Last winter I took note of a major conflict between Pankaj Mishra and Niall Ferguson over a review by the former of the latter’s most recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. Ferguson accused Mishra of attempting to assassinate his character, and even suggested that he would take him to court over libel. This piqued my curiosity, so I added Ferguson’s latest work to my stack. I recently managed to get to it and finish it. It’s a very quick and jaunty read. I enjoyed his The Ascent of Money and The World’s Banker, but have avoided Ferguson’s forays into neoconservative intellectual polemic. I’m obviously not a neoconservative myself, but normally disagreement with an individual’s theses doesn’t deter me from grappling with their ideas. Rather, the past decade of American history has been a wasteful experiment in neoconservative nation-building, and I’d had enough of that. No need for more o that crap in flowery and more erudite paragraphs. But when it comes to economic history Niall Ferguson seems to be on more legitimate terrain, though his histories of the Rothschild House are much weightier tomes than something like The Ascent of Money. But to be frank The Ascent of Money is War and Peace next to Civilization.
So what of Mishra’s review? After reading Civilization I read it, and I quite understand where Ferguson’s anger was coming from. Panjak Mishra basically suggests that Ferguson is a racist, throwing sneering asides to Charles Murray so that the reader can be assured of the intent. In particular, an analogy is clearly made between Ferguson and Lothrop Stoddard, author of works such as The rising tide of color against white world-supremacy. Stoddard’s opinion, the rising tide of color, bad, white supremacy, good. A normal Westerner in this day and age would find the comparison offensive, but in Ferguson’s case it’s particularly galling, because he has a mixed-race son with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
What’s a shame though is that many of Mishra’s substantive critiques of Civilization are spot on. Niall Ferguson’s story of the rise of the West involves six “killer apps.” They are: political and economic competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law, modern medicine, education and the work ethic. Where this argument is persuasive, it’s not original (e.g., the scientific revolution). Where it is novel, it is not worked out in much detail (e.g., medicine). The book is simply far too ambitious in scope in relation to the thesis being presented. Rather than an argument, Civilization consists mostly of bald assertions occasionally sprinkled in with some insight which one wishes would be followed up in more detail. For example, as Mishra notes there is much warmed-over Webberianism in Ferguson’s narrative, but he does present the idea that Protestantism was not useful for the work ethic in a direct manner, but that it increased in human capital and therefore potential productivity through the spread of literacy due to the shift toward personal reading of the Bible. Yes, there are notes, but I wish Ferguson would have pushed more into this area and fleshed out his thoughts, because he reports that this effect holds true in non-Western societies too (i.e., Protestant areas have higher literacy, all things areas, vis-a-vis Roman Catholic areas).
But I assume that it is in the area of colonialism that Niall Ferguson might rankle many. His enthusiasm for empire is well attested, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t give a totally negative account of the colonial adventure, in both intent and outcome. A world of post-colonial theory this is a big no-no, and clearly was the reason for why Pankaj Mishra accused Ferguson of being a racialist of yore. Long-time readers know that I’m not a fan of post-colonial theory, which makes a fetish of the power of the white race, and totally ignores the agency of colored peoples, for good or ill. In particular I found it interesting how Civilization outlined the different natures of Western colonialism. Not only does post-colonial theory tend to reduce the colored experience into one of amorphous subalterns, but there also does not seem to be a deep exploration of the reality that French colonialism was qualitatively different from British colonialism which was qualitatively different from German colonialism. This section of the narrative is worth expanding, but in the interests of covering all his “killer apps” Ferguson simply moves on hastily.
Finally, there are aspects of the book which are amateurish and tendentious in the extreme. As Mishra notes Ferguson dismisses Kenneth Pommeranz’s argument in The Great Divergence with barely a word. I understand that Civilization is not a scholarly work, but I also found it frustrating that the reader might not be aware that one of Pommeranz’s observations is that too often the most dynamic areas of Europe (e.g., England) are compared to the whole of China, with the appropriate comparison is apples to apples (e.g., England vs. the zone around Shanghai). If you read Ferguson’s narrative this isn’t clear at all, and in fact he regularly does compare England itself to all of China. The section on religion and Christianity was also very hackneyed. Much of the portion on China and Christianity is taken directly from Jesus in Beijing, a work of a journalist, not a scholar. Many of the statistics and projects are basically pulled out of thin-air, though to be fair that is a problem with religion & China more generally thanks to government obstruction. Ferguson regales the reader with the fact that Chinese social scientists are convinced that Christianity is the reason for Western success, and that Jiang Zemin wanted to make Christianity China’s official religion. The former is unsourced, while Zemin is also rumored to be a private practitioner of Buddhism. In other words, question the veracity of these claims. Not only that, there is a strange juxtaposition between the section on the implicit necessity of Christianity for China’s modernization, and Japan’s wholesale adoption of Western ways. Ferguson neglects to mention that there was one thing which Japan did not adopt wholesale: Christianity. And last I checked Japan was a modern society, which somehow managed to develop (granted, Christians have been a catalytic force in Japanese society over the past century).
Overall Civilization gets 2.5 stars from me. If you know a lot of history it’s a quick read, and you can probably separate the wheat from the chaff easily. I’m not quite sure why you’d want to read it, as it doesn’t get much further than the op-eds which Ferguson has been penning (and the conceit of “killer apps” gets really annoying in my opinion). If you aren’t well versed in history you should probably not read this book, because you’re too ignorant to figure out where Ferguson is bullshitting, and where he’s being a serious scholar (you can check the notes, but he switches between the type of books published by university presses to superficial mass market nonfiction).