Monday, May 30, 2011


Niall Ferguson has won for himself the status of a "rock star" among historians. Like Fernand Braudel, he too takes history not in short bursts of time but surveys large processes of historical change and development from a comparative perspective. World historians have turned their attention to a singular aspect of woprld history especially after the onset of Globalization as an economic force backed by multi lateral institutions such as the WTO< IMF and World Bank. The rise of China from the middle of the 1970's under the leadership of Deng Xio Ping has resulted in the dram tic shift in the center of economic gravity from the Washington Consensus to the Pacific region. China holds nearly 3 trillion US dollars in her kitty and is the largest subscriber to US Treasury bonds. In the unlikely event of China deciding to undermine the stability of the dollar, the world monetary and fiscal architecture will collapse like a house of cards. Hence, historians have turned their attention to an exploration of the roots of economic growth and the concomitant social and cultural transformatiom it engenders. Long ago Karl Polanyi in his wonderful but sadly neglected The Great Transformation attempted to expalin just this question. The intellectual arrogance of Marxism and the dominance of the leftists in the field of History resulted in other theories doing the rounds including the dressed up version of Inmanuel Wallerstein, the World Systems Approach with its circular center/periphery dichotomy.

Niall Ferguson's Civilization explains the growth of the West in terms of its inherent historical processes. Competition which enabled economic production to compete for markets and patent laws that protected intell;ectual property rights enabled the western world to make the transition to economic growth. The wide spread diffusion of atrisanal skills which kept the labour market wide open, unlike the closed caste structures in socities such as India meant that there was close cooperation between those who practiced crafts and those who theorised about tham. The Scientific Revolution together with the print culture made knowledge widespread in western societies.

Ferguson writes like a true believer. He completely ignores the horrendous human tragedy that ensued in the wake of Western advance into the world of the "REST". Can there be a greated human tragedy than slavery that became the basis of Western economic dominance. Aferall as an economic historian he is well aware that there are "competitive advantages" due to low labor costs.

In spite of the fact that NIall Ferguson sings hosanas for Capitalism, this is an interesting read.

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