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Review of Civilization: The West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson

Article by Anthony Hilton.

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First of all, while not too sure where WC begins and ends, Ferguson certainly has a lot of positive things to say about it. By that he means not just “High Visual Culture”, art, architecture, and music, but all the cultural and technological achievements. His Wikipedia entry includes a poignant quote concerning how fragile and vulnerable WC is today, how much its virtues are taken for granted by Westerners, and how much WC is appreciated by those who have found blessed relief in WC after escaping their ancestral culture, a favored example being the Somali woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, with whom he now lives [ahem….].

His book begins with a list of what he is amused to call “killer apps”, the factors which he believes were responsible for WC’s existence, in the first place, and its major achievements including the takeover of much of the world. Even if you think he has left something out (see below), you’ll be given a good head start in making up your own list.

Ferguson will be detested by some leftists or liberals for emphasizing the positive contributions that countries of the West made to “the Rest” in the course of colonial empire building. He does acknowledge unpleasant and sometimes horrifying acts which Westerners have perpetrated against other races. But he reviews with a remarkable and refreshing realism the long history of much worse homicide and warfare against fellow Westerners culminating in the two World Wars. The homicide rate in 13th-century England was 100 per 100,000, compared to, say, the 69 per 100,000 of today’s S. Africa or Columbia’s 53. The fact that he refuses to grovel in guilt means that the extreme PeeCees are still not likely to give him a pass. But because Ferguson is such a well-known member of the intellectual establishment he can get away with a lot. As far as he goes, he’s our ally.

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3 replies »

  1. I had never heard of this guy before this post, but after doing a little bit of roaming around the internet, he seems like a typical run of the mill neocon to me. If someone here is more familiar with is works and thinks I’m wrong, say so. He is a unapologetic apologist for empire and colonialism and favours military action for humanitarian purposes. Take this article http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization which deals with the same book as the review. What I find interesting is that he takes an amoral approach to colonialism when it comes to the issues that it’s critics have raised while at the same time becoming extremely indignant at the current western population who object to current foreign adventures and also gives the typical whining about how people here take freedom for granted. He also seems to have a thing for pissing off the left, never mind the fact that classical liberalism IS part of the left. Also, most of the mainstream left has been completely on board with humanitarian intervention, which is not surprising considering their roots in the old progressive movement that wanted to stamp out all evil in the world. Another thing is that neocons who are the intellectual architects behind many current policies are not classical liberals, as they are in favour of individual rights only to a limited extent and are usually the first to trade security for liberty. Ironically, based on their own views maybe they should have kept Hussein in power (well actually they did until he stepped out of line).

    I myself don’t care much about intervention in the world any longer, but I also don’t share the save the world mentality that motivates the humanitarians either. Well colonialism may have produced benefits to some places in the long run, I’m not keen on deciding policy questions in that utilitarian fashion, and I certainly would not to live in a society that puts me liberties through the blender of a cost-benefit analysis conducted by a small group of experts. The one thing where I agree is that I don’t like people (many contemporary anarchists and some leftist libertarians) who go on about how horrible western civilization is and even deride people like the US Founding Fathers as monsters comparable to Attila the Hun, yes they had shortcomings, but one has to measure them by the standards of the time and also understand that the principles that they held would when expanded upon lead to things like the abolition of slavery, minorities rights etc. What these anti-authoritarians should be doing is to show that their views are the logical of liberal principles instead of the negation of them (that’s one area where Chomsky definitely gets it right).

  2. The historical trajectory I hold to on this question is basically a synthesis of yours and David Heleniak’s ideas on this question. I see classical paganism as the foundation of Western civilization which was overthrown by the Christian insurgency in ancient Rome. Western civilization continued to exist during the Christian era, during the better times with a Christian gloss superimposed on top of it (a kind of Christianized paganism or Christian-pagan hybrid) and at worse times being smothered under the weight of Christianity (like Russian or Eastern European culture during the Communist era). The Protestant Reformation is an example of this.

    Paganism reasserted itself during the course of the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and classical liberalism, and contemporary philosophies like anarchism or libertarianism are outgrowths of these. But this implicit paganism is once again being threatened in the West by both obscurantist monotheism in the form of Islam (though the threat is cultural and demographic, not military) and by forms of secularized Christianity of the kind that have arisen since the demise of classical Christianity. In the 20th century the West was threatened mostly by Nazism and Communism (both of which I would interpret as forms of secularized Christianity or at least as obscurantist religions lacking a literal theism). In the 21st century the West is threatened by Islam from without and totalitarian humanism from within. The latter is a manifestation of the unconstrained vision that Thomas Sowell discusses as being a part of Western philosophy ever since at least Plato. The trajectory of the unconstrained vision can be traced from Plato to Christianity to Rousseau to Marx to Hitler to present day totalitarian humanism (see Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn on this).

    The reason to be pro-Western is to simply look at the alternatives. What are they? Islamic theocracy, Third World poverty, Chinese authoritarianism, and not too much else. That’s not to say that there is not plenty to admire about many other cultures, but what we see in the West today is a kind of inversion of the “white man’s burden.” A hundred years ago the idea was so that European civilization was so superior to everyone else that world conquest was legitimate as a means of bringing that civilization to the benighted of the world. That was bad enough, but what we see now is “white man’s burden to commit suicide.” The idea is that European civilization is so hideously racist, sexist, fascist, etc. that cultural and ethnic self-flagellation, masochism and extinction are necessary to atone for past sins. The greatest irony of all this is that the West is just as imperialistic as it ever was, only Western imperialism has now taken on the cover of liberal-humanist-universalism. Imperialism is now not so much about the “white man’s burden” as much as supposed “universal principles,” “human rights,” “democracy,” yadda, yadda, yadda.

  3. “The reason to be pro-Western is to simply look at the alternatives. What are they? Islamic theocracy, Third World poverty, Chinese authoritarianism, and not too much else. That’s not to say that there is not plenty to admire about many other cultures, but what we see in the West today is a kind of inversion of the “white man’s burden.” A hundred years ago the idea was so that European civilization was so superior to everyone else that world conquest was legitimate as a means of bringing that civilization to the benighted of the world. “That was bad enough, but what we see now is “white man’s burden to commit suicide.”

    Well, yes but nothing I wrote criticized Niall for being pro-western. I agreed that colonialism had benefits and the actually think that I disagree more with the means than the ends, I object more to Niall’s utilitarianism here than anything else. More importantly, the point I was trying to make is that these neo-conservative intellectuals hold fundamentally illiberal views and their ideals are in conflict with those of the classical liberal tradition (not just contemporary totalitarian humanism) even though they pay lip service to that tradtion. Glen Greenwald made this point in his first update to this article http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/05/24/brooks/index.html referring to David Brooks and the rest of the “establishment media.” I actually think Chinese authoritarian capitalism or perhaps something like the Singapore model would be a close approximation of the kind of society these types would consider ideal.

    “The idea is that European civilization is so hideously racist, sexist, fascist, etc. that cultural and ethnic self-flagellation, masochism and extinction are necessary to atone for past sins. ”

    That’s what I was criticizing in the second paragraph I wrote. It’s actually one of the things that bothers me the most about many contemporary anarchists and actually shows how non-rebellious many of them really are when they mindlessly repeat the same rhetoric heard in sociology departments. If it was true as these types allege that the principles that the United States was founded on were applied only to propertied white males, that is not a reason to reject these ideals, but rather to apply them consistently to all people.

    “a favored example being the Somali woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, with whom he now lives [ahem….].”

    Surprise, surprise, I’m guessing this author isn’t to pleased about the fact that Mr. Ferguson is a race traitor. Taking a little peak at Occidental Quarterly, (I have come across it before, but I don’t recall the content) confirmed my suspicions. This is your typical moronic racialist forum, there is even Jewish conspiratorial nonsense there, which, IMO, is an example of ressentiment at it’s best (or worst).

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