Sakset/Fra hofta

Niall Ferguson er ute med en ny bok, Civilization: The West and the Rest, der han spør: Hva var det som gjorde Vesten overlegen?

Ferguson trekker frem noen faktorer han kaller killer apps. Uttrykket/fenomenet illustrerer i seg selv Fergusons poeng: konkurranse, demokrati, medisin, forbrukssamfunnet og pliktmoral.

Ferguson er hatet av venstresiden fordi han uten blygsel hevder at kolonialisme og imperier som det britiske var bra for de koloniserte. Alternativet ville vært verre. Ferguson tenker sivilisatorisk: Hva har sivilisasjonene produsert? I så måte mener han Vesten er historisk overlegen. Resten av verden kopierer nå dens killer apps. Men store deler av den vestlige eliten er opptatt av å føle skyld. De kjenner ingen stolthet over Vestens bedrifter. Det er dette Ferguson vil rette på. Han har skrevet boken for sine barn.

Ferguson treffer her en nerve. Det finnes en mottagelighet for et slikt budskap, i konkurransen med Kina, men mest under trykket fra islam.

William Skidelsky fra Observer har intervjuet Ferguson om hans nye bok.

Det kan være nyttig å ta med litt informasjon om hans øvrige bøker. Ferguson er uhyre produktiv.

To describe Ferguson as an academic is, of course, to fail to do justice to his lofty position within the intellectual firmament. For he really is, as the LSE website puts it, «one of the world’s most eminent scholars». Though perhaps less instantly recognisable than his two main TV historian rivals, David Starkey and Simon Schama, he eclipses both when it comes to scholarly heft and sheer productivity. At 46, he is the author of an astounding number of highly acclaimed, and mostly very fat, books, works such as The World’s Banker, The War of the World and The Ascent of Money. (He can’t be accused of choosing low-key titles.) His last book, High Financier, was a biography of the banker Siegmund Warburg. Apart from his current one-year posting at the LSE, he is the Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard, the William Ziegler professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He has presented numerous television series, served as an adviser to John McCain and written reams of journalism (currently he is a columnist for Newsweek). He gets up at six every morning and says that he doesn’t have hobbies: he just works. Whatever you make of the man and his views it is hard not to be impressed by his dedication.

In two consecutive books, Empire and Colossus – published, not by accident, around the time of the Iraq invasion – he charted the respective imperial histories of Britain and America, concluding not only that Britain should be prouder of its colonial past, but that the world would be a better place if America imitated Victorian Britain and became a fully fledged liberal empire. Though both books were bestsellers and won Ferguson scores of new admirers, especially in the US, they also, not surprisingly, drew heavy criticism from the left.

Civilization, too, starts from the premise that western dominance has been a good thing. In order to explain how it came about, Ferguson deploys an unexpectedly cutting-edge metaphor. The west’s ascendancy, he argues, is based on six attributes that he labels its «killer apps»: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. Each chapter of the book (and each episode of the TV series) sets out to explore how it was that western nations possessed one of these «apps», while other nations failed to acquire it. So, in the chapter on competition, he shows how the political structure of western Europe in the early modern era encouraged rivalry both between and within states, while the monolithic rule of the Ming dynasty led China to rest on its laurels. Likewise, in the medicine chapter, he argues that the civilising goals of western European empires produced pioneering medical advances that ultimately benefited the whole world.

Det er «morsomt» og symptomatisk at selv folkene i Channel 4, som har laget en serie basert på boken, var skeptisk til uttrykkene «vesterlendinger» og «de andre». Det har bygget seg opp en indre hemning mot å være stolt av sin egen kultur. Nettopp denne motstanden gjorde Ferguson bevisst på å bruke uttrykkene.

Ferguson is clearly more than a little in love with his «killer apps» conceit, as well as his «west versus the rest» dichotomy, which he slips into conversation at every available opportunity. (In the TV series, he even starts talking at one point about «westerners» and «resterners».) Doesn’t he worry that this kind of thing detracts from his standing as a serious historian? «No,» he says. «Apart from anything else, this terminology is absolutely ubiquitous. And I think it captures something quite important. We actually had a good argument when I first came up with the killer apps concept. Not everyone at Channel 4 liked it. But I just thought it was an absolutely great idea. You explain this book to any group of people and what usually happens is there’s a competition to see if I’ve missed something out. People love it. It’s like a game: play Civilization Killer App! It’s designed to be slightly annoying, so that you talk about it.»

Det burde være mange poenger her for høyrepolitikere, hvis de våger å løfte hodet og tenke utenfor boksen. Å si at man har lært mye av Marx, men er på borgerskapets side, er en tanke Høyre burde gjort til sin. I stedet har man skamfullt forsøkt å vise at man er like gode sosialdemokrater som Ap.

«Something that’s seldom appreciated about me,» he declares, «is that I am in sympathy with a great deal of what Marx wrote, except that I’m on the side of the bourgeoisie.»

When it comes to thinking about empire, Ferguson’s preoccupation with material forces allows him to undertake what amounts to a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the good that imperial regimes have done against the bad without being unduly bothered by the kind of moral questions that traditionally concern the left. (Does one country have a right to invade another? Does colonialism leave a psychological scar that makes it hard for previously occupied countries to progress?) He is able to remain relatively sanguine about the less than glorious aspects of, say, Britain’s occupation of India, or French rule in west Africa, because he always seeks to ask what the alternatives might have been. (As a rule, he thinks they would have been far worse.) «The moral simplification urge is an extraordinarily powerful one, especially in this country, where imperial guilt can lead to self-flagellation,» he explains. «And it leads to very simplistic judgments. The rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade. They showed zero sign of developing the country’s economic resources. Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it’s clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn’t have any credibility at all.»

Ferguson vegrer seg for å snakke om sitt privatliv, sitt forhold til Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Men intellektuelt har han ingenting imot det. Boken er dedisert til henne. Ayaan vet hva vestlig sivilisasjon betyr. Hun kommer utenfra, fra en undertrykkende kultur, og ser klart hva frihet betyr. Mange av vestens intellektuelle forakter friheten.

To see and hear how she understands western philosophy, how she understands the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, of the 19th-century liberal era, is a great privilege, because she sees it with a clarity and freshness of perspective that’s really hard for us to match. So much of liberalism in its classical sense is taken for granted in the west today and even disrespected. We take freedom for granted, and because of this we don’t understand how incredibly vulnerable it is.»

1.Competition: In the 15th century, China was the most advanced civilisation in the world, while Europe was a backwater. But then things changed and by the late 18th century Adam Smith could observe that China had been «long stationary». What happened? Ferguson argues that Europe’s fragmented political structure led to competition and encouraged Europeans to seek opportunities in distant lands. The increasingly insular China, by contrast, stagnated.

2. Science: The 16th and 17th centuries were the age of science, with an extraordinary number of breakthroughs occurring. This revolution was, Ferguson writes, «by any scientific measure, wholly European». In the Muslim world, clericism curtailed the spread of knowledge, while in Europe, aided by the printing press, the scope of scholarship dramatically widened. Ultimately, breakthroughs in science led to improvements in weaponry, further cementing the west’s advantage.

3. Property: Why did the empire established by the English in north America in the 17th century ultimately prove so much more successful than that established by the Spanish in south America a century earlier? It was, Ferguson contends, because the English settlers brought with them a particular conception of widely distributed property rights and democracy, inherited from John Locke. This proved a far better recipe for success than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism.

4. Modern science: According to Ferguson, modern medicine was the west’s «most remarkable killer application». Western medical advances in the 19th and 20th centuries increased life expectancies across the world, including in the colonies. The French in particular, largely thanks to a lofty conception of their imperial mission, brought significant improvements to public health in western Africa, developing effective vaccinations for diseases such as smallpox and yellow fever.

5. Consumption: The west’s dominance of the rest of the world was not only achieved by force; it was also, as Ferguson shows, achieved through the market. The industrial revolution in 18th and 19th century Britain created a model of consumerist society that has proved irresistible, as shown, for example, by the way that the western style of dressing has swept the globe. Yet there’s a paradox: how was it that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice has ended up homogenising humanity?

6. Work ethic: As Max Weber noted a century ago, Protestantism was a form of Christianity that encouraged hard work (and just as importantly, Ferguson adds, reading and saving). It isn’t a coincidence, he says, that the decline of religion in Europe has led to Europeans becoming the «idlers of the world» (while the more religious US has remained hard-working). Interestingly, Ferguson also argues that China’s embrace of hard work is partly because of the spread there of Protestantism.

Niall Ferguson’s Civilization begins on 6 March on Channel 4

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