Western Civilisation

Teetering on the Top

Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—for Now (Profile, 2010), 768 pages, $59.99.

“The nearest thing to a unified field theory of history we are ever likely to get.” Like Niall Ferguson, whose endorsement opens this review, “I loved it.” Ian Morris has previously written academic books but this is his first “trade book”, presumably publisher’s jargon for a book aimed at the general reader. It carries endorsement from many serious historians such as Ferguson, and is literally a gripping page-turner.

The opening is bold and provocative. Queen Victoria is “angry, frightened, and tired from fighting back tears”. With her husband Albert, the Duke of Wellington and half the court, she is kneeling in the rain, awaiting the arrival of Governor Qiying, Britain’s new ruler. Victoria is invested as a “subject ruler”, and Albert is to be taken to Beijing as a vassal hostage.

Not true, of course, in fact a hypothetical novelistic device, a mirror image of events in the real history of relations between the mighty British and Chinese empires at the time of the Opium wars. Ian Morris’s aim is to explain why the West rules. We may think this is an easy task, since the industrial revolution happened there, rather than in the East. The poet Hilaire Belloc gave his answer in 1898: 

Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Why did the West have such advanced military technology in the nineteenth century? We must answer this question so we can move on to what will happen next. During the twentieth century Japan emerged as a major power, and now China is emerging as the next, vastly greater, Eastern power. China’s economy is doubling every six and a half years and is expected to become the world’s largest by 2030—some say far sooner.

Starting with ancient Greece and the Roman empire the leadership of the West was “locked in”, goes one popular theory. Karl Marx, writing a China column for the New York Daily Tribune, suggested that politics was the real cause of Eastern backwardness. For thousands of years Oriental states had been so centralised and so powerful that they basically stopped the flow of history. Europe progressed from antiquity through feudalism to capitalism, with imminent revolution expected (by Marx) to lead to communism. The Eastern nations were “sealed in the amber of despotism” and needed their own revolutions to break this mould. Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and the Kims of North Korea disproved this theory but failed to produce a socialist paradise.

But history raises deep questions that challenge the locked-in theory. The great European age of discovery began when Europe’s ships were far smaller, and with fewer aids to navigation, than China’s vast maritime fleets. But the Chinese emperors banned ocean voyages and destroyed their records. Europe’s fragmented political landscape meant that many monarchs could refuse to fund Columbus, but eventually someone would do so, and did.

The bottom line is that the long-term locked-in theory is no longer supported. Morris says, “Only after 1800 CE, on the eve of the Opium War, did the West pull temporarily ahead of the East, and that was largely accidental.”

Morris paints on a large canvas, and his analysis is as rigorously based on facts as can be imagined. He argues that both long-termers and short-termers (supporting “accidents” as the driving force of history) have got it wrong. “What we need … is a different perspective.” The domination of the West in the past 200 years is not disputed. But there are great differences about history for the 15,000 years before then. Morris was educated as an archaeologist and an ancient historian and then taught history in Chicago, which required rapid reading of medieval and modern European history. It was impossible to ignore the great civilisations of China, India and Persia, as well as the long periods when the “freedom, reason and inventiveness” supposedly given to the West by Greece were more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

The only proper approach is to develop what Morris calls an “inter- rather that multi-disciplinary approach”—a single man drawing together the views of experts in numerous fields. This courts numerous errors, but those who stay within the boundaries of their own disciplines will never see the big picture. The device that provides a powerful unifying framework is an attempt to measure social development in the East and the West over a vast period and ultimately to project its values as a way to consider the deeply uncertain future. And as readers will find, Morris naturally has to consider two extremely different futures, which he labels “Nightfall” and “the Singularity”, whose general shapes will be familiar to readers of Isaac Asimov and Raymond Kurzweil respectively.

I hasten to add that the social development index provides no straitjacket. Indeed, Morris calls it “chainsaw art”. Morris explains how he tested different measures which generally give similar results. The time when the East is ahead (from around 541 AD until around 1773) corresponds roughly to what we in the West call the Dark Ages. The social development index is more of an illustrative device, a skeleton on which hangs much juicy flesh, to employ a horrible analogy to a cannibal’s feast. Curious his methods may seem, but Morris’s book has many exciting aspects which together encourage one to think outside the usual constraints. Ian Morris has absorbed and integrated the lessons of many specialised disciplines and I shall be astounded if specialists find much to argue with. 

One of those times when “a single year seems to shift the ground under our feet” was 1776. In Glasgow, Adam Smith finished The Wealth of Nations, “the first and greatest work of political economy”; and in London Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire hit the bookshops and “became an overnight sensation”. “Universal ferment” began, and in the following century Western development went off the scale. Ideas were important but the specific breakthrough concerned the generation of usable and portable power that went well beyond the muscle power of men and animals. English engine-makers found the answer. The first working Western pump was invented in 1698, its role to pump out flooded coal mines. James Watt tinkered with a model of this engine and one Sunday whilst walking had the idea which represented the way to a vastly more efficient steam engine, though it took many years of poverty and bankruptcy before Watt’s invention was rescued by an entrepreneurial “iron chieftain”. Matthew Boulton took Watt and his machines to Birmingham where money and different expertise produced a working pump that far exceeded the efficiency of previous pumps. This new machine was unveiled in March of that magic year of 1776. New technology helped create America’s cotton industry and in Britain “technology jumped from industry to industry”, creating the “biggest and fastest transformation in the entire history of the world”.

Morris claims that even if the “great men, bungling idiots and dumb luck” of history had not produced the industrial revolution in England, it was likely to have happened somewhere in Northern Europe and less likely to have occurred in the East. In discussing such matters, Morris admits that he is “piling what-ifs on what-ifs”. The industrial revolution was due, he argues, to accumulation of technology, cheap power and the fact that what he calls the “fifth horseman of the apocalypse”—mass migration—did not overwhelm Northern Europe. Given the potential threat of forced migration in our world, I would have liked to see more of this argument, which seems to me to be asserted (and at several vital places in the narrative) rather than demonstrated.

Eighteenth-century Europe was better placed than any other society (another perhaps obvious assertion) for Boulton’s breakthrough, and within Europe the north-west where kings were weaker and merchants were freer, and within the north-west Britain was best placed of all. By 1770, Britain had higher wages, more coal, stronger finance and “arguably more open institutions” (for middle- and upper-class men anyway). Thanks to winning the battle for Europe (then the battle for the Western world), Britain also had more colonies, trade and warships plus, one guesses, a kind of vital national self-confidence.

The capitalist revolution was under way, with Britain’s burgeoning colonies adding new territories and their own inventions to the revolution caused by new technologies spreading rapidly throughout Europe. Innovation was encouraged and strengthened by major discoveries of gold in California and eastern Australia in mid-century. There was a rapid response from the Eastern nations. “In the 1860s Chinese ‘self strengthening’ and Japanese ‘civilizing and enlightenment’ movements set about copying what they saw as the best of the West.” Western capitalists rushed to respond. Japan, already relatively strongly developed and avoiding colonisation, developed fastest. China, partly colonised and initially less developed, came next.

Was Western rule inevitable? No, merely probable. Morris takes as back to various dates in the history of the modern era to assess probabilities of future Western or Eastern rule. In 1800 Western rule by 2000 was “overwhelmingly likely”. When Newton was a boy, in 1650, Western rule by 2000 looked less likely but still plausible. In 1500 the prognosis was “murkier still”. Perhaps the Hapsburgs might have prevailed, and the Inquisition might have silenced radicals such as Newton and Descartes, and arbitrary taxation might have stifled English, Dutch and French trade as it destroyed Spanish commerce in historical reality. Or a Hapsburg empire might have driven more Puritans to America and kick-started a new Western power earlier and stronger. Or the Turks might have taken Vienna in 1529 and, “as Gibbon put it, the interpretation of the Koran might now be taught in the schools of Oxford”.

What fun to consider the what-ifs of history. These interludes, however, come in between what looks to me first-rate recording of all the big facts of history, illuminated by brilliant shafts of insight about lesser facts and opinions, like Gibbon and the Koran. 

I cannot recommend Why the West Rulesfor Now too highly and I cannot resist the temptation to summarise the author’s views of the century or so that lies ahead of us. Ian Morris ends his what-if game by saying that, in all probability, Western rule now could only have been prevented if there had been a genuine “Nightfall episode—a cataclysm that overwhelms all responses, destroying civilization and hurling humanity back to square one”.

The closest the world came to a genuine “Nightfall” episode, asserts Morris, was around 10,800 BC. Then a “vast icy lake” drained into the North Atlantic and lowered its temperature enough to turn off the Gulf Stream. The 1200-year mini-ice-age that followed was called the Younger Dyas and “made every episode of global cooling since then seem trivial”. The consequences of a similar event in the past few thousand years “are too horrible to contemplate for long”. A tiny remnant human population would have been clustered in the Lucky Latitudes praying for rain and scratching out a meagre living. Thousands of years of social progress would have been wiped out.

Astronomers can imagine a major meteor strike that would have a similar effect but, like the Younger Dyas, such an event would be totally beyond humanity’s power to inflict upon ourselves—except that now, of course, we have equivalent means in the form of all-out nuclear war. There were several times, especially during the Cuban missile crisis, when we nearly did. Despite considerable reductions in effective warheads, actual and planned, self-inflicted Nightfall can still be imagined.

There have been many predictions of the end of Western rule. The current relatively rapid growth of China’s production is the most obvious fact. China becoming America’s banker is another. The near-meltdown of the Western financial system during the recent global financial crisis is a third. The capitalist system is experiencing more frequent financial crises, arguably of increasing size and involving growing danger of general economic breakdown. All these facts, the subject of my recent book Great Crises of Capitalism, raise questions about the West’s leadership beyond the simple fact of extrapolation of recent trends.

Ian Morris’s indices of social development show a similar tendency. The extrapolation of recent trends shows the East overtaking the West early in the next century. The future, of course, is far from immutable, or so we believers in free will are inclined to believe. (Morris makes reference to Charles Dickens’s Scrooge, who asked the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come if he was being shown the shadows of things that Will Be, or the shadows of things that May Be, only. Morris also reminds us of Asimov’s Hari Seldon and his fictional science of psychohistory.)

These indices of social development, however, have a far more dramatic message than changes in the relative position of the world’s two great civilisations. They reflect the accelerating, scary rate of change that many of us feel to be a feature of the modern world. As Morris puts it: “We are approaching the greatest discontinuity in history.” This is what the futurist Raymond Kurzweil calls “the Singularity”—“a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep … that technology appears to be expanding at infinite speed”.

The core of this view is the extrapolation of Moore’s Law, the rule that in every passing year the miniaturisation of computer chips roughly doubles their speed and halves their cost. By 2030, Kurzweil says, this law implies it will be possible to upload human minds onto computers. By 2145, computers will be able to host all the human minds in the world, “effectively merging carbon- and silicon-based intelligence into a single global consciousness”. This is sometimes called “Rapture for Nerds”, but Morris says “criticism from incredulity” is no counter-argument. As well as massive computing power, think genetic engineering, think brain implants to alleviate disease effects, think American military experiments to place molecular computers allowing wireless access to the internet in soldiers’ heads. 

Even without the wilder aspects of Kurzweil’s Singularity, we are headed for a massive discontinuity, far exceeding the major discontinuities of past developments such as the establishment of agriculture or the industrial revolution. There may be developments that our unimproved, merely human, brains cannot imagine—“unless”, Morris warns, “something prevents them”.

“Something” is the worst-case scenario. Already what Morris calls the five familiar apocalyptic figures—of climate change, famine, state failure, migration and disease—“seem to be back”. Climate change sceptics will stop reading at this point, but Ian Morris is another distinguished thinker who believes human activity is causing global warming (or “global weirding”, as another distinguished thinker puts it) that may greatly impede human progress. Morris accepts that global warming is real and may cause many problems, exacerbating other adverse trends including mass migration, famine and pandemic, all leading to state failure. I urge deep-dyed sceptics to read the relevant part of Why the West Rules and to meditate on the question of what might happen if mainstream science, accepted by Morris, is broadly correct.

Acts of terrorism or even war between China and America involving nuclear weapons (or manufactured pandemic, I would add) are clearly possible. Morris quotes experts who say the world is too interdependent and the costs of war so high that war between the great powers could not happen. Unfortunately these experts were writing just before the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict, it should be noted, started by an individual act of terrorism.

Rome’s failure to achieve breakthrough into a time of more rapid development ushered in six centuries of decline, a fate also suffered by China’s Song dynasty. Morris notes: 

What a Singularity will mean for Western rule is open for debate, but what Nightfall will mean seems much clearer.

For the Singularity to win, we need to keep the dogs of war on a leash, manage global weirding, and see through a revolution in energy capture. Everything has to go right. For Nightfall to win, only one thing needs to go wrong. The odds look bad. 

I suspect Ian Morris is a determined optimist, as he does not end his book here. The final pages discuss various factors that might change the course of development—global institutions that help provide better governance, widespread transition to renewable, clean energy sources (including nuclear power) and mutation of human brains, perhaps induced by the technology of the Singularity. Morris discusses the deep irony in his conclusions that whether the West rules will become irrelevant as the world globalises and shrinking geography washes away the artificial barriers between blocks of people with very slight, superficial, genetic and cultural differences.

And in conclusion: 

On the last page of his book Collapse, the biologist and geographer Jared Diamond suggested that there are two forces that might save the world from disaster: archaeologists (who uncover the details of societies’ mistakes) and television (which broadcasts their findings). As an archaeologist who watches a lot of television, I certainly agree, but I also want to add a third savior, history. Only historians can draw together the grand narrative of social development; only historians can explain the differences that divide humanity and how we can prevent them from destroying us.


P.D. Jonson’s book Great Crises of Capitalism was published earlier this year by Connor Court, selling for $29.95.

Leave a Reply