Ferguson’s form extraordinary, content loathsome

Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, Allen Lane, 2011

“A nostalgist for empire”, is how Eric Hobsbawm phrased Niall Ferguson’s fondness for neo-imperial inquisition. It’s difficult to strike that complex balance: appreciating Ferguson’s extraordinary talents for producing strong narrative, and loathing the fact that this narrative is largely architected to reconcile historical data in service of a Western supremacy. The political correctness bequeathed us over the last few decades perhaps makes the world seem a touch less resilient than it should to critical inquiry. But it’s important to understand the contradictions of this rough-edged territory. Sure, let’s reject nativist myths of a “noble savage” – as in Pinker’s colossal new volume on violence – but let’s understand the sensitivities that attend notions like “civilisation” and its apparent constituents and discontents.

Is Ferguson not perhaps condemning himself to a different sort of nativism, though, one which valorises the “natives” of Euro-America? The subtitle of this book (“The West and the Rest”) shares a long lineage in a publication history of authors making the unsubtle distinction. Chinweizu wrote The West and the Rest of Us, which performs a mirror reversal of old colonial binaries, a cheap polemic to argue for inherent African valor and corresponding Western vileness. Elsewhere, the distinction has worked to show the complicity between the identity of the West and its others. Stuart Hall wrote “The West and the Rest” (in Formations of Modernity) in order to argue that the “West” was “a historical, not a geographic construct”. Roger Scruton wrote The West and the Rest investigating the links between globalisation and the production of terrorism. It is a helpful binary in some contexts, but a deeply reductive and problematic construct in all. It seems like that rhyming couplet has the same facile attraction for academics that lyricists have for “like the way you walk/like the way you talk” or “throw your hands in the air/wave them like you don’t care”, two banal matches which have slithered between the stanzas of pop music for more than five decades.

Ferguson’s book opens in an elegiac register (and at various points sharks between the wounded and the triumphalist). His crime is to commit to a reified notion of “West”, one which forgets – as Neil Lazarus writes - “the discontinuity of the historical narrative of the ‘West’ and the perduring porousness of the border between various ‘Wests’ and their Others over the centuries”. In fact, Lazarus’ essay “The Fetish of the West in Postcolonial Theory” should be the paradigmatic rebuttal to anyone seeking to uphold the “West” as a credible referent in a story of supremacy. Ferguson remarks that due to various changes in the global socio-politico-economic landscape (global financial meltdown and the subprime mortgage crisis figure largely in this), “we may be living through the end of 500 years of Western predominance”. China – with India and Brazil not lagging far behind – poses a dire threat: new hegemons are on the horizon. Ferguson quickly lapses into divisive “us/them” talk, often speaking of “our” largesse to the “Rest”. He seeks an antidote to crumbling Western power, one to redress the shifting balance – one to restore the great imperial majesty of the West during its historical conquests and crusades throughout the globe.

The project carries over from an earlier book of his, Empire (2003). There he marked the United States as an “empire in denial”. He prescribed ways for the US to ascend to the same imperial pedestal in the world today that Britain enjoyed during the 19th century – which is basically as false, violent custodians of civilisation: machine-gun preachers of the enlightenment who will declare “liberty for all” as a benediction after they’ve blown your family into a jigsaw of cartilage. Obviously, I’m being facetious. Ferugson’s ambition is to correct a loathing of modernity and what he would see as politically-correct gestures (“I really hate it”) to blame the West as the executor of all contemporary dilemmas. He laments the extent to which a so-called postcolonial climate is even turning Westerners against their own ancestry. “In schools the grand narrative of western ascendancy has fallen out of fashion”, he mopes. This book, in part, aims to restore that grand narrative; it’s a redress to a climate of political correctness. In order to do this, of course, he must exalt its poisoned gifts whilst diminishing its tendency for violence.

Ferguson chases after the constitution of the West and the moments at which it consolidated itself into the first superpower. In order to rehabilitate Western ascendancy against its modern adversaries, he argues, we need to “understand” that ascendancy. He isolates six factors which he calls the “killer apps”, in an unhandsome capitulation to computing jargon, which allowed the West its competitive advantage. These are: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption (the consumer society, not tuberculosis) and work ethic. The book takes its structure from these developments, divided into six chapters each dedicated to exploring these themes and the civilisational advancements undertaken in their name. A traveler to China around 1500 would have encountered a civilisation far more astounding than those warring polities adjacent to the Atlantic at the same time. But around 1800, there was a “reversal in power, empire and economic output”. The West had taken over.

A friend of mine helped situate the thinking of historians like Ferguson, saying that he played a “zero-sum” game, that he understood the world through a lens which belongs largely to the 19th century. By this he means Ferguson thinks that, had the West not risen to its hegemony, another civilisation inevitably would have. The West simply outclassed its competitors in a politico-evolutionary struggle. This tends to forget precisely how contingent that rise actually was. It forgets also, that internal developments within a territory roughly designated “West” might have given rise to an impulse for conquest and empire that was perhaps not shared elsewhere. The rise of capitalist modernity, of course, created what Marx called an age “of everlasting uncertainty and agitation”, one in which a driving logic of capitalist accumulation and expansion arose to attend the cyclonic changes occurring within Europe at the time. That the Aztecs – or the Asiatic mode of production, for that matter – were compelling a project to colonise the world and withdraw foreign resources to satiate the motherland too is not readily apparent.

Ferguson is aware that playing the “West is the best and here’s why” game will collect many denouncers accusing him of using selective policies and data to underscore his point. This is why he’s developed a rather guileful response: strategic self-deprecation. Ferguson will admit of both the “nobility” and “turpitude” of the colonial enterprise. He knocks up many concessions and disclaimers to the opposing position. But having fortified himself with these milder inoculants, he will then devote large portions of the book to effectively eclipse these hesitations by proclaiming how awesome the West was. He writes of missionaries, “conversion was achieved ultimately more by word than by sword”. The soundbyte ends there, but one might want to inquire further as to the nature of this “word” – ideology and discourse – and the pernicious structural and symbolic effects it wreaked on whole populations. This kind of downplaying of colonial violence is manifest all throughout the work. It stretches into much of the historical “grand-narrative” he assembles.

Clearly, Ferguson is not committed to a rehabilitation of the world on global terms. He would rather create problematic compartmentalisations between “West” and “Rest” and then tremble at the falling of the former. But the West, of course, cannot be neatly cordoned off, and even when it is, the designation has traditionally functioned as an occlusive term. I must return to Lazarus to do this argument justice. Lazarus has written of a tendency to “situate the global dispersal of capitalist modernity in terms of the universalisation of ‘The West’”. The West, he argues, functions according to a civilisational logic.

[T]he inevitable result of this construction is a dematerialised understanding of ‘the West’ – and its modernity, its socio-historical ground – as being in a fundamental sense a sort of cultural disposition.

Ferguson, who calls Marx an “odious individual”, is prey to this sin of occlusion. It is through understanding history as a “clash of civilisations” (Samuel Huntington is spoken of favourably) that he believes that the West rose to power on account of an innate superiority – an advantage in its “cultural disposition”.

I have perhaps not struck the balance that I had hoped for. As a milder kind of redress, I might say that Ferguson’s prose is lucid and accessible. I would add that many of the facts he marshals produce an argument of some durability – he is not in any sense stupid; he just operates in a framework best abandoned to the colonial mindset which produced it. The greatest problem for a critical review of Ferguson is the anxiety that much of what he says is true. The world was not a series of independent paradises prior to colonialism and although the “gifts” of the West are actually the composite of various cultures crossing thresholds and engaging each other, they still tend to be viewed with a formal admiration. Ferguson’s argument is not a faithless one: many, even those ravaged by colonialism, concede to the largesse of the so-called “West”. But he must ultimately be rejected because his work is animated by the same first-world provincialism found in Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. It is a point of view which mistakes the entanglement of complicities which produced a globalised, interconnected world and its problems. It is, to state it academically, not a properly dialectical position. Ferguson uses history to glorify empire and argue for its strengthening and return. For all his engrossing historical analysis, this makes him an individual far more odious than he could ever accuse Marx to be.


J.D. says:

For those who are interested, there is another, similar review at the London Review here:

The conversation includes a response by Ferguson, a renewed attack by the reviewer, and a defense by two eminent commentators.