Sunday, April 24, 2011

Unbound: There is never just one bug truth

By Swapan Dasgupta

Civilization: The West and the Rest
by Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane, 402 pages, Rs 699)

It is easy to understand why the mere mention of Niall Ferguson never fails to produce curled lips and sneers in any gathering of professional historians. The man who started his career as yet another young and clever Oxford don with a keen interest in business history did two things that in an earlier age would have been put on par with blasphemy and regicide.

First, he pierced the Great Wall between academic history and popular history. His books—notably Empire and Colossus—sold and is still selling throughout the Anglosphere, and he became a much sought-after writer in the op-ed pages of newspapers. With lucrative writing contracts came academic honours in Harvard and Stanford and pedagogic recognition. Last year, along with Simon Schama, he was invited by the David Cameron Government to assist in drafting a new history curriculum for British schools.

Secondly, he did something for which AJP Taylor was never elevated to a professorship in Oxford: he became a media celebrity. Nearly every one of Ferguson's recent books has been made into TV programmes that have attracted huge viewership. In many cases, the book has followed research for an idea that was conceived as a TV series.

The transition of Ferguson from a narrow-focus historian to a public intellectual exploring a big canvas and grand themes—money, empire, civilization, et al—doesn't signal any loosening of intellectual rigour. Thanks to the supporting role of media contracts, he is not afraid of asking the really big questions. Why, he has asked earlier, were the British so much better at building empires than Americans? Why, he asks in his new venture, did the West dominate the world for the past four centuries? And, is the domination coming to an end?

What is special about Ferguson is the awesome range of his scholarship, backed up by captivating prose—so reminiscent of Edward Gibbon. In explaining the advance of Western medicine, to cite a stray but telling example, he takes the reader into a fascinating exploration of the Senegalese experience in the French mobilisation for the Great War of 1914-18. He complements that with an account of German colonialism in South-West Africa (today's Namibia), the development of eugenics as a pseudo-science and the Third Reich's apoplectic distaste for the Rhineland 'bastards'—those born out of the liaison between French African soldiers in the demilitarised zone and German women: they were systematically hunted down and sterilised.

A feature of Ferguson's narrative is his ability to use trivia to both enthral readers and make a larger point. Thus, to demonstrate how modernisation, technology and westernisation went hand in hand, he has followed the fortunes of the Singer sewing machine. He demonstrates how the culturally-neutral sewing machine not only improved productivity but ended up making European clothes the norm in large parts of the world. Savile Row, he notes, became the beacon on male elegance in Japan and even India. Poole & Co tailored suits for both British and Japanese royalty; and the best customer for Anderson & Shepherd was the Maharaja of Cooch Behar who had nearly 1,000 bespoke suits fitted in his lifetime. Ferguson also uses the international popularity of the denim jeans and its association with personal freedom and sexuality to illustrate the ferment in the socialist bloc and its eventual collapse.

The domination of the West, after the 16th century, is attributed by Ferguson to six factors: competition, science, property (and the rule of law), medicine, consumption (and consumerism) and work (including productivity). Each of these is thoroughly dissected to show why the East lost its initial advantage and fell behind.

There are features of Ferguson's analysis that will strike a chord in India. In comparing the late-15th century voyages by Europeans to discover the sea routes to India, he notes that the expeditions were driven by a single-minded commercial agenda. At about the same time as Vasco da Gama embarked on his journey to India, the Chinese explorer Zheng He undertook sea voyages to the Persian Gulf and East Africa. However, the Chinese explorer, who returned to his country with lavish gifts, including a giraffe, was content with asserting the Middle Kingdom's Mandate of Heaven; establishing commercial links with the outside world wasn't his priority. China, like India, shunned business and retreated into an insularity that included social and religious restrictions on foreign travel. The resulting stagnation had ominous consequences.

There are, of course, some facets of Ferguson's narrative that seem problematic. He is inclined to locate the declining post-1945 productivity in the West to, among other things, the decline of Christianity and the emergence of an irreligious, secular society. However, as he readily concedes, the decline of the Christian faith, while true for Western Europe, scarcely holds true for the US which remains a deeply and sometimes aggressively Christian society. He notes the re-packaging of America's Christian traditions and the enduring popularity of religion—issues that poses many unresolved questions.

The good thing is that Ferguson isn't trying to create 'scientific' laws of history. I think he has explained the rise of the West succinctly but his observations on the phenomenon of 21st century decline remains a work in progress. He fears that a small incident could expose the vulnerabilities of modern civilisation and bring the whole edifice crashing. On the other hand, the West and the East could renew itself through a completely new set of dynamics. Ferguson's prognosis are open-ended and not bound in certitudes.

History doesn't always provide answers to big questions: there is no one big truth. In this grand narrative, Ferguson tickles the imagination, suggests possibilities and even indicates dead-ends. He shows how good history can be written. But he also demonstrates that the human experience is too rich and varied to be straitjacketed into theology masquerading as scientific wisdom. This book doesn't provide all the answers but it makes the reader think.

The Telegraph, April 22, 2011


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