Civilization: Is the West History?

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Niall Ferguson asks why it was that Western civilization, from inauspicious roots in the 15th century, came to dominate the rest of the world; and if the West is about to be overtaken by the rest.

Ferguson reveals the killer apps of the West’s success – competition, science, the property owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic – the real explanation of how, for five centuries, a clear minority of mankind managed to secure the lion’s share of the earth’s resources.

Competition. The first programme in the series begins in 1420 when Ming China had a credible claim to be the most advanced civilization in the world: ‘All Under Heaven’. England on the eve of the Wars of the Roses would have seemed quite primitive by contrast.

Science. In 1683 the Ottoman army laid siege to Vienna, the capital of Europe’s most powerful empire. Domination of West by East was an alarmingly plausible scenario. But Islam was defeated: not so much by firepower as by science.

Property. Professor Ferguson asks why North America succeeded while South America for so many centuries lagged behind. The two had much in common (not least the subjugation of indigenous peoples and the use of slavery by European immigrants), but they differed profoundly on individual property rights, the rule of law and representative government.

Medicine. The French Empire consciously set out to civilize West Africa by improving public health as well as building a modern infrastructure. Yet in other European empires – notably Germany’s in southwest Africa – colonial rule led to genocide. What was the link from medical science to racial pseudo-science?

Consumerism. Today the world is becoming more homogenous and, with increasingly few exceptions, big-name brands dominate main streets, high streets and shopping malls all over the globe.

Work. The sixth element that enabled the West to dominate the rest was the work ethic. Max Weber famously linked it to Protestantism, but the reality is that any culture, regardless of religion, is capable of embracing the spirit of capitalism by working hard, saving, and accumulating capital.

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