Business Today

Civilizations revisited, brilliantly

The book explains the history of the West and why the West is history, says Srivatsa Krishna.

Srivatsa Krishna | Print Edition: April 17, 2011

Civilization: The West and the Rest
By Niall Ferguson
Publisher: Allen Lane/ Penguin
Pages: 402
Price: Rs 699

Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest defines what the word "seminal" ought to be. In a sweepingly brilliant statement, Ferguson takes the reader through a journey spanning over 600 years to demonstrate how the West is in perceptible decline, while the East has only one way to go, and that is up. He has covered 600 years of world history in an engaging style that lingers after you have put the book down.

Ferguson says that civilisations are complex and organised asymmetrically and straddle order and disorder both at once, till they reach a kind of tipping point. Then they fall apart like a pack of cards even though they might look stable eternally.

His central thesis: how on earth did a certain set of people end up ruling the planet to the extent that by 1913 they ruled 60 per cent of the world by population and 80 per cent by value? He argues that the West had six "killers apps" - economic competition, the idea of property rights, the scientific revolution, democracy, medicine, and the Protestant work ethic - and this formed the lynchpin of its super economic success.

Ferguson argues that the East is imitating the West. If this is true, I asked Ferguson, does it not show the triumph of the West rather than its failure? He agreed wholeheartedly and commended the insight. However, he argued that China has only partially downloaded the killer apps and not all of them - especially political freedom and democracy.

Thus, he argues, if China overtakes the United States without downloading all the killer apps that formed the basis of the West's success, he may have to revisit his thesis.

Ferguson argues that China's gross domestic product, or GDP, grew by a factor of ten in about three decades, its share of global manufacturing has outstripped that of Germany and Japan, and is about to surpass that of the United States; and its infrastructure and megacities are making the US look like a developing country. By 2050, he argues, it is possible that India and China will overtake the US in economic terms. He places his bet here more on India than China.

India is downloading these killer apps and is at varying stages of doing so now, whereas China is neither as free nor as entrepreneurial as India. Further, China is facing a significant demographic challenge with an ageing workforce.

He argues how property rights helped North America become an economic powerhouse whereas Latin America, bereft of it, languished in poverty, inequity and inequality. One of the most engaging parts of the book is Ferguson's argument that property rights buttressed by representative government are one of the cornerstones of the West's economic development.

"The biggest threat to Western civilisation is posed not by other civilisations," he concludes, "but by our own pusillanimity - and by the historical ignorance that feeds it." Civilization is brilliant, riveting and as seminal as the word was meant to mean.

Ferguson's extraordinary insights and remarkable writing style demonstrate why this Harvard Business School don is the emerging superstar of academia who explains not just the history of the West but why the West is history.


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