Culture Magazine

The Rise of the Rest

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Pankaj Mishra reviews Niall Ferguson, Civilisation: The West and the Rest (2011) in the London Review of Books. Here's an excerpt:
Needless to say, most contemporary scholars of global history do not hold the West and the Rest in separate compartments. Far from developing endogenous advantages in splendid isolation from the Rest, Western Europe’s ‘industrious revolution’, which preceded the Industrial Revolution, depended, as Jan de Vries and other historians have shown, on artisanal industries in South and East Asia. Contrary to Ferguson’s Hegelian picture of stagnation and decline, China and Japan enjoyed buoyant trade and experienced a consumer boom as late as the 18th century. The pioneering work of the Japanese historian Hamashita Takeshi describes a pre-European Asia organised by China’s trans-state tributary network, demonstrating that there were many other centres of globalisation in the early modern world apart from those created by Western Europe. In The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914, which synthesises much recent scholarship on the ‘extra-European origins of the modern European and American worlds’, C.A. Bayly shows that longstanding Chinese business clans were as important as bourgeois capitalists in Hamburg and New York in spreading world trade across South-East Asia. Ferguson should know some of this, since he endorsed Bayly’s book when it appeared as ‘a masterpiece’ that renders ‘parochial’ all other histories of the 19th century.
As in Ferguson’s other books, a vast bibliography trails the main text of Civilisation, signalling the diligent scholar rather than the populist simplifier. But he suppresses or ignores facts that complicate his picture of the West’s sui generis efflorescence. Arguing that the Scientific Revolution was ‘wholly Eurocentric’, he disregards contemporary scholarship about Muslim contributions to Western science, most recently summarised in George Saliba’s Islam and the Making of the European Renaissance. He prefers the hoary prejudice that Muslim clerics began to shut down rational thought in their societies at the end of the 11th century. He brusquely dismisses Kenneth Pomeranz’s path-breaking book The Great Divergence, asserting that ‘recent research has demolished the fashionable view that China was economically neck to neck with the West until as recently as 1800.’ But he offers no evidence of this fashion-defying research. Given his focus on the ineptitude and collapse of the Ming dynasty, you might think that their successors, the Qing, had for nearly two centuries desperately clung on in a country in irreversible decline rather than, as is the case, presided over a massive expansion of Chinese territory and commercial interests. Each of Ferguson’s comparisons and analogies between the West and the Rest, reminiscent of college debating clubs, provokes a counter-question. The rational Frederick the Great is compared to the orientally despotic and indolent Ottoman Sultan Osman III. Why not, you wonder, to the energetic Tipu Sultan, another Muslim contemporary, who was as keen on military innovation as on foreign trade?

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