Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Historian for the Post MTV Generation or Niall Ferguson Does the Making of the Modern World

He's back. The he being Niall Ferguson, the Magdalen educated professor of modern history and business history at Harvard University, professor at the new private New School of the Humanities in London, author of many tomes including a massive one on the Rothschild's, educational advisor to Cameron's current Tory/Liberal Democrat government, and academic celebrity. Ferguson is back on PBS with a new documentary, the snappily rappily titled "Civilization: The West and the Rest", an American version of his Channel 4 series "Civilization: Is the West History?" and followup to his previous documentary on a similar subject, "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World" (Channel 4, 2008, PBS, 2009).

"Civilization: The West and the Rest" (I haven't seen "Civilization: Is the West History", March-April 2011, and don't at this point know whether, like "The Ascent of Money" the British and American incarnations are slightly different) debuted on PBS last night, 22 May 2012. Parts three and four will be transmitted on 29 May. The series is, in many ways, a bit of a throwback to the history and sociology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in that it addresses a question that stimulated so much early sociological work and so much debate in early social theory, why and how did the West become so powerful? It is also a poke in the eye of those who, in the wake of the rise of cultural and social anthropology with their relativist sensitivity, developed an aversion to the use of terms like civilisation, a term Ferguson uses intentionally and in a rather in your face way kind of kind of way, because of its historic embededness in notions of cultural, read Western, superiority. This makes Ferguson, to some extent, a latter-day Sir Kenneth Clark, who, drawing on cultural and art critic John Ruskin, in his famous 1969 BBC/PBS documentary "Civilisation: A Personal View", linked the greatness of the West with the the greatness of its "higher "art, its "civilisation". In a point of trivial pursuit, Walter Benjamin influenced critic John Berger critiqued Clark's perspective, in part, in another BBC/PBS documentary, "Ways of Seeing".

Analysts in whose footsteps Ferguson is following into the labyrinthian question of how and why the West, Western Europe, and Western European settler societies, became so powerful and dominant have answered this question in a variety of different ways over the years. In the tale as traditionally told and believed by many Westerners, Western dominance was set in the stars, set in motion by the hand of god. In this rather metaphysical, ideological, and ethnocentric narrative Europe’s peoples, well Western Europe’s peoples, were god’s chosen people and superior to others in their religion, their civilization, their culture, their technology, and their military skills because they were god’s chosen peoples. A secular variant of this ideology arose in the nineteenth century with the spinning of Social Darwinism out of Darwinism, a perspective which flowered in the 20th. This secular version of European superiority saw Western European military, technological, and societal success as evidence that Western Europeans were the most fit, the notion of fit here being an adaptation of and unilinearization of Darwin’s survival of the fittest notion. Here the god of the metaphysical argument was replaced by godlike unilineal evolution, the notion that all humans began at the same point on the evolutionary ladder and that Western Europeans, as their power, prosperity, and dominance shows, had risen to the top rung of the evolutionary ladder and were thus the most fit, the most fit, in particular, to rule over a global empire. Needless to say many have seen Social Darwinism as a rationalisation of and justification for class inequalities and colonialism and imperialism.

Others with a more secular and multilineal bent were less sure about the divine or evolutionary origins of Western power. Karl Marx attributed Western dominance to the development of capitalism. German Comparative Historian and sociologist Max Weber attributed it to a host of factors including capitalism, industrialisation, the development of “modern” accounting procedures, increased urbanization, increased autonomy in European city-states, particularly those in Northern Europe, increased bureaucratization with its professionalisation and meritocracy, rationalization for efficiency, and the Protestant ethic of asceticism and hard work. It was the last, Protestantism and specifically capitalism that for Weber, in particular, explained why all of this happened in the West and not in Asia or the Middle East.

Weber's multifactoral approach to the rise of the West and the birth of modernity--intellectuals and scholars have generally seen modernity and the modern world as a product of the rise of the West--has had an immense influence on comparative social scientists and historians in his wake. Many, including myself, who have been influenced by Weber, continue to attribute the West's rise, power, and influence to a host of factors. In many of these multifactoral approaches European dominance becomes the end product of the West’s increasing control over its environment (an environmental or geographic argument), the awakening and mobilization of the Western masses through rituals, symbols, propaganda, patriotism, nationalism (a cultural argument), Western European beliefs in their own civilisational superiority (a cultural argument), industrialisation (an economic argument), Western technological developments (an economic and technological argument), institutional developments such as double entry accounting (an economic argument), the use of money for commerce, the rise of banks, financial institutions and joint stock companies all of which allowed for investment with limited liability and the mobilization of vast amounts of capital (all economic factors), the collapse of the church’s ban against usury or loans (a cultural and economic argument), a renewed interest in the Western past especially Ancient Greece and Rome which came to be seen as the hearth of Western Civilisation, a tendency seen as early as the Renaissance (a cultural argument), a belief in progress through science and technology (a cultural argument), Europe’s lack of centralization (a political argument), competition between the Western powers (a political argument), the hemming in of Europe by the Islamic Empires of the West, a hemming in which forced them to innovate particularly in terms of ocean exploration (a political and economic argument), the expansion of European agriculture (an economic argument), increases in Europe’s population (a demographic argument), the development of overland and overseas trade between various parts of Europe (an economic argument), and European Christianity’s missionising impulse (a cultural and ideological argument). All of these, claim scholars devoted to multifactoral approaches to the rise of the West to power, led to Western political, economic, cultural, social, military, scientific, and technological might.

Recently two academics have tossed their hats into the how and why did the West become so powerful and dominant ring and they have done so not only in the standard scholarly ways, by publishing scholarly papers and scholarly books, but also through documentaries. Geographer Jared Diamond argues that Western power and dominance can be summarised in three little words, guns, germs, and steel, the title of his prize-winning book. Diamond’s "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (1999) and the documentary of the same name that followed the book (July 2006, PBS, Diamond emphasises geographical, technological, and military rather than genetic factors to try to understand Europe’s political, social, economic, technological, military, and cultural power in the fifteenth century and afterwards. Diamond rejects notions of unilinear evolution, the notion that everyone evolves along the same lines (biology plus geography), arguing instead, like most contemporary evolutionary and cultural anthropologists, that humans have evolved to where they are today along a variety of paths, multilinear evolution (biology plus geographies). Diamond argues that it was food production and herding which has ultimately led to Western and European dominance.

Diamond points out that food production has developed at different rates in different parts of the world. Some people developed it independently others acquired it through cultural diffusion, others through culture contact. Diffusion of food production (and domesticated animals), claims Diamond, followed east-west axes in Europe versus north-south ones in the Americas and Africa (geography). In Europe food production was aided by the fact that over much of the peninsula irrigation is unnecessary for cultivation. Moreover, most of the cultivable land in Europe lies at low altitudes. The domestication of livestock in Europe provided, over time, Europeans with immunity to several diseases—measles from cattle, tuberculosis from cattle, smallpox from cattle and other livestock, flu from pigs and ducks, whooping cough from pigs and dogs, and a type of malaria from chickens and perhaps ducks. The fact that the West developed an immunity to these diseases played an important role in the making of the modern world because it was diseases more than guns and steel which decimated native populations in the English and Spanish New Worlds and beyond. For Diamond geography and geographical variations really do matter.

Niall Ferguson's documentary "Civilization" comes out of the what might be called the "kitchen sink" school of explanation for Western dominance. For Ferguson there are six reasons, Ferguson hiply refers to them as "killer aps", for Western power and dominance: economic and political competition, science, notions of private property, consumerism, democracy, and the work ethic. Conceptualising the rise of the West in this six broad ways allows Ferguson, like Weber before him, to note a number of factors which contributed to the rise of the West and changed Western and the world forever since Western ways of thinking and doing have gone global. These factors within factors, theory as Russian matryoshka dolls, include capitalism (competition), English and Scottish liberalism (competition and science), the Enlightenment (science), the rise of the university (science), guns and steel (science), ideologies of progress (science), medical advances (medicine; I would actually classify this under science) colonisation and imperialism (property), the extension of the franchise (democracy and property), secularisation or the separation of church and state (science and democracy), blue jeans and popular culture (consumerism), and the Protestant work ethnic (work ethic).

All of this comparative analysis of the rise of the West and of modernity, of course, hasn't gone without criticism. Some commentators have criticised Marx for his overemphasis on capitalism as the culprit for the rise of the modern world and for reducing politics and culture to the machinations of the capitalist class. Weber has been criticised for linking capitalism and Calvinism and for ignoring the role Catholicism played in the rise of capitalism particularly by Catholic historians and social scientists who are far too often cheerleaders for Roman Catholicism, capitalism, and the West. Some have criticised Diamond for his limited attention to culture and the role culture played in the rise of the West. One can criticise Ferguson for some of the same "sins" of omission and commission.

Ferguson tends to emphasise economics, politics, and most of all culture, particularly the culture wars associated with the clash of civilisations At one point, in fact, Ferguson compares contemporary Israel surrounded by Muslims to the Vienna of 1683 surrounded by Muslims. He argues, for instance, that it was not technology that made the West more powerful than China in the East since China developed gunpowder, the printing press, encyclopedias, and massive ocean going vessels for exploration but that it was political and economic competition. He argues that it was the notion of private property and its dominance in North America that distinguished North America from Latin America where the elite monopoly on property (Ferguson is drawing on the argument of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto here) led to the rise of a decadent elite idle rich who made their money off of what was essentially slave labour. He claims the Ottoman Empire, like Latin America, was inhibited in developing in a direction similar to Europe because of the dominance of an elite political and economic elite, the decadence that brought, and theocratic and anti-scientific Islam in that multicultural empire. And then, of course, there was good old European and Western greed. But was it simply competition that distinguished the West from the East? Was it simply a lack of private property and elite decadence that led to the differences between Latin America, the Ottoman Empire, and Europe? Was it simply that Westerners were more greedy than others around the world? What about the geography and natural resources Ferguson dismisses in a sentence in his discussion of property, North America, and Latin America? What about climate? What about capitalism? What about modern accounting practises?

One could, of course, criticise Ferguson for other reasons as well. He, for instance, downplays Western colonialisaton, the Western theft of land from the natives they found in the various "New Worlds" they "discovered" at the same time that he celebrates English property rights liberalism, the same property rights liberalism that justified the theft on the basis of use versus lack of use. It can't be said, however, that Ferguson entirely ignores the inequalities associated with the rise of the West. In what is almost an afterthought in the second hour of the first part of the series Ferguson does note that slavery existed in a United States that, at the same time, ostensibly at least, raised freedom, liberty, and property to the level of secular divine laws. Finally, one could and should criticise Ferguson's for his use of ideologically and culturally loaded terms like "dumb", "drab", "worst dressed", and "civilisation", terms which are, it can be readily be argued, in the eyes of the beholder rather than the transcendental notions Ferguson seems to think they are. And anyway, aren't the blue jeans of Westerners, their standard operating kit, akin to the "pajamas" of Mao era communism? Conformist?

Ferguson ends his excursion into the rise of the West by asking several questions about whether the West can and will survive the spread of the six Western killer aps he delineates around the globe and the adoption of some of these "killer aps" by countries like China and Turkey. Will the decline of Protestantism and the Protestant work ethic (shades of Max Weber) in Europe, he asks, kill that which allowed for Europe's rise to "civilization" in the first place? Will the spread of greed, narcissism (shades of Christopher Lasch), the obsession with pleasure (shades of Sigmund Freud), relativism, and vacuous consumerism in the West spell its demise? Will the decline of morality in general in the West lead to the collapse of Western civilisation for the first time since civilisation collapsed with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Will the pollution and climate change, caused by pollution spell the end of modernity? Or will the West revive those things that made it great and continue to lead the world toward the radiant future of science, the work ethic, private property, freedom, and autonomous legal systems that protect private property and freedom since after all, claims Ferguson, it is only the West that still has all six of his "killer aps" that made it great? Only time, I suppose, will tell.

I want to end this brief discussion with a few brief remarks on the style of Ferguson's "Civilization". Like Ferguson's earlier "The Ascent of Money" "Civilization" is structured rather like a popular music video or an episode of "The Hills" with their many jump cuts, jump cuts, for instance, from Ferguson in Spain to Ferguson in the City of London to Ferguson in Lima Peru to Ferguson in Charleston, South Carolina. In its style and form "Civilization" is heir to the Western advertising tradition, particularly Western television advertising. And this is why Niall Ferguson is a if not the documentary historian for post-MTV generations and their age. With Ferguson's "The Ascent of Money" and "Civilization" the documentary as James Bond action adventure film with Ferguson playing the role of Bond amidst exotic and not so exotic locales, has truly come of age. Welcome to the world of the action adventure history documentary. Welcome to the era of the historian as hero celebrity.

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