A book by Niall Ferguson, published last year and sitting on my bedside table for more than six months. Ferguson is a Scot thriving in the US as a TV historian and Harvard Professor.
In this book he raises a very pertinent question. Is the West in decline because it does not have the courage of its convictions? I think the core premise pertinent even if I do not agree with a number of arguments demonstrating strong biases. Ferguson has a strongly skewed reading of German history, considers Marx and Engels phonies and implies that revolutionaries of the left invariably had no values but craved power. At the same time he considers an Anglocentric Protestant ethic responsible for the prominence of western civilisation and values across the globe.
There are at the same time many redeeming (but maybe not novel) insights here. Imperialism, although responsible for many crimes, is also responsible for many global advances. Imperialistic states followed the course of history and were not by definition malicious, nor were most imperialist conquests the result of a major exercise in military power. Indeed it can be argued that unlike what was the rule before, the states at the forefront of the industrial revolution did not eradicate local populations in order to colonise subjugated territories, but (with a few sad exceptions) devised administrative systems that introduced their governance, technology and medicine to new populations and territories.
Ferguson sees the combination of competition, science, representative government, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic as the competitive advantage that allowed the ‘Westerners’ to dominate the rest since the 16th century. His conclusion that civilisations are highly complex systems and that ‘tipping points’ for their decline cannot therefore be predicted (no linear predictive causality) implies that the bulk of his analysis might lack predictive validity. For instance, with the benefit of hindsight (book was written in 2010) we can say that his preoccupation with Chinese supremacy is probably overstated.
Overall, a good assessment of the real challenge from the civilisational clash with Islam originating in our relativism and an erroneous assumption amongst the 60’s liberals that multicultural assimilation implied our ‘superior’ ideals would triumph over ‘lesser’ value systems. As we painfully now realise, that which is not defended appears indefensible. The West’s current consumerism and general vacancy in moral principles has seriously undermined our presumed superiority of ideas. In short, if we value our ideas, values and the inheritance of our ancestors we have to defend them.