'Our Killer Applications'

Literary Review, 15 March 2011

Civilization: The West and the Rest. By Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press xxpp 25)

On 4 October 1957 a shiny steel sphere the size of a beach ball hurtled through the sky, emitting signals picked up by radio operators around the world. Taking the United States completely by surprise, the Soviet Union had successfully launched the world's first earth satellite, opening a new chapter in the space race that was met with both awe and fear. A month later Nikita Khrushchev promised that, by freeing the economy from the dead hand of Stalinism, he would create such abundance that even the United States would be left in the dust. The claims now seem extravagant, but at the time the spectre of a rising Soviet Union seemed real enough. In the mid-1970s American visitors walking through the major cities of Siberia were taken aback by downtowns that were made to appear every bit as modern as their counterparts back home.

Yet by the time the Soviet Union came crashing down a decade or so later, the perceived threat to the West had already been transposed to the East. Glittering Japan was the future. Bankers predicted that a rising empire of the sun would soon supplant the United States as the world's leading economy. Distinguished academics such as the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wondered whether Japan had a different model from the West, its citizens cells of an organic whole that stifled open dissent. On a more popular level, Michael Crichton's Rising Sun imagined a ruthless corporate world headquartered in Tokyo taking over American industries. By the time the book was published in 1992, Japan had already fallen into a decade of slump.

Niall Ferguson is not quite sure when and where he was hit by the realisation that we are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy, but he believes it may have been during his first walk along the Bund in Shanghai in 2005, dazzled by modern skyscrapers far taller than the erstwhile symbols of Western hegemony. He is not alone in his conviction that a rising China is about to best the West. A few years ago, the British journalist Martin Jacques confidently published When China Rules the World. And just in case the reader was unsure about his message, the subtitle banished all doubt: ‘The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World’. More recently, the archaeologist, classicist and historian Ian Morris, in a hefty tome entitled Why the West Rules – For Now, squarely placed China at the centre of his book, exploring the ebbing of Western power to the East, from the African gene pool hundreds of thousands of years ago to a post-biological future fifty years from now.

Civilization: The West and the Rest is a big book, but one that is mercifully confined to the last 500 years rather than the full fifteen millennia of human history examined by Morris. The key question it addresses is why a few small communities clustered around the western end of the Eurasian landmass have come to dominate the world – and whether they can maintain their lead. Ferguson is not the first to probe into the reasons for the rise of the West, but he does so in a thoughtful and engaging manner, helped by a lucid style and flashes of humour that will appeal to the lay reader. He also draws on a broad range of scholarship, managing to breathe new life into a whole series of ongoing debates, from the origins of the Industrial Revolution to the nature of imperialism.

He also strikes the right tone, steering clear of the triumphalism of some of the earlier accounts of the rise of the West, and never shying away from confronting some of the horrors perpetrated in the name of civilisation, including the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid and the Holocaust. The very notion of a civilising mission, as he points out, found its most extreme expression in the genocide of the Herero and the Nama in German South-West Africa. But Ferguson also avoids the other extreme, one which has become fashionable over the past few decades, namely a relativist approach that attacks the very notion of the rise of the West. The sinologist Kenneth Pomeranz, for one, went to great lengths in The Great Divergence to argue that there was nothing exceptional in Europe when compared to China, except that coal deposits were easier to mine in Britain, a fact which came to determine the shape of the modern world as we know it.

Rather than reducing the broad sweep of human history to a single variable, Ferguson captures the extraordinary complexity of the last 500 years by proposing six innovations which distinguished the West from the Rest. Borrowing from the language of today's computerised world, he calls them 'killer applications': competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society, and the work ethic. Each of these six complexes of institutions and ideas is cleverly tied up with a good chunk of history and related to a particular region of the globe, so that by the end of the book the reader will have been taken from the Grand Canal of the Yongle Emperor, to Machu Picchu in the Andes, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the 'Villages of Liberty' in Senegal.

His account starts in China, although Ferguson shows how at all levels – both between and within states, and even within cities – economic and political competition had helped Western European societies establish a clear lead over the East as early as 1500. Another chapter looks at how competition prompted a new way of understanding and changing the natural world, as the West gained a crucial advantage over the Ottoman Empire thanks to improvements in science and technology during the Enlightenment.

The importance of property rights are explored by contrasting the fortunes of British and Iberian America: where the sanctity of individual freedom and the security of private property were ensured by representative, constitutional government, tremendous wealth was created. Ferguson is at pains to demonstrate that slaves in North America paid the price of John Locke's justification for the ownership not only of land, but also of human beings, since the slave trade and segregation slowed down North America's ascent towards prosperity, creating social problems that still bedevil the country today. In Latin America, on the other hand, centuries of division, instability and underdevelopment were the price to pay for centralised dictatorships that confined the right to vote and own land to wealthy elites.

Medicine, too, is given pride of place in this book, as it allowed major improvements in health and life expectancy. A rich chapter on the post-Second World War era sees the consumer society as a way of living that focused on demand rather than supply, thus sustaining the Industrial Revolution and effectively defeating communism, the major challenge to capitalism in the twentieth century.

So far so good, but towards the end of the book Ferguson's argument unravels. Although he gives a decent account of Max Weber's musings on the Protestant work ethic, as any historian of the rise of the West must, he then extends the theme of religion into contemporary China. Before the reader knows it he is being shown around the secret churches of Wenzhou, a city that has come to dominate the market in products ranging from felt-tip pens to sex toys, as if the advent of Christianity explains the recent economic surge of the People's Republic. Given the book’s lucid analysis and often passionate defence of the role of basic institutions such as freedom of speech, separation of powers, individual rights and the rule of law in the creation of immense prosperity over the past 500 years, one might reasonably expect the author's last chapter on religion to look at the rise of two of the world's largest democracies, India and Indonesia, or at the ways in which millions have been propelled into the middle classes in Brazil, a predominantly Roman Catholic country. But not so. Having spent 300 pages explaining the importance of his six killer applications in the fortunes of the West, Ferguson then looks spellbound at the rise of the one power that has done the least to 'download' them. 'What we are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance.' The twenty-first century is China's for the taking.

But on what is this prediction based? 'The Chinese have got capitalism', we are told – but how could even such a basic claim be true for a country where the movement of capital is controlled, the currency is manipulated and the banks are run by a one-party state that ceaselessly props up state-owned companies run by people selected by the Communist Party on the basis of political merit? What is a bond market that is not allowed to price risk?

And what about all those growth statistics trundled by China gazers? Some sixty years ago it wasn't just Khrushchev who promised to bury capitalism: Chairman Mao convinced the world that China would overtake Britain with a Great Leap Forward. The experiment went horribly wrong, killing tens of millions of people, but the party learnt how to lie, how to cook the figures, how to manipulate foreigners, and how to control every aspect of its image to the outside world. Of course, China has managed to move on, but the same structural impediments to the building of an open, accountable and prosperous society are still in place, leading to similar problems: systemic corruption, massive squandering on showcase projects of dubious worth, doctored statistics, an environmental catastrophe and a party fearful of its own people, among others. And this time the main victim of an unsustainable leap may not be the people but rather the environment, although the fates of both are ultimately tied together. By the government's own account, the environmental costs in 2008 were equivalent to 3 per cent of that year's gross domestic product. Before Pan Yue, the Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection, was sidelined, he put environmental damage at 8 to 13 per cent of the country's GDP each year, meaning that pollution has cost the People's Republic almost everything it has gained since the late 1970s.

As under Mao, of course, there may very well be foreigners who applaud authoritarianism, but Ferguson is an outspoken and eloquent proponent of some of the basic liberties that have shaped the modern world. The conclusion of Civilization suggests that the real threat is not posed by China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but 'by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors'. When even a historian of the calibre of Niall Ferguson is seduced by the China myth, it may be time to start worrying.