Monday, 21 March 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Three: Whose West is it?

Niall Ferguson is a cunning son of a bitch, I’ll give him that.

I’ve already discussed how his argument that Western civilisation achieved global dominance due to its inherent magnificence is incomplete and simplistic, but I was hoping that with the third episode centering on the role “democracy” played, I was finally going to take the gloves off. Oh, I had such an argument prepared: the moment he started banging on about the inherent superiority of liberal democracy to other systems I was going to point out that even in the West it was the exception, not the rule until 1945, and it was not until 1991- within my own lifetime!- that it became a universal ideal that still has not become a universal reality. Ferguson wasn’t going to know what hit him: when I was through with him, he’d be a quivering wreck of a pseudo-historian, barely fit to teach a kindergarten the basics of the Norman Conquest!

Then the bastard cheated by talking about property laws and Latin America. He even mentions the slave trade, the crafty git!

I shouldn’t have been surprised, really: Ferguson is a historian of finance first and foremost, so it makes sense for him to speak of history in financial terms, and his latest series has shown a strange tendency to arbitrarily compare one Western power with one non-Western power as if they were comparable- though in this case at least, they were. But as a medievalist interested more in social history than economics, I was always going to be caught flat-footed by any discussion of indentured servitude or sub-prime mortgage borrowing or whatever.

I also know precious little about the history of the Americas, either North or South, except that they had one: playing Illusion of Time/Gaia on the SNES as the child engendered some fascination with the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Mesoamerica and the Andes, and I learned everything I know about the American Civil War from Iced Earth, but that’s about it.

So I confess that I am probably not the best person to challenge Ferguson’s assessment that English property laws were the reason the US became a world power, except that I’m sure, no matter what he suggests, that it wasn’t the only reason, because there is never any one reason for anything in history. Nor can I say with certainty whether Latin America was overshadowed to an indolent aristocracy that had to turn to British soldiers for its liberation, except even I know a continent with twelve countries and thousands of ethnicities cannot be discussed in the homogenous broad strokes that Ferguson uses. It also sounds a little bit racist to suggest that the greasy, lazy Dagos had all the luck ,dealing with a fabulously wealthy land already populated by compliant natives whilst the hardworking English settlers laboured and toiled in the barren wasteland of North Carolina whilst fighting of Injuns with absolutely no contribution from French, Russian Irish, Chinese, African and- yes- Hispanic immigrants whatsoever.

And that’s before we get into Ferguson’s schizophrenic handling of slavery.

I would recommend dedicated research into the history of the Americas rather than relying on me, but for what there worth, here are my thoughts on Ferguson’s third episode:

1. Defining “Democracy”

In the first episode Ferguson listed "democracy"as the third of the West's "killer apps"- and yes, I really wish he would stop using that phrase. But the third episode is entitled "property", and Ferguson tries rather pathetically to link the two by claiming property ownership granted voting rights in the British American colonies, encouraging indentured servants to work hard to get their own land and partake in the "democratic" process. I'll have to take his word for this being true, but I would appreciate it if someone could correct me if this is horseshit.

The problem is that this is not really talking about democracy, but about property; Ferguson draws a correlation between property rights and democracy that doesn't necessarily equate causation. I assume his thinking was that he could tie democracy to property, and since democracy is erroneously considered a universal good, it follows that property laws are a good thing. He wants to conflate democracy and prosperity, to link one to the other, in a manner that might make George W. Bush proud but is only considered superficially.

Ferguson's argument seems to be that freedom and democracy (which, incidentally, are not the same thing) were the cornerstones of American prosperity. An obvious counter is to point out that they weren't universal: that voting and property rights were limited or non-existent for women, Native Americans and slaves. I assumed he was glossing over this little inconvenience because it would take the shine off his rose-tinted view of imperialism.

I was more than a little surprised when he actually brought it up.

2. Slavery

I said Ferguson wouldn't have the balls to address the darker side of imperialism. It seems I was wrong. He dedicates ten minutes to the issue of slavery in the USA and its legacy of racial segregation, in a rare moment of clarity that reveals he is at least open to the idea that Western imperialism should not whitewash its crimes.

He still doesn't do a very good job of it, mind.

Ferguson knows he has to discuss slavery, and that he has to be seen to condemn it. The trouble is he says one moment that American property owners profited from slavery and then said they didn't have to. In essence, he says slavery was essential to provide manpower and then says it wasn't essential because... it's bad. Aside from being an inherent contradiction, it's a pretty weak argument to say that slavery wasn't "essential" to Western imperialism: it wasn't "essential" to sell opium to the China at the point of a gun. It wasn't "essential" to tear down the Templo Mayor and replace it with a cathedral. Ferguson's argument can be summarised as "yeah, we used slaves... but it's okay, really. We could have used humane manpower if we had wanted". Just because bad things didn't have to happen didn't change the fact that they did, or that the Western world profited immensely from the exploitation of the rest of the world, and continues to do so. I applaud the fact that Ferguson finally has addressed some of the shitty things the West has done, but he still seems to want to exonerate the West of its crimes rather than face them head on.

3. Defining “The West

This is something that's been bothering me for a while: what is Ferguson's definition of "the West?"

It's already been established that Ferguson likes history to be simple. He wants civilisations, not countries: to him, the Ottoman Empire might as well be the entirety of Islamic civilisation. Likewise, in this episode, "Latin America" is treated as a homogenous whole. Mexico and Cuba aren't mentioned at all, and Brazil- which is culturally and linguistically distinct from the rest of the continent- is presented as typical. I understand that Ferguson wishes to employ shorthand, but it's still a bit misleading to lump every culture on a continent together and label it "Latin America." It's even more misleading to imply that "Latin America" can represent the entire non-Western world. But Ferguson is not racist (at least in that regard): at least he generalises about The West too!

How does one define Western Civilisation? Is it based on religious origins? Cultural similarities? Political and socioeconomic systems? A shared history? The definition could be broad, and include not only Western Europe and North America, but also former European colonies, the former Soviet bloc (communism was, after all, devised by Germans living in London) and those non-Western nations that have adopted Western models to an extent and are Western aligned, like Japan and South Korea. It almost certainly has to include Israel. Or the definition could be much narrower, and refer to those nations that aligned with the US and NATO during the Cold War.

The point is that any discussion about the place of "the West" in the world has to define what "Western Civilisation" means. And Niall Ferguson has not only failed to provide a definition, but his conception of the West is profoundly muddled.

Put simply, it is open to debate whether or not South America is part of the West.

There is an argument to be made that South America is not part of the West: it is politically, economically and ethnically distinct from the United States and Western Europe, and has spent the majority of its history in the shadow of colonial powers; but is also religiously, culturally and linguistically part of the West, with obvious historic ties to Europe via Spain and Portugal and to the United States via the Monroe Doctrine, which considers the entirety of the Americas within a United States sphere of influence.

It is certainly more Western than the other civilisations discussed hitherto. China and the Muslim world evolved independently of Europe, and though the latter is a product of the same Graeco-Roman and Abrahamic traditions, it has emerged as its own distinct sociocultural bloc. Latin America- and the United States, for that matter- are a product of Western culture imposed upon a conquered native population. Right from their foundation they were indelibly stamped with the values and attitudes of European civilisation, and though they have experienced their own unique circumstances they remain recognisably the heirs of their colonial masters.

The problem is that Ferguson has hitherto taken a broad definition of Western civilisation, but is narrowing it. In the first episode, when talking about European competitiveness Spain and Portugal were mentioned as leading the way in the age of discovery. Two episodes later, and former Spanish and Portuguese colonies are no longer defined as Western. One might argue that Latin America was and is distinct from their former colonial overlords, since they contain a sizeable non-European populace and occupied a distinct economic position; but one can say the same thing about the United States, which (contrary to Ferguson's assertions) is not populated solely by white people. Both South America and the USA took a lot from their former colonial masters: Catholicism and football are as much part of Western civilisation as parliamentary representation and property laws.

The point is that the United States and South America are their own individual entities: but if the US and Britain are both to be considered part of the same civilisation, it follows that Latin America and Iberia must be be as well. Unless Ferguson has changed his mind and declared Spain is no longer part of Western civilisation- which would be a bizarre definition indeed- it follows that Latin America is also part of the West: unique, and certainly different, yet nonetheless demonstrably part of the same civilisation.

That being the case, the comparison between the United States and Latin America is not a comparison between a Western and non-Western culture, but between two distinct but related parts of the Western world, whose similarities arguably outweigh their differences. Indeed, much of the modern United States was formerly owned by Spain and experienced significant Hispanic immigration: a case could be made that the US is more a Latin American nation than a British construct

The problem is that it is is becoming clear that Ferguson tends to equate "The West" the the Protestant Anglosphere, yet is happy to use non-Engish-speaking nations to prove his point. He creates a hierarchy of "Western-ness" where all Europeans are Western, but some are more Western than others. It makes his gushing over Prussia in the second episode seem even more bizarre and out of place: surely undemocratic and militaristic Prussia is at least as alien to the English-speaking Founding Fathers as America as Brazil?

Ferguson has defined Spain, Portugal and Germany as part of the West: is it not a tad perverse to suggest their colonies are not part of the same civilisation as Britain and their colonies?

Besides, if only English-speaking countries are Western, democracy was not even invented by Western civilisation

4. Is the West history?

About two minutes from the end Ferguson remembers to play profit of doom and warn the view that the West may soon be eclipsed by the rest of the world. His evidence this time?

Brazil's economy is catching up to America's

That is literally all he has to say on the subject. There is no mention of the fact that Brazil has the world's eighth largest economy but is still 64th for per capita GDP. There is no mention as to why Brazil is now catching up to the US, or when it is poised to overtake it. There is no mention of the political ramifications the growth of Brazil may have on South America and the wider world. And, as ever, there is no mention of the emergence of democracy or new property laws in the wider world.

And, of course, Brazil is presented as completely typical for not only South America, but the entire non-Western world.

One sentence. Absolutely no context or explanation.

Is the West history? We've no way of knowing: Niall Ferguson apparently doesn't want to discuss it. Which is surprising really, given that the downfall of the West is implied from the title of the series!

Would it really have killed him to just name his series "Civilisation: Why The English Are Awesome and Foreign Women are Sexually Unsatisfied"?


  1. As far as I can see, Fergason's definition of "The West" revolves around the "three worlds" definition of economic development; The West being the definition of first world countries.

    This is the problem with reverse-engineering a modern socio-economic hypothesis to history. his argument as to why the "west is history", is effectively "hey. those guys are rich and prosperous, let's do what they're doing."

  2. And conversely: 'hey, other people are becoming prosperous, WE'RE DOOMED!'