Saturday, July 5, 2014

Ferguson, 2011, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Political economy)

Ferguson, Niall (2011) Civilization: The west and the rest. The West dominated the rest because of “six killer applications that the Rest lacked”: competition, scientific revolution breakthroughs, rule of law and representative government, modern medicine, consumer society, work ethic-savings-capital accumulation.  We are living through the end of 500 years of Western Ascendancy.” (preface, 1/28) why did the West rise to ascendancy from 1500 to the present, and what are its prospects? He considers the role of competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and patterns of work in the ascendancy of Europe.  A lot of theories about civilizations hold that they are cyclical – rising and declining (Polybius, Gibbon, Spengler, Toynbee, Sorokin, Cole, Kennedy, Diamond, Quigley, etc. – see below for thumbnails) but Ferguson asks, what if the cyclical or progressive framework is flawed? Maybe history is not cyclical and slow moving, but arrhythmic, maybe collapse is not centuries in the making but strikes suddenly like a thief in the night? (conclusion 8/55) forest fires, financial crises, and wars follow a power-law distribution: the larger they are, the  less likely they are, but their timing and location are unpredictable. This means that the decline of civilizations, as complex systems impacted by many factors following power-law distributions (wars, financial crises, homicides and domestic violence, climatic disasters, earthquakes, etc) is probably not predictable. Ferguson points to Rome, Inca, Ming and French Bourbon dynasty collapses each within a decade of ascendancy. In the end, he sounds like Spengler and Toynbee. Western civilization still has the best combination of political, economic, and social institutions to unleash individual creativity, and it is overtaken by others only to the extent that they adopt Western ways. “Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.” He concludes the book with a wonderful quote from Churchill, and list of the Western canon.
David Last, 10 June 2013

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