Civilization is not Ferguson's best

By Razib Khan | June 19, 2012 9:44 pm

Last winter I took note of a major conflict between Pankaj Mishra and Niall Ferguson over a review by the former of the latter’s most recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. Ferguson accused Mishra of attempting to assassinate his character, and even suggested that he would take him to court over libel. This piqued my curiosity, so I added Ferguson’s latest work to my stack. I recently managed to get to it and finish it. It’s a very quick and jaunty read. I enjoyed his The Ascent of Money and The World’s Banker, but have avoided Ferguson’s forays into neoconservative intellectual polemic. I’m obviously not a neoconservative myself, but normally disagreement with an individual’s theses doesn’t deter me from grappling with their ideas. Rather, the past decade of American history has been a wasteful experiment in neoconservative nation-building, and I’d had enough of that. No need for more o that crap in flowery and more erudite paragraphs. But when it comes to economic history Niall Ferguson seems to be on more legitimate terrain, though his histories of the Rothschild House are much weightier tomes than something like The Ascent of Money. But to be frank The Ascent of Money is War and Peace next to Civilization.

So what of Mishra’s review? After reading Civilization I read it, and I quite understand where Ferguson’s anger was coming from. Panjak Mishra basically suggests that Ferguson is a racist, throwing sneering asides to Charles Murray so that the reader can be assured of the intent. In particular, an analogy is clearly made between Ferguson and Lothrop Stoddard, author of works such as The rising tide of color against white world-supremacy. Stoddard’s opinion, the rising tide of color, bad, white supremacy, good. A normal Westerner in this day and age would find the comparison offensive, but in Ferguson’s case it’s particularly galling, because he has a mixed-race son with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.


I suspect that Ferguson’s first instinct was to track Mishra down and beat the living shit out of him. I know that would be my own instinct in his position. They fuck you up, your kids. To me that explains his outrageous attempt to silence Mishra’s obnoxious imputations with the threat of the law. Britain has ridiculously pro-plaintiff courts in regards to libel, but Niall Ferguson makes a great show of being American, and in the United States it is totally acceptable to make tenuous accusations against the motives of public figures. Rather than fight with the law Ferguson should probably just have accused Mishra of being a Communist with sympathies toward genocidal Leftist regimes like that of Pol Pot. I know, juvenille, but the Leftist intellectual usage of the term racism is of the same nature as the old red-baiting of the Cold War. If you don’t have coherent arguments, simply insult and accuse, with sure knowledge that your ideological allies won’t inspect your accusations with any degree of skepticism.

What’s a shame though is that many of Mishra’s substantive critiques of Civilization are spot on. Niall Ferguson’s story of the rise of the West involves six “killer apps.” They are:  political and economic competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law, modern medicine, education and the work ethic. Where this argument is persuasive, it’s not original (e.g., the scientific revolution). Where it is novel, it is not worked out in much detail (e.g., medicine). The book is simply far too ambitious in scope in relation to the thesis being presented. Rather than an argument,  Civilization consists mostly of bald assertions occasionally sprinkled in with some insight which one wishes would be followed up in more detail. For example, as Mishra notes there is much warmed-over Webberianism in Ferguson’s narrative, but he does present the idea that Protestantism was not useful for the work ethic in a direct manner, but that it increased in human capital and therefore potential productivity through the spread of literacy due to the shift toward personal reading of the Bible. Yes, there are notes, but I wish Ferguson would have pushed more into this area and fleshed out his thoughts, because he reports that this effect holds true in non-Western societies too (i.e., Protestant areas have higher literacy, all things areas, vis-a-vis Roman Catholic areas).

But I assume that it is in the area of colonialism that Niall Ferguson might rankle many. His enthusiasm for empire is well attested, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t give a totally negative account of the colonial adventure, in both intent and outcome. A world of post-colonial theory this is a big no-no, and clearly was the reason for why Pankaj Mishra accused Ferguson of being a racialist of yore. Long-time readers know that I’m not a fan of post-colonial theory, which makes a fetish of the power of the white race, and totally ignores the agency of colored peoples, for good or ill. In particular I found it interesting how Civilization outlined the different natures of Western colonialism. Not only does post-colonial theory tend to reduce the colored experience into one of amorphous subalterns, but there also does not seem to be a deep exploration of the reality that French colonialism was qualitatively different from British colonialism which was qualitatively different from German colonialism. This section of the narrative is worth expanding, but in the interests of covering all his “killer apps” Ferguson simply moves on hastily.

Finally, there are aspects of the book which are amateurish and tendentious in the extreme. As Mishra notes Ferguson dismisses Kenneth Pommeranz’s argument in The Great Divergence with barely a word. I understand that Civilization is not a scholarly work, but I also found it frustrating that the reader might not be aware that one of Pommeranz’s observations is that too often the most dynamic areas of Europe (e.g., England) are compared to the whole of China, with the appropriate comparison is apples to apples (e.g., England vs. the zone around Shanghai). If you read Ferguson’s narrative this isn’t clear at all, and in fact he regularly does compare England itself to all of China. The section on religion and Christianity was also very hackneyed. Much of the portion on China and Christianity is taken directly from Jesus in Beijing, a work of a journalist, not a scholar. Many of the statistics and projects are basically pulled out of thin-air, though to be fair that is a problem with religion & China more generally thanks to government obstruction. Ferguson regales the reader with the fact that Chinese social scientists are convinced that Christianity is the reason for Western success, and that Jiang Zemin wanted to make Christianity China’s official religion. The former is unsourced, while Zemin is also rumored to be a private practitioner of Buddhism. In other words, question the veracity of these claims. Not only that, there is a strange juxtaposition between the section on the implicit necessity of Christianity for China’s modernization, and Japan’s wholesale adoption of Western ways. Ferguson neglects to mention that there was one thing which Japan did not adopt wholesale: Christianity. And last I checked Japan was a modern society, which somehow managed to develop (granted, Christians have been a catalytic force in Japanese society over the past century).

Overall Civilization gets 2.5 stars from me. If you know a lot of history it’s a quick read, and you can probably separate the wheat from the chaff easily. I’m not quite sure why you’d want to read it, as it doesn’t get much further than the op-eds which Ferguson has been penning (and the conceit of “killer apps” gets really annoying in my opinion). If you aren’t well versed in history you should probably not read this book, because you’re too ignorant to figure out where Ferguson is bullshitting, and where he’s being a serious scholar (you can check the notes, but he switches between the type of books published by university presses to superficial mass market nonfiction).

  • Matt

    I’m almost finished reading Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. It makes the argument that political institutions that foster competition and inventiveness are behind all the successes and failures throughout history. I liked it because it gave a really panaranic view of this happening time and time again, through many periods of history, in many different countries with vastly different cultures and religions. Whether it be 10th century Venice, 19th century Ethiopa, or present day China, countries rise and fall based on how great of an extent the power of the government or business elite is checked by democratic institutions, because this allows for creative destruction and the free market to function. I’m not convinced their answer is sufficient to provide an answer for a nation’s successes and failures, but it’s definetly given me a helpful lens with which to determine what policies may or may not be helpful for a nation, and which nations are unlikely to prosper in the following years. For instance, they’re bearish on China, what they would call an “extractive” socieity where top down government can provide growth for decades. However, that model always eventually fails because the creative destruction neccesary for sustained economic growth always also means political instability and authoritarian governments will not allow for that instability.

    My comment may be off on a tangent, but I figured it’s a fascinating view, and maybe a better one than Ferguson’s, in figuring out what is the determining factors between failed and successful states.

  • Darkseid

    Thanks for the review, Razib. I’d love to know a quick list of which aspects of the “killer apps” you thought *were* legit or, even better, what parts of western culture you personally think contributed to their 500 year dominance. I simply have no direction on this controversial topic as I can’t figure out which historian to listen to. Did the equal distribution of private land to newly arrived immigrants set the tone for a dominant society? Ferguson seemed to want to paint this practice (which was quite distinct from the feudal systems being established in S. America, etc.) as the key to establishing a strong, competitive, fair society in his PBS special.

  • Syon

    RE: grievance-school multicultural reviews,

    Frankly, this text has had a lot of those.Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, was up in arms over Ferguson’s boiler-plate stuff on the role of the Scientific Revolution in the rise of the West.Since science of a kind has always existed, he felt that it was absurd for Ferguson to claim that the Scientific Revolution marked a point of divergence (the implication being that Ferguson was denigrating “non-Western science” in favor of the the White Man’s ). Naturally, reading that kind of ill-informed critique left me wondering as to the actual soundness of the text. Judging from your review, I think that I will pass. As you say, where he is on solid ground (the Scientific Revolution), he is thoroughly conventional, while his departures from received wisdom seem rather sloppily researched.

    P.S., Have you done a full review of Pinker’s BETTER ANGELS yet? Frankly, I think that you might just be the only guy out there with the right chops (well versed in both history and the science) to do the job right.There are guys who know more history or science than you do, but damn few know as much about both.

  • AG

    Unfortunately, most people are not critical thinker/reader in this world. Many people will believe bullshit.

    Religions are also………….

  • j mct

    Modern Medicine? That seems to show up after the west had already had gotten to near it’s territorial high water mark. It would seem that greatest life extension technology that man has yet devised, soap, was western though, I read somewhere it is thought to have been invented in the 500’s in visigothic Spain, though until germs were discovered in the 19th century, the full awesomeness of soap lay dormant.

    Per the Christianity thing being the West’s secret, what exactly about it does Ferguson, or the Chinese people whose views he cites, say is the reason for it’s contribution to the West’s success?

  • gcochran

    People have often referred to Niall Ferguson as a ‘rock star’. I think there’s some validity to that point of view. I can easily imagine him biting the head off of a live bat, drowning in his own vomit, or even, with luck, exploding in a flash of green light.

  • Rayov Flite

    The rock star is currently delivering the Reith Lectures on the BBC:

    The eminent economic historian Professor Niall Ferguson argues that institutions determine the success or failure of nations. In a lecture delivered at the London School of Economics and Political Science, he says that a society governed by abstract, impersonal rules will become richer than one ruled by personal relationships.

    I haven’t listened and have no desire to do so, but I have a funny feeling it will be HBD-lite. The Reith Lectures are often described as “prestigious”:

    The internationally renowned economic historian and modern history fellow from Jesus College, Niall Ferguson, has been chosen to lead the prestigious 2012 BBC Reith Lectures.

    In this case, I think the etymological fallacy is perfectly in order:

    prestigious, adj. Etymology: < classical Latin praestīgiōsus, full of tricks, deceitful (2nd cent. a.d.)

    When gcochran is asked to deliver the Reith Lectures, I'll want to listen. But I'll look out the window first for a passing Sus volans.

  • Kaviani

    I don’t see how having a mixed race child would disqualify one from racism outright.
    Post colonial theory is ridden with perceptual problems, but racism is not always about getting the darkie down.

  • Razib Khan

    I don’t see how having a mixed race child would disqualify one from racism outright.

    i didn’t say that. if you put words in my mouth again i will ban you.

  • omar

    Excellent review. I dont know a tenth of your knowledge about the other topics, but I thought the medicine part was really very unconvincing in Ferguson’s book and the religion section was almost equally bad.
    But comparing apples to oranges, I still think Mishra’s review was more tendentious, biased and loaded with PC bullcrap than Ferguson’s book.

  • JRH

    Does Mishra’s employment of a character in The Great Gatsby and the real life racist he is modeled on to begin his review of Ferguson’s book deserve a beating? Well, if we can trust The Guardian’s photographer, Mishra is a slight-framed colored man, but the review itself concerns Ferguson’s pro-colonial, West is Best, views, and the first few paragraphs of it are an artful sketch of earlier practitioners of that trade (and a reminder that The Great Gatsby should be read again.) It would be difficult to say much about pre-WWII theorists of colonialism without noticing their racism. Perhaps we shouldn’t talk about these things at all. With respect to other, not explicitly racist, concepts and attitudes the similarities between Ferguson and his forbears seem clear enough.

    Ferguson’s response to the review (found at the same link as the review itself) identifies him as a boor, if not a bore (it’s all rather exciting, really) somewhat like Fitzgerald’s Tom Buchanan. At least he hasn’t for himself played the I’m-married-to-a-colored-lady card. Has he?

    I’m advised by the review above not to read Civilization if I’m not well versed in history. Fortunately I don’t have to agonize over whether I qualify: Mishra says,
    ” [Ferguson’s] book is immune to the broadly tragic view – that every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarism – just as it is to humour and irony.”
    Ferguson’s response confirms this. Reason enough to leave the book alone.

  • Razib Khan

    Does Mishra’s employment of a character in The Great Gatsby and the real life racist he is modeled on to begin his review of Ferguson’s book deserve a beating?

    yes. the rest of your comment is mighty lawyerly of you sir esquire ;-=) (that was not a compliment)

  • omar

    “that every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarism “.
    This sounds deep, but what does it mean in relation to Ferguson’s book? Could you elaborate further?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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