Monday, 11 April 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Six: All Work and No Facts Makes Niall a Disgrace to Thucydides

In the final episode of Civilisation: Is The West History, Niall Ferguson finally loses the plot completely.

When discussing the last episode I lamented that Ferguson has neglected to cover the role religion played in fuelling the West’s domination of the rest of the world. I suggested that, since he is primarily a financial historian, he might not be interested in the ephemeral minutia of spiritual matters.

It turns out I was wrong, for in this last episode Ferguson finally gets round to describing how religion gave the Western world the self-confidence to impose itself on the rest of the world.

As usual, he makes a dog’s dinner of it.

1. Weber of Lies

Ferguson states that he was raised atheist, but he always felt a certain affinity for Weber’s “Protestant work ethic”, which encouraged Westerners to work hard in the hopes of spiritual rewards, unlike the lazy Papists and those drug-addled Mohammedans that populate his version of non-Western world (or “Resterners,” as he names them, which surely must be an illegal slur). That statement should immediately set off a few alarm bells, not least of how hypocritical it is for him to later condemn Europe as godless and shallow when he himself is not a believer. But it also raises the question why Ferguson is so focused on Protestantism as one of the West’s- *sighs deeply*- “killer apps.” One assumes he was also raised a Ranger’s fan.

Certainly it is consistent with the definition of “the West” that he has hitherto failed to elaborate on: the Protestant sphere happens to overlap with Northern Europe and the Anglosphere but also includes his beloved Prussia. It also includes Scandinavia and parts of Switzerland and the Low Countries, but he never mentions them even though it might help his case. Probably because they are a bit foreign.

Equating the West with Protestantism at least explains why he is so dismissive of South America, which is overwhelmingly Catholic. And it allows him to do what he does best: dismiss non-Western cultures by suggesting they lack the virtues that made the West awesome- in this case suggesting- and, in the case of the Middle East, outright stating that it is lazy as well as ignorant and overly bureaucratic.

Here’s the problem with the Protestant work ethic theory: it’s bollocks. Wikipedia has provided a convenient summary of the criticisms of Weber’s theory, but what is relevant here is that it totally downplays the role of Catholics and their church in establishing Western supremacy. Ferguson may have been raised atheist with Protestant leanings, but I am a humanist raised Catholic, and I can tell him that the Protestant work ethic has nothing on the power of the Catholic guilt complex. Of course, one might argue that the distinction between working in the knowledge one will be rewarded in the hereafter and working to in the fear that failure will leave one consigned to the Inferno is six of one, half a dozen of the over, but the point is that I don’t think Protestants work significantly harder than Catholics. They’re probably just happier about it.

What is relevant is that “Protestantism”- which, incidentally, is a term that covers a broad spectrum of beliefs, some of which differ but a little from Catholicism- has historically been the minority faith in the Western Europe, limited largely to Britain, North America, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and northern Germany, whereas the Catholic powers have included Spain (the conqueror of most of the Americas), Portugal (the nation that gave the West its dominance of sea trade), France (the most successful non-Anglophone colonial power), Austria (the dominant central European power for most of the modern period) and Italy (the birthplace of the Renaissance). One might also point out that one of the constituent countries of Great Britain at its height- Ireland- remained largely Catholic despite attempts at Protestant colonisation, and that many areas of Britain with significant Irish Catholic immigrant populations- like Liverpool, Jarrow and Ferguson’s own Glasgow- were amongst the centres of industry that fuelled Britain’s global dominance.

To the concert of Europe we may add Russia, which, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, and Turkey, which isn’t Christian but did rule over all denominations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere with remarkable tolerance and famously drew its soldiers from them. We might even add the Papacy itself, since it did at least organise a rather significant experiment in European domination of a non-European populace in the Middle Ages.

We might also add the major non-Western economies of the twentieth century, such as Japan and the Asian Tigers, where Christianity has had a negligible influence. It would be hard to describe the Japanese as lazy, after all.

Finally, in focusing on Protestantism Ferguson overlooks the Jewish contribution to Western civilisation: men like Einstein, Oppenheimer, Kissinger, Friedman (hell, here's the damn list!) who were hardworking, brilliant, and incontrovertibly not Protestant

2. One Nation, Under God

So Ferguson is off to a rocky start in claiming the Protestant work ethic was a “killer app” for the West, since most of the West didn’t have it. As evidence for his ridiculous claim he invents a schism between Europe and the United States, saying the former has lost its way and is now only interested in shopping and pornography, too busy fapping its way into oblivion to realise its end draws near. For this he blames Freud in a bizarre and oddly self-important rant about how psychiatry has made Westerners selfish and godless. A cruel observer might point out that Niall Ferguson is in no position to criticise anyone for being self-absorbed, narcissistic and obsessed with money, but I am of course above such spiteful jibes. Perhaps he is secretly a Scientologist as well as a Ranger’s fan. I shall however point out that his weird Widdecombe-esque critique of “European” society says more about how Ferguson views the British than it does about Europe as a whole, where religion remains an important factor of society. Even in Britain, religious feeling remains strong enough to fuel sectarianism, as we have recently been tragically reminded.

Anyway, Ferguson contrasts godless Europe with pious America (home of the largest pron industry of the world, by the way) by visiting a church in Missouri which has a Christian rock band that reminded me all too much of Metalocaplypse and speaking to a pastor who (of course) is eager to reiterate the idea that religion makes people work harder and become better people.

Now here I must accuse Ferguson of deliberately misleading the audience. He is trying to equate economic prosperity with religious faith, despite the fact that in terms of national GDP the most important areas are a generally on the east and west coasts, where attitudes are more secular and Christianity is less influential, whereas the areas where Christianity is strongest are in what politicians patronisingly call “the heartland,” and tend to be more agrarian and underdeveloped. It is not entirely the case that religiosity is inversely proportional to economic importance- Texas has the second largest economy, for example, though it is also the second largest state. But it is certainly not the case that religious faith has gone hand-in-hand with economic growth.

In fact Protestant faith- and, to be fair, Catholicism- has done much to retard progress in the United States, in the realms of science (by opposing stem-cell research), legal rights (by opposing a woman’s legal right to do what she wants with her body- and in fact by opposing the well-being of women in general), demographics (by opposing birth control), the environment (by denying the link between carbon emissions and climate change) and education (by encouraging creationism be taught in schools alongside or instead of evolution). It also encouraged long, unnecessary and ugly foreign wars that diminished America’s reputation and exposed its weakness. It also barely needs mentioning that it was a Protestant nutter who inflamed the passions of idiots in Afghanistan to kill United Nations personnel by threatening to burn a copy of the Qur'an.

3. FYI, It Was The Franciscans Who Brought Christianity to China

Protestantism might therefore be charitably described as a mixed blessing to America and the West. Where Ferguson really loses touch with reality is when he starts talking about Christianity in China.

Put simply, Ferguson believes the Protestant work ethic is alive and well in China, and he points to a few Chinese businessmen who are Protestant.

Now, the number of Christians in China is disputed, with estimates ranging from 40 million to 100 million. Most are Protestant, but the number of Catholics is likely to be higher than reported, since Catholicism (or at least communion with Rome) is officially banned. What is apparent is that the total number of all Christians in China make up less than 4% of the population, way behind Buddhism, traditional religions and atheism and probably comparable to the number of Muslims, most of whom are concentrated in the west and are ethnic minorities like the Uighurs, Hui and Kazakhs. Officially the state is atheist, and it is hard to imagine that Protestants represent a significant presence either among captains of industry, the Communist Party, or the government in general. Ferguson claims that it is possible up to 30% of the Chinese population will be Protestant in thirty years: as far as I know, he has pulled this statistic out of his arse, for there is no convincing evidence to suggest that this is the case.

More to the point, I don’t think you have to make China Protestant to explain its productivity. Ferguson claims that the average Chinese citizen works longer hours than the average Westerner. This is true, but it has nothing to do with religion: it is to do with different working conditions, readily available cheap labour, government-set targets and poor human rights legislation that has allowed dubious work practices like sweatshops and extended working weeks. One would hardly call Foxconn a model of Protestant virtue (or, for that matter, a haven of worker’s rights), but one cannot argue with its output.

Lest we forget, China is officially communist, and communism has always exalted the role of the working man by calling upon him to work longer and harder for the benefit of the people and the state. That might result in terrible working conditions and appalling human rights abuses, but it definitely gets results, as demonstrated by the Soviet Five Year Plans. I don’t want to overstate the case, both because of the failure of programs like the Great Leap Forward and because of the monstrous human suffering it involved, but China’s communist history- and present- surely provides a more immediate and logical explanation for its work ethic than any fictitious Christian influence.

In fact, Ferguson never mentions communism in relation to China. Not once. One assumes he doesn’t want to give Marxism even that much: the possibility that a successful, modern and dynamic economy could possibly owe anything to its communist heritage is clearly so anathema to him he has to invent some bullshit about the Chinese becoming Christian, in one of the most flagrant examples of historical fiction I have ever encountered.

4. "They wouldn't follow him to India..."

Sadly communism is not the only subject that goes unmentioned. The other potential non-Western world powers go curiously unmentioned in this episode- Turkey and Iran (Turan? Irkey?) are once again thrown together to represent the Middle East as if either was in anyway typical, but otherwise the superpowers-in-waiting like Brazil (about 98% Catholic) and India (whose Christian population makes up less than 3% of the population) are nowhere to be seen. In fact, it has only recently dawned on me that Ferguson doesn’t mention India throughout the entire series. I don’t remember him mentioning it in passing, even as part of the British Empire, despite the fact it is surely a model example of the adoption of Western values, the largest liberal democracy on Earth, one of the fastest growing economic and military powers and has nuclear weapons. It even plays cricket! One can only assume he chose to use China and a homogenised Middle East as his principle rival civilisations because Muslims and communists are so much more frightening to his audience of middle class mail-reading pseudo-intellectuals than democratic Hindus.

5. Turns Out The West Isn't History At All

There is more problem with this episode worth mentioning: the end is frankly bizarre- Ferguson starts channelling Savonarola by quoting Revelations and wailing how the West tends to see its destruction everywhere in environmental degradation and economic hardship (and I would like the record to show out that I mentioned millennialism was part of his appeal in the last blog post), where children are not being taught science (which is a bit hypocritical, coming from him) and our greatest weakness is our own loss of self-confidence (again, a bit hypocritical since he has spent six weeks trying to erode that confidence). He concludes by saying the West still has an edge, but he isn’t sure of its place in the future. He states that it has another advantage: the freedom, that he so enjoys, to say what you want, that encourages invention and development. One wonders why he didn’t mention this seventh “killer app before”- presumably Channel 4 were only willing to give him six episodes. It is, in other words, a typical reactionary call to arms, about how our civilisation is fragile but special, with enormous potential but facing enormous threats from lazy and superstitious foreign tyrants. It’s a narrative that has been repeated throughout Western history, from Cato the Elder and Herodotus to Enoch Powell and Frank Miller: the West is special, but we have to be constantly careful those damn foreigners don’t come over and ruin it. Even though they never do.

There are other criticisms to be made, but I think I’ve made my point: the Protestant work ethic is a myth, and Ferguson spends an hour trying to make it seem real. His argument is confused, speculative, grossly oversimplified and in direct contradiction with earlier episodes that extolled the virtues of the scientific rationalism and consumerist society he now condemns in favour of Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

6. The Two Killer Apps

In making such a poor argument, Ferguson is at least consistent with the rest of his series. So the time has come to make a final judgement on his series. I think it’s clear that his central claim that the West is “history” is untenable: even he abandons it in the end, and the evidence he has provided for the forthcoming Gotterdammerung is sparse. That the West will face rising competition from the rest of the world is an economic and demographic certainty, but to read in that the downfall of our civilisation is scaremongering for ratings, pure and simple.

When it comes to the role of the “killer apps” themselves, his record is mixed: I agree wholeheartedly with assessment of only two of them- the first two, competition and science. I agree that capitalist competition between states and individuals drove Western domination of trade and industry, and I agree that liberalism and the Enlightenment paved the way for scientific progress that was turned into a profound military edge. Although I agree with his conclusion, I find his argument to be sloppy and full of contradictions.

I don’t agree that property laws were the reason behind Western expansion in Northern America: I believe it was driven by more complicated factors behind emigration from Europe and forced emigration from Africa. I don’t see how his discussion of medicine was relevant, and I don’t see how it is distinct from the conversation about science. I believe consumerism was a by-product and adjunct of the dominance of Western capitalism, not a cause of it. I think the idea of a Protestant work ethic is bullshit, and I find it insulting to the non-conformist contribution to Western civilisation. I believe the reasons for Western dominance are complicated and multifaceted, and not all of them are as glamorous as Ferguson intimates, as I have suggested in the past.

7. Why Niall Ferguson Is (Hopefully!) History

As for the man himself, he has done nothing to convince me he is not a lazy, ignorant and smugly self-satisfied arsehole obsessed with his own celebrity. Were he a financier, a banker or a political pundit I could perhaps live with him, as I have learned to live with so many Tory arseholes, by ignoring him. Unfortunately, he still maintains the pretence that he is a historian, despite the fact he never shows any evidence of knowledge of history before the fifteenth century, and even within his own sphere of knowledge his arguments are old-fashioned and fraught with errors.

Conveniently enough the man has provided an insight into his motivations in today’s Guardian in which, tellingly, he talks about his own status and reputation much more than he talks about history. He presents himself as the bogeyman of the left, the man they love to hate for his abhorrent political views and his arrogance, and justifies himself by stating that self-confidence is important to success: a fitting philosophy, since it accords so well with the conclusion of his series that the West has lost its self-confidence.

Niall Ferguson is an arrogant neo-imperialist Tory bastard, make no mistake. But I began commenting on his series to demonstrate that he is a bad historian, first and foremost, and I hope that I have mostly avoided simply dismissing him because I happen to disagree with him. There is a perfectly good argument that could be made in defence of Western imperialism, and an equally good argument that could be made that its place in the sun is coming to an end. Niall Ferguson makes neither argument convincingly. The fact that I disagree with him is a simple difference of opinion: it’s the fact that his argument is poorly made yet he remains so unrepentantly and arrogantly committed to it that makes him a bad historian.

His self-confidence is undeniable, but historians should not be self-confident: they must constantly question sources and interpretations for weakness and contradiction. They must even question themselves, or they risk becoming inflexible and parroting the same old tired arguments uncritically. They must not let their affection for a particular political system, culture or economic model get in the way of an objective conclusion- if they did, I would call for the immediate liberation of Constantinople from the Turk!

Ferguson dismisses the dangers of relativism for daring to teach that morality is not absolute as damaging to the fabric of Western civilisation. To question a system or an idea does not undermine it, but proves its strength if it resists scrutiny. The historian is obligated to approach her subject from a standpoint of moral relativism: there are no absolute truths, only different interpretations of the same evidence. The historian must be objective, open-minded, willing to accept that her interpretation may be faulty and willing to adjust it. She must accept that there is no single truth, that all opinions have validity so long as they are well made. She must be intellectually curious about other cultures, and prepared to revel in their differences from her own. Ferguson embodies none of these traits, instead choosing to be arrogantly certain of his believe in the superiority of Western civilisation and dismissive of the achievements of the rest of the world- including any part of the Western world he doesn't like. It’s as if he first learned history in the 19th century that the world needed to be ruled by the white man because it was better for all involved, and has remained stubbornly resilient to the passage of time and further research that has obligated more reasonable minds to accept a broader view of past events. Ferguson's conviction might make him a sound- if devious- politician; he might even be a great economist- I really have no way of knowing. What I do know is that he is a bad historian, and if we cannot stop him regurgitating half-baked theories then we should at least discourage his audience from mistaking his pseudo-intellectual posturing for actual history. His arguments are old-fashioned, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history, leaving him free to write columns for the Daily Mail.

A Big Thank You

Still, I suppose I should take this moment to thank Prof. Ferguson for giving me something to write about for the past six weeks. I estimate I may have written as much as twenty thousand words denouncing him, more than any of my dissertations, and in considerably less time. It has encouraged me to research, however briefly, aspects of history that I was previously ignorant. It’s provided some interesting conversations with other historians, some of whom agree with Prof. Ferguson, and others who do not, but all concerned about the state of history and its teaching in today’s Britain. It’s given me something to do on Mondays instead of pretending to find a job. It’s given me a chance to focus my rage on someone truly deserving and eminently dislikeable. Above all, it’s given me a chance to write something, it’s given me purpose to write this blog, and it has helped it take shape as a platform to escape the lies and deceits of bad historians around the media.

So let me make this as heartfelt as possible: Thank you, Professor Niall Ferguson BA (Glasgow). My second-greatest hope is that you continue to produce more tedious unhistorical lies for me to critique and expose.

My greatest hope is that you truly do become history, and I never have to see your conceited face on my telly again. Unless it's on Hole In The Wall.


  1. Thanks for the series of posts and the increasingly irate tweets. While I enjoy your writing its furious displeasure with Ferguson can get in the way of rebutting the inaccuracies of fact, argument, and method in these documentaries. I did agree with lots of your criticisms and am probably close to your political flavour, but you start to lose me with ungrounded ridiculing of Ferguson's character and motivations. Often these seem to be pretty wanton bile-filled speculations that function more as self-confirmations of your political/historical allegiances. Have you ever considered that those who hold Ferguson's political positions (Tory, 'realist', capitalist, ethnocentric, Islam-fearing, pro-American hegemony) might do so and still be decent and not self-aggrandising in their motivations.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, it is greatly appreciated.

    I initially wrote a whole self-indulgent defense to your points, but unfortunately it seems to have been deleted. To summarise: I think Niall Ferguson is a bad historian obsessed with his own promotion and interested in angering or frightening his audience rather than informing them. Since his motivation is suspect, I believe criticising his character is relevant, though I am sorry if you felt I went too far. Though I do not share his views, I accept they may be valid if presented more honestly by a better historian. My quarrel is not inherently with the message, but with the messenger, and with the way the message is presented, which I feel is inappropriate for a historian of Ferguson's stature.

  4. Draat! Now I'm all curious about your deleted comment. Anyway, after reading that Guardian piece and this post again I probably get what you mean about the focus on the messenger as much as the message. He does seem to have a fanatical sense of what issues the jury is in on. As the interviewer suggested his contrasting views of the UK/US seem connected with finding over there a echo-chamber like world that already agrees with and wants his views and gleefully appreciates the way they're packaged.

    The one issue I'm curious about now is what are the books like. Do the features you excoriate gets worse or recede in his texts? I'm somewhat forgiving of popular history on TV as the format these days is unfortunately mostly dominated by the demand for photogenic images (touristic sights and sounds) and an over-reliance on pedantic narration and lack of complex ideas. Though Adam Curtis does some exceptional shows with his History of ideas/Cult studs approach.

    By the way did you catch Ferguson's gawdawful impersonation of Woody Allen last night in his reductive aside on Freud? It wasn't intentional but it had me laughing (at Neil, not Sigmund).

  5. The first comment was basically the same: a cowardly justification for attacking the man. Once again: the fact that I disagree with him is not the issue- what matters is that his methodology tarnishes history as a subject.

    I will confess I haven't read his books- they do seem to be more in depth, but I was disappointed to learn that "The Ascent of Money" seems to start in the Renaissance, rather than with Medici or Templar banking systems or the Roman patronage system or a study of guilds or...

    The Freud/Allen bit was just weird- I am at a loss as to what to say about it. Did a psychiatrist kill his granny? Is he a closet Scientologist?

  6. Loved reading this although I wish I had watched the programme and read this a few months ago when a seminar devolved into the two lecturers present taking the piss out of Niall for half the allotted time. I could have joined in.

  7. You can't spell minutiae.