Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review: Civilization By Niall Ferguson

I haven't written any book review as yet but somehow this one compelled me to do so. Just thought that a 300 page book like this is at least a 4-5 hour affair and if my comments can help someone make a decision on whether to spend those 4-5 hours on the book, why not ?

Civilization:West And The Rest is probably the latest by Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson. For me, his second --I tried reading his Ascent of Money but found it massively unappealing compared to the options I had in Dostoevsky and Raghuram Rajan. Dropped it after some 50 pages. This one is little more engaging and I managed to read it full. Almost. Here's what I think:

There are two key paradigms I think can be highlighted. One is about the general tone of the book and the other is about the strength of the arguments presented in the book.

General Tone:

The book's fundamental idea is analysis of reasons of supremacy of Western Civilization on the Rest of the world for last 500 years and it is written from a standpoint of a Westerner. The striking point is however that Ferguson's tone is very clearly "Us" and "Them" where he, as a Westerner is the "Us" and the Rest is the "Them". And he doesn't forget to remind repeatedly that "Us" have dominated the "Them" for last 500 years or so. In a globalized world, where everyone is with everyone else and the entire world is trying to be a single entity (Even the Europeans who have just fought each other except for last 60 years of History !), such a marked perception of the world is quite discouraging. That too coming from a Professor at one of the world's most prestigious university.

Also, the points raised in the book, if taken at face value, just present a picture on how West rose from Dark Ages and what propelled Industrial Revolution. One can't explain why East fell to West unless one understands the inherent weaknesses that came up in the Eastern civilizations. That part is not addressed.

Besides, among the "Them", while analyzing why East fell, Ferguson's definition of East is dominantly Chinese Civilization. He utterly fails to acknowledge another erstwhile powerful civilization of India. May be its because you have to acknowledge someone who lent you US$ 3 Trillion and can ignore the rest. But from a historian point of view, until you analyze China and India, the picture of East isnt complete. This point left a lot wanting in the book as far as I am concerned.

Strengths Of The Arguments:

Ferguson presents 6 Killer Apps that, according to him, enabled the West to dominate the Rest. He lists -- Competition, Property Rights, Science, Medicine, Consumer Society, Work. Most of the arguments seem weak and excerpts of History are chosen carefully to support the thesis. Funny part is that he forgot to mention the single most important factor of all where the Western Society's strength came from --Liberty. He seems not to notice that Statue of Liberty isn't a tourist place but the very soul of the Western Society. It is liberty to act, to think, to question that lies at the bottom of his so called apps of Science (Liberty to ask questions and to pursue to answers), Medicine (Derivative of Science) etc.

In Chapter on Competition, he argues that competition between explorers in England, Portugal and Holland enabled them to traverse across the world in search of new lands and markets and helped the spread of Western Civilization. This argument while explains why the westerners went to search for the new world, doesn't explain why they were able to subdue the new world they found. Until one analyzes what was ailing the Indian Social and Political structure for example in the East and the Incas in Latin America, one cant explain the colonization just by quoting that hundreds of ships were leaving European Shores.

Chapter of Science is probably the most relevant one in the book. Explains the development of key inventions and their applications, especially military which helped the Europeans in their quest of imperialism.

Medicine is just an application of Science so the entire chapter I think is irrelevant to be classified as a separate factor.

In the chapter on Consumption society, instead of identifying that consumption is an integral part of a capitalist system, he goes into a random tangential discussion on why the entire world wears trousers and shirts. His argument on European's dominance of textiles early on explains why the world was flooded with cheap shirts and pants but it doesnt explain the broader consumption culture. A very tangential discussion I think that fails to explain the rise of consumer society, how it became so entrenched and how it helped the West.

On Work Ethic, he argues that Work Ethic improved a lot in the West after the Protestant movement and changed the outlook from "hereafter" to "here and now". Hard work and thrift became a cultural fad. May be. He seems to indicate the Eastern philosophies have a focus on "hereafter" which hinders with the work ethic and hence led to superiority of the West. This claim is quite laughable. I am not knowledgeable about Chinese Cultural philosophy on work but if Mr Ferguson had a chance to flip through Gita, he would know that Indian Philosophy is as much about here and now as is about hefeafter. Again, until you analyze the reasons on internal weaknesses that came up in the East, the story isnt complete.

And last -- on his choice of historical examples. Will quote just one. He mentions that Marx lived on handouts from Engels who was heir to a Factory and hence by publishing his views against Capitalist, Marx harmed Engels's interest. Ferguson articulates it thus:  "Never in the history anyone bit the hand that fed him the way Marx did to Engels". Well, look no far Mr Ferguson. Just glance at the history of East India Company and their relationship with India. India gave the Company a friendly welcome as Traders. Mere Traders. The Company didnt just bit the hand, it severed the entire body.

Did I mention, Dr Ferguson likes to throw historical facts (just facts) at the reader by the thousand !