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Book reviews: Civilization: The West and the rest | How the West was lost | A history of the World since 9/11

Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson Allen Lane, 394pp, £30 How the West Was Lost by Dambisa Moyo Allen Lane, 266pp, £14.99 A History of the World Since 9/11 by Dominic Streatfeild Atlantic Books, 408pp, £12.99

You've read scenes just like this in long Victorian novels: sorrowing and calculating family all clustered round a deathbed, waiting to know what's left and who gets what when old Uncle dies. The main difference this time is the patient, which is Western Civilisation. The other difference is that we're not about to embark on fascinating conspiracy or dazzling crime or family feuds. What we get is theory: call it Uncle-ology.

We're in trouble, and we know it. We want explanations and we want to know who inherits what used to be our own personal glory. Maybe the world changed at 9/11 when the Twin Towers fell. Or maybe civilisations all fall off a cliff at some point, and ours will, too. Or maybe we've ended up unproductive, unfriendly to rising countries and in danger, as both Ferguson and Moyo put it, of a "socialist" welfare state (they write for Americans; Ferguson thinks his book needs a special "preface for the UK edition"). And Moyo, with the ironic authority of having worked for Goldman Sachs, thinks we'll probably need food rationing, too.

This is a fine three-volume reversal of fortune. A decade ago the West was utterly rich, utterly sure, had done away with boom and bust and could export its values with confidence the world wanted them, and confidence we knew what they were. We didn't ration food; we flew it in. Nowadays, anxiety stalks the publishers' catalogues of the world: anxiety about change, which we always seem to see as loss.

A decade ago we had a lunatic theory about where we were. Nowadays we have a quite different one.

We might start with 9/11 – with the murderous shock that made us think the world would have to change. A trauma like that can wreck a civilisation, given time.

Dominic Streatfeild has a truly great title, but the wrong book: more an IMAX version of old newspapers, with 3D interludes. He dramatises, very well and quite meticulously, incidents from the world just before and just after 9/11, the you-are-there school of history: see a Texas racist out hunting "sand niggers" for revenge; see Australia beat back starving Iraqi refugees rather longer than is decent; see the CIA behave appallingly, shipping, holding and torturing the wrong man.

Hear how the White House ground down doubts about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, and see US forces absent-mindedly leaving wide open his actual store of explosives which, within weeks, was killing US soldiers. See the awful story of how fear and suspicion – and a bit of religious special pleading – keep vaccination away from kids in Pakistan and leave them exposed to some of the last wild polio virus in the world.

We see all this, but we don't get to understand it; and sometimes the sheer cross-cutting craft of a good thriller-writer sets off alarm bells. The Texas racist had a history; 9/11 just gave him a new excuse. If you think the CIA went out of control only after 9/11, three little words of reminder: Bay of Pigs.

The truth is that 9/11 didn't change the world; it made it visible. We were already watched, checked, tested for loyalty, from our Nectar cards to our web surfing to our travels; now the watching could become brazen. America had a fixed notion of why it was entitled to nip, tuck, manage and if necessary bomb the Middle East; now invasion was back as its preferred method.

The shock of being attacked at home was real, but it fit the American obsession with infection from abroad: the "war on drugs" was about a wicked world shovelling substances into innocent Yankee schoolkids, not the rich world's appetite for chemical holidays which is murdering poorer countries. As for that charming Mr Blair: he could at last express his enthusiasm for a new moral imperialism worldwide. We know it didn't start with 9/11 because of Kosovo years before.

The one thing that did become pressing after 9/11 was rather different: we keep bumping against the limits of western power and western money. America works because it can borrow hugely from the Chinese, and China works best when Americans borrow still more at home in order to buy – which doesn't sound much like the triumph of capitalism. Worse even than economics, there was reality. The Taleban fell, but wouldn't go away. Iraq fell, and wouldn't get up again. The question of how civilisations end became urgent.

Niall Ferguson wants to tackle this, although much more he wants to bash the critics of empire and the teachers of history. He's fluent, he likes pages of big numbers which are sometimes too big to mean much: ask yourself what it can possibly mean that, 1958 to 1992, the western "share of religion" went down 1 per cent. He also wants to shame the "scissors and paste" historians with a good old chalkboard theory: six reasons you can write up in a classroom to show why the West ruled the world so long.

You might think this sounds a touch triumphalist. It certainly sounds tendentious. At his oddest, Ferguson announces that retreat from the Hindu Kush or Mesopotamia, from Afghanistan or Iraq "has long been a harbinger of decline and fall" for empires; the Soviets pulled out in 1989 and collapsed in 1991. Well, yes. The British Empire stumbled along for almost a century after our retreat, but you see what he means: stay the neo-con course or else we're doomed.

His problems go deeper than that. By "civilisation" he seems to mean the way you and I live, or at least the way he lives. His definitions make Kenneth Clark's Civilisation look positively multicultural (Clark did, after all, mention Italians quite a lot).

He says "the West" used to mean, to white Anglo-Saxon and Protestant blokes, a corridor roughly "from London to Lexington, Massachusetts and (possibly) from Strasbourg to San Francisco". Nowadays, he says it means "a set of norms, behaviours and institutions", a faith in the "almost boundless power of the free individual human being".

And where are these values to be found? In "foundational texts": Newton's mathematics, Adam Smith's economics, John Locke, but for some reason not Hobbes's brutish Leviathan, Edmund Burke to keep us out of revolutions; Darwin, Lincoln and Churchill – which sounds pretty white, blokeish and Anglo-Saxon. No Spinoza, you notice, no Francis Bacon for the point of science, no Voltaire, or de Tocqueville; or even, when it comes to economic theory, Keynes. Germans need not apply. We are in the comfortable world of the undergraduate reading list, where nothing is going to contradict the professor.

Mind you, these basics are in a footnote on the last but one page of the book; until then, we're talking about dominance, economic, political, imperial, and why the West was so good at ruling the world. This Ferguson puts down to six neat factors: Europe was fragmented so countries and companies competed, whereas China was one rigid empire; Christians pursued science in the last few centuries and Muslims didn't; the West believed in property for many individuals, a solid basis for a society – although you might think feudalism did quite well, in its day, keeping property for the few; the wonders of western medicine, a subject so wide it somehow gets muddled with Napoleon and then the horrors of German imperialism.

Then there's consumption – workers as buyers, wages keeping the economy growing. Central planners can't possibly deliver the riches of a free market. Proudly, after listing Hollywood movies and discussing Duke Ellington's suits, Ferguson announces: "In short, capitalism was not fatally flawed, much less dead." His timing does seems a little off, in the middle of a minimal, and jobless, economic recovery. Automated this, robotic that, and we discover that capitalism will do its best to have as few live workers as possible, thus breaking the virtuous circle of consumption.

Then, the final factor: which is work. Here Ferguson scatters his usual statistics, and then falls straight down the rabbithole: he's bought Max Weber's theory of the Protestant ethic, and how it gave us capitalism. One minute he's pointing out that there is no direct link between denomination and productivity (BMWs from Catholic Bavaria take some explaining) and the next he's rambling about the "rise of the Protestant ethic" in China – which is 40 million Protestants out of a billion Chinese.

He's also a touch tricksy about what "dominance" means. He has a graph of GNP per head of population in China and the West which makes the West look wonderfully productive; but Dambisa Moyo, quite accidentally, shows him up. She reports that in 1820 China had one-third of the world's GDP (32.4 per cent), more than Europe, Japan and the US combined. A kind of globalisation sent out Chinese cotton, porcelain and tea, and China ruled. True, China lost ground when the West industrialised, but Ferguson seems to think it should have lost ground two centuries before.

Moyo, in her cool, technocrat way, promises doom for the West; for 50 years, it seems, we've got capital, labour and technology wrong. But how can this be, when Ferguson promises us we're dominant for very good reasons, including capital, labour and technology? Could it be that these factors aren't as constant as he thinks?

Or has history overtaken the historian? The end of civilisations is often abrupt; they crash like other complex systems, like computers for example. What if the rise is just as complex a system – and inventing reasons for triumph is no more useful than inventing reasons for collapse? If it wasn't, say, lead poisoning that finished off Rome, then maybe it wasn't property ownership that made America rich. Ferguson certainly doesn't do much with the one truly defining factor in the rise of the West: the mass migrations, women and children included.

And here's a thought: what if our old rich Uncle isn't dying, just adjusting painfully to second place? Read Ferguson and you get the feeling that second place is a fate worse than death, but nothing obliges us to agree.

• Niall Ferguson discusses Civilization: The West and the Rest at the Aye Right! books festival in Glasgow on 10 March. For more details and booking information, visit www.ayewrite.com

 
 
 

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