Civilization: The West and the Rest, By Niall Ferguson

How the West won, and why it's now about to lose
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The Independent Culture

I actually read The West and the Rest when it was first published, in 2002. In it, our conservative intellectual argued that what made the West superior to non-Western countries was a centuries-long subscription to certain high ideals, but that the West's monopoly on those ideals was being threatened by globalisation, and so Western supremacy was doomed. I thought then that it was a clear, convincing argument, and a jolly page-turner too.

But I jest, of course. I did indeed read that book, The West and the Rest, but it was written by Roger Scruton.

Niall Ferguson's new book uses Scruton's title for a subtitle, and from the outset you sense that the prolific Ferguson is well aware that elegies for the declining West are an established publishing tradition. Indeed, Oswald Spengler's seminal, two-volume The Decline of the West came out in 1918. Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation, based on a TV series, came out in 1969.

Two questions follow: first, does Ferguson move the argument on? And second, does he reach the right conclusions? The answers are: "Yes, a bit", and "Yes, but not for the right reasons."

On the first, time is a historian's nourishment, and the past decade has provided plenty of evidence that Western ascendancy will peak soon, while (in particular) China, India, Brazil and Russia claim a bigger share of the international stage. Ferguson also emphasises six characteristics that allowed the West to achieve global domination. (Weirdly, he calls them the "killer apps".) Where Scruton focused on intellectual traditions (the social contract, enlightenment, citizenship, loyalty and holy law), Ferguson lauds property rights, competition, science, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.

These are unsatisfactory categories, because of the degree of crossover between them. Medicine is driven by science, while competition and consumerism have a relationship similar to the chicken and the egg. But they convey Ferguson's highly materialistic approach: deliberately rooted in economics (as all his work tends to be) and devoid of the petty psychology that crept into (and nearly ruined) an earlier work, The War of the World.

Also, whereas Scruton was writing at the height of post-9/11 anxiety about totalitarian Islamism, Ferguson is publishing as news wires hum with daily confirmation that the financial crisis has rebalanced global power. His external threat to Western supremacy is the economic might of the Rest.

It should be readily admitted that Ferguson is a superb prose stylist, and brings history alive for the reader with a dazzling knowledge of competing traditions. He gambols along at a brisk pace, and weaves the contrasts between the West and non-West exquisitely. He also, perhaps more than in works such as Empire, acknowledges the extent to which Western supremacy was a function of Western proficiency in organised violence and racist murder.

The history, in short, he is peerless at. It's the future that's harder to do. One of Ferguson's favourite phrases, repeated early on, is that there is no Future, only Futures. Forecasters are frauds. But in prophesying the end of Western supremacy, our author elides the essential point. The Rest are rising because they have adopted Western methods. The "killer apps" are thriving – in Beijing and Bangalore. Imitation really is the highest form of flattery, so mop your brow and raise a glass to prosperity in the East. The West will not only survive – it will thrive in Eastern vessels.

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