Comparing the British Giants: Niall Ferguson and Tony Judt





3-12-12

Nick Shepley is a history teacher at Kings Monkton School, an independent school in Cardiff, Wales. He is the author of numerous ebooks, including "The Palmer Raids and the Red Scare: 1918-1920," "Russia's Struggle With Modernity: From the Romanovs to the Bolsheviks 1815-1929," and "Red Sun at War."

Last October, a furious row broke out between conservative historian Niall Ferguson and writer Pankaj Mishra, who reviewed Ferguson's latest book Civilization: The West and the Rest in the London Review of Books. Mishra wrote a lengthy and critical essay about the book, prompting threats of libel action from Ferguson.

Mishra claimed that Ferguson's argument required: "...sustained and complex analysis, not one hell-bent on establishing that the West was, and is, best."

The results were predictable. Mishra, while acknowledging Ferguson's impressive scholarship, accused him of dismissing evidence that didn't fit his thesis out of hand.

The Ferguson argument, which questions how and why Europe and then America have had such a long period of wealth and power, and whether this period is now at an end, taps deeply into a growing body of thought about the state of Western society, and its ability to project power globally.

At the same time, long-term perceived flaws and weaknesses in the way the economy of the Western world operates and the way wealth is distributed have also come under scrutiny. Neoliberalism—the economic orthodoxy in Europe and America since the 1970s—has come under unprecedented criticism since the crisis of 2008, and in a number of landmark texts, the scale of social damage caused by it has been examined.

In 2009, The Spirit Level, a statistics-led inquiry into the corrosive effect of inequality written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett received critical acclaim and was required reading for the leaders of Britain's three main political parties. It was followed in 2010 by Tony Judt's penultimate book, Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise On Our Current Discontents, which covered similar territory as The Spirit Level, but from the perspective of a historian, not a social scientist.

Both Ferguson's Civilization and Judt’s Ill Fares the Land are not so much conventional histories as they are treatises on the causes of economic and social crises in the West. Both have been written largely in response to the world economic crisis, and both have a similar theme: the values that made the Western world “great” have been abandoned and that in order for the West to move forward, these values must be reinvigorated.

Ferguson and Judt hold remarkably different worldviews but come from relatively similar backgrounds. Both were born in Great Britain but they both eventually crossed the Atlantic to pursue academic careers in the United States (Ferguson at Harvard, Judt at New York University). Still, one can read too much into such things: Judt, an English Jewish “universalist social democrat,” was born a good twenty years before the Scottish Thatcherite Ferguson.

Indeed, their relatively dissimilar backgrounds probably contribute to their dramatically different ideas about which values make (or made) the West great. Ferguson examines six key advantages the West has had historically, labeling them “killer apps” in today’s jargon: property rights, competition, science, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. He argues that it was these practices and innovations that enabled the West to have half a millennium of global hegemony, one which he believes is now coming to an end because the West has abandoned those practices.

Judt, writing shortly before his death in 2010, laments the loss of social democracy’s Golden Age from the end of the Second World War to the mid-1970s in Europe and America.
 He is less concerned with the West's growing failure to exert itself abroad and more concerned about the collapse of society as a result of the ideological and social pressures of neoliberalism. Judt interprets the West's comparative decline as the result of an abandonment of social democracy, which is consistent with his left-wing views.

***

But let’s go back to Ferguson for a moment. Civilization begins with the assertion that, as the future of Western ascendency looks increasingly doubtful, the most important question a historian can ask is how and why that ascendancy came about in the first place, and also, based on whatever answers may arise, what predictions can be made about the future.

By starting from this less-than-optimistic position, Ferguson seems to have reached the end of a decade-long journey of inquiries into the rise of the Western world. In 2003 he wrote Empire, a history of Britain's imperial past and an explicit defense of the benefits of British imperialism. In the concluding chapter, he laid the groundwork for his next examination of empire, Colossus, by arguing that American Empire had replaced the global role once played by the British one.

What seems to have changed in Ferguson's writing as a result of the world economic crisis is not a dimming of his enthusiasm for Western civilization and its perceived merits, but a sense that its days might be up, and that the failure to uphold values that made the West great are to blame.

In Civilization, he writes: "The rise of the spirit of capitalism in China is a story everyone knows. But what about the rise of the Protestant ethic? According to separate surveys by China Partner and East China Normal University in Shanghai, there are now around 40 million Protestant Christians in China, compared with barely half a million in 1949." The implication is that the Chinese, through the importation of the so-called Protestant work ethic, are beating the U.S. and Britain at their own game (though the Chinese Protestant community makes up barely 3 percent of the total population). Ferguson, whilst articulating anxieties also appears to be shaking his head ruefully at the West.

Like Judt, as we shall see, Ferguson proposes a number of ideas that might "save the day." Firstly, he questions the well-established tradition in academic scholarship of charting the “rise and fall” of civilizations. Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and more recently Jared Diamond have all created models that chart the lifespan of civilization, all of which seem to derive their ultimate inspiration from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Ferguson argues that even though the reasons for the rise of empires can be clearly mapped, the causes of their decline are highly unpredictable, and it is doubtful that the idea of “rise and fall” can be made to fit a simplistic historical narrative of' “inevitability.” Ferguson argues that there is still everything to play for, but that we must re-learn the strategies that have worked in the past.

In the same chapter, however, he tempers his optimism by saying: "The financial crisis that began in the summer of 2007 should therefore be understood as an accelerator of an already well-established trend of relative Western decline." Ferguson views our prolonged period of economic crisis as perhaps the West's final wake-up call, a challenge to us all to recapture values that we have foolishly abandoned.

***

Tony Judt, for his part, fully shared Ferguson’s sense of crisis at the time of his death, but unsurprisingly, his diagnosis of the problems of Western civilization and his prescription for them is distinctly different from the conservative Ferguson.

In order to understand Ill Fares the Land, it needs to be seen in its proper context alongside Judt's other writing. Ill Fares the Land was originally an essay published in the New York Review of Books, a magazine which Judt has contributed to frequently over the past two decades. In his anthology of essays Reappraisals, Judt raises concerns that are echoed in Ill Fares the Land. The first of these is a phenomenon also identified by Eric Hobsbawm in The Age of Extremes, which is the Western world's appetite for dispensing with its past.

Not only did we fail to learn very much from the past... we have become stridently insistent-in our economic calculations, our political practices, our international strategies, even our educational priorities that the past has nothing of interest to teach us. Ours, we insist, is a new world: its risks and opportunities are without precedent.

Ill Fares the Land is far more focused on one central thesis, and whilst the world economic crisis is chief in guiding Judt's thoughts towards an examination of the social crises neoliberalism has caused in the West, the fact that Judt had months to live also heavily influences the text.

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue.... And yet we seem to be able to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new.

It would be easy to assume that Judt's writing about historical amnesia prior to the crash and his notion that we seem incapable of conceive of alternatives are really a truncated form of the same idea, but on closer inspection they are worlds apart.

In Reappraisals, he wrote about the hubris of a self-confident culture, one that was fuelled by an enormous credit and housing bubble. It was this arrogance, he claimed, that lead to a willful amnesia about the twentieth century and a sense of ahistorical detachment from the past.

The reason for our present inability to conceive of alternatives has little to do with confidence, Judt writes in Ill Fares The Land, but because both the Left and the Right have manifestly failed. Instead of creating an arrogant self-assured generation, Judt believed at his death that the generation coming of age now is crippled by anxiety about the future.

***

Judt believed, like Ferguson, that the crisis of the West has been the result of the abandonment of core Western values.

To understand the depths to which we have fallen, we must first appreciate the scale of the changes that have overtaken us. From the late nineteenth century until the 1970s, the advanced societies of the West were all becoming less unequal. Thanks to progressive taxation, government subsidies for the poor, the provision of social services, and guarantees against acute misfortune, modern democracies [shed] extremes of wealth and poverty.

But, he continued, “over the past thirty years we have thrown all this away.”

To be sure, “we” varies with country. The greatest extremes of private privilege and public indifference have resurfaced in the U.S. and the U.K.: epicenters of enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism.

Though Judt's prescriptions for change in Ill Fares the Land are in some ways less clearly articulated than his analysis of the problems facing the West, he argues that the current anti-statist discourse so strong in America, and to a lesser extent in Britain, is folly, as it is the state which has intervened to save the financial system. He also argues that, as the state will be with us for a long time to come, that we should find ways to make it work for us instead of attacking it.

What kind of state we should aspire to create in the future is unclear, and perhaps Judt, as with Ferguson, was hoping to commence a debate, not to write a comprehensive manifesto.

Judt's analysis of the current crisis sees the financial crash of 2008 in the context of three decades where social democratic values were abandoned, and he argues that without social democracy, capitalism itself will cease to effectively function.

For both Ferguson and Judt, the financial crisis was the pivotal moment in modern Western history -- it was, in essence, the prism through which to observe the West when its core system, capitalism, was under intense stress. It's from this perspective that both Ill Fares the Land and Civilization are best appreciated. For both Ferguson and Judt, the West has been found wanting.


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