Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thinking about Western Civilization

Niall Ferguson in his book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, uses the metaphor of the "killer app" for six cultural inventions which he claims account for the rise of the West, differentiating western culture from the rest of the world.
1) competition, both among and within the European states; 2) science, beginning with the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries; 3) the rule of law and representative government, based on the rights of private property and representation in elected legislatures; 4) modern medicine; 5) the consumer society that resulted from the Industrial Revolution; and 6) the work ethic. 
He apparently intended the word "killer" to imply the dark side of the forces of Western Imperialism.

I heard an interview in which Ferguson argued that imperialism was not one of those inventions. Of course he was right that the imperial powers of the last half millennium did not invent imperialism nor did they monopolize imperialism.

One can challenge others of these assertions. I would find it hard to deny that Mongol states had not shown competition within or between themselves. Modern medicine came quite late in history, and it has been suggested that it was well into the 20th century before a patient was more likely to be helped than harmed by  a physicians care. Some people in poor countries have worked very hard; others find it hard to work because they are so often debilitated by poor nutrition and bad health.

Many have sought to explain the rise of the imperial powers by their ability to appropriate the natural resources from and the fruits of the labor of other peoples. Would England have been as rich as it became without exploiting India and Africa? Would the United States be as rich as it is if it were confined to a narrow band on the east coast of North America with the rest of the continent dominated by Indians, Mexico and Canada? How about Spain and Portugal at their peak of power were they not to have had colonies in Latin America?

Clearly the imperial powers were able to extend their empires and appropriate the wealth of other lands because of their technological advances (weapons, transportation, communications) and their institutions of governance (maintenance of armies, navies, and control over distance). It may be that some of the cultural inventions of the West were complementary to the imperial impulse, making imperialism so enormously profitable, and that without imperialism the economic growth of the West would not have been nearly as great.

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