Allen Lane, £25, 401pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Civilization: The West and the Rest, By Niall Ferguson

Asked his opinion of Western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi said that he thought it would be a good idea. In practice, of course, he found it grossly materialistic, thus earning himself black marks from Niall Ferguson, whose book (and its associated television series) is concerned with wealth and power.

Ferguson does not focus on culture in the manner of Kenneth Clarke, aiming to be "more down and dirty than high and mighty". His account of civilisation has less to do with art and architecture than with the political, social and economic structures that sustained them. And his purpose is to explain the triumph of "the West" (Western Europe and North America) over "the Rest" (Asia, Africa and South America) between the 16th and 20th centuries. It is to be understood, he says, in terms of six factors or "applications" – what he nastily calls, in computer jargon, "killer apps".

The first of these is competition. European countries were divided between and among themselves, which encouraged external and internal struggles for survival of the fittest. Military and commercial rivalry fostered technological improvements, especially in shipping, and fiscal innovations such as joint stock companies to which states gave monopoly trading rights in return for a share in profits. By contrast the monolithic empires of Asia – Ottoman, Mughal and Chinese – were hamstrung by their very success. Masters of the universe when Tudors and Stuarts occupied the English throne, they lacked the institutions to maintain their dominance when challenged by merchant adventurers from the West.

Second, the scientific revolution, from Copernicus to Newton, was almost wholly Eurocentric. It owed a great debt to Muslims, who preserved much classical learning as well as making key contributions to cartography, medicine, philosophy, mathematics and optics. But whereas Christians employed their scientific understanding to change the world, notably by developing weapons, Islam denounced the exposure of celestial secrets as blasphemy. Similarly the occidental printing press diffused knowledge whereas Turks banned type to assert the sanctity of the pen and Chinese largely used their invention to reproduce standard editions of Confucius.

The third killer app was the security of private property, the raison d'être of the state in John Locke's view. Property rights reflected the rule of law which in turn formed the basis of representative government. Ferguson contrasts the stability and prosperity of the US, a property-owning democracy (which long sanctioned the ownership of slaves), with the underdevelopment of South America. Here the Spanish crown originally owned the land and hereditary haciendas developed slowly and inequitably.

Medicine was the fourth factor giving the West an advantage. It even spread the benefits of improved health and life expectancy to colonised peoples, though Ferguson acknowledges that medical research focused more on diseases affecting whites (malaria, yellow fever) than those affecting blacks (cholera, sleeping sickness). Indeed, he shows how it was perverted by race prejudice into becoming an adjunct of genocide – a true killer app. Considering the millions in the New World and elsewhere who died from European contagions, perhaps he should have entitled this chapter "Pestilence".

The next decisive plus for the West was the evolution of the consumer society, which provided the demand supplied by the Industrial Revolution. Manufacturers understood that workers were also consumers, something missed by Marx who was, Ferguson declares, an "odious individual", an "unkempt scrounger" and a "savage polemicist". Accordingly the capitalist system produced more, better and cheaper goods, beginning with textiles, and its overall dynamism was more important than its occasional crises. Communism, by contrast, could not even make a decent pair of jeans.

Finally the Protestant work ethic, which encouraged thrift as well as exertion, led to capital accumulation on an unprecedented scale. That ethic has now been debased in the US, where sects exalt spending rather than saving. However, the spirit of capitalism is alive and well in China where there are 40 million Protestants. They all assist, according to his apocalyptic conclusion, in what may be the imminent collapse of America's ascendancy.

Ferguson's book is a serious study presented in a racy small-screen style. It tackles a large and complex subject in a way that could hardly be more accessible. Its argument, supported by a wealth of evidence, is expounded in a challenging fashion. The trouble is that the populist form vitiates the academic substance. To emphasise the role of his third killer app, for example, Ferguson asserts that the American Revolution was "all about property", whereas its prime motivation was the establishment of political liberty.

He is too much the wandering scholar of the telly travelogue to settle on one topic for long. Thus he flits from the discussion of medicine to engage in a colourful disquisition on the French Revolution. He stuffs his six categories with extraneous material, though this does not make them comprehensive. There is no account of feudalism, the West's crucial early mechanism for exploiting land and labour. Nor is much said about the continuing vitality of Asia at the time when Tennyson was intoning that 50 years of Europe were better than a cycle of Cathay.

The text is also marred by saloon-bar cracks against all the usual right-wing targets. Rousseau is "dangerous". Ferguson sneers at those who "work themselves into a state of high moral indignation over the misdeeds of European empires". He says that in 1968 what Western student demonstrators "were really after was free love". "Give or take a few baton charges" by police, however, the authorities allowed them to protest – there is no mention of the subsequent Kent State University shootings or their bloody aftermath. In a treatise on civilisation one might have hoped for more civility.

Piers Brendon's 'The Decline and Fall of the British Empire' is published by Vintage

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea