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" Civilization - The West and the Rest" is a non-fiction book in which Niall Ferguson gives his view of the major Western developments that helped the Western civilization rise over the rest but also the cause of the Western decline.
The catching title of Niall Ferguson's book “Civilization - The West and the Rest" made me decide to read it. The topic has always been interesting to me. How to define a civilization? What is meant by ' The West' or 'Western civilization' and to what extent the Western civilization has been dominating the Rest, or dominated by the Rest.
Ferguson defines Western civilization (The West) as more than 'just a geographical expression. It is set of norms, behaviours and institutions with borders that are blurred in the extreme.'
In contrast to the 'first version of the West - Western Civilization of 5th century AD ' that stretched from the Nile Valley to the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris and reached its peak with 'Athenian democracy and the Roman Empire', the current West consists of 'Western and Central Europe countries (excluding the Orthodox East), North America (excluding Mexico) and Australasia.'
One has to have some knowledge of history in order to be able to follow and understand the content and dynamic of major developments described in the book.
Ferguson describes the rise of the West above the Rest in six chapters. He names them using the language of today's computerized world: "six killer applications" that allowed ‘mankind originating on the western edge of Eurasia ' to dominate the Rest of the world for some five hundred years:
These applications are:
1) Competition - Both political and economical. 15th century England compared to technological superior Ming China was primitive, violent and in constant war, for instance. But the fierce competition 'between states and within states' led the West to the Age of exploration and innovations.
2) Science - From the 16th century on, the West experienced numerous scientific innovations and discoveries that also made its military technology superior .
The political and economic competition of the 15th century gave the West an important advantage over China, while the West's 18th century innovative, strategic thinking and firepower defeated the Ottoman Empire and gave the West the primacy over the Orient.
3) Property - Ferguson argues that British colonization generally produced better economic results than Spanish and Portuguese. He writes that North America succeeded while South America lagged due to profoundly different individual property rights, the rule of law and the representation of property-owners in elected assemblies.
4) Medicine - the application of modern medicine in healthcare. Almost all the 18th and 19th century medical discoveries were made in Western Europe and North America .
5) Consumption - an industrial revolution based on supply, innovation and a demand for mass consumer goods;
6) Work - a work ethic that included more productive labour with higher savings and capital accumulation was applied and realized first in the West.
These are six western made "killer applications" that, according to Ferguson , have enabled the West to project its influence and power to all four corners of the world for centuries. It was so well done that most of the world copied and applied them.
If it worked so far, why then are we talking about the fall of the Western civilization ? And why is it not working any more now?
Ferguson doesn't give a straight answer to these questions nor is he easy to understand or to follow in his explanations of Western decline.
As a professor and historian Ferguson describes the Western path of eventual decline not just through events in world history but also through intensive social changes, attitudes and mindsets of the West. He uses statistical data and quotes political leaders and authors to explain these changes. The book also contains a number of pages of illustrations and pictures and an extensive bibliography.
It took me a while to finish reading the book. Even though it is not an entertaining read it certainly gives the reader enough content and fascinating facts to think about when searching for the answer about possible Western downfall.
The West is in a hangover phase now, associated with economic crisis and wars, while the Rest, having "downloaded" the above mentioned Western applications is slowly getting economically stronger. Ferguson reminds his reader that "most cases of civilizational collapse are associated with fiscal crises and wars," and sees China as the future dominating civilization.
In conclusion, Ferguson argues that one of the causes for the Western collapse is to be found in our own loss of faith in the civilization "we inherited from our ancestors'... in our own "pusillanimity" and in the "historical ignorance that feeds it".
Whether there be a clash of civilizations or whether the West lose its primate quickly to the Rest is yet to be seen. To everyone though who wants to refresh his or her knowledge of five hundred years of world history, this book is highly recommended.
Published by the Penguin Group, 2011
Paperback, 402 pages.