This is sharp. It feels urgent. Ferguson, with a properly financially literate mind, twists his knife with great literary brio.
If in the year 1411 you had been able to circumnavigate the globe, you would have been most impressed by the dazzling civilizations of the Orient. The Forbidden City was under construction in Ming Beijing; in the Near East, the Ottomans were closing in on Constantinople. By contrast, England would have struck you as a miserable backwater ravaged by plague, bad sanitation and incessant war. The other quarrelsome kingdoms of Western Europe – Aragon, Castile, France, Portugal and Scotland – would have seemed little better.
As for fifteenth-century North America, it was an anarchic wilderness compared with the realms of the Aztecs and Incas. The idea that the West would come to dominate the Rest for most of the next half millennium would have struck you as wildly fanciful. And yet it happened. What was it about the civilization of Western Europe that allowed it to trump the outwardly superior empires of the Orient?
The answer, Niall Ferguson argues, was that the West developed six ‘killer applications’ that the Rest lacked: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. Some of the best passages concern the history of consumerism, which has been less studied by mainstream historians than, say, inflation, trade policy or capital accumulation. There are excellent points about the Nazis’ failure to create a consumer society and about the modern paradox that standardization (jeans, Coke) went alongside rampant individualism. The key question today is whether or not the West has lost its monopoly on these six things. If so, Ferguson warns, we may be living through the end of Western ascendancy.
Financial stability depends on perception; the most that can be said about U.S. debt is that it opens the world’s leading power to a further crisis if sentiment flips, leading to “a kind of death spiral of falling confidence, rising yields and rising deficits”. We are teetering. I suppose we know that. As to the future, however, Ferguson is not a defeatist; Western civilization’s pluralism, freedom of thought, property rights and democracy remain huge strengths.
In sum, Civilization takes readers on their own extraordinary journey around the world–It is the defining narrative of modern world history.