VL Podcast transcript: Civilization by Niall Ferguson

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Hello there.

My name is Kirsty and I’m a PhD student in History at Queen’s University, Belfast.  You may know me as the one who goes on and on and on about Trotsky.  Now, that’s not all I do here on Vulpes Libris – sometimes I persuade other people to come to us and go on and on and on about Trotsky themselves.

Today, just for a change, I will be reviewing a book that fascinates and appals me in equal measure: Niall Ferguson’s Civilization.

Now, in order to get an idea of what, exactly, Civilization sets out to do, let’s consider an extract from the Preface to the UK edition:

These days, it is often said that historians should tell stories; accordingly, this book offers a big story – a meta-narrative of why one civilization transcended the constraints that had bound all previous ones – and a great many smaller tales or micro-histories within it.  Nevertheless, the revival of the art of narrative is only part of what is needed.  In addition to stories, it is also important that there be questions,  “Why did the West come to dominate the Rest?” is a question that demands something more than a just-so story in response.

We’ll come back to that whole West vs. Rest idea shortly.  In the meantime, Ferguson very effectively sets out here the ideas, aims and assumptions which shape his narrative.  And that narrative is very tightly structured.  The body of Civilization consists of six thematic chapters: Competition, Science, Property, Medicine, Consumption and Work.  These are the six things – Ferguson calls them killer apps (erm) — which he believes gave modern Western civilisation an advantage over the rest of the world.  These chapters also appear more or less intact in the accompanying television series for Channel 4.

To fit a project like this into six chapters necessarily requires a schematic and relatively superficial narrative approach – perhaps even more so if you have the telly in mind.  In the case of Civilization, the effectiveness of this approach – at least, for me – varies wildly.  Sometimes the narrative is like the best sort of public lecture: pacy, interesting, communicating real expertise in an accessible and exciting way.  This is particularly true of those passages which play to Ferguson’s strengths as a financial historian, such as the condensed history of the City of London’s financial institutions on pages 40 to 41 in the chapter on Competition.

And sometimes it just seems rather breathless, as the narrative pings from one end of the globe to another, cramming in ideas and names and statistics and – far too often – quick and dirty characterisations of entire movements and cultures, many of which carry distinct overtones of stereotype.  Inevitably, given the sheer scope of the project, this is sometimes compounded by a relative lack of expertise in the subject matter.  The chapter on Property is one outstanding example of this, and particularly the sections on South America.

Now, this is clearly not a scholarly monograph – something that is made eminently clear by Ferguson’s polemical interludes in his introduction.  But there are two things in the way of historical practice which consistently and profoundly bug me about Civilization, and which I think are particularly relevant in the light of Ferguson’s comments, in the Observer of February 20 2011, to the effect that this book is written to remedy a projected deficit in the teaching of history to school students.  The first of these is his use of primary sources – the second is the issue of the definition of terms.

Ferguson uses a great deal of primary source material in his narrative, as well he should.  But he does not do what schoolchildren all over the UK are taught to do when writing an essay: he doesn’t follow up a quotation with a comment.  Instead, he simply drops a passage from – say – Macartney on China into his narrative and swiftly moves on (see page 47).  The best that can be said for this is that is sustains the pace of the narrative.  However, to cite, with minimal context and without critical engagement, an eighteenth-century account which refers to (and I quote) “the ignorant Chinese” is problematic in any historical text and especially so in one which aims to set an example.  Even if Ferguson wishes us to understand that he endorses Macartney’s judgement – and I have no idea if he does – it would surely be better to make it clear.  In other words, to operate on argument instead of assumption.

The same applies to his use of terms which carry a certain burden of controversy in modern historiography (and beyond).  The most obvious example is the idea of the West vs. the Rest, on which Ferguson’s analysis hinges.  He does accord some reflection to the various meanings of “West”, which occupies less than a page and a half of his introduction (that’s pages 14 and 15, so you know).  But is this really enough in the context of a book which not only makes copious use of the term, but even sets up an antonym to it in the form of the nebulous Rest?

By the same token, Ferguson consistently uses the hotly debated term “Oriental” with reference to the cultures, practices and supposed national characteristics of China and Japan – and this, apparently, without reflection.

My perspective on Ferguson’s book as a whole is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that I fundamentally don’t agree with his historical outlook – in fact, this is what attracted me to read the book in the first place.  I like nothing better than a really well-written book with which to argue.  But I think that these two problematic aspects of his methodology undermine the integrity of Ferguson’s narrative to a degree that far exceeds any question of agreement or disagreement.

Finally, on a more personal note, I just can’t help but wonder why Russia didn’t play a more prominent role in this book – although no doubt Professor Ferguson has his reasons.  But if one must use this particular historical paradigm, then surely Russia occupies an especially interesting position, right there between the West and the Rest.  And on that note, this is comrade Kirsty, signing out.

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