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The West’s Killer Apps: But Can It Still Download Them?

Niall Ferguson calls his latest 300-page best-seller, Civilization: The West and the Rest  “a history of the world, in which Western dominance is the phenomenon to be explained.” (xxv) It’s a rollicking fun read, to be sure, though one would hardly call it a “history.” It is more like an historical essay, woven together with cultural commentary that has a specific trigger in mind. The trigger is the financial meltdown of 2008, and the key questions it raises for the author are: Could 2008 be the harbinger of a sudden collapse of Western dominance and its replacement by an ascendant China? And: What, if anything, could the West do to avoid such an unappetizing prospect?

Concerning the first question, Ferguson considers, only to reject, Samuel Huntington’s theory that a “clash” of civilizations—China and the West, in this case—may be in the offing. He then brings into view four possible ways that the apparently inexorable rise of China might be interrupted: it may hit a Japanese-style stagnation, be unraveled by social unrest, be driven toward democracy by a rising middle class, or drive other Asians into America’s protective arms. But he judges these scenarios unlikely as well. Instead, he cites various forms of “complexity theory” to make a usefully provocative case that civilizations can in fact collapse quite suddenly from within and that the “crash” of civilization—the West, to be precise—is not inconceivable within the foreseeable future.

As to the second question, after observing that the West still has more going for it in many respects than the Rest, Ferguson evokes a fairly traditional-sounding theme: “At its core,” he writes in his final page, “a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation.” He laments “our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.” (324-25) But in defining that “civilization” throughout the body of the book, Ferguson had focused more on institutions, practices and circumstances than on texts, imparting a certain disconnectedness to this conclusion.

For the heart of Civilization addresses the question mentioned at the outset, namely: How could a relative backwater of the Eurasian peninsula break out from its enclave after the fifteenth century to dominate the world? As the author observes (5), no civilization has ever towered over global affairs in anything like the way the West did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so the question deserves, and has received, serious attention.

To answer it, Ferguson sets forth an array of six factors—“killer apps,” he calls them—that the West “downloaded” and has deployed throughout the centuries, and that go furthest in unraveling his riddle. Devoting one chapter to each, he discusses the role of competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and work in separating the West from the Rest. The chapters consist less in sustained scholarly surveys of the themes in question than in vivid anecdotes embedded within provocative comparisons between a Western and a non-Western exemplar of the theme in question. It’s a method sure to grab the reader’s attention, since Ferguson is a past master of the picquant detail. But the chapters are only loosely connected to each other, so it seems sensible to review them as relatively independent essays.

In chapter one on competition, the author echoes an argument that Eric Jones and others have made on the role of political pluralism and the “right of exit” in explaining the rise of the West. The absence of empire and the emergence of independent sovereign territorial states in early modern Europe, the argument goes, created a dynamic field of competition that produced positive externalities in the form of new knowledge and practical skills. After a vivid contrast between the glories of fifteenth-century China and the “septic isle” of England (one of about a dozen puns gracing the pages of this book), Ferguson asks why there was such a stunning reversal of fortunes in succeeding centuries. Against Montesquieu’s theory of climate-plus-despotism, the Scotsman Ferguson sides with his countryman Adam Smith in citing the absence of economic competition and especially the disappearance of foreign trade from the Asian behemoth after the Yongle Emperor’s death in 1424 (32).

In Europe, meanwhile, states as tiny as Portugal (population roughly one million) were conceiving maritime ambitions that would lead to the unprecedented opening of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The state system that emerged during this period featured nearly constant warfare among the European powers, not normally viewed as a secret to success. But for Ferguson, such conflict had three main benefits: first, it stimulated progress in military technology, as Europeans were more eager to explore the possibilities of gunpowder than were the Chinese who had invented it; second, it spawned the growth of fiscality, as quite sophisticated mechanisms for financing European states were developed at a time when public finance was virtually unknown in Ming China; and finally, through these financing mechanisms, it broadened and diversified the array of stakeholders in European governments, with important implications for political accountability later on. No wonder Deng Xiaoping once remarked, “No open door is not an option,” to which Ferguson responds, “It is a plausible reading of history (and one remarkably close to Adam Smith’s).” (48)

Chapter two offers a set-piece on the role of science in the statecraft of early modern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Ferguson emphasizes how extensive the achievements of Islamic science had been (51), and how close the Turks came to dominating Europe right up to the siege of Vienna in 1683 (55-56). He argues that aversion to competition cannot explain the Turkish lag as it had the Chinese, because the Turks vigorously competed with the Europeans militarily. (57) Instead, it was their failure to apply science to statecraft that doomed them.

One example he cites is the printing press; an engine of diffusion in Europe, it was long banned in the Islamic world. (68) As a result, the Ottoman Empire fell “offline” from the European network in the three critical centuries after Gutenberg. Although European governments had a rather tortured relationship to printing, a story not told in this book, it is certainly true that Europe was a comparatively more open field for print culture than was the Middle East.

For another example, Ferguson turns to the Syrian scientist Takiyüddin al-Rasid, who, after successfully lobbying the Sultan for the establishment of an observatory in Istanbul in the 1570s, saw it destroyed in 1580 due to clerical complaint and some ill-advised military prognostications—at the very time Tycho Brahe was at Uraniborg laying the foundations for the work of Kepler and eventually Newton. (68-69) Once again, this simplifies a story that also featured the inhibiting effects of religious strife in Europe during the same period—it was in the late 1580s, for example, that the Neapolitan Giambattista della Porta was hounded off his novel work on egg incubation by the Inquisition, which threatened to prosecute him as a sorcerer.[1]

Although the scientific revolution itself is not normally thought of as a product of state initiative, Ferguson is surely right that Western states were eager to derive what power they could from its fruits; he cites the Royal Society of the 1660s as a typical example. The actual link between science and, say, military technology is more controversial among historians, but Ferguson points to the interesting example of the Quaker Benjamin Robins, who drew on Boyle and Newton for his work in the 1740s on high-speed projectiles. (83) On balance, however, his emphasis on statecraft leads Ferguson to overlook what was certainly one of the most important effects of the new Baconian paradigm of this period, namely the change in emphasis from power over people to power over nature in the “age of improvement.”[2]

In chapter three on property, Ferguson begins by rejecting summarily the view that the age of discoveries and conquests gave Europe the material resources to overtake the rest of the world. Instead, he frames the chapter as a sustained contrast between North and South America. “The real significance” of the Columbian enterprise, he claims, “is that it was one of history’s biggest natural experiments: take two Western cultures, export them and impose them on a wide range of different peoples and lands—the British in the North, the Spanish and Portuguese in the South. Then see which does better. It was no contest.” (97) Ferguson insists that the themes of his first two chapters—competition and science—had no bearing on the outcome of this “natural experiment.” “Unlike the Chinese,” he writes, “the Spaniards were early participants in the global trade boom after 1500. Unlike the Ottomans, they were early participants in the Scientific Revolution.” (97)

Instead, it was the institutions and ideas concerning property that made all the difference. It is here, by the way, that Ferguson explains what some readers might see as a surprising absence of “democracy” in his list of the West’s “killer apps.” For him, it is not democracy per se but property rights and effective representation that mattered. Democracy is the result, not the cause, of a historical process whose key elements, he believes, are “the sanctity of individual freedom and the security of private property rights, ensured by representative, constitutional government.” (97)

He traces this difference from the conquistadors through the nineteenth century, comparing the crew on a Spanish ship in 1532—mostly aspiring conquistadors—with the crew of the Carolina in 1670, mostly indentured servants looking for a piece of property to call their own. He reports that three-quarters of European emigrants to British America during the colonial period came as indentured servants. (103) By contrast, he cites the encomienda system in Spanish America, whereby the Crown at first technically owned all the land and ceded rights to exploit the abundant native labor, obviating the need for a large European indentured immigrant class.

There was nothing ethnically determined about this outcome: indeed, he cites approvingly John Elliott’s thought experiment by which the Spanish might have ended up in resource-poor North America and England amidst the gilded riches of the South. Under that hypothesis, he envisions the possibility that England might have been seduced by the resource curse into absolutism and the Spanish might have developed its cortes into a fully representative system. This is a provocative chapter, and one of the more coherent ones in the book.

The same cannot, alas, be said of chapters four and five on medicine and consumption. One-fourth of the chapter on medicine consists of a survey—marked by hosannas for Burke, catcalls for Rousseau—of the radicalism of the French Revolution. The supposed connection with medicine seems to lie in the “enduring revolutionary character” of French nineteenth-century imperialism—whose fruits nonetheless fall firmly in Ferguson’s plus column—by comparison with Britain’s more socially conservative variety. Whatever truth there may be in this characterization, it does little to illuminate the main theme of the author’s story here, which is the array of positive benefits that arose out of the European imperial experience as a whole, notably in the medical field.

Ferguson cites the rise in global life expectancy from 28 to 66 years between 1800 and 2000 (146) and charts breakthroughs in public health, sanitation, vaccines, and the like over the colonial period. He sees a link between these successes and the “civilizing mission” found primarily in the French Empire, secondarily in the British, and with the German and Belgian experiences (distinctly less admirable) bringing up the rear. While admitting that Europeans were more interested in those diseases that affected them than in those that felled native populations (174), he implies that more good was done for non-Europeans by European imperial medicine than by the “Ivy League economists and Irish rock stars” that spearhead today’s eclectic new “civilizing mission.” (145)

Chapter five on consumption is mostly about clothes. Recalling that Britain’s industrial revolution began in the textile industry, Ferguson sees a deep lesson in the pervasive preference of The Rest for Western clothing, especially from the jeans-movement in the 1960s onward: namely, an implicit vote for freedom of choice, “democracy” (by which he means consumer sovereignty), and capitalism. In his brief sketch of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the emergence of a Japanese empire, the world wars, the Bolshevik revolution, and the rise of fascism—the role of consumption, especially of clothes, is brought in intermittently. We learn that the Japanese aped Western dress, for example, while the Indians clung to their own fashions (224-28). For the more recent period, he asks why the workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union could not manufacture a decent pair of jeans, and suggests a link between this failure and the collapse of their empire. Although he occasionally poses useful questions—such as: why has the generalized exercise of individual choice led to such uniformity of dress style throughout the world? and: do the consumer-society rules that govern Western clothing contain an answer to the current controversy over the Muslim veil?—this is a mainly light and episodic chapter. (255)

In chapter six on work, Ferguson returns to more serious ground, and to more sustained argument, offering a robust defense of the Weber thesis. Literacy, labor, thrift, and trust have all been high in Protestant countries, he claims, and have been crucial to the West’s advantages over the Rest. For one of the few times in the book, he surveys the evidence on both sides of this historical thesis, concluding that on balance, Weber was “on to something.” (263)

His key question then becomes: Has the West lost its work ethic? Ferguson’s attempt to suggest as much by correlating church attendance with economic performance is pretty much of a mess. Comparing low attendance in Europe (single digits for Scandinavia, France, and Germany) with high attendance in Brazil, India, America and sub-Saharan Africa, the author conflates two possible arguments. On the one hand, he explicitly argues that American and European work patterns began to diverge at just the same time that their church attendance patterns began to diverge (in 1979, actually), implying a substantial difference in economic performance on the two sides of the Atlantic over that period. (266) The problem here is that Ferguson’s own statistics suggest that the European decline in work hours, to take one example, began not in 1979 but in the 1960s or even earlier. Nor would his theory account for 2008, which would seem to bespeak some systemic, trans-Atlantic moral collapse that Ferguson does not attempt to relate to his church-attendance statistics.

The second implied argument here concerns a difference not between America and Europe, but between the West and the Rest. On that score, the implication would seem to be that the current high church attendance in the Rest is a harbinger of better work ethics and stronger GDP for those countries in the future, but there are a lot of dots in at least the strong version of that argument that go unconnected.

Still, the most engaging part of the chapter is a set piece on China designed to support a more limited version of just such a prognosis. Beginning with the missionary work of the nineteenth century, and the ensuing Taipei Rebellion of mid-century, the author presents some suggestive anecdotes on the relationship between Christianity and prosperity in China today. My favorite concerns an entrepreneur named Hanping Zhang from Wenzhou (the Chinese “Manchester”). One of the new breed of so-called “Boss Christians,” Zhang sees Christianity as essential for supplying the glue of social trust that would otherwise be sorely missing in a society currently in the full throes of state-directed modernization. Ferguson sees an analogy with the European and early American experiences, where “religious communities double as both credit networks and supply chains of creditworthy, trustworthy fellow believers.” (285)

I was reminded of the anthropologist Bruce Knauft’s report on the Gebusi people of New Guinea, whose homicide rates, driven mainly by the practice of tit-for-tat sorcery executions, plummeted from 675 to 89 per 100,000 over roughly the same period that China went from the Great Leap Famine to the Chinese Manchester. Partly, it would seem, this improvement occurred because “being a churchgoer is now considered the antithesis of being a sorcerer,” a signaling device, we might say, for the possession of social trust.[3]

In any case, Ferguson concludes his tableau by citing a recent Communist Party report concluding that the keys to sustainable growth are “property rights as a foundation, the law as a safeguard and morality as a support”—all things in which we Westerners “have seemed to lose our faith.” (288) And that, in the final analysis, is the ultimate point of this ambitious, uneven, and fast-moving book.


[1] See Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 76, n. 14.

[2] For this theme, see Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 35.

[3] Bruce Knauft, Exchanging the Past: A Rainforest World of Before and After (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 128.

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