Civilisation: the West and the Rest

Niall Ferguson's new history of western "civilisation" begins and ends not in the west, but in China. In the preface, Ferguson recalls the moment he realised that "500 years of western ascendancy" were drawing to a close - it was when he watched a performance of work by the Chinese composer Angel Lam, who, he writes, "personifies the Orientalisation of
classical music".

By the end of the book, he is announcing that the "Asian century has already arrived" and is giving us the data to prove it: China's GDP grew by a factor of ten in less than 30 years; its share of global manufacturing has outstripped those of Germany and Japan, and is about to surpass that of the United States; it is now second only to the US in supercomputing capacity; and its "megacities" are expanding at such a rate as to make American conurbations look like villages.

China has been on Ferguson's mind for a while. In his previous book, The Ascent of Money, he examined the role it played in the global financial crisis of autumn 2008. Without Chinese savings being recycled into the US economy in the form of sub-prime mortgages, there would very likely have been no credit bubble and no housing bubble, and therefore no crash. China played a central role in the recovery, too: that we've experienced a "Slight" rather than a "Great Depression" can be explained, he argues here, in part by China's decision to expand bank lending in order to revive slumping exports to the west.

Civilisation raises the important question of the extent to which China's apparently irresistible rise can be explained by the adoption of what Ferguson calls a "template for the way the rest of the world aspire[s] to organise itself". He thinks this was best summed up by Winston Churchill, who defined the "central principle of Civilisation" as the "subordination of the ruling class to the settled customs of the people and to their will as expressed in the Constitution". (Ferguson addresses this question only in the final two chapters; his main aim is not to explain western decline, but western pre-eminence between the beginning of the 16th century and the start of the 21st.)

China's breakneck economic expansion over the past 30 years (and it's clear that Ferguson understands "civilisational" hegemony primarily in economic terms) has been achieved without the creation of the kind of liberal democratic institutions that are integral to civilisation in Churchill's sense. And its adoption of the civil society institutions - private property and freedom of contract, for instance - that have underpinned the economic success of states elsewhere in East Asia has been somewhat belated.

A law enshrining individual property rights was finally passed in China in 2007, and was received with enthusiasm by the Economist, an indefatigable cheerleader for the western "template". One of the magazine's writers declared that, in other unspecified countries, the emergence of an asset-owning middle class had been followed by an "unstoppable drift towards greater pluralism . . . [and] contested politics" - as if the expansion of democratic freedoms followed from the protection of economic liberties almost as a matter of logic.

Democratic reform in China is highly desirable, and is no doubt desired by millions of Chinese people; but, pace western triumphalists like that Economist writer, it is by no means inevitable. If China is changing, it is in the direction not of western liberal democracies, but rather that of authoritarian civil societies of the sort that exist in Singapore or Taiwan, and in which economic growth has been accompanied neither by greater political freedom nor by an abandonment of traditional "Asian values" in favour of western-style individualism.

This is something that Ferguson himself recognises. He says, with some justification, that his book is "not another version of 'The Triumph of the West'". On the contrary, the "killer applications" on which western ascendancy were built are being "downloaded" only selectively by the Chinese and others, and there's no reason to suppose that they'll be buying the full package any time soon. l

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman.

Civilisation: the West and the Rest
Niall Ferguson
Allen Lane, 432pp, £25

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?