Non-fiction Reading Group Review, 21 March 2012

Civilisation:  The West and the Rest
By Niall Ferguson

The Super-rich shall Inherit the Earth
By Stephen Armstrong

The new global oligarchs and how they are taking over our world

The general consensus was that two books – though both were found to be easy to read as well as interesting – were too much to prepare for discussion.  Most of the discussion focused on Niall Ferguson’s Civilization though all were agreed that Stephen Armstrong’s work was quite scary.

Of the six “apps” Ferguson suggests make the difference between the West and the rest, namely competition, science, property, medicine, consumerism and work, the Protestant work ethic was discussed first as possibly the most important.  However, the point was made that poverty and illness create a dichotomy with Christian assuredness that wealth is a sign of God’s approbation.  Also, other cultures take the afterlife as God’s approbation, but of course that is Ferguson’s point.

Having said that, this raised the question of what we thought civilization is – particularly as one can put up many objections to all of Ferguson’s six “killer apps”.  Being able to live alongside people fairly, that is, civility highlights the point Ferguson makes for the rule of law as one of the “killer apps”.  And also that without religion it is thought there would be mayhem.  By contrast social anthropologists regard coercion, the very thing religion is against, as the foundation of civilization.  In other words, when the individual no longer takes the law into his or her hands and gives up this right to the state, then we begin to be civilized.  But the need for institutions for there to be civilization brought us back to Ferguson and his six “killer apps”.  The point was made that whatever civilization is, according to Ferguson, Western dominance rests on the institutions directly related to the six “killer apps”.


This brought up other definitions of civilization; that it is a cultural entity with common objectives, such as customs, language, history and religion.  Or that when a state was founded religion played as much a role as war, which led to a discussion of the origins of the state with regard to countries such as China and Egypt.  Objection was raised to the state being the defining basis of civilization on the grounds that civilization cannot be said to exist without human rights, tolerance, justice and the rule of law.  This was supported with reference to the loss of rights suffered owing to the Patriot Act in the USA.  However, it was pointed out that without food, water and a roof over our heads none of these can possibly exist.

The discussion then returned to the role of religion.  Did the growth of Sufism in Islam prevent Moslems from developing scientifically given that a Sufi disciple was totally focused on the founder of the order and his lieutenants claimed to have seen God and consequently knew everything?  Or was it Judaism or the fact that Jews were banned from agriculture and the military that made Jewish people so successful both financially and academically?  Given the number of things that could be discussed with regard to religion, that is its role in two of the “killer apps”, namely science and work, it was pointed out that Ferguson could be said to be oversimplifying.  For instance, is there a move away from religion in the West just because church attendance has fallen?  What does the spread of Protestant Christianity in China auger?

This moved us to discuss Ferguson’s point with regard to Weber’s observation of the variety of churches in the US, whereas in Europe and elsewhere state and religion were part of the same power structure.  Is the key to Western dominance the freedom of the individual?  To own property, go to any church he or she likes and so on, including ownership in companies?  The point was made that both Ferguson and Armstrong appear to be saying that the more resources are concentrated in fewer hands, the less freedom there is, unless of course you are in power.  This raised the question if that is why the US has been the dominant power during the 20th century?  An answer was that Ferguson thinks it is the combination of the “killer apps”, which brought the discussion back to the relationship between civilization and resources, and whether or not the US was a democracy given the concentrations of power in lobbies and the media.  it was argued that the question as to whether there were enough resources for everyone to enjoy the benefits of civilization has been overcome throughout history through science, technology and other means, albeit by possibly reducing quality, such as in clothing which has moved from furs, to woollens, to cotton, to synthetics.  With regard to whether or not the US was a democracy again the objection was raised that there it was bottom up and any distortions would eventually iron themselves out as they had in the Guantanamo interrogations – though Guantanamo remains.  Counter arguments to this focused on ignorance, that is, to have democracy you need to have an educated and knowledgeable electorate – something Europeans think is missing in the US.

This raised the question of what the group thought civilization was.  One immediate answer was the French Revolution and hence the Rights of Man, to which nobody objected.

This brought the group to consider whether or not China could replace the West as the dominant global force.  Consensus was that by all accounts they were too aggressive and repressive to become more than rich.  In other words, control of resources does not make you civilized, only dominant.  The group tended toward defining civilization as the ability to be concerned for people other than just oneself and while agreeing Ferguson had raised a good question(s) he had not only oversimplified some issues but overlooked important aspects – such as the sixties, which the group agreed was not about Eros but more about gaining power for the people. We finished with personal stories about China and documentaries we had watched concerning it, which underlined the view that while it may grow dominant in the near future it and all the other BRICS countries were still a long way from being civilized in the Western sense.

The discussion then reverted to the role of science in western civilization, in which context the point was made that while the Enlightenment was applied top down in Prussia and Austria-Hungary, and hence in the Ottoman Empire and later Turkey, it was the coffee-shops of London – the various clubs and societies – that really drove the scientific and hence industrial cum technological revolution. In other words nobody stood over you to say what you had to invent.  The objection that was raised to this reiterated that necessity was the mother of invention, which is why northern European countries came to dominate the world.  Germany was given as an example in that what motivated them was the lack of land; manufactured goods enabled them to buy the food to feed themselves, and hence their superiority over all others in Europe.  The discussion continued on this point until the end.

In summary, one point of view was that survival is the motivating force of civilization, which is defined by science.  Another questioned that the West was civilized in the way Ferguson claimed.  The more generally held view was that civilization is best defined as civility as science and commerce can be replicated.

The next meeting will be on June 28, at the same time and place.  The book is The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins.

In closing I would like to thank you all; for my part I thought it was a really enjoyable discussion that makes me look forward to our next meeting. I hope it was the same for everyone.

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