Civilizations and empires, Niall Ferguson has been saying for some time, do not take centuries to fade away, they often simply implode. He points to the Mayan civilization that went from magnificent glory to nothing within a decade, the Roman empire which collapsed in the space of a generation, the fall of the mighty Soviet Union, and of course, the sudden ends to the entrenched regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
For the last two years, he has been predicting a collapse of Western civilization led by America, very soon, unless they, as he terms it, “reboot the whole system”.
Historian Niall Ferguson gestures before a seminar in Istanbul. (File photo)
If there is a rock star among current historians, it is surely Ferguson. He is handsome, articulate, makes tons of money from his best-selling books and TV series, and fearlessly propagates controversial views. In Empire, he took the bull by the horns by saying that Britain should be proud of its colonial past, rather than feel vaguely apologetic about it. In Colossus, he twisted the horns further by postulating that the world would be a better place if America imitated Victorian Britain and became a fully-fledged liberal empire.
In a recent Newsweek article and in frequent TV appearances, Ferguson has been preaching fervently that America, if it continues to do things the way it does, is looking at a house-of-cards fate. (The USA is now the Scotsman’s adopted country, after he left Britain last year, complaining about the sterility of its intellectual life and overwhelming tabloid culture, which had a field day over his relationship with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist who is one of the world’s most strident critics of Islam, especially its treatment of women, and who lives under death threats from Islamist fundamentalists.)
Ferguson’s theory is that that Western civilization was built on six “killer apps”—competition, scientific progress, the concept of widely distributed property rights and democracy, modern medicine, the model of consumerist society that the Industrial Revolution created, and the Protestant work ethic. And he sees signs all around him that the West has allowed viruses to creep in and disable the killer apps. On a CNN talk show I watched, he appeared to regard movements like Occupy Wall Street with amused contempt—this, he was clear, was not going to help the US reboot.
The only things that are going to be of any use, Ferguson argues, are breaking up anti-competitive quasi-monopolies that exist across industries, inculcate scientific thinking among the young, run lobbyists representing special interests out of town, get people to spend within their means and above all, respect good hard work, instead of what he calls the “newfound unemployment ethic”. In other words, total and complete change, from the operating system to the user interface and the interactivity modes.
Otherwise, it’s a civilizational collapse that America is looking at, which could happen in a matter of years.
Having been trained as an economic historian, Ferguson backs up every argument of his with mountains of data and facts. These mountains can, I am sure, be matched by his opponents by their own masses of numbers and reports. But the West is going through a massive crisis of confidence right now, and intellectual and policy confusion reigns. And then you have this man as charismatic as a film star, utterly confident of his insights, and dripping with general intellectual brilliance and inter-disciplinary knowledge, who is also in touch enough with his public to use computer terms to classify vast swathes of human history…Well, whether the screen of Western civilization suddenly starts blinking Game Over or not, you have to take Niall Ferguson seriously, regardless of your opinion about his diagnosis.
So last evening I drove over to my nearest book store and bought his latest tome.
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