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Monday, February 13, 2012

"Civilization: The west and the rest" - a review

I just finished listening to the audio book "Civilization: The West and the Rest" by Niall Ferguson. While listening I was on one hand fascinated by the intellectual depth and granular details of the book and found that it indeed has a very distinct look on the rise of the west. But on the other hand I noticed the stark differences of Ferguson's interpretation of history to what is commonly though e.g. about the consequences of imperialism. My conclusion is: the book has a very special - often intriguing - view on things, which could be called radical. But it also has a reactionary spin. So, when reading be wary and don't follow conclusions blindly.

"The West and the Rest" pursues the question, why some "petty former kingdoms" starting at the very end of the Eurasian landmass did come to rule most of the earth and still do so today. Trying to answer this, the author claims that six so-called "killer apps" are responsible for this "divergence": "Science", "Rule of law and Property rights", "Competition", "Work ethic", "Medicine" and the "Consumer Society".

Admittedly, Ferguson exhibits deep knowledge about history, science and politics. He also knows much about foreign countries, their language and culture. Moreover, "Civilization" is read by the author himself and he really lives up to this task. He seems to have worked hard on his pronounciation of foreign languages, even speaking names like "Max Weber" and "Siegmund Freud" in an nearly german sounding voice. Thus, listening to this audio book should be fun, at least for people interested in politics and history.

But - not quite. One major obstacle is the vast amount of numbers which seem to make up nearly half of the book. There is no single argument or statement which Ferguson does not try to back up by some statistics and data, which he not only states once but also repeats, setting them into reference to different years when applicable. It's a pity, because it's unnecessary and unnerving. But if you are a hard listener and are used to numbers (I'm a studied physicist by the way) you still have to follow his strange line of reasoning. This is especially hard since Ferguson jumps from one observation to another. While the poor reader is still thinking about the current argument, the author has already taken up another way of explanation and follows a new, maybe unconnected path. This sounds funny, but it is not when reading this book.

The book's main structure is given by the so-called six killer aps of western civilization. But these parts are much too big to be understood as a whole and should be subdivided by meaningful chapters, which are explained in advance and even make more sense afterwards. But, that's not so. And therefore, the reader has to concentrate and to brace himself for one more sideline of narration which does not seem to make sense.

To be fair: Ferguson has some points to make which are really interesting and make the book worthwhile after all. The most important of them is him refuting Huntington ("The clash of civilizations") with the statement that Huntington's predictions just did not come true. Ferguson also says that civilizations do not follow a predefined life cycle but that they are complex systems which follow partly chaotic principles and which thus can collapse in very short time. People interested in questions like these should definitely get this book.

Yet, there is another thing, which rather occurred to me as a subconscious feeling when I listened to the book. Ferguson seems to be a fan of European Imperialism. He does not outright say so, but he paints the picture of Empire very beautiful indeed. One comes to think that the Africans should be grateful of having been ruled by Europeans. To make matters worse, the author tries hard to appear objective. He does so by not drawing direct clear cut conclusions, but instead jumping to the next argument and giving the reader to think about it alone. But, if you listen carefully it becomes clear that he has his own opinions after all. There are above all the adjective and small side stories which give him away: Why does he describe the destructive consequences of the french revolution and the private life of Engels in that detail, while nearly leaving out the terror of the Nazi regime at all? The author expresses very reactionary views in the disguise of a scientific document. So, be warned - there are interesting conclusions here, but maybe for the wrong reasons.

As additional reading, I recommend the following books: "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond, "Lob des Imperiums: Der Untergang Roms und die Zukunft des Westens" by Ralph Bollmann and "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers " by Paul Kennedy.

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