OUR KILLER APPLICATIONS
CIVILIZATION: THE WEST AND THE REST
By Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 402pp £25)
the World. And just in case the reader was unsure about his message, the subtitle banished all doubt: ‘The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World’. More recently, the archaeologist, classicist and historian Ian Morris, in a hefty tome entitled Why the West Rules – For Now, squarely placed China at the centre of his book, exploring the ebbing of Western power to the East, from the African gene pool hundreds of thousands of years ago to a post-biological future fifty years from now.
ON 4 OCTOBER 1957 a shiny steel sphere the size of a beach ball hurtled through the sky, emitting signals picked up by radio operators around the world. Taking the United States completely by surprise, the Soviet Union had successfully launched the world’s first earth satellite, opening a new chapter in the space race that was met with both awe and fear. A month later Nikita Khrushchev promised that, by freeing the economy from the dead hand of Stalinism, he would create such abundance that even the United States would be left in the dust. The claims now seem extravagant, but at the time the spectre of a rising Soviet Union seemed real enough. In the mid-1970s American visitors walking through the major cities of Siberia were taken aback by downtowns that were made to appear every bit as modern as their counterparts back home.
Yet by the time the Soviet Union came crashing down a decade or so later, the perceived threat to the West had already been transposed to the East. Glittering Japan was the future. Bankers predicted that a r ising empire of the sun would soon supplant the United States as the world’s l eading economy. Distinguished academics such as the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wondered whether Japan had a different model from the West, its citizens cells of an organic whole that stifled open dissent. On a more popular level, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun imagined a ruthless corporate world headquartered in Tokyo taking over American industries. By the time the book was published in 1992, Japan had already fallen into a decade of slump. Niall Ferguson is not quite sure when and where he was hit by the realisation that we are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy, but he believes it may have been dur ing his f ir st walk along the Bund in Shanghai in 2005, dazzled by modern skyscrapers far taller than the erstwhile symbols of Western hegemony. He is not alone in his conviction that a rising China is about to best the West. A few years ago, the British journalist Martin Jacques confidently published When China Rules
Civilization: The West and the Rest is a big book, but one that is mercifully confined to the last 500 years rather than the full fifteen millennia of human history examined by Morris. The key question it addresses is why a few small communities clustered around the western end of the Eurasian landmass have come to dominate the world – and whether they can maintain their lead. Ferguson is not the first to probe into the reasons for the rise of the West, but he does so in a thoughtful and engaging manner, helped by a lucid style and flashes of humour that will appeal to the lay reader. He draws on a broad range of scholarship,
managing to breathe new life into a whole series of ongoing debates, from the origins of the Industr ial Revolution to the nature of imperialism.
Bowing to reality
He also strikes the right tone, steering clear of the triumphali sm of some of the earl i er accounts of the rise of the West, and never shying away f rom confronting some of the horrors perpetrated in the name of civilisation, including the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid and the Holocaust. The very notion of a civilising mission, as he points out, found i t s most extreme expression in the geno-
cide of the Herero and the Nama in German South-West Africa. But Ferguson also avoids the other extreme, one which has become fashionable over the past few decades, namely a relativist approach that attacks the very notion of the rise of the West. The sinologist Kenneth Pomeranz, for one, went to great lengths in The Great Divergence to argue that there was nothing exceptional in Europe when compared to China, except that coal deposits were easier to mine in Britain, a fact which came to determine the shape of the modern world as we know it.
Rather than reducing the broad sweep of human history to a single variable, Ferguson captures the extraordinary complexity of the last 500 years by proposing six innovations which distinguished the West from the Rest. Borrowing from the language of today’s computerised world, he calls them ‘killer applications’: competition, science, property r ights, medicine, consumer society,
LITERARY REVIEW March 2011