[Marxism] Why do nations fail? Hint: it starts with ‘Col’ and ends with ‘ism’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 22 07:37:27 MDT 2012

More on the "Why the West won" front:

NY Times May 21, 2012

When the final history is written, what will have killed Western 
civilization? The collapse of religion, perhaps? The infection of 
healthy capitalism with a terminal case of greed? Or will it have been a 
plague of historians who try to dress up their lectures by sprinkling 
them with Internet age jargon?

Yes, Niall Ferguson is back on PBS with another condensed-book version 
of one of his own works, “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” which 
was published last year.

The program, taking the same title, is presented in two-hour 
installments this Tuesday and next, and by the time it’s over, you will 
have heard Mr. Ferguson call his six essentials of Western dominance 
“killer apps” about a thousand times. (See, smartphone-using young 
people, history is relevant to you!) He’d better hope the term doesn’t 
have as short a shelf life as, say, “floppy disk,” or this program is 
going to sound awfully silly in a few years.

Mr. Ferguson, a Harvard professor, posits that six attributes other 
cultures didn’t have or couldn’t master have allowed the West to 
dominate in recent centuries: competition, science, democracy, medicine, 
consumerism and the work ethic. He travels all over the globe so that he 
can deliver what is essentially a lecture in front of relevant backdrops.

That helps make us feel a bit less as if we were sitting in a classroom, 
as does Mr. Ferguson’s comfort level on camera — something many 
academics don’t possess. But the program does have trouble deciding 
where to pitch itself. Is it an advanced-level course or History 101?

For instance, to make a moderately interesting point about why the 
British colonies blossomed into the ultraproductive United States, while 
South America became mired in dictatorships and poverty, he spends a 
fair amount of time on the conquistadors, as if the audience consisted 
of high school freshmen who had never heard of that era. Slavery, too, 
receives a history-for-dummies treatment.

But elsewhere the program aims higher. Part 1 is at its best when 
exploring why China, which 500 years ago seemed poised to dominate the 
world, did not. While China turned inward, England did the opposite, 
with real consequences that could be seen in the very size of citizens 
in the two lands.

“Trade brought an influx of new nutrients, like potatoes and sugar, 
while colonization allowed the emigration of surplus people,” Mr. 
Ferguson says of England. “Over time, the effect was to raise 
productivity, incomes, nutrition and even height.”

Mr. Ferguson also isn’t afraid to get sassy, as he does in Part 2 when 
he suggests, half-seriously, that bluejeans brought down the Berlin 
Wall. That is part of an illuminating discussion of what has happened to 
fashion worldwide in recent decades: All over the globe traditional 
dress has been relegated to the closet, pulled out only for ceremonial 
purposes, while Western-style clothes, especially jeans and T-shirts, 
have become standard wear.

It does not escape Mr. Ferguson’s notice that a consumerism that has 
everyone wearing the same pants seems more conformist than liberating. 
In contradiction lies strength, he suggests.

“That mass consumerism and standardization could somehow be reconciled 
with rampant individualism was one of the smartest tricks ever pulled by 
Western civilization,” he says.

If the West’s moment of dominance is ending, the good news, for American 
viewers, is that this is apparently Europeans’ fault, a point Mr. 
Ferguson makes in Part 2 while discussing the rise and possible fall of 
what Max Weber outlined as the Protestant work ethic.

“Today there’s a schism at the heart of Christendom,” he says. 
“Europeans these days work a whole lot less than their American 
counterparts. And they don’t only work less. They pray less.”

He adds, “That’s a real anomaly in a world where, everywhere else, 
religious faith is not just strong but growing.”

Mr. Ferguson winds his way around to the suggestion that China is 
starting to supplant the West but is doing it by becoming Western, not 
only in its consumerism but also in its religious views: Christian 
churches, he reports, are booming there.

But, he concludes, our Western West still has more of those killer apps 
— geez, enough already — in place than anyone else. For now.

Civilization: The West and the Rest With Niall Ferguson

On PBS stations on Tuesday nights at 8 (check local listings).

Produced by Chimerica Media Limited, the BBC and Channel 13 in 
association with WNET. Written and presented by Niall Ferguson; series 
directed by Adrian Pennink; Melanie Fall, producer. For WNET: Julie 
Anderson, executive producer; Stephen Segaller, executive in charge.

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