(Out of Date) Book Review: Civilization the West and the Rest & Why Nations Fail

— I wrote this in 2012 for a website that no longer exists. I came accross it in my files and am re-posting it here —

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson is asking why, in the scope of all history is Western cultural power: the historic seat of exploration, invention, and the subjugation of continents and races, apparently on the wane after five hundred years of unbroken expansion and success? And what’s more, he wonders why it had pulled so far ahead in the first place?

Meanwhile Ferguson’s fellow Harvard University professor James A. Robinson and his co-author, MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu, are asking why, in the scope of all human society, do some nations fail while others succeed? These two seemingly similar yet ultimately divergent inquiries take their two respective books, Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest and Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail along very similar paths, grappling with much of the same data but coming to widely differing conclusions on key issues based on the differing assumptions underlying their distinct inquiries.

Ferguson seems to fancy himself a traditional Anglophone wit. He plays at ham-fisted puns “Westerners and Resterners,” which I will admit speak well of his instincts as a teacher. They centralize memory on their relevant concepts even if it is because they are so memorably un-clever. He is also thoroughly unwary of cultural condescension. His subtitle, The West and the Rest, simply screams for the derisive harrumphs of the cross-culturally sensitive. A chorus of which are as good an indication as any that people are paying and will continue to pay attention. But his haughty tones do not end there. The further elaboration of the book’s concept, his metaphor of the ‘Six Killer Apps of Western Civilization,’ begins on the inside flap of the dust jacket and is further scattered throughout the text, but not so as to remain cogent enough to suggest the metaphor’s overall necessity. It suggests a perceived need on the author’s part to contextualize his analysis in contemporary terms. As though you could download the Neolithic Revolution to your smartphone. This might prove a useful crib for an illustration-heavy intermediate-reader version of the book, but as it is, it serves only to call undue attention to itself as an unnecessary device.

Why Nations Fail is a much drier read. For all his smug affectation, Ferguson knows where in history to dig for a compelling story. I relished the account of the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna by the onslaught of Jan Sobieski’s Polish relief force. Why Nations Fail on the other hand takes due time to pose its central questions, address and deconstruct existing theories and then build its own theory based on propositions that are further based on cited precedent. In other words Acemoglu and Robinson have accomplished a cogent investigation and resulting thesis that though information-dense and a bit dry is accessible and will likely stand as a very useful text to be cited in further research for years to come. Ferguson, by comparison, has spun a tale of cultural ascendency and decline, made some wild presumptions and a few enlightening leaps of insight, most of which relies on the bulwark of his credentials and imperious professorial tone (a tone which, though anathema to some, I find suitably reassuring in small doses, in the manner of a warming intoxicant) for its rhetorical weight.

The largest point of divergence between these two works is their authors’ conclusions about the likely fate of modern China. Both books arrive at the subject late, once their respective stories, theories, and beliefs on the subject of history and the mechanisms of civilization are mostly unspooled. Ferguson plainly states in his introduction that the subject of China was the spur for his entire inquiry into the rise and fall of Western cultural dominance. Thus he is naturally in awe of the Chinese paradigm when approaching it in the context of his book. He states clearly (paraphrasing), “It would be a brave man indeed who would bet against China’s future.”

Indeed. Two brave men in fact. One of whom works nearby Ferguson in Harvard’s hallowed halls. According to Daron Acemoglu and Harvard professor James A. Robinson, there are very specific elements that may code for difficulty in China’s converting prodigious growth into long term prosperity. The key lies in the difference between what they term ‘extractive’ and ‘inclusive’ institutions. The ‘inclusive’ allow for broad ownership of property and involvement in policy making and government. The ‘extractive’ shut down the paths toward ownership and involvement, to the perpetual benefit of a tiny elite. Extractive models can, in some cases, allow for growth, i.e. Spain in the age of exploration or the Soviet Union between the 1930’s and ‘70’s. But extractive growth has proven uniformly unsustainable. Thus, Why Nations Fail concludes China’s success to be fragile, since their core institutions persist in stifling basic enfranchisements for the benefit of its political elite.

Ferguson’s book occurs in starts and flashes. He makes piquant observations about the non-cyclical nature of civilization, but only after wrestling political correctness to a wary unproductive draw over the person and theories of Max Weber, he of the theory of “Protestant Work Ethic.” Ultimately the book’s finest moment is its final moment when it seems Ferguson has at last unearthed a theme strong enough for a follow up volume to Civilization: The West and the Rest. He writes, “The biggest threat to Western Civilization is our own pusillanimity and the historical ignorance that feeds it.” On that score one could certainly do worse than to sit down and read Civilization: The West and the Rest. Even though by the end no complete argument has been made and the journey toward refuting Ferguson’s dim view of westerners only begins with such a volume of sweeping statements and dramatic generalizations.

Acemoglu and Robinson are not interested in castigating the educational system or delivering a funeral oration over Western Civilization. If anything their outlook is, if not entirely rosy, then at least distinctly more helpful in the 18th century enlightenment tradition, of which Ferguson is openly enamored in his passages praising Kant, Locke, and, most extravagantly, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. Acemoglu and Robinson present the vicissitudes of history as arriving from a rational mechanism that is, if not 100% predictive, at least internally consistent.

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