The Work-worship Nexus: Niall Ferguson’s Civilization (2011)

by Mark Wallace

I have been reading historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), an exploration into the reasons western Europe began to dominate the world from 1500AD, and later America continued the western heritage and hegemony, and the reasons why this domination appears to be coming to an end, threatened economically by China, and physically by Islamic Jihadism. The first threat isn’t really so bad, as Ferguson considers China to be reasonably westernized, more western than the current crop of westerners themselves, in some respects. With their emphasis on hard work and thrift, the Chinese are a sort of neo-protestant people. And Ferguson reports with glee on the growing number of actual Protestants, and to a lesser extent Catholics, in China. He has a case study, one Hanping Zhang, a big deal in the pen-manufacturing industry. Zhang is a Christian, and likes to employ Christians: “he knows he can trust his fellow Christians, because he knows they are both hard working and honest” (285). Meanwhile, the nominal “west” is becoming godless and consequently lazy – “Europeans not only work less; they pray less” (266). Ferguson is very insistent on the work-worship nexus.

Niall Ferguson

At the book’s close, Ferguson writes: “maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam, or CO2 omissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors” (325). At this point, Ferguson has linked civilization so closely with Protestant Christianity as to create the impression that “this loss of faith” (and that particular phraseology reinforces it) is explicitly religious, and that until we rediscover religion, we cannot hope to fend off the Yellow and Brown Perils. Now, it does not appear that Ferguson himself is religious. Religion to him is a social convenience. It is not quite an opium of the people, as that drug causes physical lethargy – religion prescribes moral and political quietism but dutiful industriousness. This attitude has been hanging on for centuries now. It is a long time since intellectuals like Ferguson actually believed in religion, but there have always been those who wished to prescribe it for the masses. John Stuart Mill took this up in 1873:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come when it is the duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, and to make their dissent known […] The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments – of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue – are complete sceptics in religion. (Autobiography)

Yet the issue drags on. There are always a few ready to speak for religion, and there is always a public to hear them. As long as Ferguson and the like are content with the sham of religion, the sham will perpetuate itself among certain sectors of the public, with considerable politico-moral consequences for western society at large. Synonomizing “western” and “protestant”, Ferguson is able to give the protestant ethic credit for everything that occurs in the western world, just as he now attempts to give it credit for China’s progress. Religion has hitched onto too many trains already, though, and we would do well to remember all those great ornaments who have gone on without religion or in spite of religion, but who haven’t had the stomach to expressly and openly fight it. Much less praiseworthy are those like Ferguson who wish to carry on with the old forms, now far past their sell-by date, when their greatest effect is to alienate the more intelligent and thoughtful members of society from those in whom discrimation or sincerity is secondary to convenience, conformism, complacency and moral self-indulgence, while pandering to and encouraging the latter.

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane [Penguin]: London, 2011).