Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Civilisation: Is Niall Ferguson History? Part One...?

I don’t like Niall Ferguson.

To be honest I’m inherently suspicious of any historian who agrees to be on the telly. * The fastest way for a historian to get famous is to make some bold, controversial or ludicrous statement, like claiming the Romans invented Walkmans or Napoleon was responsible for the invasion of Iraq. That might grab headlines, but it rarely means good history. There’s also a tendency to try to “draw lessons” from history, to compare older societies with modern ones when they are best studied in isolation, with the end result that both are grossly oversimplified and distorted.

It would be easy to dismiss Ferguson as another self-important, self-publicising narcissist, not least because he has put his photo on the back of his latest book in place of a blurb. He certainly fits the profile: his fawning regard for (British) imperialism is out of place with the rest of academia, which is a little embarrassed that the West once conquered, plundered and enslaved the rest of the world, and continues to do so. But Ferguson is not (just) an egomaniac: he honestly seems to believe that it is not only natural, but preferable, that Western (which one might well interpret as “white”) supremacy over the world is not only natural, but also desirable.

Naturally, as a Guardian-reading, muesli-munching, sandal-wearing pinko commie I object to his thesis and try to avoid the lurid, self-congratulatory television programmes that Channel 4 insists on producing with Ferguson at the helm. But I couldn’t really avoid looking into his latest paean to the White Man’s Burden, entitled Civilization (sic): Is the West History? (whose very title seems intended to get the Daily Mail’s knickers in a twist) because 1. I thought it would cover the early modern period, which I’d been reading about a lot last year in preparation for NaNoNoWriMo, and 2. I have just started a blog whose purpose, so I originally envisioned, was to point out examples of bad history in the media (and if anyone happens to find any, feel free to email me).

So I watched the first episode, and it’s…. bad. Really, really bad. Much worse even than I thought it would be. Frankly, I could probably write a doctoral thesis on everything wrong with the first hour of this series, but I don’t have the time and I doubt the potential audience has the patience. As it was, I already clogged up my Twitter feed with a bilious stream of hatred for which I must know apologise: if I annoyed anyone by filling your inbox with reams upon reams of my hatred, then I am sorry. I’ll try not to do it again. Much.

But the factual accuracies alone would take pages and pages, to say nothing of the frightening logical fallacies, missed opportunities and incomplete narratives Ferguson presents, to say nothing of his tendency to state the obvious (“The West overtook the rest of the world in the early modern period”) without really addressing why. Entire centuries- the age of the Renaissance and the Reformation- are just skipped by in his mad rush to get to the British contribution to imperialism so that it appears without adequate context.

As I tried to wrap my head around the sheer scale of Ferguson’s false argument, I realised two things. 1. I could never hope to cover it all in a single post without dying from exhaustion and 2. The sheer stupidity of his argument kind of made it hard to argue against. For example, the first episode compares and contrasts the ascent of Western Europe with the stagnancy of Ming China. As if they were competing. As if they were even aware of each other as anything more than dimly remembered half-legends. Since the first episode focused on competition as a contributing factor to the West’s success, one would have expected it to cover other potential world powers with whom the West competed in the early modern world, such as Ottoman Turkey and India.

The point is that it’s going to take more than one post just to discuss the first part of Ferguson’s series, so I’m going to save some criticism for later. Future posts might talk about his central theory that the West is going to be eclipsed by the rest of the world, specifically China, which is both simplistic and, in Ferguson’s case, extremely self-defeating; and with Ferguson’s bizarre fascination with contrasting “The West” (which he has not defined) and “The Rest” (which is a an insultingly reductionist description that lumps the vast majority of the planet’s populace- their religion, culture and way of life- into a homogenous and backwards mess)

For now, I’m going to talk about the reasons the West became dominant that Ferguson doesn’t cover, because it would be damaging to his thesis that Western imperialism is the best thing that ever happened to the world. It’s possible that Ferguson might mention them in passing, but so far he has remained silent, and I very much doubt he will cover them. Even if he does, let it be on record that I called him on it first!

Ferguson defines the reasons for the West’s post-medieval global dominance in terms of six “killer apps” (I know, I know, just go with it) that he names as follows:

1. Competition
2. Science
3. Democracy
4. Medicine
5. Consumerism
6. Work Ethic

There are a few problems with these straight away. Firstly, that’s four apps, not six: competition and consumerism can be summed up as “capitalism”, and medicine is surely a by-product of science. But six factors allow him to stretch his series out for six weeks and receive a bigger cheque, so we’ll let it slide. Second, I have no idea what some of those are doing there. Some of them are sound, like the West’s competitive adventure-capitalism and its technological sophistication, but even then they are incomplete. Some of them just don’t make sense: what role did “democracy” play when for most of five hundred year period of the West’s global dominance democracy has been the exception, not the rule. Likewise, the Western “work ethic” (with it’s unspoken prefix “Protestant”) looks rather like it is intended to undermine the contribution of Catholic Spain, Portugal and France to Western domination. But we can come to those criticisms once specific episodes roll around. What these factors have in common is that they are all aspects of a stereotypically Western character: financially competitive, rational, legally and democratically minded. Contrast with the monolithic superstitions of other societies is implied, but not stated. What it boils down to is that there is something inherent to the Western character that made Europe- and later North America- the logical leaders of the world. Basically, he argues Europeans are better than other people.

And now I’m going to point out some other factors- the rather more literal “killer apps” that Ferguson doesn’t cover and won't cover, because if he did it would make the West look like a right bunch bloodthirsty arseholes who were lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Which is probably true.

(I should point out, I am not saying these are the only reasons the West became dominant. I’m going to let Ferguson cover the factors that make Europeans look good: I’m more interested in the reasons why we were such utter pricks)

1. Geography

This one is so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning, but since Ferguson doesn't bring it up I'll have to do it for him. Ferguson spends much of the first episode explaining why Ming China never dominated the world, even though it sent out hundreds of exploration expeditions. The implied question is “why didn’t the Chinese discover America?” A quick glance at a map reveals the answer: the Pacific is much larger than the Atlantic. It takes a lot less time to reach Hispaniola from Cadiz than it does to reach California to Nanjing. Similarly, it’s much easier to reach Africa from Europe by crossing the Mediterranean or sailing the Atlantic coast than it is by navigating around East Asia. I’m also told by better informed minds than mine that Europe benefits from prevailing east-west winds in the Atlantic that make sailing westwards from Europe much easier than sailing eastwards from China.
As to why other powers didn’t head out to sea in search for spices, the answer is they didn’t have to. India had ready access to spices, and China had access to a much easier overland route. The Ottomans sat upon the major east-west and north- south trade routes by controlling the Black Sea, the Red Sea and the Bosporus: spice would come to them naturally. But Europeans were forced by the pressures of climate and distance to seek new ways of finding spices. This drove exploration and domination of trade routes that fuelled Western domination of the world’s finances. Put simply: everyone else could just walk down to Tescos: Europeans had to sail there. Or something…

Geography also explains why the greatest sailors and merchants of the medieval world- the Italian cities- weren’t involved in the initial rush of Western dominance, since they lacked direct access to the Atlantic (okay, Columbus was Genovese and Amerigo Vespucci was Florentine, but they were sponsored by Spain and Portugal respectively). It’s also worth pointing out that the Italian cities- like the German states- lacked central leadership: there was no king to sponsor exploration or take a lead in opening up trade routes as there was in Spain, Portugal or (later) England. The most competitive businessmen in Europe were limited to the Mediterranean and embroiled in internecine warfare with each other for most of the modern period. Ferguson is correct to identify competition as a driving force of Western power, but it was also a double-edged sword: too much localised competition inhibited exploration, whilst nations united behind an enthusiastic ruler were free to take the lead.

2. Disease

This factor comes up a lot in discussion about the Aztecs, but Ferguson hasn’t mentioned it once. In fact, he barely mentions the Spanish conquest of the Americas. I’m not surprised, because the whole affair casts a long, ugly shadow on the history of Western imperialism that fatally undermines his argument that Western domination is a net positive. The exchange of disease is part of a larger transfer of produce between Europe and the Americas called the Columbian exchange: Europe got potatoes, chocolate and coffee, America got horses, apples and olives. Likewise, the disease pools of the two biozones were distinct: there is some (questionable) evidence that syphilis, which first appeared in the 1490s during the Italian wars, was brought back by Columbus. Possibly personally. But the Eurasian disease pool is much larger, since it contains such delightful gems as cholera, malaria, bubonic plague, typhoid and smallpox, the last of which in particular devastated Mesoamerica after the Spanish conquest, fatally undermining the capacity of the indigenous peoples to resist Europeans, who had built up immunities over the centuries.

Admittedly none of this was intentional. It also doesn’t explain Western dominance in parts of the world with a similarly large disease pool, like Asia and Africa. For that matter, it doesn’t fully explain the conquest of the Americas. But it is an easily overlooked factor, yet Ferguson can’t discuss it because it cheapens the achievement of Western imperialism significantly.

3. Native complicacy

This is a case of simple mathematics: how did a few hundred Spanish conquistadores conquer the Aztecs, whose capital dwarfed most European cities? How did the British manage to conquer India, a country whose population was orders of magnitude larger? Answer: they had help.

Cortez landed in Mexico with barely a hundred Spaniards, yet was savvy enough to exploit dissatisfaction with Aztec rule by allying with their enemies. Pizarro wandered into a succession dispute amongst the Incas that he fully exploited. British played the Indian kingdoms against each other, allying with some against others. The Portuguese and the Dutch sold guns to the warring factions of Japan, giving the sides they favoured a distinct advantage over those too conservative to see their value. It’s a practice that still goes on in the modern world: consider the support the alliance between the Western coalition and the Northern Alliance in Taliban, or with the Kurds in Iraq. Hell, William Hague claims he was trying to reach out to the opposition in Libya by sending in the SAS, though it seems he lacks the knack that Cortez had.

Everywhere they went, Western powers interfered with local politics, encouraged faction and allied with aggrieved sectors of society against the ruling class. There was always someone who had something to gain from the Western overlordship, and it is telling that Western influence was always less successful where they couldn’t exploit faction.

4. Faith

This is not a factor anyone wants to admit to, but people do some awesome, magnificent and terrible things in the name of God. Christianity is an extremely sophisticated religion, with a highly complicated structure and a powerful sense of destiny. It can also be extremely ruthless, and is notoriously tolerance of other faiths and even deviations within itself. It’s not unique in this regard, but certainly contrasts with the various local faiths that Europeans discovered when exploring the world.

Spain is a useful example: in 1492 Columbus launched his first voyage. In the same year, the recently united Spanish kingdom conquered the last Muslim state in Western Europe; the Jewish population of Spain was expelled by order of Ferdinand and Isabella; and a Spaniard, the odious Rodrigo Borgia (famed for his turn as the villain of Assassin’s Creed II) was elected pope. These are not entirely coincidences: each represents the arrival of Spain as the dominant power in Western Europe. Within a generation it would create the first world empire by conquering the Americas.

It was also reveals that Spain was fanatically Catholic: after centuries of warfare, Christianity had triumphed over Islam in the Iberian Peninsula; having defeated the infidel without, the ruling classes inaugurated the Spanish Inquisition, bringing the full force of the Catholic bureaucracy upon their recently conquered subjects with paranoid brutality.

And then Columbus discovered a whole new continent full of pagans who practiced human sacrifice to make the sun come up.

It is worth noting that the church objected to the subsequent genocide, but did little to stop it, and were often complicit in it. But more than the simple loss of life, the church sanctioned the annihilation of entire cultures through forced conversions and widespread destruction of non-Christian places of worship. The conversion was complete, but not total: the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration on All Souls Day pays silent homage to the tenacity of Aztec belief, for example.

It is important to remember that the Western conquerors fully believed in the righteousness of their cause: that they honestly believed the rest of the world was blinded by superstition and barbarity and that they had not only the right, but also a moral duty to civilise them. It was an obligation inspired principally by faith, and it took many forms besides the conquistadors’ insistence that the Mexicans convert or die. The building of churches and the introduction of cricket came from the same impulse: the unshakeable faith that Europeans shared that their way was not only the best way, but the only way, and that the rest of the world must share in it, by force if necessary. Which helps to explain their….

5. Ruthless, bloody-minded bastardry

I’m using this as a catchall term for all the many shitty things that Westerners did to establish dominance over the rest of the world. The slave trade is a big one, and needs no further explanation, since more erudite historians than I have covered it in depth. The eradication of bison by the United States to deny Native Americans a viable food source is another. The use of concentration camps during the Boer War- a war between the established Western interlopers and a whole new set of Western interlopers, no less!- is a third. I could go on. I would invite the reader to add their own list of Western dickery if they can think of any I’ve missed.

Ferguson is not entirely ignorant of this, to his credit: he does mention the ruthlessness of Portuguese traders in forcibly establishing a trade route around Africa to India. But it’s in passing, and he doesn’t dwell on it: frankly, he comes across as slightly admiring of the European’s determination to succeed in business. Basically he treats the Portuguese as Thatcherite neo-liberals who put profit before humanity; it never seems to occur to him that lives were ended as a result.

But one textbook example of the moral depths to which Europeans were prepared to sink is brought up, albeit, I suspect, unintentionally, by Ferguson himself. Whilst he continues his bizarre contrast between early-modern Europe and Qing dynasty China, he brings up that the Western populace were taking stimulants like coffee whilst the Chinese were wasting their time in opium dens. Leaving the irrelevance of that argument aside (how does drinking coffee make a country more powerful? And has anyone explained to him that the Chinese drink rather a lot of tea?), he has been foolish enough to bring up the opium trade. It’s true that China faced an enormous problem with opium addiction in the nineteenth century: so much so they passed laws banning it. Laws, which damaged the extremely lucrative British opium trade, so much so that the British bombarded Chinese cities with ironclads until the Chinese government was forced to sign unfair treaties and reopened the opium trade.

Yes, Niall, the Chinese were addicted to opium. Because we sold it to them. Because we went to war with them to insure they remained addicted to it. Was that what you meant when you brought it up? It doesn’t seem likely Is the fact that the British Empire acted like an angry drug dealer faced with a profitable client going to rehab really something you, of all people, want to bring up? You, who has so passionately argued that British imperialism was a force for good? It worked, and it reveals how far the West was prepared to go to retain its stranglehold on the rest of the world. And I am willing to pay money Ferguson doesn’t have the balls to mention it again.

Of course, acting like a total cock is hardly a quality unique to the West. That is precisely my point: Ferguson wants us to believe that there is something special about the West; something magical. Something that makes Europe and America the natural leaders of the world. When the truth is that they are just as vicious, devious and cruel as the rest of the world, just in more expensive suits. That’s what frightens Niall Ferguson: the possibility that the West isn’t exceptional, but typical. And lucky.

*I am of course making an exception for Robert Bartlett, whose brilliant series on the medieval mind is both insightful for historians and accessible to layman. Full disclosure: I have been taught by him- I attended his lectures as an undergraduate at St Andrews and he supervised one of my modules. I’d often see him out and about walking his dog, wearing a sweet leather jacket and saucy beret. We called him RobbyB.**

** We didn’t.


  1. very good rebuttal.

    Although I like Ferguson and would like to watch the series, I have a feeling that he is repeating the same theme for the past 2-3 years. And his predictions seldom turns out right.

    He is a good talker though.

  2. You can see the series on Channel 4's website, if you want:


  3. Good stuff, thanks... I almost spat out my decadent green tea when he said "And China fell into opium addiction" without a hint of one of his cheekyboy grins on his cheekyboy face that he uses when he knows he's talking bollix.
    It's like he never heard of Andre Gunder Frank or Wallerstein or any of the world history stuff from 20yrs ago. Not a mention of inflation (silver & gold sucked in from Spain's new colonies), not a mention of their trading posts throughout the pacific (that Captain Cook and the rest of them kept complaining about "always" bumping into everywhere). Sorry, I shall stop ranting...
    But worst of all - THE KILLER FUCKING APPS gimmick! FFS!!
    Because just like the real Apps, Niall, anyone can copy them, anyone can improve them, they often work better on a different platform AND YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE THE SLAVE OF BLOODY iTUNES IF YOU MAKE YOUR OWN!

    (And you're right, the environmental advantage angle would have much more sense - even for an Empire Loyalist like him.)

  4. Wasn't Ferguson preparing a celebration of 'Money'(some earlier C4 nonsense) on the day the shit 'paper' hit the 'reality of can't pay' fan? Only the 'killer app' of "the 'little people' will bale us out" saved the bonuses of those he worships. He is simply a brown-nosing buffoon, and not really worthy of attention, EXCEPT that it has brought out your fascinating analysis. It well merits the close reading I am trying to give it.Excellent stuff!

  5. You sir, have failed. Poor work.

  6. Care to illuminate on that? I'd hate to fail in future, and would appreciate your input...

  7. Your comment under Faith begins poorly:

    This is not a factor anyone wants to admit to, but people do some awesome, magnificent and terrible things in the name of God...

    Really? In fact not only the Church and most everyone admits to terrible things...

    Consider a rewrite that offers a less grammar school opening, please.

  8. One word: Guns, Germs and Steel. Indispensable reading.

  9. I stumbled across your site by accident but I've found it very worthwhile. Great to see someone taking apart bad pieces of "history," at a time when mendacious demagoguery and puffball entertainment constantly take the place of serious research/analysis.

    I'm increasingly convinced that Ferguson gets his jollies off being a contrarian, regardless of factual accuracy. War of the World is full of ludicrous "gotcha!" moments, like leading the reader to believe a Franklin Roosevelt speech is by Hitler. Then he pulls back and says "of course there are huge differences between FDR and the Nazis" - so why invite the comparison in the first place? His economic/political columns for Newsweek are outright idiotic. I've not read Civilization but everything I've encountered indicates it's really bad.