Book Review: Civilization – Niall Ferguson (Penguin – 2012)

This book by historian Niall Ferguson is subtitled ‘The Six Killer Apps of Western Power’ because, well, you’ve got to make an effort to appeal to the ‘yoof’.   

Ferguson argues in favour of studying the broad narrative sweep of history and trying to empathise with those who lived in the past whose life expectancy, in many cases, was around 40.

In this book Ferguason compares the West and the Rest, where the West is “more than just a geographical expression” more a “set of norms, behavious and institutions with borders that are blurred in the extreme.”

Ferguson argues, quite convincingly, that the emergence of the West as the  major economic, political and military force is the greatest phenomenon of the last 500 years.  The ‘killer apps’ he identified are competition, science, property rights, medicine, the conumer society and the work ethic.   Ferguson highlights that in 1500 Europe covered around 10% of the world’s land surface and around 16% of its population.  However, by 1913 eleven Western empires contolled nealy 60% of all territory and population and a staggering 79% of global economic output. 

A short book review like this could not hope to convey a full explanation of his ideas or arguments and he is at pains to point out that he is not pushing the idea of ‘The Triumph of the West’ Euro-centrism or anti-Orientalism.  

The book is a mine of incredible facts.  A favourite was about the Chinese Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty who commissioned a complete collection of Chinese learning.  The gargantuan task involved some 2000 scholars and filled over 11,000 volumes.  It was only surpassed in size as the world’s largest encyclopaedia in 2007 by Wikipedia.  

‘Competition’ compares the experience of a number of European states and kingdoms who vied with each other in trade and war against that of China where the Confucian bureaucratic system upheld a harmonious but rigid and cautious system, which effectively stagnated.

‘Science’ leads with the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683.  Whilst quite interesting, the reader may wonder what this has to do with science.  Indeed, a few of the chapters seem absorbed by particular historical events or characters and only seem to touch on the evidence to support the ‘killer apps’ theory.   Perhaps each killer app would take a book in itself  and would somewhat thwart the impact of the bigger idea that he wants to convey.  In this chapter we are introduced to Benjamin Robins, whose work on trajectories and artillery led the ‘ballistics revolution and made fortifications redundant.  Ferguson also notes that the chances of Ottoman scientific progress was snuffed out by religion. 

In ‘Property’ Ferguson examines the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and compares the positions of North America, where private property was largely protected, with South America where there was a lack of property rights.  In South America the lack of property rights is seen as a mjaor cause of coups, dictatorhsip and meaningless constitutions dreamt up to serve the aims of the drafters.  In this chapter, Ferguson launches and excoriating attach on Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who died after the book was published (although I don’t believe the events were related).

In ‘Medicine’ Ferguson hits the nail on the head when he states “it is a truth almost universally acknowledged in the schools and colleges of the Western world that imperialism is the root cause of nearly every modern problem from conflict in the Middle East to poverty in sub-Saharan Africa…” He goes on to argue that some empires were worse than others and that certain benefits were spread throughout the world not least ability to treat disease and a resulting increase in life-expectancy.  In this chapter there is a lot on the French Revolution and political philosophy.  Again, it is very good, but the reader may question what Robespierre and Locke have to do with medical advances.

In ‘Consumption’, Ferguson notes that the consumer society is a killer app that the rest of the world has generally been keen to buy on the App Store.  In this chapter, Marx if described as an “odious individual’ who lived on handouts from his friend Engels who was running one of his father’s cotton factories.  

Finally in the chapter on “Work” Ferguson highlights the ideas of Max Weber who believed that the Reformation in Europe made it more friendly to capitalism and provided individuals with the ‘Protestant ethic’ that valued thrift and hard work.  Ferguson does highlight the flaws in Max Weber’s ideas but is clearly convinced, and convincing, in his arguments.

With the rise of China as a global power, Ferguson questions whether the half-millennium of Western dominance are coming to an end and argues that the end, if and when it comes, may not involve a slow decline but could happen relatively suddenly and unexpectedly.  In the end, the proven success of the West is the adoption of its six killer apps by other civilizations to develop and eventually outpace it.

This is an enormously interesting, highly readable, history book.  Give it a go.