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Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson: 'Westerners don't understand how vulnerable freedom is'
Niall Ferguson is one of the world's leading historians, but his pro-colonial views have been heavily criticised. Here, he explains why he's now targeting a younger audience
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Niall Ferguson at the London School of Economics: ‘The rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires showed zero sign of developing the country’s resources.' Photograph: Richard Saker
My first thought, on meeting Niall Ferguson, is that he looks too smart to be an academic. It's a Wednesday afternoon, and the Philippe Roman chair in history and international affairs is sitting in his shoebox-shaped office in the Ideas centre at the London School of Economics. Though the setting is hardly glamorous, Ferguson is dressed in the informal-but-smart get-up of a movie executive or hedge-fund manager: suave blue suit, pressed white shirt, gleaming Chelsea boots. His skin is ruddy and his hair is coiffed. Somehow it seems improbable that he has spent the day supervising seminars or reading dissertations. He begins by asking me to wait a few moments. "I'm afraid I have to write a cheque," he says, reaching for his fountain pen. "One of life's more tedious burdens." I stifle an urge to lean over his shoulder and try to catch a glimpse of the number he is etching. Ferguson, one suspects, is used to writing big cheques.
  1. Civilization: The West and the Rest
  2. by Niall Ferguson
  3. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop
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To describe Ferguson as an academic is, of course, to fail to do justice to his lofty position within the intellectual firmament. For he really is, as the LSE website puts it, "one of the world's most eminent scholars". Though perhaps less instantly recognisable than his two main TV historian rivals, David Starkey and Simon Schama, he eclipses both when it comes to scholarly heft and sheer productivity. At 46, he is the author of an astounding number of highly acclaimed, and mostly very fat, books, works such as The World's Banker, The War of the World and The Ascent of Money. (He can't be accused of choosing low-key titles.) His last book, High Financier, was a biography of the banker Siegmund Warburg. Apart from his current one-year posting at the LSE, he is the Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard, the William Ziegler professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He has presented numerous television series, served as an adviser to John McCain and written reams of journalism (currently he is a columnist for Newsweek). He gets up at six every morning and says that he doesn't have hobbies: he just works. Whatever you make of the man and his views it is hard not to be impressed by his dedication.
Ferguson's latest book, published next month, is called Civilization: The West and the Rest (the accompanying six-part Channel 4 series starts on 6 March). Coming just eight months after the Warburg biography, it's a book that belongs at the more populist end of the Ferguson oeuvre. In fact, he says, he wrote it largely with his children in mind. (He has three, two sons and a daughter, ranging from 11 to 17.) "The book is partly designed so a 17-year-old boy or girl will get a lot of history in a very digestible way, and be able to relate to it," says Ferguson, who, along with the many other irons he has in the fire, is advising his friend Michael Gove, Britain's education secretary, on how to redraft the history curriculum. "I have a sense that my son and daughter's generation is not well served by the way they are taught history. They don't have the big picture. They get given these chunks, usually about Adolf Hitler, so I wanted to write a book that would be really accessible to them."
Civilization sets out to answer a question that Ferguson identifies as the "most interesting" facing historians of the modern era: "Why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?" In other words, the book attempts to explain the roots of something – western power – that has long fascinated its author. Although Ferguson's background is as a financial historian – his research at Oxford and then Cambridge in the late 80s and early 90s was into German hyperinflation and the history of bond markets – he has, over the past decade or so, drifted increasingly into writing about empire. In two consecutive books, Empire and Colossus – published, not by accident, around the time of the Iraq invasion – he charted the respective imperial histories of Britain and America, concluding not only that Britain should be prouder of its colonial past, but that the world would be a better place if America imitated Victorian Britain and became a fully fledged liberal empire. Though both books were bestsellers and won Ferguson scores of new admirers, especially in the US, they also, not surprisingly, drew heavy criticism from the left.
Civilization, too, starts from the premise that western dominance has been a good thing. In order to explain how it came about, Ferguson deploys an unexpectedly cutting-edge metaphor. The west's ascendancy, he argues, is based on six attributes that he labels its "killer apps": competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. Each chapter of the book (and each episode of the TV series) sets out to explore how it was that western nations possessed one of these "apps", while other nations failed to acquire it. So, in the chapter on competition, he shows how the political structure of western Europe in the early modern era encouraged rivalry both between and within states, while the monolithic rule of the Ming dynasty led China to rest on its laurels. Likewise, in the medicine chapter, he argues that the civilising goals of western European empires produced pioneering medical advances that ultimately benefited the whole world.
Ferguson is clearly more than a little in love with his "killer apps" conceit, as well as his "west versus the rest" dichotomy, which he slips into conversation at every available opportunity. (In the TV series, he even starts talking at one point about "westerners" and "resterners".) Doesn't he worry that this kind of thing detracts from his standing as a serious historian? "No," he says. "Apart from anything else, this terminology is absolutely ubiquitous. And I think it captures something quite important. We actually had a good argument when I first came up with the killer apps concept. Not everyone at Channel 4 liked it. But I just thought it was an absolutely great idea. You explain this book to any group of people and what usually happens is there's a competition to see if I've missed something out. People love it. It's like a game: play Civilization Killer App! It's designed to be slightly annoying, so that you talk about it."
Ferguson is not, it seems, a man given to self-doubt. When I suggest that his views have changed somewhat in the past decade – one moment he was calling on America to establish an empire, now he talks in terms of the west's "civilisational software" being "downloaded" by other countries – he replies: "I'm not sure my position has changed so much as the circumstances." In what comes across as a well-rehearsed spiel, he proceeds to explain why his thought has developed logically across his last six books, and why, on every occasion, his arguments have been prescient. (In the case of the financial crisis, this self-congratulatory impulse is fair enough: he noted that America was seriously over-extended as early as 2004.)
Ferguson's self-confidence – which, if it wasn't accompanied by considerable charm, might be downright insufferable – is no doubt partly a matter of temperament. But it also has something to do with the kind of historian he is. His approach to the past is overwhelmingly materialistic. Questions of right and wrong, or indeed of personality and psychology, don't appear to preoccupy him greatly. What gets him going is hard data, facts and figures – the stuff, in other words, that is most measurable (and, by extension, provable). No doubt this outlook has a lot to do with his grounding in economic history. Yet his materialism goes beyond this, almost to the point, oddly, of seeming Marxian. "Something that's seldom appreciated about me," he declares, "is that I am in sympathy with a great deal of what Marx wrote, except that I'm on the side of the bourgeoisie."
When it comes to thinking about empire, Ferguson's preoccupation with material forces allows him to undertake what amounts to a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the good that imperial regimes have done against the bad without being unduly bothered by the kind of moral questions that traditionally concern the left. (Does one country have a right to invade another? Does colonialism leave a psychological scar that makes it hard for previously occupied countries to progress?) He is able to remain relatively sanguine about the less than glorious aspects of, say, Britain's occupation of India, or French rule in west Africa, because he always seeks to ask what the alternatives might have been. (As a rule, he thinks they would have been far worse.) "The moral simplification urge is an extraordinarily powerful one, especially in this country, where imperial guilt can lead to self-flagellation," he explains. "And it leads to very simplistic judgments. The rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade. They showed zero sign of developing the country's economic resources. Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it's clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn't have any credibility at all."
As many of his critics have noted, Ferguson's emergence as an advocate of empire coincided with the rise of neoconservatism in the US and the drive to displace Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. (In the run-up to the war, Ferguson was a vocal supporter of invasion.) Although he became critical of US policy once the occupation took place, and now distances himself from the neocons, he remains unrepentant about his pro-war stance, arguing that the real problem was that the invasion was "botched" because of the Bush administration's failure to commit sufficient manpower and resources to it. ("The problem I constantly wrote about then was that if you invade and overthrow the bad guy, hold elections and then piss off, it doesn't work.") Nor does he rule out supporting similar campaigns in future. "It's all very well for us to sit here in the west with our high incomes and cushy lives, and say it's immoral to violate the sovereignty of another state. But if the effect of that is to bring people in that country economic and political freedom, to raise their standard of living, to increase their life expectancy, then don't rule it out."
Ferguson, who describes himself as a "classic Scottish enlightenment liberal", clearly enjoys provoking the left, which he does with a relish that at times borders on callousness. At one point he remarks: "I think it's hard to make the case, which implicitly the left makes, that somehow the world would have been better off if the Europeans had stayed home. It certainly doesn't work for north America, that's for sure. I mean, I'm sure the Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison. But had they been left to their own devices, I don't think we'd have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we've had in north America."
Yet when our conversation moves to more personal matters, all traces of lofty detachment disappear. In the past couple of years, Ferguson's professional interest in civilisations and the relations between them has intersected intriguingly with his private life, thanks to his relationship with the dedicatee of Civilization, who is identified in the book only as "Ayaan". In his preface, Ferguson writes that she "understands better than anyone I know what Western civilisation really means – and what it still has to offer the world".
"Ayaan" is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born writer, activist and former Dutch MP who has emerged as one of the west's most strident critics of Islam, especially its treatment of women. Ferguson met her in May 2009, at Time magazine's annual "100 most influential people in the world" party. (Both Ferguson and Hirsi Ali have previously appeared on this list, in 2004 and 2005 respectively.) They embarked on their relationship a few months later, shortly after his separation from his wife of 16 years, Sue Douglas, a former editor of the Sunday Express. Their affair soon prompted a storm of gossip and the publication of several muck-raking articles.
Ferguson's relationship with Hirsi Ali is further complicated by the fact that she lives under constant police protection. In 2004, she wrote the script for the short film Submission, which attacked Islam's subjugation of women and contained shots of a woman's naked body inscribed with verses from the Qur'an. The film's director, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated by an Islamic extremist in Amsterdam soon after its release; pinned to his body was a letter calling for a jihad against Hirsi Ali. Being forced into hiding certainly hasn't made her any less outspoken. In 2006, she told a German magazine that Islam is "not compatible with the liberal society that has resulted from the Enlightenment."
As soon as he starts talking about Hirsi Ali, Ferguson's demeanour changes. His voice becomes softer, infused with feeling. Suddenly, he is no longer the super-confident scholar; he seems almost humble. "Ayaan comes from a completely different civilisation," he says, explaining what he meant by saying she knows what western civilisation "really means". "She grew up in the Muslim world, was born in Somalia, spent time in Saudi Arabia, was a fundamentalist as a teenager. Her journey from the world of her childhood and family to where she is today is an odyssey that's extremely hard for you or I to imagine. To see and hear how she understands western philosophy, how she understands the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, of the 19th-century liberal era, is a great privilege, because she sees it with a clarity and freshness of perspective that's really hard for us to match. So much of liberalism in its classical sense is taken for granted in the west today and even disrespected. We take freedom for granted, and because of this we don't understand how incredibly vulnerable it is."
In talking of liberalism in its "classic" sense, Ferguson is perhaps pointedly drawing a distinction between the liberalism espoused by Hirsi Ali (and himself) and that of certain left-leaning liberals – notably Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma – who have been critical of her anti-Islamic stance. The French philosopher Pascal Bruckner depicted their attitude as the "racism of the anti-racists". Does Ferguson agree? "I think Ayaan's critics – Ian Buruma in particular – were more guilty of sexism than racism," he says. "But certainly they underestimate her intellectual rigour at their peril. She's just smarter than they are, as well as having a great deal more courage. I mean, there aren't many people who really put their life on the line for human freedom. And I think when you come across someone like that you've got to be a little bit respectful. It just sticks in my throat a bit to have middle-aged men who've had cushy lives turning up their noses at someone who has gone through what she's gone through. There's a particular role you're supposed to play as an oppressed woman... you're supposed to smile and look pretty and not say too much."
I ask whether Ferguson has been surprised by the reaction their relationship provoked, the gossipy articles and so forth. His tone changes again and he suddenly sounds angry. "I was nauseated. Just nauseated. It makes me quite ashamed to be part of a culture that regards the private life of a professor as something that should be in the paper. It's just so tawdry. The British press has an insatiable appetite for making public things that should be private. It's a prurience that I've never understood. I don't give a monkey's about the so-called celebrities that they write about. But the idea that my private life should be the subject of articles I find deeply, deeply infuriating. Because there's absolutely no way to control or resist that process unless you're very rich, which I'm not. They of course claim I am by massively magnifying my income." (Various articles put Ferguson's annual earnings at $5m, a figure he labels "ridiculous".)
Ferguson has long been somewhat ambivalent about Britain – he quit his Oxford professorship in 2002 to teach in America. He seems invigorated by the prospect of returning there, which he plans to do as soon as the current academic year ends. Near the end of our conversation, he talks of how, growing up in Glasgow, where there "wasn't a lot to do except football and drinking", he immersed himself in American culture. "I read Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Kerouac. And I listened to American music. I remember once after school going to see Woody Allen's Manhattan and thinking: I want to be there. And as soon as I arrived in New York, I just felt at home."
In Britain, by contrast, he says that "the abuse of the freedom of the press has now reached the point... where it's no longer tolerable". He decreasingly feels at home here and says he "really only took this job so I could see more of my kids". It's a damning verdict from a man who clearly has a huge love of British history, and who acknowledges that he owes much to the country, not least his education. But there's a final twist to the tale. One thing he "hasn't missed at all about England", he says, is the experience of being "condescended to" by public school boys. "I have a very negative relationship to the aristocracy. And having them out my life is on balance a benefit." So it's something of an oddity (and yet typical of a man who clearly enjoys being contradictory) that the one thing Ferguson says gives him hope for Britain's future is David Cameron's government – made up overwhelmingly of public school boys.
Killer 'apps': the ideas that propelled the west to world domination
1.Competition: In the 15th century, China was the most advanced civilisation in the world, while Europe was a backwater. But then things changed and by the late 18th century Adam Smith could observe that China had been "long stationary". What happened? Ferguson argues that Europe's fragmented political structure led to competition and encouraged Europeans to seek opportunities in distant lands. The increasingly insular China, by contrast, stagnated.
2. Science: The 16th and 17th centuries were the age of science, with an extraordinary number of breakthroughs occurring. This revolution was, Ferguson writes, "by any scientific measure, wholly European". In the Muslim world, clericism curtailed the spread of knowledge, while in Europe, aided by the printing press, the scope of scholarship dramatically widened. Ultimately, breakthroughs in science led to improvements in weaponry, further cementing the west's advantage.
3. Property: Why did the empire established by the English in north America in the 17th century ultimately prove so much more successful than that established by the Spanish in south America a century earlier? It was, Ferguson contends, because the English settlers brought with them a particular conception of widely distributed property rights and democracy, inherited from John Locke. This proved a far better recipe for success than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism.
4. Modern science: According to Ferguson, modern medicine was the west's "most remarkable killer application". Western medical advances in the 19th and 20th centuries increased life expectancies across the world, including in the colonies. The French in particular, largely thanks to a lofty conception of their imperial mission, brought significant improvements to public health in western Africa, developing effective vaccinations for diseases such as smallpox and yellow fever.
5. Consumption: The west's dominance of the rest of the world was not only achieved by force; it was also, as Ferguson shows, achieved through the market. The industrial revolution in 18th and 19th century Britain created a model of consumerist society that has proved irresistible, as shown, for example, by the way that the western style of dressing has swept the globe. Yet there's a paradox: how was it that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice has ended up homogenising humanity?
6. Work ethic: As Max Weber noted a century ago, Protestantism was a form of Christianity that encouraged hard work (and just as importantly, Ferguson adds, reading and saving). It isn't a coincidence, he says, that the decline of religion in Europe has led to Europeans becoming the "idlers of the world" (while the more religious US has remained hard-working). Interestingly, Ferguson also argues that China's embrace of hard work is partly because of the spread there of Protestantism.
Niall Ferguson's Civilization begins on 6 March on Channel 4
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Comments in chronological order (Total 109 comments)
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franzbiberkopf
20 February 2011 12:51AM
6. Work ethic: As Max Weber noted a century ago, Protestantism was a form of Christianity that encouraged hard work (and just as importantly, Ferguson adds, reading and saving). It isn't a coincidence, he says, that the decline of religion in Europe has led to Europeans becoming the "idlers of the world" (while the more religious US has remained hard-working). Interestingly, Ferguson also argues that China's embrace of hard work is partly because of the spread there of Protestantism.
If the US really is hard-working, it isn't doing them much good; but either way, isn't this rather muddled?
Most of continental Europe never was Protestant, so calling its inhabitants "idle" because of the decline of religion is pretty dubious.
(And I can think of some not particularly religious European societies from the past hundred years that were very far from "idle". For better or worse.)
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craig1459
20 February 2011 1:22AM
Read up on the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and you might get it.
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splendidhorace
20 February 2011 1:35AM
A final flatulent fanfare from a world order that is collapsing before our eyes.
Predictable,
Boring,
Wrong.
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SirJohnTerry
20 February 2011 1:35AM
So basically the west succeeded becuase it had lots of little Thatchers.
He needs to spend more time battling his ideolgical bias and less on his buffing his booties.
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Friendlyflier
20 February 2011 1:42AM
Well, this lefty won't be able to resist his new book when it comes out. I've read a fair few of them and there isn't a bad one amongst them. Sure, I disagree with parts of all those I've read (most personally with his glossing over the atrocities committed the likes of Pinochet and the latin rightists in The War of the World: Professor Ferguson's not the only one who has personal experience of the violence behind the news tickers and his quiescence about the violence committed in the name of capitalism in latin america, having just dried his eyes over the thought of Allied POWs in Burma (a fight my own great uncle survived as a ruined alcoholic) was unedifying.
But he is a great writer. Judt wrote like an artist; Service writes with utter coolness but Ferguson is about the most thought provoking historian I can think of. His books are frequently rivetting. He is annoyingly provocative and brilliantly readable.The bastard.
Oh, and if he's reading this at any point, don't think nobody noticed your analogy between genes and markets at the end of the Ascent of Money was missing it's real conclusion because you bottled it, Prof. And you surely must have considered it as it's too obvious not to have occurred: Genes exist to perpetuate their own material irrespective of their originating host. Had you continued the analogy you would have been led to the obvious conclusion that the money markets and their agents also exist to perpetuate their continuing growth irrespective of their original host. Which is why Britain is fucked, you now live in America and China is booming. The money, like the gene, doesn't have any loyalty to its host. Its existence is autonomous.
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Leondeinos
20 February 2011 1:43AM
We get a bit too much praise of empire from this immigrant.
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Friendlyflier
20 February 2011 1:53AM
Leondeinos 20 February 2011 1:43AM We get a bit too much praise of empire from this immigrant.
It sounds like you've been shown a biscuit and you're barking.
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lastzemblan
20 February 2011 1:55AM
Here, he explains why he's now targeting a younger audience
Um...because people who have access to his sources knows most of his "history" is invented imperialist nonsense...
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Jaffa
20 February 2011 1:56AM
I'm pretty tired (being 2am and all), but I gave this article a fair shake until I hit this charmingly glib line about the genocide of American Indians at the halfway mark:
“We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison.”
I'm far from humourless, but don't you think that it may have been appropriate to scrutinise such comments with even a fraction of the care you took describing his clothing? Such an overwhelmingly patriarchal attitude to these issues isn't excused by tenure at the LSE, or even the Islamophobic equivalent to the 'I have a black friend, so…’ argument you allow Ferguson to deploy with barely any retort, let alone the irony of failing to scrutinise the worldview of a man who extols the virtues of free speech in one breath and bemoans 'the abuse of the freedom of the press' in another. (The two are not mutually exclusive, but in this context are contradictory enough to at least deserve clarification)
I'm not saying that a book review should be a fully-fledged inquisition, but you are surely able to better juge where the line between fawning reverence and condemnation should fall?
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lastzemblan
20 February 2011 1:57AM
As Max Weber noted a century ago, Protestantism was a form of Christianity that encouraged hard work (and just as importantly, Ferguson adds, reading and saving). It isn't a coincidence, he says, that the decline of religion in Europe has led to Europeans becoming the "idlers of the world" (while the more religious US has remained hard-working). Interestingly, Ferguson also argues that China's embrace of hard work is partly because of the spread there of Protestantism.
Max Weber said nothing of the sort. Read something before you talk about it. Weber's thesis was completely different; and rather more interesting. The version presented here was merely the sanitised version presented to American sociologists in the 1920s.
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Leondeinos
20 February 2011 2:05AM
I barked because I found a dungheap.
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TheSuperPope
20 February 2011 2:52AM
2. Science: The 16th and 17th centuries were the age of science, with an extraordinary number of breakthroughs occurring. This revolution was, Ferguson writes, "by any scientific measure, wholly European". In the Muslim world, clericism curtailed the spread of knowledge, while in Europe, aided by the printing press, the scope of scholarship dramatically widened. Ultimately, breakthroughs in science led to improvements in weaponry, further cementing the west's advantage.

Questionable, to say the least. The greatest Muslim power, the Ottoman turks were hardly religious fundementalists, and were a pre-eminent power during this period
3. Property: Why did the empire established by the English in north America in the 17th century ultimately prove so much more successful than that established by the Spanish in south America a century earlier? It was, Ferguson contends, because the English settlers brought with them a particular conception of widely distributed property rights and democracy, inherited from John Locke. This proved a far better recipe for success than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism.

Of course. And it had nothing to do with the greater trade value of goods from the English colonies, or the fact that the 13 colonies population was overwhelmingly English, while Spanish South and Central America were largely populated by natives

6. Work ethic: As Max Weber noted a century ago, Protestantism was a form of Christianity that encouraged hard work (and just as importantly, Ferguson adds, reading and saving). It isn't a coincidence, he says, that the decline of religion in Europe has led to Europeans becoming the "idlers of the world" (while the more religious US has remained hard-working). Interestingly, Ferguson also argues that China's embrace of hard work is partly because of the spread there of Protestantism.

Rubbish. 1930s Russia was atheist, and modern China is not Christian, yet their econmies grew dramatically. North America is Protestant, yet American industry has declined
Ferguson is little more than a populist tv presenter
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noyaux
20 February 2011 3:32AM
'But had they been left to their own devices, I don't think we'd have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we've had in north America.'
No, really? That'll stun the kids.
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harleymc
20 February 2011 3:38AM
I don't think we'd have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we've had in north America."

This is supposed to be an argument for?
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Patricia03
20 February 2011 3:44AM
Two comments:
He is only 46 so once his testosterone level starts to go down he will be able to think more clearly.
Those from cold climates plan. They had to in order to provide food for their families. Those from warmer climates don't need to to the same extent.
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Crammer
20 February 2011 3:53AM
Still, freedom is vulnerable, though.
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Anarky
20 February 2011 3:54AM
Haven't read any of his books but his analysis of 'the winning by the West' seems pretty sound. Now that we're all on slide we may as well as revel in the good times.
The same can't be said for his views on imperialism. I love a bit of revisionism myself but you can't wish away the psychic and physical abuses of colonialism.
What a classic:
I don't think we'd have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we've had in north America
You mean no Glenn Beck?
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YoureWrong
20 February 2011 3:58AM
Civilization sets out to answer a question that Ferguson identifies as the "most interesting" facing historians of the modern era: "Why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?"
I thought that book had been written already.
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Hongkonghorsey
20 February 2011 4:05AM
What I like about Niall Ferguson is the analytical rigour which he applies to his arguments and the factual base he uses to justify his positions. His study of the economics and military effectiveness of the Allies vs the Central Powers in World War One was remarkable.
To those who criticise him in the discussion thread, I would simply recommend them to read the book when it comes out and then deliver their verdict. You can't judge the quality of a historian's work based on a newspaper interview.
Whether you like it or not, his position on the Iraq war was that the US needed to be committed to the occupation and to build strong and lasting ties in the country backed by effective military force and local collaboration - not to invade, disband the structure of the state, and then withdraw a few years later. You can dislike his position from a moral point of view but his argument was never tested because the Bush administration wanted an easy win and a quick, cheap exit.
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rdb1
20 February 2011 4:23AM
@YoureWrong: and i thought you meant Jared's "Guns, Germs and Steel".
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GnomedePlume
20 February 2011 7:00AM
I mean, I'm sure the Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison.
Such a mixture of erudition and ignorance.
For one thing, the Apache and Navajo did not kill "a hell of a lot of bison", which don't even flourish in the dry southwest.
For another, you know who really killed a lot of bison? That's right! The flower of Ferguson's beloved western European civilization who, finding a continent teeming with both ancient ways of life and bison, managed to almost completely eliminate both, within a few centuries, and pen the rest up on reservations.
Now that is a "killer app".
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Khartoumdump
20 February 2011 7:49AM
With the death of history in UK schools we should, I suppose, embrace this populist approach to generalising the development of human societies over the past 5-10 centuries- the big picture rather than the snapshots that most senior school students are offered.
However, at heart Ferguson is an elitist, reactionary writer who is happy to dismiss the experiences of millions of humans as being of no importance when compared to those of the 'civilised' and 'developed'. His disparaging remarks about Apaches would no doubt pale to insignificance were he to turn on Australian Aborigines. Should these decimated communities rejoice in the coming of 'civilisation' to their shores? And what precisely is it about American civilisation that us benighted Africans are meant to be celebrating? Glenn Beck? Sarah Palin- his employer's running mate.
It does however fit well with his own choice of mate, with her ranting generalisations about the heart of violence that lies at the core of Islam.
So go and live in America where your lack of a posh accent wont be a handicap and leave us swinging mindlessly in the trees having lost the great Civilisation race.
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Moosed
20 February 2011 8:40AM
I mean, I'm sure the Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison.
What a strange, squalid little comment.
It just reminds me that, the is and indicator of a truly succesful genocide. You don't just wipe out the people, but their culture. Then you can make glib comments about it.
I feel no liberal guilt on the genocide visited on native americans (which I suspect was the real point of the comment) but it's something I feel we can learn from. But then I'm no historian ... and, as we see your decent to noisy polemecist, neither are you.
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PROEXPAT
20 February 2011 8:46AM
America's Rudyard Kipling, telling re-assuring (and profitable) bedtime stories to a people whose [borrowed, cut-rate] 'empire' is collapsing before their very eyes, and after a very short run.
Empires worth their name succeed because they bring security and improvements [e.g., fresh water supplies, roads] to human life. Truly great empires encourage their native peoples to live among and marry the conquered, and to adopt their customs and beliefs - and they offer full citizenship to all who accept the imperial settlement.
Fear of anihilation is a necessary but insufficient factor in growing a successful empire, and a racist attitude towards the conquered (e.g., 'towel heads') is fatal to an imperial people, especially if they constantly blab on about how morally superior they are to everyone else.
For these reasons, perhaps no people in history have been as incapable of running a successful empire as Americans, with their xenophobia and hard-wired distrust of foreigners. Like Kipling, Ferguson may come to an unhappy end in New England, when Americans realise that he's just another smart-arsed foreigner who's made a lot of money telling them fairy tales about themselves.
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Moosed
20 February 2011 9:09AM
"I have a sense that my son and daughter's generation is not well served by the way they are taught history. They don't have the big picture.
Thats a bit rich. I've only read a few of their books - but they are so tighly framed in terms of perspective and timescales that they leave more questions than answers.
You can read further if you have the inclination. But if all you want is support for the "premise that western dominance has been a good thing." Then look no further.
Any empire looks good if you pick the timescale and point of view.
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jontieuk
20 February 2011 9:16AM
'Somehow it seems improbable that he has spent the day supervising seminars or reading dissertations.'
In fact, it is improbable. Ferguson certainly doesn't do any of that at LSE.
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wlark
20 February 2011 9:32AM
Britain's answer to Bernard-Henri Levy!
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fustratedhistorian
20 February 2011 9:57AM
Anarky
20 February 2011 3:54AM
The same can't be said for his views on imperialism. I love a bit of revisionism myself but you can't wish away the psychic and physical abuses of colonialism.
Imperialism and Colonialism are different. Comparisons are valid, but not interchanging of the words.
Moosed
20 February 2011 9:09AM
Any empire looks good if you pick the timescale and point of view.
You can pretty much apply that logic to anything.

GnomedePlume
20 February 2011 7:00AM
For another, you know who really killed a lot of bison? That's right! The flower of Ferguson's beloved western European civilization who, finding a continent teeming with both ancient ways of life and bison, managed to almost completely eliminate both, within a few centuries, and pen the rest up on reservations.
Hardly something new, and certainly not something that can be uniquely aimed at Eurpoean civilisation.
The good thing about History is the wide base of interpretations allowing us to build a more reflective and possibly accurate picture of what has gone before us. One of the biggest negatives is what is reflected on this thread; the culture that one knows better or is more right than another. In fact not only is the other wrong, but invariably in someway deficient. When History wakes up and works collaboratively then we as a race might come to understand our true potential, bu I won't hold my breath. Oh...
Moosed
20 February 2011 8:40AM
But then I'm no historian ... and, as we see your decent to noisy polemecist, neither are you.
An unfortunate comment considering:
Apart from his current one-year posting at the LSE, he is the Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard, the William Ziegler professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
.
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Briar
20 February 2011 10:10AM
"Oh, and if he's reading this at any point, don't think nobody noticed your analogy between genes and markets at the end of the Ascent of Money was missing it's real conclusion because you bottled it, Prof. And you surely must have considered it as it's too obvious not to have occurred: Genes exist to perpetuate their own material irrespective of their originating host. Had you continued the analogy you would have been led to the obvious conclusion that the money markets and their agents also exist to perpetuate their continuing growth irrespective of their original host. Which is why Britain is fucked, you now live in America and China is booming. The money, like the gene, doesn't have any loyalty to its host. Its existence is autonomous."
Excellent observation, FriendlyFlier. One not likely to be made by Ferguson, since it rather undermines his general premise that west is best and capitalism makes it so.
All this success and admiration comes because he says the things our rulers want to hear (and want young people to hear). A very good reason for rigorous scepticism.
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Darryl56
20 February 2011 10:12AM
Though I do not agree with all of Niall's hypothesis, I do enjoy reading his books. Of course they should not be read as a god given factually correct version of history but they promote discussion and thought. I think that this is good. I emailed him once about a particular querry I had with "Ascent of Money", and to my surprise received a reply in about two hours. I have since learned that he employs numerous students to do his research when writting one of his books. So I do hope I received the email from Niall himself but who knows.
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bugbeer
20 February 2011 10:20AM
Sorry, did I miss the 'app' that read 'Willingness to colonise other countries and plunder their resources'?
Hawaiians didn't know how to 'exploit their resources' until the British came along in the 1790s. The British certainly showed them that - they tore down Hawaiian forests collecting sandalwood, for which they paid one cent in Hawaii and sold for 34 cents in China. They forced Hawaiian workers into slavery, spread alien species and European diseases, and then left when the forests were bare. Nearly all of the 'profits' mysteriously accrued to British traders and moneylenders, rather than the people who lived on the land.
Economic 'freedom' in action.
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fustratedhistorian
20 February 2011 10:42AM
@bugbeer - not entirely sure what your point is? If it is the pointing out of an obvious human trait, then what do you hope to achieve or what sort of thinking do you want to encourage?
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nabokov1
20 February 2011 10:45AM
And don't forget the English deliberately destroyed the thriving Irish linen industry in order to provide the Irish market with English cloth...
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Shachtmanite
20 February 2011 11:00AM
As Nietzsche almost said the true measure of a man or a cause is the quality of his/its enemies.
Like Norman Stone (of whom he is a younger, handsomer and much more successful version) Ferguson is a first class bourgeois historian who has learned a great deal from Marx - not least the massively inconvenient truth that capitalism and western imperialism are progressive forces.
Only if it is allowed to complete its final destruction of feudalism, tribalism and the remaining pockets of degenerated state-socialism can we hope to build the foundations of a truly better world.
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drumbuie1
20 February 2011 11:01AM
1) "the English settlers brought with them a particular conception of widely distributed property rights and democracy, inherited from John Locke. This proved a far better recipe for success than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism"
Today 1% of the population of the US earns 90% of its annual income and the Republican-controlled Senate has just pushed through swingeing budget cuts - sounds rather like the Spanish model to me.
2) Ferguson's arguments only make sense if you accept right at the beginning that the only capital that matters is financial capital.
He ignores social capital, cultural capital, environmental capital and moral/spiritual capital. The ruthless pursuit of financial capital to the exclusion of the others is unsustainable; a political Ponzi scheme.
The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few leads to revolution. Improvements in communications in the last few decades have made it easier for ordinary people to realise how much they are being exploited and to do something about it - as they are, now, in the Middle East.
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TomDem2
20 February 2011 11:01AM
Niall Ferguson's book on the formation of the British Empire was the best history book I've read. It was well written, the facts were clearly laid out, his opinions were well argued and it was a balanced account. A welcome relief from the usual politically biased left-wing guilt trip.
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robotmaster
20 February 2011 11:06AM
This wind up merchant is shaping up to be the Ayn Rand of the 21st century.
Someone should have told him his "killer app" theory is a really shit idea, and that you should not be allowed to confiscate land and exterminate a race because they show "lack of progress".
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claus3600
20 February 2011 11:33AM
@frustratedhistorian
It's also a human trait to condemn injustice. Bugbear's comment and the general sentiment on this thread are in alignment with this.
Ferguson himself admitted that empire was unfair.
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Zhubajie
20 February 2011 11:43AM
If baboon troops wrote history, they might well produce equally smug accounts of how their behinds were bigger and redder than the other troops'!
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Zhubajie
20 February 2011 11:46AM
So Ferguson says Protestantism is good and Islam is bad; yet they differ by the width of a finger!
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Darryl56
20 February 2011 11:47AM
As I have posted, I enjoy Niall Ferguson's books but history is full of what ifs. Niall Ferguson makes history sound as if it's outcomes were always inevitable, though so much of it comes down to minutiae. One example is that if the Byzantium and Persian Sassanid Empires had not have been decimated by the bubonic plague of the 6th century making them very vulnerable, would Islam ever have progressed beyond being a small sect contained in the Saudi peninsular. Then think how that would have changed the world.
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Zhubajie
20 February 2011 11:54AM
"Interestingly, Ferguson also argues that China's embrace of hard work is partly because of the spread there of Protestantism."
Complete nonsense! The number of Protestants in China is a miniscule share of the population. Does Ferguson know anything about Chinese history? Or is he just fitting factoids to what he wants to believe?
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Zhubajie
20 February 2011 12:10PM
"Hardly something new, and certainly not something that can be uniquely aimed at Eurpoean civilisation."
Actually, the bison were wiped out (nearly) by industrial hunters, in a couple decades. Many of the hides went to become belts in UK factories.
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compayEE
20 February 2011 12:10PM
Niall Ferguson is one of the world's leading historians
It's a bit thick to call N. F. a "leading historian'.
Niall Ferguson is to a historian what a televangelist is to a theologist.
No wonder he is on the same page with the neocons.
As many of his critics have noted, Ferguson's emergence as an advocate of empire coincided with the rise of neoconservatism in the US and the drive to displace Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. (In the run-up to the war, Ferguson was a vocal supporter of invasion.)
Although he became critical of US policy once the occupation took place, and now distances himself from the neocons
.
He is as shifty as the quicksands. In other words: an oportunist. Not so much a historian as an 'entertainer', the intellectual equivalent of a radio shock jock albeit one with a dazzling pedigree (the kind of upbringing that America and Tory Britain is so fond about )
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Zhubajie
20 February 2011 12:13PM
Fernand Braudel was a much better historian and will be remembered longer, I predict.
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laughingbuddha
20 February 2011 12:22PM
He sounds like a myopic establishment propagandist who views history through the lens of how big his bank balance is, the quantity of oil, coal and mineral that can be hoisted from the earth and the volumes of cars, tanks, ships, planes, guns and TV sets that can be produced.
Freedom includes the freedom of others to reject your corrupt, broken and partial version of civilisation.
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Zhubajie
20 February 2011 12:29PM
"Americans, with their xenophobia and hard-wired distrust of foreigners. Like Kipling, Ferguson may come to an unhappy end in New England, when Americans realise that he's just another smart-arsed foreigner"
I'm an American (with degrees in history) and I feel along the lines you've suggested. He's not as annoying a parasite as C. Hitchens, for example, but I suspect he was hired because certain Americans are still dumb enough to have colonial mentalities.
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TomS101
20 February 2011 1:03PM
I really enjoyed reading Ferguson's books and will be buying the new one. Very readable and very informative.
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fustratedhistorian
20 February 2011 1:11PM
Zhubajie
20 February 2011 12:10PM
"Hardly something new, and certainly not something that can be uniquely aimed at Eurpoean civilisation."
Actually, the bison were wiped out (nearly) by industrial hunters, in a couple decades. Many of the hides went to become belts in UK factories.
"Actually" that wasn't my point.
claus3600
20 February 2011 11:33AM
@frustratedhistorian
It's also a human trait to condemn injustice. Bugbear's comment and the general sentiment on this thread are in alignment with this.
Ferguson himself admitted that empire was unfair.
Justice and injustice are entirely relevant to time and societies, so criticising now, under modern concepts of justice for something that then, might not have been accepted as such, or even thought of as such, is very poor from a historical point of view, although it might give budding sociologists something to moan about.
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ColonelCallan
20 February 2011 1:18PM
Ferguson argues that Europe's fragmented political structure led to competition and encouraged Europeans to seek opportunities in distant lands.
His strength seems to be in recycling and lifting ideas from other historians and packaging in a more readable and entertaining form. Original ideas these certainly are not.
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