The Victorian Sage

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Tag: niall ferguson

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

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).

21st-century Sage: Niall Ferguson and the Western Malaise

Niall Ferguson wrote a book in 2000 entitled The Cash Nexus, the phrase derived from Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), and it seems the influence of the prototypical Victorian Sage is strong in the right-wing historian/ economist. In his article “Rue Britannia: Debt used to make us Great” in the Sunday Times of last week (17 June 2012), he was in full neo-sage mode as he identified the “malaise” at the heart of western society, and issued dire warnings for the consequences of our current recklessness.

                            Niall Ferguson

Thomas Carlyle                                                                  Niall Ferguson

The sage approach is characterized by first referencing a current social issue: for example, worker unrest in Chartism; for Ferguson, the issue is, of course, the economic difficulties engulfing various western states. Then, he makes the classic sage move: considering the problem not in itself, but as a symptom of a society rotten to the core. Financial problems are “nothing more than symptoms of an underlying instittutional malaise”. Like Carlyle, Ferguson harks back to a time when society was well-ordered: for Carlyle, it was feudalism; for Ferguson, it seems to be any time between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the dusk of the British Empire. This was a time of “legislating for economic development” and when “even war became an increasingly profitable activity […] There was no default. There was no inflation. And Britannia bestrode the globe”. But now, Ferguson repeats, we have arguments over austerity and stimulus as “a consequence of a more profound malaise”.

But the sage must not only condemn, he must also make clear the dangers of our path. For Carlyle, that lay in class antagonisms, which would end in revolution and anarchy if not appeased by the prophesied “Aristocracy of Talent”. For Ferguson, the fear is that the west is on the way to being overtaken by China. He informs us that the average American was 20 times richer than his Chinese counterpart in 1978, but is now only 5 times richer. Truly a sobering statistic. The dangers of Chinese economic power are not expressly identified, but that it is not desirable is clear (he has been more explicit on this elsewhere).

There is always blame that must be apportioned by the sage. Carlyle lambasted the Idle Aristocracy, characterized as “Sir Jabesh Windbag”. This class had  abdicated its responsibility to lead, and had to be overthrown, for the real aristocracy to take over, or mob-rule and another French Revolution would be the outcome. For Ferguson, the blame also falls on the acting aristocracy of our time, the governments and financial decision-makers who have broken the covenant between the generations and are in the process of leaving the coming generations in financial ruin.

There is one desirable way out for Ferguson: “a heroic effort of leadership”, one that would persuade “not only the young but also a significant proportion of the parents and grandparents to vote for a more responsible fiscal policy”. That word, heroic, how evocative it is in a Carlylean context! (See On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (clue’s in the title), or pretty much anything else he wrote). Who Ferguson is talking about is not quite clear, though he does at one point observe: “If young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be in the Tea Party.” They’re not, though, rather they are still in thrall to the cash nexus, but perhaps, even still, they are only holding out for a hero, and when such a person appears above the political horizon, the western world will bends its collective knee before him and pay due homage. Carlyle would certainly have liked to think so.

In summation, this post has simply tried to pick up on some similar rhetorical devices in use in Ferguson and Carlyle, as part of our ongoing attempts to trace Carlyle’s influence, such as it is, from the 1830s to the present day. In his appeal to national pride and his idealization of the British national past, his appeal to morality (implied in his description of “the present system” as “fraudulent”), his diagnosis of a sickness in our present condition, his apparent nostalgia for warfare and his investment in the idea of heroic leadership, he gives us ample reason to believe that there is at least one neo-Carlylean amongst the celebrated intellects of our time.


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