Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Niall Ferguson's latest

Niall Ferguson's book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011, Penguin Books www.amzn.com/0143122061) argues that Western Civilization may be defined by six "killer apps" that have been the key to its undoubted success.  Ferguson writes,

"What distinguishes the West from the Rest -- the mainsprings of global power -- were six identifiably novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviours.  For the sake of simplicity, I summarise them under six headings:

1. Competition
2. Science
3. Property Rights
4. Medicine
5. The consumer society
6. The work ethic

To use the language of today's computerised, synchronised world, these were the six killer applications - the killer apps that allowed a minority of mankind originating on the western edge of Eurasia to dominate the world for the better part of 500 years...

1. Competition -- a decentralisation of both political and economic life, which created the launch pad for both nation-states and capitalism

2. Science -- a way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest

3. Property rights -- the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government

4. Medicine -- a branch of science that allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies

5. The consumer society -- a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable

6. The work ethic -- a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5

Ferguson does an excellent job of providing documentation for this stated thesis.  I found his discussion of the consumer society particularly insightful.

It was not military strength or superior espionage that won the Cold war for the West.  Ferguson points out, "If the Cold War had ever become hot, the Soviet Union would very likely have won it.  With a political system far better able to absorb heavy war losses (the Second World War death rate as percentage of the pre-war population had been fifty times higher than that for the United States), the Soviet Union also had an economic system that was ideally suited to the mass production of sophisticated weaponry.  Indeed, by 1974 the Soviets had a substantially larger arsenal of strategic bombers and ballistic missiles.  Scientifically, they lagged only a little way behind  They were also armed with an ideology that was a great deal more appealing than the American alternative in post-colonial societies all over what became known as the Third World, where poor peasantries contemplated a life of drudgery under the corrupt elites who owned all the land and controlled the armed forces...Yet the Cold War turned out to be about butter more than guns, ballgames more than bombs."
The Jeans that helped win the Cold War
I have previously argued that Corporations that cater to the consumer played a decisive role in winning the Cold War (See earlier post The Corporations that Won the Cold War, 8/19/12 ). I cited the San Franciso-based company Levi Jeans and Co. as one of these key companies.  I wrote, "Levi's jeans also suggest the unmistakable appeal of the old West that one could find in cowboy movies (e.g. Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns), TV series such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza and country and western music.  The cowboys were the "good guys," they were rugged individualists and they wore Levi's jeans.  Levi's jeans were the perfect synthesis of democratic egalitarian principles and the libertarian aspirations of the old west, expressed in denim and brass.  They were worn with pride by Joni Mitchell and Ronald Reagan.  A generation of American youth rebelled against parental authority and stifling conformity...by all wearing the exact same jeans!"

Ferguson writes, "Like young people all over the world, teenagers in the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe were crying out of jeans.  So it really is bizarre that the United State's principle rival in the post-war world failed to replicate these supremely straightforward items of apparel...It might have been thought that the Western craze for denim had made life easier for the Soviets.  After all, the Soviet Union was supposed to be the proletarian paradise and jeans are a lot easier to make than, say, Sta-Prest toruses (another Levi Strauss invention, introduced in 1964).  Yet somehow the communist bloc failed to understand the appeal of a garment that could equally well have symbolised the virtues of the hardworking Soviet worker.  Instead, blue jeans, and the pop music with which they were soon inextricably linked, became true quintessential symbols of Western superiority...If you were a student living behind the Iron Curtain in the Sixties -- in East Berlin, for example -- you did not want to dress in the sub-Boy Scout uniform of the Young Pioneer.  You wanted to dress like all the young dudes in the West."

Ferguson is preoccupied with the importance of fashion.  The freedom of movement epitomized by jet travel (Boeing was another of the Corporations that won the Cold War, 8/19/12.) was also a major consumer advantage of the West over the Soviet Union.  Consider how dated the phrase "jet set" sounds to our contemporary ears!  Modern jet travel may be many things, but it hardly smacks of elitism as any consumer of commercial aviation can tell you.  Modern air travel has opened up travel options for nearly everyone in the West even as the on board food has deteriorated.


It was not James Bond (or his real life counterparts) that won the Cold War for the West, but it was the James Bond lifestyle!

"Decentralisation", "Property Rights and the rule of law", "Science over superstition", "Medicine that prolongs and values human life", "A consumer society" and a "Moral framework and work ethic"  what do all these killer apps have in common?  It seems quite lear to me that these are all deeply Conservative principles.  The progress of Civilization in the West and throughout the world has been led by Conservative principles.

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