Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, Allen Lane, 2011
The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.
Samuel Huntingdon, ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order’, p. 51.
This book was kindly sent to me by an Orthodox in Germany who wanted an Orthodox response to its thesis. This thesis by implication is anti-Orthodox since it states that no other civilisation, including the Orthodox Christian one, can in any way compete with or generally stand comparison with Western civilisation. Since the lady in Germany was interested in my response, which makes Western people question their age-old conditioning or rather ‘manipulation’, we have thought to publish it here in a more formal version.
First of all, this is a very stimulating read and contains lots of little facts and figures. This is hardly surprising, since this gifted Scottish, Oxford-trained academic and ‘TV personality’, now at Harvard, is above all an economic historian. However, his main points are not fundamentally new. It is the typical old, if dusted down, right-wing Western imperialist and triumphalist narrative, just extremely well-presented and much updated in the neocon style. And let us make no mistake, Mr Ferguson is a neocon. Why else would he have quit Oxford for the United States, for, in his very own self-betraying words, ‘where the money and power actually were’?
We have no real argument with the facts that Mr Ferguson presents: it is clear to all that the ‘West’ or rather ‘post-Schism Western ideology’, if we are to express it in exact terms, has over the last few centuries conquered and now rules the world, so that people all over the world, as the author says, eat and dress and live in Western ways. This is so obvious that it hardly needs a book to explain that this has happened or needs anyone to refute it. So we do not have problems with what Mr Ferguson says. However, we do have problems first with what he does not say, and secondly with his interpretation of the triumph of the West and whether it is good or bad. (For example, that people all over the world eat in a Western way is not necessarily a good thing; ever heard of obesity and diabetes, Mr Ferguson?). He thinks that the West is basically, apart from a few unfortunate blemishes, overwhelmingly good and that anything else would fundamentally have been all bad. Let us deal with this so important latter criticism of interpretation first.
An Anti-Christian Interpretation
Semi-Marxist critics have accused Mr Ferguson of being a racist. This of course is nonsense. The right-wing neocons, or rather their equivalents, abandoned racism fifty years ago, long before ever the word neocon existed. In a sense the author is even more intolerant than a racist. He accepts everyone, whatever colour their skin, whatever their nationality or native language, but only as long as they accept Western values, as long as they accept that Western values are the only valid ones. Thus, the Chinese are fine, as long as they are exploitative capitalists like me, he implies (regardless of the Chinese cultural and environmental suicide downloaded from the West, which Mr Ferguson does not seem to mind). The author is definitely not a racist; he is rather a ‘valuist’. It reminds me of the History of Russia presented in summer 2011 on BBC Radio 4 by Martin Sixsmith, with whom I studied at Oxford. Basically, he propounded the British (and in general Anglosphere) Establishment idea that if only Russia would accept Western (= Protestant-based) ‘values,’ democracy and domination, everything would be fine. (Oh dear! When did Mr Sixsmith last look at Western ‘democracy’ and domination to see if everything was fine? Of course, you cannot ask a dead Iraqi…)
As we have already said, there can be little argument about the facts which are presented by the author. Virtually everyone would more or less agree with the author’s list of the six 'killer apps' of the West. These are in his list: property rights, competition, science, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. These have brought the world to the feet of the West. However, I would argue that these values arose long before 1500 (which, admittedly, Ferguson would tend to agree with). For us, as for all conscious Orthodox, the whole Western problem began in the 11th century (and was already indicated in 800 by Charlemagne), not in c. 1500. Admittedly, the problem did all speed up a great deal after c. 1500 with printing, voyages of discovery and the Reformation, as the author also says. However, he still fails to get to the root of what is, for us Orthodox, the Western disease, which we think he too would agree, began long before 1500. But above all what we disagree with is the author’s interpretation of the facts. Western property rights were all very nice for Westerners, but they dispossessed and displaced hundreds of millions in Asia and Africa – slavery, for example; true, Western medicine was introduced into its colonies, but it duly created a huge pool of cheap labour and without economic development to feed the many more mouths, it thus created mass poverty and famine. The wonderful West created losers both inside and outside the West - but Mr Ferguson never mentions any of this
As regards his interpretation, he gives himself away with his excellent term, the six ‘killer apps' of the West. They are indeed killer apps. But why is he so proud of that? I am not proud of killing. His values are simply contrary to the Gospel. If we believe in the Gospel, then we believe that what is important is the preparation, beginning here and now, for our resurrection, for our inevitable meeting with the God of Love, with spiritual glory, bliss and mercy, which in Orthodox Christian language is called ‘salvation’. His values, what he believes makes the West ‘great’, are just superior technology leading to land grab, that is, vulgar power and money – what he himself went to America for, as he admits. For example, on P. 262 he quite rightly mentions that the aim of the ‘West’ is ‘the acquisition of wealth’. Well, for Orthodox, it is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. We and Mr Ferguson have completely different values.
We can see this very clearly in Chapter 6 where he praises modern American ‘Christianity’. What he fails to recognise is that what he calls their ‘Christianity’ is not Christianity at all; it is not even Protestant Christianity. It is a wild sectarian heresy which says that if I go to ‘church’, I will become rich and successful and have lots of material things, which are ‘God’s blessings’. All this is simply idolatry, the worship of the golden calf. As he says on P.102, Westerners did not want ‘God’ in the New World, they wanted ‘gold’. Little wonder that the author quit Oxford for the United States, for, in his very own self-betraying words, ‘where the money and power actually were’.
Similarly he speaks about ‘Christianity’ in modern China. This is not Christianity at all either, it is the same materialist ideology as in America – the golden calf, no more than a mere cargo cult, like copycat pseudo-Christianity in the other Asian American colonies of South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand and also in large parts of Latin America. This is not Christianity, but a work ethic, by which the State is able to enslave the passive masses. This is indeed the opium of the State-manipulated people indeed, a heresy in the most profound sense. True Christianity has a spiritual ethic, not a work ethic; it has freedom, not slavery.
All this is strange because on P. 76, the author speaks of the 18th century ‘Enlightenment’ attitudes of Europe, on which, he says himself, the ‘greatness’ of Europe was built. But, as he himself lists them, surely it is apparent to him that those attitudes were profoundly anti-Christian and atheistic? Why then does he claim this so-called ‘Christianity’ as the foundation of the ‘greatness’ of the West?
Blinded by ‘Eurocentrism’
Interestingly, because his values are fundamentally anti-Christian, Ferguson is also almost totally blind to Orthodox Christianity and in general to Eastern Europe and Russia. He mentions ‘Orthodox Christianity’ once and uses the weird academic term ‘Byzantine’ three times, making clear that it is his Western cultural arrogance which is the reason for his spiritual blindness. This is linked to his ‘Eurocentrism’, that is to say his fixation with the extreme Western tip of Eurasia. He is blind to anything to the east of Warsaw and Budapest or south of Zagreb. The Europe of where the feudal castles and the Gothic churches peter out is a no-man’s land for him. In reality, it is where the real Europe begins. It is contempt like this which I heard from an American politician speaking twenty years ago of Bulgaria: 'Bulgaria? There's nothing there, just some yoghurt and some folksongs'.
His Eurocentrism blinds him to why it was Prussian-enslaved Germany that gave rise to a united, militaristic Germany, to massacres in its African colonies (well-described by Mr Ferguson) and to two World Wars. It was because Prussia was a crusading colony of the Teutonic Knights whose only ever aim was to convert Lithuanians to Catholicism and subjugate Orthodox Russia. He speaks of Prussian militarism and genocide in Africa and in Europe and compares it to the imperialism of other Western countries in their colonies. However, he fails to draw the logical conclusion that all that the Prussians/Germans had the misfortune of doing was to take Western logic and apply it logically.
It was only the incompetence and lack of logic of the other Western countries that prevented them from doing the same. It was only the spirit of Rupert Brooke's 'unofficial English rose' in his poem, ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, or Churchill's 'muddling through' that prevented Britain from doing as much evil as the Prussianised Germans. Simply the Nazis applied industrial efficiency to killing; the rest of the West was not efficient or logical enough to do this, (though the carpet bombing of German, Japanese and later Vietnamese civilians was a good try).
Failure to Take the West’s Crimes Seriously
On P. 259 the author mentions the ‘fall of the Roman Empire’ very regretfully. This is yet another of his Western prejudices. He seems not to realise that the pagan Roman Empire fell because of its sheer brutality and horrors. (By the way, the Christian Roman Empire did not fall until 1453, having been sacked and so fatally weakened in 1204 by neo-Roman pagan Westerners, then was revived elsewhere until 1917, when it fell to pagan Westerners again, only to begin to revive again in 1991). Throughout his book, in typical Carolingian fashion, the author appears to think that the West should imitate those very horrors of the pagan Roman, of the first Western Empire. True, he does admit to some of the horrors created by the West in its Empire-building, but by no means all of them. In fact, his technique seems to be to admit to one local and passing horror, say in German South-West Africa, and condemn it, precisely so that he can then overlook the next twenty horrors, so that he can conclude that, despite a few failings, the West is wonderful. The bias is so great that this book can definitely be called a ‘White Man’s History of Civilisation’.
Where is his mention of Afghanistan, Iraq (both US), Indo-China (US and French), the Congo (Belgian), Algeria (French), Kenya and the Bengal famine (British), two World Wars (Western European), the Boer War and the first systematic use of concentration camps (British), Lincoln’s Civil War in North America (620,000 dead), the Napoleonic Wars (three and a half million dead and that with old technology) and the whole story of colonialism, from the scramble for Africa in the 19th century through to slavery and the genocide of native Americans, in North, Central and South America, right back to the internal massacres of Western Europe (there were even ‘Wars of Religion’ and a ‘Hundred Years War’), the Inquisition, the Teutonic Knights, the Crusades and the Norman genocide in southern Italy and then, after 1066, all through the British Isles? How many hundreds of millions of dead will it take before Mr Ferguson admits that the downsides of Western imperialism were, and are, overwhelmingly huge?
Nowhere, for example, does the author recognise the ultimate responsibility of the West for the appalling twentieth-century massacres in the Communist Soviet Union and China, Yes, it was Soviet and Chinese citizens who carried them out, but they were all in the name of a Western ideology, that is, they would never have happened if it they had not been trying to apply an imported Western ideology, making the square plug of Western secularism fit the round holes of much more ancient civilisations, those of Orthodox Russia and Confucian China. And neither does he anywhere mention the abortion holocaust in the West since the 1960s (50 million dead?) as a factor in its suicidal decline. Or does he consider that to be civilisation?
The Failure to Distinguish Between Knowledge and Wisdom
What a breath-takingly arrogant title: ‘The West and the Rest’. So condescending. The choice in reality is not between ‘the West and the Rest’, that is, the West and the ‘primitive’ civilisations of Orthodox Christendom, China, Islam, Africa, Hinduism, Japan (or whatever the current definition and number, Samuel Huntingdon’s or not, is). It is between right and wrong, truth and the lie. Sadly, such moral values do not appear to enter into Mr Ferguson’s ‘Might is Right’ scale of values.
All Non-Western civilisations had their technology and knowledge, for example, medical and commercial, long before the West. The Great Pyramid, Stonehenge and the Parthenon (like the later Mayan and Aztec pyramids or the towns of Zimbabwe) were not built by imbeciles. Ancient Carthage was far in advance of Rome. Ancient China invented much of what the modern West uses. Trepanning was carried out very efficiently 2,000 and more years ago. 1,000 years ago Kiev, like New Rome / ‘Constantinople’, had drainage, sewage disposal, hospitals, hospices – 900 years ahead of the West (all this latter is ignored by the author, though he does mention some of the cultural achievements of Islam and many of China). Nevertheless, Mr Ferguson tends to present a very oversimplified, black and white situation; the West and ‘the Rest’, who are really just a pack of somewhat advanced cavemen, not knowing how to conquer the world when they should have. It is all self-justification. It is all very Victorian. It is all neo-imperialism.
In general, the author fails totally to understand that there is good knowledge and bad knowledge. He castigates Confucian China and the Muslim world for ignoring technology they had (he would do the same as regards Orthodox Christendom, if he knew about it) and upbraids them for their contentment for staying as they were (Pp. 19 and 47). Apparently, discontent and restlessness (of the West) are good things. He fails to understand that there are inventions and discoveries inspired by God, others inspired by the devil. In the latter category we could easily put, for example, the Maxim gun, land mines, thalidomide, cluster bombs, cloning and a thousand other satanic inventions of recent times. The point is that if we are civilised, we do not use all our knowledge. However, for this arrogant Westerner, anything exploited, invented or used by the West is automatically good. But for us Orthodox Christians knowledge without morality and spiritual profit is useless. You have to know which knowledge to leave alone. This is called wisdom. The West does not have wisdom because of its restless, interfering, meddling spirit. Its science has been a repeat performance of the picking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in Eden, again and again losing it Paradise. And that is why Gandhi called Western civilisation ‘satanic’ (P. 141), for there is no civilisation without wisdom.
The author is fascinated by the economic rise of China, but he fails to mention that this was predictable, given that long ago we had the example of the capitalist powerhouse of Hong Kong. Once China was freed from the shackles of Communism, it was clear what would happen.
There are some factual mistakes (which we only know of because of a knowledge of Russian history). For example, on P. 270, the author calls Tolstoy ‘a holy man’!
One good point is his mention of the appalling so-called ‘educational system’ in the modern UK. Unfortunately, he does not mention that this is precisely due to the diseducation of Americanisation: ‘Let us give them bread and circuses and call it consumerism, so making them all into soulless zombies who are unable to think for themselves. Then we governments will be able to do what we want with them’. And also he mentions the appalling teaching of history in the UK, again without explaining that this is all due to the same factors and the result of education being used as a political football by successive vain UK governments since the 1960s.
In general, we must agree with the author’s main facts (and there are many of them and excellently presented). The West became ‘great’ (that is, for us, it became soulless) and came to control the world through applying its six ‘killer apps’. However, we totally disagree with his interpretation that this was good, despite a few regrettable massacres on the way, that is, a few hundred million dead worldwide. We do not agree with him because our values are profoundly different; his are Western and secular, ours are Orthodox Christian and look to eternity.
However, we do agree with him when he says that the West contains the seeds of its own destruction (Pp. 181 and 325). We believe that the West is being destroyed by the very materialism that it has cultivated for the last 1,000 years and at an ever accelerating and finally fatal pace. What the author does not ask is: ‘The West is killing itself – but does it deserve to live?’ Its values are certainly not those of the Orthodox Church. We believe that the West will only survive if it realises that it has being committing spiritual and actual suicide for the last 1,000 years and renounces its suicidal spirit. When, in his conclusion on the West, the author laments that ‘all we risk being left with are a vacuous consumer society and a culture of relativism’, why does he sound so regretful? This is, after all, all that Western values could ever produce. If he is so pro-Western, he should rejoice in vacuousness and relativism; they are the results of his adopted values.
The ‘success’ of the West is clear, but it was achieved by ‘organized violence’ - Professor Huntingdon’s words – not mine. In other words, it was achieved by bestial brutality (like the ‘success’ of the pagan Roman Empire), greed, violence and ruthlessness – by Mr Ferguson’s ‘six killer apps’. (Anything that is not brutal is called by the West ‘effeminate’ e.g. ‘Byzantium’ or Islam). Such worldly success is failure for Christians, as the Gospel tells us. Did anyone ever hear of the West speaking of ‘love and resurrection’, of ‘saving souls’ through the sacraments and prayer, fasting and ascetic life, so that the soul is ready for its inevitable meeting with God, which is the Christian definition of success? Clearly, if Mr Ferguson has ever read the Gospels, which seems doubtful, he has certainly not understood the first thing in them. What real civilisation can there be without the quest for the salvation of the soul, for Beauty, Goodness and Truth, Whose Name is Christ? And if there is not this quest, then we are headed straight for Armageddon – which, strangely enough, is exactly what Mr Ferguson’s much-vaunted Western technology and know-how are bringing us to. Killer Apps? Killer Ap (ocalyp) se.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips
29 December 2011 / 11 January 2012
The Holy Innocents Slain by Herod.