‘Dominate, dominate, dominate.’ No, not an S&M dalek, but Niall Ferguson on the telly. I lost count of how many times this word, or variations thereof, came up in the first five minutes of Episode One of Ferguson’s Channel 4 series, Civilisation: Is the West History?
Coming on like an Oxbridge Jeremy Clarkson, Ferguson promises an explanation as to why the West is in decline and about to be overtaken by Asia, as represented by China in the first programme. However, instead of presenting a cool economic and political analysis of history since 1420 when China was the most advanced nation in the world and England was a ‘septic isle’, this heavyweight intellectual rammed home a barrage of triumphalist tub-thumping which quite startled me. His nostalgia for Empire, as once observed by an astute Eric Hobsbawm, was cranked up to eleven as he attempted to nail his viewers to the headboard.
Fear of the Yellow Peril evidently stalks academia, and Ferguson stoked himself up to confront the threat of the Other.
Much of his thesis seems predicated on the supremacy of the penis because, on Planet Ferguson, the human cock is central to his might-is-right narrative. It’s all eunuchs (them) and size (us) and grrr … He may think that the overblown use of macho terms is punching (see what I did it there, ‘pushing’ being far too effete?) buttons in his audience which will identify him with the power he craves, but there’s a danger of thus drawing attention to what he lacks.
Achieving patronising machismo in one tiny phrase, ‘Killer Apps’, the first of his six apps, ‘Competition’, is the theme of this opening programme, so I laid back and thought of England while Fergy strutted his stuff.
I recognised some of his reading material. Ferguson is able to draw on 1421 and 1434 by Gavin Menzies for his enthralling account of China’s massive 15th-century Ming Dynasty fleet: a veritable ocean-going city, while much of his list of China’s achievements in science, agriculture and warfare can be found in Robert Temple’s masterful The Genius of China. This, plus the superficial nature of his enquiry, gives the unfortunate impression that little information has been gleaned from original research but has instead been sourced from best-sellers and airport potboilers.
Following an amazing period of voyage and discovery, when vast 400-foot ships sailed as far as Africa, and possibly further to the Americas and Greenland, the new Emperor issued an order in 1424 that China clam up.
I eagerly awaited an explanation as to why China closed down in the 15th century. Was it fiscal troubles? Squabbling in court? Wars in Annam (Vietnam) proving to be too expensive? And the master’s answer? ‘We may never know.’ But Niall, honey, you’re paid to at least come up with a likely answer.
At this point he must have been experiencing performance anxiety, but nonetheless on he ploughed. His next trick: a brief dismissal of the opium wars as a reaction to something done by China to the British, as if they were mere passive unwilling participants, thereby absolving the Brits of any responsibility … “We got the coffee houses,” he says, “while China got the opium dens.” Admire the cunning linguistic gymnastics, distancing Britain from its role as drug pusher-in-chief.
The opium wars were airily dismissed as ‘retaliation’ for an ‘over-zealous official’ who had the temerity to ‘burn’ the Britishers’ opium. The ‘over-zealous official’ happens to be Governor-General Lin Zexu, something of a hero to many Chinese for his bid to stem the tide of opium, about 1,400 tons of it per year, but Niall couldn’t bring himself to even give him a name. (And the opium wasn’t burnt: it was dissolved in water, salt and lime and dumped into the sea.) But what’s a little drug addiction when there’s cash to be made?
‘Size isn’t everything,’ Fergy growls manfully. Hence his admiration for tiny Portugal’s Vasco da Gama, who wrested the spice trade from the Arabs and other Easterners in what he tortuously calls the ‘first spice race’. Ba-doom! Never mind that da Gama set up trading posts in the East with ‘ruthlessness and downright nastiness’, you can smell the envy. ‘G’wan my son. Who’s the daddy?’ as Fergy might have thought but thankfully never said. At least not in this programme.
Portugal was followed by Spain, Holland, France and then England which, in 1635, sent its first ship to Chinese waters. ‘With each new trading post, Western capitalism uploaded its killer app of competition.’ Western lust for money made the interlopers ‘hungry enough to kill for it.’ Good grief, where’s the competition in the bloody brutality this entailed? Is this his definition of competition?
Venice, Frankfurt, Lubek and London wanted their own ‘autonomy’. Small was beautiful, according to Fergy, because it meant competition between states. But it was still within a great schtonking Western capitalist system. So not exactly competing systems, then.
Chaos can produce energy, and Karl Marx approved of the productive energies released by the early competitive stages of capitalism. However, Marx saw that the system contained the seeds of its own destruction, and predicted that capitalism would be its own gravedigger. For many of us being chewed up by this great juggernaut, this is true: even if it does mutate and survive, it will be for the benefit of a shrinking number at the top, not humankind as a whole. Capitalism took us out of feudalism and makes a better springboard to a more humane system than it does a place to stop and ossify.
Fergy fetishises capitalist competition out of context, out of time. ‘By being divided, the West was able to rule the world’, he says, as if this is a good thing on its own. He wants this ‘killer app’ applied as a principle where we are all atomised and competing against each other for dwindling resources. Haven’t we moved on from this barbarism?
Casual racism aside, and noting that slavery was at no point even mentioned, Fergy’s crowing about the success of capitalism — despite 2008’s catastrophic and ongoing recession — may be considered by some to be short-sighted, out-of-touch and perhaps even a tad corrupt. As others have pointed out, we are only now beginning to feel the effects of a recession with its roots in the untrammelled ‘competition’ of the banks since they were deregulated by Reagan and his fellow Milton Friedman acolytes.
Seaumas Milne writes:
… there is a determined attempt in Britain to restore the economic model so comprehensively discredited in the crash of 2008. … the banks’ survival might depend on the greatest public handouts and guarantees in history.
In Wisconsin, collective bargaining rights have just been removed, while we face devastating cuts to our services in the UK. Right now, it is the working class and proletarianised middle classes who are paying for the bankers’ crisis, capitalising the ruling business class. Where is the competition here?
Ferguson glorifies the nasty, brutish and short values of Hobbes in a world of every man for himself, dog-eat-dog, devil take the hindmost. You know what happened to civilisation? Masters of the Universe like Ferguson ate it.
Perhaps the key to Niall and his strange obsessions is to be found in the latest issue of Newsweek. In a piece about the gender imbalance in China, titled ‘Men Without Women: The ominous rise of Asia’s bachelor generation’, he writes:
That has scary implications. Remember, most of Hemingway’s stories in Men Without Women are about violence. They feature gangsters, bullfighters, and wounded soldiers. The most famous story is called simply “The Killers”. It may be that the coming generation of Asian men without women will find harmless outlets for their inevitable frustrations, like team sports or videogames. But I doubt it. Either this bachelor generation will be a source of domestic instability, whether Brazilian-style crime or Arab-style revolution—or, as happened in Europe, they and their testosterone will be exported. There’s already enough shrill nationalism in Asia as it is. Don’t be surprised if, in the next generation, it takes the form of macho militarism and even imperialism. Lock up your daughters.
Once upon a time, such paranoia would have earnt you a spell of therapy or a nice basket-weaving holiday. Nowadays it gets you a TV series. Funny old world. No wonder civilisation’s going down the pan.
Looks like de Niall is a river in Egypt.
In the Evening Standard, Civilisation: The West and the Rest is imperial history without the nasty bits by Alex Von Tunzelmann
Glorious British Imperialism in action or bullying by gunboat diplomacy? ‘China’s Age of Fragility’ by Robert Bickers in History Today.
Ken Livingstone challenges Niall Ferguson on the Tory cuts.
Guardian review 25th March 2011
Review of Nial Ferguson’s Channel 4 series, China: Triumph and Turmoil, 12 March 2012
Julia Lovell on The Opium War
Anna’s food blog here: