Summary and commentary. Historian Niall Ferguson’s series ‘Civilisation’, part I – Competition
After summarising and commenting on art historian Kenneth Clark’s 1969 13-part series Civilisation, what better than to follow up with historian Niall Ferguson’s 2012 six-part PBS-series called, well, Civilisation, based on his book of the same name.
In the first episode Ferguson discusses the way in which ‘Westerners’ came to dominate ‘Resteners’ after 1500. He identifies six ‘killer apps’ which made this possible, which he says they’re “history’s greatest revelation.” In this episode, his main argument is a comparison between Europe on the one hand and China on the other.
Both because of his timeframe and the vast geographical area he covers, Ferguson’s narrative has some oversimplifications and generalisations. He admits as much himself in the introduction to the book. His defence is that without these ‘errors’, the book cannot be written, the series not made. What has been left out, “has been left out for a reason.“
Well, ain’t that the truth. Without rigorous selection, a book of this scope would indeed be impossible. If during these discussions the selection is criticised, it is in the full knowledge and acknowledgment that selection is inevitable. Yet there are two points of criticism that are more than just criticism of selection, but are more fundamental and must be made before proceeding.
Firstly, Ferguson writes and presents a comparative history. Of necessity, this demands more than twice the space for the same level of information to be discussed. Instead of one civilisation, there are two that need explanation, before they can be compared. This becomes clear in Episode 1, when Ferguson discusses the differences in shipbuilding between China and – essentially – Portugal. We are told many details about how technologically advanced and above all how much bigger Chinese ships were, in comparison to the Portuguese ships.
But how where they constructed and from what materials? In the series, we see work on a reconstruction. As far as can be ascertained, the reconstruction was never completed. Apart from that, it would be interesting to hear how the Chinese were able to build ships so vast, their dimensions were only approached in the West with the advent of the use of steel in shipbuilding. In the book, Ferguson says that “the late fifteenth-century Portuguese caravel (…) struck an ideal balance between speed and firepower,” while “it is possible that the Portuguese would have sent the lumbering Chinese hulks to the bottom.” So what drove the Chinese to construct such massive ships? Were they in line with Chinese shipbuilding practices or a conscious deviation? Ferguson doesn’t say and we are simply left to marvel at these wondrous Chinese ships that might have – or not – ruled the Chinese Sea and the Indian Ocean if not for a government decision to burn them all, and as a nation, to turn inward. Ferguson presents a strong case against government interference – but it lacks context.
Context is also at the heart of the second point of criticism. Ferguson chooses to focus his attention both geographically and in time. It is ironic that both decisions – to focus mainly on the British Isles and the period since 1500 – make his argument more brittle than it would have been had he taken a broader approach. Incidentally, in time he often allows himself to cross this self-imposed barrier.
Ferguson is partly motivated by an awareness of growing competition to Western dominance. Two of these he mentions explicitly: the growth of Islam as a challenge to religious dominance, and the new rise of China as an economic challenger. Islam is mentioned once and then quietly dropped. China is discussed mainly as a powerful empire that closes in on itself – the reasons remain unclear – and essentially functions as ‘the other’ (closed; no longer innovating; large and monolithic; obsessed with harmony and order) in contrast to ‘Western civilisation’. When he discusses how the West came to dominate, he does so in the understanding that this dominance is at an end – or could very soon be at its end. To prevent this fall, it is necessary to study the rise of Western dominance. It is on this point his two errors of contextualisation converge.
Ferguson sets the tone in his introduction, saying it is “easy to forget that Western civilization has declined and fallen once before,”
“In the space of just a generation, in the fifth century A.D. the Roman Empire in Western Europe essentially fell apart. (…) Question: could something similar happen to Western civilization 2.0? The version that after a millennium of stagnation rose to dominate the world.“
Counter question: was there no civilisation in Europe between 500 and 1500? Or was it Western civilisation 2.0 that was stagnant for a thousand years? If so, what changed around 1500? Preliminary answer: Europe did not experience a millennium of stagnation, but its development was much more gradual, and even if the – political – collapse of its dominance after 1945 was quite sudden, its cultural influence could actually be growing, not diminishing.
Explanation: Ferguson starts his description of Europe in contrast to China by navigating two rivers around 1420. The choice for the Yangzi seems obvious. Not only was it “part of a vast waterway complex” linking the most important cities of China to one another, its Grand Canal was “the principal artery of internal trade” which had enormous importance for Imperial China’s grain policy. Furthermore, it flowed past Nanjing “probably the largest city in the worl in 1420, with a population of between half a million and a million.”
But why on earth choose the Thames?
For a variety of reasons, England isn’t a typical example of European customs or institutions. The choice for the Thames – over the Seine, the Danube or the Rhine – isn’t as clear as the choice for the Yangzi. The Thames merely passes London, “barely a town” in 1421. Estimating the size of city populations is notoriously hard for the period under discussion, but even taking this into account it is fair to say London was not particularly populous by European standards, while the same is probably true for England as a whole. Paris was without a doubt a larger city, as were the Italian city-states, while Flanders had a markedly higher urban density. Nor is it true that it was necessarily worse the further East from London one went: Prague around 1400 was larger than London and Freiburg kept its streets in a cleaner state than London managed according to Ferguson. London, in other words, was not just backwater when compared to Nanjing. It was a backwater, full stop.
To claim, as Ferguson does, that “England was among the more prosperous and less violent countries in Europe” around 1400 is debatable. It must also be noted that Hobbes described ‘the state of nature’ when he called life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He was not observing 15th-century European life. Sure, in comparison to the average life in 21th-century Europe, it was certainly poorer, quite possibly more brutish, often shorter, but equally probable less solitary. Ferguson’s claim that it was worse in France and only got “worse the further East you went,” is quite hard to defend. To illustrate his point by mentioning the caloric intake of a French peasant some three hundred years later is simply indefensible.
What makes this lack of attention to Europe all the more strange, is that by presenting England as the foremost European nation, instead of the backwater it arguably was, Ferguson undercuts his own narrative of European development. England could turn from a relatively small, unpopulous fringe country to its premier economic powerhouse because it was part of a dynamic Europe in which goods, ideas, and people traveled around. Interestingly, Ferguson notes that part of the reason that Ming China was a ‘relatively pleasant’ place to live in in the 15th century was a ‘loosening’ of “the rigid feudal order” that made trade possible and that
“The visitor to Suzhou today can still see the architectural fruits of that prosperity in the shady canals and elegant walkways of the old town center.“
This suggests a relationship between a slackening of state control and economic growth. Ferguson asserts as much when he writes that “by abruptly canceling oceanic exploration, Yongle’s successors ensured that the economic benefits of [Zheng He’s voyages] were negligible.” Chinese imperial power stopped any development towards oceanic commerce, so Ferguson claims, and all benefits accruing from it. Effective state power made this possible. In Europe, there was no such power.
Instead, the Middle Ages – that millennium of stagnation – had decked the map of Europe with “literally hundreds of competing states, ranging from kingdoms of the western seaboard to the many city-states that lay between the Baltic and the Adriatic, from Lübeck to Venice.” Ferguson later sums up his findings by surmising that Europeans were propelled to seek opportunities elsewhere because of political fragmentation.
“You might say it was a case of divide and rule – except that, paradoxically, it was by being divided themselves that Europeans were able to rule the world. In Europe small was beautiful because it meant competition – and competition not just between states, but also within states.“
Ferguson then traces the roots of this internal competition back – again, ironically – as far as the twelfth century for London (and London alone). He holds this “multi-level competition” responsible for “the rapid spread and advancing technology of the mechanical clock in Europe“: his showcase for eventual English technological superiority over the Chinese.
Beside technological progress, Ferguson sees the voyages of discovery as a direct result of this competition:
“The spice route’s lucrative final leg heading into Europe was tightly controlled by the Mamluks of Egypt and the Venetians. The Portuguese realized that if they could find an alternative route, (…) then this business could be theirs.“
The Voyages, in turn, accelerated Europe’s growth. The New World offered new nutrients. Partly in the form of new crops, such as the potatoes, partly by offering room. Room for an enormous expansion of that old Meditteranean cash crop: sugar. Room for unwanted population to migrate to. Room to fish, importantly but oft forgotten: the waters of the Eastern Seaboard offered plenty of cod and herring.
“Over time, the effect was to raise productivity, incomes, nutrition and even height. (…) This nutritional divergence explains the marked gap in stature that developed after 1600. The average height of English convicts in the eighteenth century was 5 feet 7 inches. The average height of Japanese soldiers in the same period was just 5 feet 2½ inches. When East met West by that time, they could no longer look one another straight in the eye.“
If the gap is now closing, it is because Asia – in this particular instance China – has embraced “competition, companies, markets, trade.” Under Deng Xiaoping China has opened its doors to trade with the rest of the world. Ferguson ends by concluding that Westerners’ domination of Resterners was the result of the “dynamic effect of competition in Western Europe – and the retarding effect of political monopoly in East Asia.”
But if that is true, hasn’t East met West by playing the same game?