Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson (2011)

The problem of why civilisations fall is too important to be left to the purveyors of scissors-and-paste history. It is truly a practical problem of our time, and this book is intended to be a woodsman’s guide to it. (Preface p.xxii)

Ferguson doesn’t shy away from the big subjects, in fact he enjoys storming the big subjects – the Origins of the Great War, why the British Empire was a Good Thing, the Future of America, a Complete History of Money, a Complete History of the 20th Century. It is no coincidence that the last four of these books were written to accompany four blockbusting TV series, TV being a medium which favours striking stories and bold statements, contrarian points of view and press release-friendly controversy.

This is Ferguson’s fifth book-of-the-TV-series, created after the crash of 2008 revealed the weakness at the heart of the western financial system and events in Iraq showed the limitations of US military power, while, on the other hand, China continued its inexorable economic rise, flanked by the fast-growing economies of Brazil, Russia etc (all as of 2011). In light of these setbacks, Ferguson asks, ‘Has the West had it?’ (rather tritely echoing scores, probably hundreds, of intellectuals who’ve asked the same question for at least a century, the heavyweight champion of millennial pessimism being Oswald Spengler, author of the famous Decline of the West, 1922).

So, if the era of western dominance over the world is coming to an end, what did it consist of in the first place? What gave the West its edge?

What caused the rise of the West?

The problem with tackling the Big Subjects is that a lot of people have been there before you. In his introduction Ferguson himself refers to an impressive number of ‘reasons’ given by his numerous predecessors on this subject:

  1. Europe was made of small fiercely competitive nations fertile in innovations, unlike the large stagnant empires of the Ottomans or the Chinese.
  2. Eurasia is a long east-west land mass of similar climate in which agricultural innovation, animal rearing and agricultural techniques could spread and develop, unlike the geographically more extreme and divided Americas, Africa, Asia or Australasia.
  3. The five most useful, domesticatable animals (the cow, horse, sheep, goat, and pig) are all descendants of species endemic to Eurasia, no comparable animals being available in the other continents, for either food or labour, with the possible exception of the llama.
  4. Double entry book keeping.
  5. Capitalism, a good thing, a dynamic system for creating innovation.
  6. Capitalism, a bad thing, based on the exploitation of the European working class.
  7. Imperialism, a dreadful thing, based on the exploitation of colonial peoples.
  8. Slavery, the worst thing of all – the European slave trade which carried 15 million Africans across the Atlantic generated the profits which fuelled the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.
  9. Democracy.
  10. Western property law, especially English Common Law which made the creation of corporations and the protection of creditors easier than continental law codes.
  11. Western banking and finance systems, the banks and bonds described at such length in The Ascent of Money.
  12. The Agricultural Revolution.
  13. The Industrial Revolution.
  14. The Scientific Revolution.
  15. The Military Revolution.
  16. Prolonged exposure to infectious diseases eg smallpox, created immunity in Europeans but decimated non-European populations wherever we took it with us (malaria being the glaring exception, which itself blocked European colonisation of Africa for a long time).
  17. The higher protein content of Eurasian plant species compared with Indian, African or Asian food crops.
  18. The racial or genetic superiority of whites.
  19. The nation state.
  20. Christianity.
  21. Catholicism.
  22. Protestantism and the Protestant work ethic.
  23. Manifest Destiny ie God wanted America to win.
  24. The West didn’t rise, in fact the East (Ottomans, China, Japan) sank! China banned ocean voyages in the 1430s. Japan adopted a policy of complete seclusion (sakoku) in 1640. The Ottoman Empire rejected western science and banned research after the 1700s.

Previous writers on the subject

Ferguson’s introduction references some of the many books, articles and other TV series which have tackled this ‘age-old subject’. In fact there’s a strong sense of déjà vu about the whole project. Maybe it’s a Law of History that every fifteen years or so another super-confident historian will present another blockbusting TV series describing the rise of Western Civilisation (just as it is a Law of History TV that every ten years there must be a new drama or doc series about the Tudors, or that whenever you turn on the History channel it’s in the middle of a documentary about the war). A sample of his predecessors and competitors would include:

  1. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber (1905)
  2. The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias (1939)
  3. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community by William Hardy McNeill (1963)
  4. Civilisation BBC TV series and book presented by Kenneth Clark (1969)
  5. The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia by Eric Jones (1981)
  6. The Triumph of the West: The Origin, Rise, and Legacy of Western Civilization presented by John Roberts (1985)
  7. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy (1987)
  8. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800 by Geoffrey Parker (1988)
  9. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington (1996)
  10. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, book 1997, TV series 2005
  11. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor by David Landes (1998)
  12. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy by Kenneth Pomeranz (2000)
  13. The Rise of the Great Powers (2006) 12-part Chinese TV series
  14. A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World by Gregory Clark (2007)
  15. Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History, 1500-1850 by Jack Goldstone (2009)
  16. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama (2011)
  17. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods Jr. and Cardinal Antonio Cañizares (2012)
  18. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History by Nicholas Wade (2014)
  19. How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph by Rodney Stark (2015)
  20. Why Did Europe Conquer the World? by Philip T. Hoffman (2015)
  21. The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History by Tonio Andrade (2016)

Ferguson’s reasons

No shortage of writers ‘in this space’, then; no shortage of theories and reasons. Ferguson gives his list of reasons under six broad headings/programmes/chapters:

1. Competition

In the 14th century Europe contained some 1,000 polities all jostling, competing and fighting each other. Rulers encouraged ocean exploration as a way to get advantage over their rivals. Monopoly companies were invented under royal patronage to fund the exploring and pay dividends to investors. Unremitting warfare led to military innovations. Also to more efficient ways to tax subjects and to finance loans, leading to the development of government bonds and royal, then national debts, then national banks. The clock.

2. Science

The Reformation broke the tyrannical grip of the Catholic Church over secular knowledge. The printing press disseminated Luther’s revolutionary theology, then an increasing number of Protestant heresies. (Ferguson tells the striking story that when a German town tried to ban a translation of the Koran, Luther went into print to defend it – so that people could read & judge for themselves, p.63) The printing press also disseminated scientific discoveries and exchange between scholars so that the Royal Society was founded in England by 1662. As late as 1683 the Turkish army threatened to capture Vienna. However, reinforcements from Poland won the day for Christendom and the Turk was repelled. From that date stems the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

The meat of the chapter is a comparison between the impressively enlightened and intelligent ruler of Prussia, Frederick the Great (ruled 1740 to 1786), who encouraged the arts and sciences and used scientific discoveries to create a massive army, and contemporary Turkish rulers who were intimidated by their mullahs and religious intolerance to shut down scientific academies and societies, condemning Turkey to fall permanently behind western discoveries.

3. Property

North America was colonised by the British, with a well-established belief in the rights of property as the basis for representative legislatures, and therefore the promise to all settlers who cultivated their land that they could own it, along with – after all the turmoil of the civil wars – the knowledge that freedom of belief is the most practical arrangement and, there being no gold or silver or minerals, the harsh fact that everyone had to work hard to cultivate a livelihood.

South America was colonised by the Spanish, ruled from afar by a divinely appointed monarch, policed by the Catholic Church and its rigid mind police enforced by torture and the Inquisition, and which granted vast tracts of land to a handful of conquerors who used the indigenous people as slave labour to dig up an endless supply of silver.

Ferguson compares & contrasts their evolution over the following 400 years, but we all know which of the two parts of the continent became the world’s leading military, financial and cultural superpower, and which disintegrated into chronically unstable statelets, condemned to cycles of ‘revolution’ alternating with harsh dictatorship.

4. Medicine

There hadn’t been that much science in the science section – Ferguson records the dates of publication of major theories and sketches their importance in a general way, but doesn’t really explain the detail.

The same tendency to digress from the ostensible subject happens here, for this section about ‘medicine’ begins with a long account of the French Revolution, its causes and consequences, with a nod to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book The Social Contract, credit given to Edmund Burke for predicting the violence the revolution would bring, an analysis of the numbers of casualties in Napoleon’s military campaigns, the effect of spreading the Napoleonic Code of Law into the lands he conquered, a thumbnail sketch of Carl von Clausewitz being swept up in the wars as a boy and young man, which provided the background to his classic book On War. It goes on to describe the French revolution of 1830 and then the wave of European revolutions of 1848 which did not, however, spread to Britain, despite the unrest of the Chartist agitation, because of the British authorities’ deployment of army, police and special forces.

No mention of medicine at all so far.

There’s a further analysis of the nature of the French Empire in the Caribbean and Africa, with its distinctive mission civilisatrice, which led to the education and promotion of a number of black Africans to positions of real power between the wars, and references to the colonial education of the men who would lead the Vietnamese liberation struggle in the 1950s.

There is what you think is a detour into an account of the way the Germans ran their colonies of South-West Africa (Namibia) ie a deliberate genocide of the native inhabitants, which segues into a digression about the Great War and the way France co-opted African soldiers to fight in the trenches. There is evidence of the French military’s cynical racism in deliberately sending Senegalese troops over the top to soak up German bullets and shells and to save French skins, before the chapter sinks into the disgusting combination of eugenic theory, racist propaganda and genocidal policy which was the Nazi Third Reich.

On a few scattered pages some of the medical breakthroughs which allowed Europeans to survive in the Tropics are mentioned, along with the pioneers in the field: Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Alexandre Yersin – but this is overwhelmingly a chapter about the French and German empires in Africa in the decades before the Great War and then the collapse of western ‘civilisation’ into unprecedented barbarism in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

In a way it’s a riposte to the many critics who criticise Ferguson for (allegedly) glossing over the racism and brutality of the British Empire, or of American foreign policy, in his earlier books. Here he lets us have it with both barrels and is unsparing of the homicidal, genocidal and utterly revolting racism at the core of the French, but particularly the German, imperial projects. I learned hardly anything about the achievements of western medicine in these 54 pages, but I ended the chapter feeling physically sick by the brutality of empire, and particularly disgusted by Germany, all over again.

5. Consumption

Another rambling chapter which focuses on dress, what people wear, then goes back to namecheck the main technological innovations of the British Industrial Revolution, before zeroing in on its core activity of cotton and textile manufacturing. We follow the spread of automated textile manufacture around the world, before arriving at Japan, whose leaders made a concerted attempt to westernise all aspects of their culture from the 1860s onwards (even, I was amazed to learn, considering replacing the Japanese language itself with English). Soon Japanese cotton factories were putting Indian fabric manufacturers out of business. And in 1904 the Japs prompted a war with Russia which the Japanese shocked the world by winning. And then – we are back at the Great War again, as we were in the previous chapter.

The problem with history at this level, meta-history, the history of grand perspectives and sweeping vistas, is that at this very high level in fact only a handful of things have happened: the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Financial Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the British and other European Empires, Napoleon, the 19th century, the Scramble for Africa, the Great War, the rise of fascism and Bolshevism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the rise of America, the Cold War, the collapse of communism. Er. That’s it.

So the risk of writing meta-history is that you find yourself writing about the same subjects again and again. This thought was unavoidable as I found myself reading yet another account of the Great War which, after all, was the central subject of Ferguson’s book The Pity of War, the catalyst for decline in Empire, plays an important role in the rise of America in Colossus, and is of course a big feature in his history of the twentieth century, The War of The World. And here it is again, featuring large in two consecutive chapters of this book.

The earlier trot through the technical innovations of the Industrial Revolution had led to a digression about Marx and Engels and their theory of communism. Ferguson briskly summarises it, then just as briskly rubbishes it: the central claim that capital will be concentrated into a small and smaller number of hands until it becomes inevitable that the immiserated proletariat will rise up and create the communist utopia turns out to be rot. One way the capitalist countries side-stepped the communist scenario was by making their populations into consumers – by realising that it’s actually a good idea to pay people a living wage because then they can buy things; in fact if you pay them quite a good wage, they can buy lots of things, the things you’re selling, and your business will flourish. Thus, instead of heading for inevitable collapse, capitalism headed towards a kind of equilibrium where people are paid enough to buy all the consumer products capitalism produces. Shopping heaven. The future is not a communist utopia, it is a world full of vast shopping malls (as we can indeed see in every country which ‘develops’).

And so the chapter brings together its various strands ends with an account of the failure of communism which emphasises the inability of its centralised planning to produce consumer goods. Nuclear weapons and tanks, yes, by the tens of thousands; blue jeans and pop groups, no. Characteristically, Ferguson develops his theme via a (very interesting) account of the rise of the Singer sewing machine and the founding of Levi jeans – complete with the etymology of ‘denim’ (de Nîmes, the French city) and ‘jean’ (from Genoa, apparently).

In fact it is the immense number of fascinating facts, digressions and sidelights, which help explain why the book is so long despite its relatively simple thesis. For example, the central thread of this final section is the role played in the collapse of communism by the centrally planned system’s inability to make basic consumer goods – decent cars, fridges, TVs, clothes. Nonetheless, Ferguson finds time to tell us about the origin, concerts and then arrest of the subversive Czech pop group, The Plastic People of the Universe, and how it was these arrests which led to the setting up of Charter 77, the human rights organisation which was to become a thorn in the side of the communist authorities, and among whose founder members was the future president of the Czech republic, Václav Havel. Fascinating fact number 3,417!

In its introduction and conclusion the book has a clear, strong message – the West triumphed over the rest for the six interlinked reasons Ferguson has identified. But the actual body of the text wanders all over the place, inadvertently bringing in a host of other aspects of western culture, or wandering completely off the ostensible subject either back to his home territory of pure history, especially of empires and wars, or onto the kind of cultural trivia beloved of Grand Vista historians, suddenly treating us to a list of the most popular Hollywood movies of the early 1930s, or a paragraph explaining why jazz hit its peak with Duke Ellington’s big band sound.

Ferguson is always crisp, well written and entertaining, but this book more than any of the others is characterised by digressions and divagations.

6. Work

Ferguson explains the theory of Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, famous for his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which linked the rise of capitalism to the habits of discipline and hard work associated with Protestant North Europe. But barely has he dealt out lots of facts and figures about production and GDP in Western countries over past centuries, than he is going on to point out that religious belief and practice have now, alas, collapsed in the West, undermined by the consumerism he delineated in the previous chapter. This is also demonstrated by several pages of statistics about church attendance and surveys on the importance of religion in Western people’s lives: not much, is the general conclusion. One aspect of this galloping consumerism was the high levels of public and private indebtedness which underlay the financial crisis of 2008. Compare and contrast with the countries of the East, which work hard and save hard, facts which Ferguson demonstrates with a raft more stats and graphs.

— This is all true but again I have a powerful sense of déjà vu. The rise of China and the strange symbiosis we have seen in our time whereby the Chinese government has bought US treasury bonds in vast amounts and thus funded the Americans’ consumer splurge but leading to America’s vast indebtedness over the past twenty years, these were mentioned in Colossus and The Ascent of Money and now again here. In fact, it was back in 2006 that Ferguson coined the word ‘Chimerica’ to describe the unlikely partnership of China and America, along with economist Moritz Schularic. These repetitions of the same themes suggest that Ferguson has a strong and engaged view about the geo-politics and economics of the modern world and that his forays into history, entertaining and insightful as they are, are really primarily designed to shed light on the contemporary world situation, which everything swings back to.

In the final pages Ferguson discusses Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic terrorism and the rate of growth of Muslim communities in the West. He links this to the relatively quick collapse of the Roman Empire in the 400s AD, suggesting that something like the cocktail of factors we are experiencing – mass refugees, ideological terrorism, and the growth of a fifth column within – might lead quite quickly to ‘the collapse of the West’.

Which brings him, finally, to the whole theory of ‘cycles of civilisation’.

Conclusion: cycles of civilisation

Many historians who take the long view have come to believe that civilisations pass through a set pattern of rise and fall, which can be be broken down into recognisable stages. Ferguson usefully lists some of these theorists and their ‘stages’:

  1. Thomas Cole (American painter, 1801-48) set of five paintings called The Course of Empire, consisting of: The savage state; the pastoral state; the consummation of empire; destruction; desolation.
  2. Polybius (classical historian, 200-118 BC): monarchy, kingship, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, ochlocracy (mob rule).
  3. Giambattista Vico (1668-1744): divine; heroic; human.
  4. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831): thesis; antithesis; synthesis.
  5. Karl Marx (1818-83): savagery; feudalism; capitalism; communism.
  6. Arnold Toynbee (1852-83): challenge; response by creative minorities; civilisational suicide.
  7. Pitrim Sorokin (1889-1968): ideational; sensate; idealistic.
  8. Carroll Quigley (1910-77): mixture; gestation; expansion; conflict; universal empire; decay; invasion.
  9. Paul Kennedy (b.1945): rise and fall determined by growth rate of industrial base against cost of imperial over-stretch.
  10. Jared Diamond (b.1937): civilisations rise in different ways, but all collapse because they exhaust their environmental base, be it water, cultivable soil etc.

Ferguson fails to give the biggest historical narrative of all, the Christian one, which probably underlies most of these models – God knows how many times I’ve read that one of the intellectual advantages of Christianity over the pagan world was that it offered a fully-worked out and coherent History of the Universe, with a Beginning, a Middle and an End, and a coherent purpose to everything, and that the switch from the pagan worldview to the Christian worldview was a decisive step forward in rationality, in the ability to contextualise and interpret events. Christianity’s key stages being, broadly: Creation, Old Testament, coming of Jesus, 2,000 years of history, Second Coming, the Millennium.

Ferguson also misses a trick by not even mentioning the vast swampy jungle of conspiracy theories believed by the semi-literate, which attribute historical change not to his objective cycles, but to the machinations of a long list of ‘sinister forces’, be they the heretics, the Protestants, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the French, the commies, the banks, and so on.

As with the 26 reasons for the Rise of the West, or the 21 books giving different explanations for it (listed above), once again you have the impression that an awful lot of learned ink has spilt on these matters with little or no solid conclusion. If history were a science we would know by now which of these fanciful theories was true, or remotely true, or true enough to be useful. But history isn’t a science – it is and always has been a form of higher entertainment.

It seems to me that both end-of-the-world theories and cycles-of-civilisation theories are the result of two fundamental aspects of human psychology:

  1. End of the world, decline and fall stories are popular in all ages because we know we are going to die, and we don’t want to die alone. We want to feel the entire world is part of our own personal decay, is going to hell in a hand-basket, and will expire just about the time we ourselves do. Paradoxically, this is reassuring because it makes us feel we are not alone. It is a way of denying the basic truth which is, ‘You know what? The world will carry on without you exactly as before; your relatives will walk away from the funeral moaning about the weather and the traffic and the government. Nothing will be changed by your death.’
  2. The proliferation of cycle theories is down to another basic trait: the obsessive need to explain everything, even where we have no evidence or understanding. Human beings anthropomorphise everything, from our pets to the weather to accidents and coincidences, there is nothing we can’t twist and distort into having a meaning and a purpose and a relationship to us, no matter how purposeless – or heedless of our little lives – the universe really is.

These psychological motivations underlie the Ferguson’s book and all the other books and theories he refers to, and explain the pleasures the book provides, even when it is straining a little to make complete sense.

For Ferguson himself is very candid about the intellectual problems which dog every step of his project: He explains that to call some things ‘civilisations’ is problematic – people obviously live and have lived in vast collectivities, but Ferguson’s early pages show us the struggle historians have in defining a ‘civilisation’. And then, that these things we can loosely define as ‘civilisations’ appear to rise and fall seems to be broadly true, but trying to decipher precise reasons or patterns may sometimes be useful, but sometimes be more misleading than helpful.

Therefore, to assert that you and you alone have discerned the ‘true reasons’ for these vast historical processes is a breath-takingly egotistical claim. Looking back over previous theorists Ferguson struggles to avoid a tone of irony and amusement at their presumption and their ignorance. At which point the reader might well say, ‘Well, what makes us think that we have the secrets to these historical processes which all previous thinkers on the matter have got so wildly wrong?’ Ferguson’s previous books have shown us how wrong, wrong, wrong economists have been about most aspects of economics; why should we believe the vaguer discipline of history is anything other than wrong, wrong, wrong about these vast metahistorical events as well?

For us readers who enjoy reading these Big Vista histories, there is pleasure, an almost childish pleasure, to be taken in reducing the lives of so many hundreds of millions, indeed billions of people, to simplistic catch-phrases and three-part or four-part or seven-part schemas. ‘Oh I know all about the fall of the Mayan empire,’ you may say, putting the book down. But you have some names and dates and theories; you don’t really know anything. And such ‘knowledge’ as these books provide, doesn’t change anything. Chinese geopolitical strategy will unfold regardless of what Ferguson writes or I think.

These books are forms of higher entertainment and Ferguson’s quality as a good value entertainer is evident on every page, in every sequence of his TV documentaries, in his magazine articles and his numerous robust TV interviews. His discourse bristles with intelligence, facts, graphs and statistics, good stories, wide-ranging geographic and historical and intellectual insights.

The fall of the American empire

But it is fascinating how this vast armoury of information and intelligence boils down to so little practical result. In the 30-page conclusion, he pulls all the preceding evidence together to argue that the previous major empires we know about collapsed suddenly (Rome, Spain, Ming China, Ottoman, British, let alone the German and Japanese or, in our time, the USSR – poof! – gone in two years). He points out the predictions of various economists that US indebtedness is set to grow to worrying levels, worryingly soon, whereas China’s growth rate could see it overtake the US as the world’s leading economy in 2020 / 2030 / 2040 (pick an expert, pick a date).

And then, borrowing extensively from the last thirty years of research in biology, zoology and physics (real sciences), he shows how complex systems in precarious equilibrium can be suddenly collapsed by apparently trivial incidents, small additions of energy or information. What if ‘civilisations’ are like that?

So the conclusion of the book, with all its thousands of facts, statistics, fascinating insights, ideas, stories and anecdotes, is that at some point in the future an apparently trivial chain of events could trigger a collapse in the US economy, put a permanent end to its global hegemony and usher in a new post-American age. And maybe China, having learned all the West can teach it, will emerge as the world’s number one power. Who can say? Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.


Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson was published in 2011 by Allen Lane books. All references are to the 2012 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links


1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World*
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire*
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred*
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World*
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest*
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

* Book of the TV series

P.S. Known unknowns

It is nice to learn that there are still some imponderable mysteries in history: history’s mysteries.

  • ‘We do not know for certain who designed the first water clock.’ (p.27)
  • Why did the Chinese emperor ban ocean sailing in the 1430s? ‘We may never be sure.’ (p.32)
  • ‘We cannot be sure exactly why the Central Asian threat receded from Europe after Timur.’ (p.37)
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