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Civilization: The West and the Rest Hardcover – November 1, 2011
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“[Ferguson] uses his powerful narrative talents in these pages to give the reader a highly tactile sense of history. … The author [has a] knack for making long-ago events as vivid and visceral as the evening news, for weaving anecdotes and small telling details together with a wide-angled retrospective vision.”—New York Times
“A dazzling history of Western ideas.”—The Economist
“Mr. Ferguson tells his story with characteristic verve and an eye for the felicitous phrase.”—Wall Street Journal
“[W]ritten with vitality and verve… a tour de force.”—Boston Globe
“This is sharp. It feels urgent. Ferguson, with a properly financially literate mind, twists his knife with great literary brio…Ferguson ends by suggesting the biggest threat is not China but ourselves – our cowardice, drawn from ignorance, even stupidity, about our past. He is right. But as he shows himself, that can be fixed.”—The Financial Times
“The author boldly takes on 600 years of world events… so that the history lesson remains fresh and compelling… A richly informed, accessible history lesson.”—Kirkus (starred)
About the Author
NIALL FERGUSON is one of Britain's most renowned historians. He is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the bestselling author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire, Colossus, The War of the World, The Ascent of Money, and High Financier. He also writes regularly for newspapers and magazines all over the world.
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Tackling that kind of historical, political, and economic analysis is courageous and daunting. However, Ferguson is up to the challenge, offering cogent reasons why capitalism in the form of free-market entrepreneurship was a success over the course of those five centuries and why all the other systems, such as communism and socialism and the last of the Ming dynasties were not. As with all great professors, he makes unique comparisons and offers outside-the-box examples to support his assertions. The inward looking philosophy and mistrust of innovation by the Ming dynasties of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was reflected in their rejection of the European clocks of that era when the clock was originally invented by the Chinese. Of course the pendulum has shifted 180 degrees from that insularity by China today. The role of Gutenberg’s printing press in the spread of Martin Luther’s Reformation ideas, which encouraged wealth as a sign of salvation, led to rapid economic expansion. The inability of the USSR to produce a pair of jeans comparable to America’s Levi’s 501 jeans was symptomatic of communism’s disregard of consumerism which led to its eventual downfall. These are just some of the perceptive examples he uses throughout the book.
Ferguson postulates six reasons why the West became dominant:
• the Scientific Revolution (all “the major 17th century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology happened in Western Europe)
• modern medicine (“nearly all the major 19th and 20th century breakthroughs in healthcare, including control of tropical diseases, were made by Western Europeans and North Americans”)
• the Protestant or work ethic (the role of that principle in social and economic organization, in the expansion of literacy, and “sustained capital accumulation”)
• “the rule of law and representative government… based on property rights and the representation of property-owners in elected legislatures” (as shown by the differences in evolution between North and South American economies and political structures)
• the consumer society (the Industrial Revolution created a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies to meet the demand for more and cheaper goods)
Some more juicy examples of Ferguson’s analysis of societies: He is a fan of Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and philosopher who predicted the French Revolution’s decent into depravity while America’s Revolution did not because of the magnitude of the war that engulfed France. He also discusses the pros and cons of colonization and the replacement of it with consumerism as represented by the meteoric rise of the Singer sewing machine. In terms of the Cold War, he says: “Yet the Cold War turned out to be about butter more than about guns, ballgames more than bombs…The problem for the Soviet Union was simple: the United States offered a far more attractive version of civilian life than the Soviets could.” The competition between churches in America for the saving of souls explains why there is a vast decline in Protestantism in Europe and a rise in Protestantism in America given that “Americans have experienced more or less the same social and cultural changes as Europeans” since the 1960s.
Summing up, Ferguson examines the rise of China and the decline of the West with the pros and cons of that perception. He ends that discussion with optimism for the West and a challenge: “Yet this Western package [civilization] still seems to offer human societies the best available set economic, social and political institutions—the ones most likely to unleash the individual human creativity capable of solving the problems the twenty first century world faces. Over the past half-millennium, no civilization has done a better job of finding and educating the geniuses that lurk in the far right-hand tail of the distribution of talent in any human society. The big question is whether or not we are still able to recognize the superiority of that package…At its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation… But what are the foundational texts of Western civilization that can bolster our belief in the almost boundless power of the free individual human being? And how good are we at teaching them, given our educational theorists’ aversion to formal knowledge and rote-learning? Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.”
This is a highly original and influential historical tome written by an erudite historian and economist about an economic system, capitalism, that has affected billions of people in positive ways throughout five centuries. Read it to understand how the world got to where it is today, what might be in store for it in the future, and how the West can retain the lead.
He points out that it really makes little difference which particular civilization is the dominant one from time to time. The successful ones will always have incorporated the most civilly advanced concepts.