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Friday, 11 March 2011

Must watch series if UR in UK: Civilization: Is the West History? - 4oD - Channel 4

Civilization: Is the West History? - 4oD - Channel 4

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  • Science

    In 1683 the Ottoman army laid siege to Vienna, the capital of Europe's most powerful empire. Domination of East over West was an alarmingly plausible scenario. But Islam was defeated: not…

    Next Episode: Sun 13 Mar, 8pm on Channel 4


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In this series, I want to show that what distinguished the West from the Rest - the mainsprings of global power - were six identifiably novel complexes of ideas and behaviours. For the sake of simplicity, I summarise them under six headings:

1. Competition

2. Science

3. The Rule of Law

4. Medicine

5. Consumerism

6. The Work Ethic

To use the language of today's computerised, synchronised world, these were the six 'killer applications' - the killer apps - that allowed a minority of mankind originating on the western edge of Eurasia to dominate the world for the better part of 500 years.

Now, before you indignantly write to me objecting that I have missed out some crucial aspect of Western ascendancy, like capitalism or freedom or democracy, or for that matter guns, germs and steel, please read the following brief definitions:

1. Competition - a decentralisation of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for capitalism;

2. Science - a way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest;

3. The Rule of Law - a cumulative model for peacefully resolving disputes between individuals over property which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government;

4. Medicine - a branch of science which allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies;

5. The Consumer Society - a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing plays a central economic role, without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable;

6. The Work Ethic - a moral framework and mode of activity derived from Protestant Christianity that provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5, above.

Make no mistake - this is not another self-satisfied version of 'The Triumph of the West'. I want to show that it was not just Western superiority that led to the conquest and colonisation of so much of the rest of the world; it was also the fortuitous weakness of the West's rivals.

In the 1640s, for example, a combination of fiscal and monetary crisis, climate change and epidemic disease unleashed rebellion and the final crisis of the Ming dynasty. This had nothing to do with the West.

Likewise, the political and military decline of the Ottoman Empire was internally driven more than it was externally imposed. North American political institutions flourished as South America's festered, but Simon Bolivar's failure to create a Latin American United States was not the gringo's fault.

The critical point is that the differential between the West and the Rest was institutional. Western Europe overtook China partly because in the West there was more competition in both the political and the economic spheres. Austria, Prussia and latterly even Russia became more effective administratively and militarily because the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution happened in the Christian but not in the Muslim world. The reason North America's ex-colonies did so much better than South America's was because British settlers established a completely different system of property rights and political representation in the North from those built by Spaniards and Portuguese in the South. European empires were able to penetrate Africa not just because they had the Maxim gun; they also devised vaccines against tropical diseases which African societies were just as powerless against.

In the same way, the earlier industrialisation of the West reflected institutional advantages - the possibility of a mass consumer society existed in the British Isles before the advent of steam power. Even after industrial technology was almost universally available, the differential between the West and the Rest persisted; indeed, it grew wider. With wholly standardised cotton spinning and weaving machinery, the European and North American worker was still able to work more productively, and his capitalist employer to accumulate wealth more rapidly, than their Oriental counterparts. This series is about all these differences. About why they existed and why they mattered so much.

This is an excerpt from the book Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson. Click here to find out more

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