to the wind, the author cheerfully expostulates on the superiority of Western civilisation from 1500 onwards, explaining its pre-eminence in terms of six categories (or “killer apps” as Ferguson would have it): competition; the scientific revolution; the rule of law; modern medicine; the consumer society; and the work ethic. Such a list might appear less than comprehensive but each topic covers a lot of territory. The section on the work ethic, for instance, allows Ferguson to describe the practices of early Protestants, who combined “intensive labour with higher savings rates” which in turn allowed for an unprecedented degree of “sustained capital accumulation”. This vital chapter also allows Ferguson to contemplate the prospects of a post-Christian Europe.

One of the consequences of the ascendancy of Western civilisation (Mark II) was that, over time, smallish European monarchies and republics acquired great empires. This period in history resulted in countless atrocities, including the exploitation of indigenous people and the destruction of indigenous cultures. Few would deny this, least of all Niall Ferguson. What he does argue, however, is that the nature of European empire building was not uniform, and “blanket critiques of imperialism” lead to unhelpful generalisations. For instance, Iberian America and British America were both European ventures, and yet they developed in vastly different ways. The West’s treatment of the Rest had some truly diabolical moments, not the least being the Belgian (and French) Congo and the behaviour of Germany in Africa before the First World War. Ferguson makes a very strong case that the loathsome procedures and “philosophy” that underlined Germany’s colonisation of Eastern Europe had their genesis in Africa: “It was no coincidence that the man Hitler appointed as provincial governor of Posen in 1939, Viktor Böttcher, had been a civil servant in the German Cameroons.”

But even in Cameroon, Ferguson informs us, there were benefits to be derived from European stewardship, although they had to await Germany’s exit: “Sleeping sickness, which had been the scourge of Cameroon under German rule, was largely eradicated under French rule.” While the Europeans mostly did not live up to their “civilising mission” in Africa, the introduction of modern medicine, especially in tropical climes, was an upside to European intervention. Nevertheless, the West’s colonisation of Africa was terribly problematic and “the rapid dissolution of the European empires in the post-war years appeared to be a just enough sentence, whether or not the majority of former colonies were ready for self-government”. Besides, it had dawned on the Europeans after the Second World War that an advanced industrial nation need not possess an overseas empire in order to thrive.

Japan, argues Ferguson, represents an entirely different state of affairs in the inter-relationship between the West and the Rest. Here the hitherto strained metaphor of downloading “killer apps” makes the most sense. Humiliated by American Commodore Matthew C. Perry, after 1853 the powers-that-be in the Hermit Kingdom realised they could either play the role of doormat in world affairs or make themselves strong by adopting the secrets of the West’s success. Not sure which aspects of Western civilisation were more crucial than others, the Japanese took “no chances” and “copied everything”. However absurd or debased traditionalists felt aping the Westerner, the Meiji Restoration constitutes one of the most rapid and profound social transformations in the history of the world. Alas, this spectacular occurrence came back to “plague the inventor” when Imperial Japan struck Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong in December 1941.

It might be argued that the post-Mao Zedong era in China amounts to an uncanny re-run of the Japanese narrative, only this time the phenomenon is larger exponentially and so the long-term fallout for the West potentially more dire. Despite Ferguson’s obvious prowess in matters financial, and his evocative use of statistics and anecdotes to paint a picture of the enormity of the changes in China, he is not predicting a repeat of the 1941–45 Pacific War. In fact, Ferguson is sceptical about Samuel Huntington’s clash-of-civilisations thesis, seeing the divisions within a given civilisation or country as a more likely catalyst for confrontation and violence. Although Civilization: The West and the Rest was completed before the current turmoil in the Middle East, developments there mostly corroborate his view. Statistics tell us, for example, that Muslims are far more likely to be killed by fellow believers than by non-Muslims. 

Implosion, to return to Ferguson’s original point, is what a civilisation, empire or regime needs to fear as much as any external threat. The People’s Republic of China is an example. The PLA might have subjugated Tibet in order to be in a stronger geo-political position to counter India, but there are explosive forces at work in China right now and the Communist Party leadership, ensconced in the never-never world of Zhongnanhai, will not contain them forever, however energetically the Ministry of Public Security goes about its business.

Although the Party would have preferred to “reheat Confucianism”, the rise of capitalism in the Middle Kingdom has resulted in not just the intensification of the work ethic, but also the rapid burgeoning of Protestantism: “Christianity has become chic in China.” The rise of Protestantism in Europe, as Civilization: The West and the Rest argues, was associated with not just economic development and consumption, but the rule of law and the evolution of liberal democracy. The PRC’s former president, Jiang Zemin, is reported to have reflected positively on the idea of Christianity one day becoming the official religion of China. That day may well come, but if it does the giant portrait looming over Tiananmen Square will be of Sun Yat-sen and not Mao Zedong. Maybe this is the spectre that haunts Hu Jintao, and explains the recent crackdown on artists like Lu Qing and Christian advocates such as Fan Yafeng, not to mention the continuing persecution of “unregistered” churches.

The problems and challenges China faces, Ferguson suggests, are almost the opposite of those confronting Europe. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, today’s Europeans “are the idlers of the world”, the Protestant work ethic, let alone Protestantism, having vacated the premises. There are more nominal Anglicans in England than in (say) the South Sudan, but whether there are as many believing and practising Anglicans is a moot point. Who would deny the existence of some kind of spiritual vacuum in Britain (or Australia, for that matter)? According to Ferguson, Islamist organisations in the West have grown bolder in recent years. For instance, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), “openly proclaims its intention to make ‘Britain … an Islamic state by the year 2020’”. Western civilisation’s radical multiculturalism and moral relativism are analogous to a fully furnished multi-storey mansion in which all the lights are on and the front door is open but nobody’s at home.

In the end, though, the tone of Civilization: The West Versus the Rest is not depressingly defeatist. The qualities that gave Western civilisation its ascendancy in the first place—those “six killer apps”—are a package, and though virtually every other country in the world has sooner or later tried to download them, and though every day more and more “Resterners” are “sleeping, showering, dressing, working, playing, eating, drinking and travelling like Westerners”, societies in the West enjoy the advantage of being the original thing, and certain advantages—including innovation—come with that.

Ferguson acknowledges our historical misdeeds, which include everything from “the brutalities of imperialism to the banality of shopping”. Moreover, there are flaws in the Western way of experiencing life, the “dubious consequences” that arise from the “intense materialism” that characterises our mortal existence. Nevertheless, no other civilisation has ever “done a better job of finding and educating the geniuses that lurk in the far right-hand tail of the distribution of talent in any human society”. And yet the superiority of Western civilisation can only remain so if we continue to believe it is superior and worthy of our respect and protection.

In the opinion of Ferguson, then, any future danger the West faces will more likely be as a result of the demons within than an external challenge from the Rest: 

At its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation … But what are the foundational texts of Western civilization, that can bolster our belief in the almost limitless power of the free individual human being? And how good are we at teaching them, given our educational theorists’ aversion to formal knowledge and rote learning? Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but in our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.  

Ferguson, not surprisingly, is incensed that what passes for a liberal education in so many Western schools and universities has, for the past three decades, denied our young “the substance of historical knowledge”. Educators prime their charges “to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims” at the expense of the higher-order task of “essays about how and why their predicaments arose”. In the name of constructivism and other postmodernist fads, we train students “in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts” and not the “the key skill of reading widely and fast”. The price of patronising our young is dangerous ignorance.

Ignorance of this kind is especially hazardous if Ferguson is right about a civilisation not growing old gracefully and dying in its own good time but, rather, enduring a precipitous decline, something that arrives with little warning—like a car crash. We, as a civilisation, need to be fully cognisant of who we are and where we are because a “defective brake or a sleeping driver can be all it takes to go over the edge of chaos”. The West should be self-aware and switched on, candid about its past mistakes and yet not endlessly doubting and second-guessing itself. Above all, contends Ferguson, we must forswear the timidity and cowardice that is the condition of those who are unaware of the shoulders on which they stand: “the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity—and by the ignorance that feeds it”. We have been warned.

Daryl McCann, a frequent contributor to Quadrant, discussed Patrick Moore’s memoir in the May issue.