Civilization: The West and the Rest

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Ferguson visits 11 countries to examine six attributes that he argues led to world dominance by Western Civilization: Competition, Science, Modern Medicine, Democracy, Consumerism and the Work Ethic

For the past five centuries, Western civilizations have prevailed around the world.  More people have been influenced by Western food, clothing, medicine, government and religion worldwide than by any other civilization.  How did that happen?  What led the West to be so influential and powerful?  And how long will the West sustain its supremacy?  As America approaches the 2012 presidential election in the midst of a geopolitical paradigm shift, acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson returns to public television with a timely look at the reasons behind the West’s economic ascendancy and why Eastern civilizations may now be taking the lead. Civilization: The West and the Rest with Niall Ferguson airs Tuesday, May 22, 2012 and May 29, 2012 at 7 p.m. on Eight.

Accompanied by a major new book, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Penguin Press), the series explores the West’s epic and surprising rise to global dominance. Applying essential economic and political insights, Niall Ferguson identifies what he calls “the six killer applications” that “the rest” lacked, but which enabled the West to become an economic and political superpower.  However, no civilization lasts forever.  And Ferguson speculates that perhaps “the Rest” can overtake the West by “downloading” and upgrading these “apps” too.

Comparing civilizations ancient and modern, Ferguson takes viewers on a global expedition to 11 countries, from the Forbidden City in Beijing to Buckingham Palace in London, to trace one of mankind’s greatest achievements: the making of an empire.  He connects viewers to his ideas by presenting his research on location.  In so doing, he makes financial and cultural concepts digestible for all.  Juxtaposing world economies centered along the Thames and the Yangzi River, Ferguson explains the turns of tides of power flowing from East to West.  In Dakar and Paris, Ferguson shows how medicine revolutionized Europe’s colonial control in Africa.  In Moscow and Istanbul, he talks about Western fashion trends in relation to western values. 
Exploring Machu Picchu and the Boneyard Beach in South Carolina, Ferguson describes how burgeoning societies differ in the New World and the lasting value of economic equality.

Each two-hour episode focuses on three of these factors: competition; science; modern medicine; democracy; consumerism; and the (Protestant) work ethic.  Spanning theories on the rise and fall of empires past and present, Ferguson explains how the West taught others its ideas and institutions.  And in so doing, the West may be endangering its power.

Ferguson argues that competition, science and democracy put the West ahead of Asia, the Muslim world and South America; and proposes that modern medicine, consumerism and the work ethic supported the West’s expansion into Africa, its mastery of mass marketing and consumption, and promotion of its work culture.

Before the space race, Ferguson asserts, there was the spice race.  In the 15th century, competition, both economic and political, fostered capitalism and spread the wealth from royal courts to a fragmented European state system.  European kingdoms enlisted explorers such as Portugal’s Vasco da Gama to map and conquer the world with trading posts.  Soon, Europe’s combined economy overtook the wealthy but monolithic empire of China to the East.

After defeating the Ottoman Empire in 1683, Prussian King Frederick separated church and state and fostered an education system based on scientific inquiry.  By contrast, the Ottoman Sultan Osman III ushered in an era of religious laws that forbade the study of science.  As a result, scientific progress was hindered by religious rules in the East, while it flourished in the West.  With modern science, the West pushed the frontiers of artillery warfare and established its position as the world’s military master.

Ferguson suggests that the practice of property-owning democracy, established in America, fundamentally altered the distribution of power by giving landowners a voice in the government.  Spain and England competed for New World riches.  In the beginning, it seemed that South America with its abundance of gold and other natural resources, controlled by a small ruling class of conquistadors, would become the greater, more prosperous empire.  However, North America, with its hardworking indentured servants and devolved land-ownership paved the way for a profitable democratic society.

The West’s “civilization” of Africa relied heavily on modern medicine.  At best, medicine cured diseases and prolonged the lives of both colonists and Africans.

After the destruction of two World Wars threatened to destroy Western civilization, consumerism unified and accelerated Western influences during the Cold War.  Ferguson explains how, as socialism faced off with capitalism, a sartorial revolution fueled the first wave of globalization in the 20th century.  Jeans and t-shirts became the “must-have” fashion around the world.  Popularized by the entertainment industry, mainly Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll, denim was a cultural currency with mass appeal and a mass message about American industrialism and capitalism.

The final “app,” the Protestant work ethic, was also critical to the West’s success.  Outlined in 1904 by Max Weber, the work ethic encapsulates the spirit of capitalism.  Hard work, savings and deferred consumption were seen as the means to glorify God.  As the episode closes,
Ferguson returns to China, where Christianity has flourished in spite of Communism.  And as the popularity of Christianity rises ever more rapidly in China, so too does the country’s economic success.

With the inexorable rise of China and Islam re-energized, is the West history?  Ferguson believes it doesn’t have to be.  The West still has an edge in political pluralism, commercial competition, scientific development and medical advances.  Most of all, the West maintains the freedom and creativity to write the next chapter in Western civilization.

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