Civilization by Niall Ferguson – Book Review

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Niall Ferguson's CivilizationNiall Ferguson is a writer with sweeping ideas, As with the broad sweep of his book the Ascent of Money, in his new book published this fall, he takes on no less a subject that civilization itself – or more particularly the rise of the West starting around 1500 and its demise now. The book is thoroughly and impressively researched and is very readable with some surprising revelations to the non historian.

He states, for example, that every industrial revolution, starting with Britain arose out of the textile industry. He compares the French revolution to the American one and posits why the Americans succeeded while the French revolution descended into terrorism and tyranny: the French revolution was run by irresponsible theorists who placed equality above liberty, while the American one was dominated by pragmatists who valued liberty and the rule of law. 

Ferguson compares the Spanish colonies in central and south America and the British colonies of North America and explains why the Spanish colonies turned into slave states, while democracy and prosperity eventually reigned in the British colonies. 

Ferguson calls Europeans today the idlers of the world, with fewer citizens available for work because of protracted education and early retirement and a relatively low number of work hours. He explains why the Soviet Union could not produce a better working man's costume than the jeans invented by Levi in the United States and traces the rise of the blue jean from a worker's durable pant, made from American cloth and dyed with American indigo, to the universal symbolism of capitalism and freedom.

He notes that many of the atrocities committed in the Great Wars may have been due to the employment in wartime of colonial masters who had treated their subjects in just this way. The colonies, particularly of Africa, were, in fact, testing grounds for atrocities perpetrated in Europe by the colonizers against each other.

Essentially though, Ferguson attributes the rise of the West to six factors which developed out of the competing backward petty kingdoms of central Europe after 1500: competition, science, the rule of law, consumerism, modern medicine and the work ethic. The competition occasioned by their rivalry outperformed the more centralized and static societies of the Ottoman Empire and China.

The current predominance of the West, he attributes to the values ofProtestant Christianity which emphasize work and saving, a view supported by some of China's leaders and a warning for the effects of the decline of Christianity in the West.

This is a fascinating read, whether or not you agree with Ferguson's conclusions. It is full of insights derived from extensive research and should be on the holiday list of anyone who values history and its lessons.