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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