Over roughly the last 500 years, “Western civilization rose to a position of extraordinary dominance in the world,” as the advantages Niall Ferguson covers in his Civilization: The West and the Rest gave Western powers a marked edge (256). He raises the question of if we are seeing the decline of the West before our eyes, and points out that the West has fallen before, the first time being the fall of Rome.
The eminent historian, Edward Gibbon, identified Christianity as one of the factors contributing to the dissolution of the Roman empire, though Ferguson identifies Christianity, and specifically the work ethic associated with it, as an institution that propelled the West ahead of the Rest (258-59). In the early twentieth century, Max Weber hypothesized the “Protestant ethic,” in which the work ethic of Protestant Europe gave rise to capitalism, which pushed the West ahead. Ferguson identifies problems in Weber’s theory, but writes that Protestantism might have lead to the achievements Weber identified, even if Weber arrived at that conclusion faultily (259-63).
Protestantism appears to have done this through encouraging literacy, from Protestants’ “unusually high levels of mutual trust, an important precondition for the development of efficient credit networks,” and “More generally, religious belief…of any sort appears to be associated with economic growth, particularly where concepts of heaven and hell provide incentives for good behavior in this world,” (263-64).
These characteristics clash with the high levels of religious violence from throughout history. One example is the Taiping Rebellion, in which Hong Xiuquan was converted to Christianity, claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ, and operated under the mission of uniting China under a Christian mandate (279-80). What resulted was a death rate “more than twice that of the First World War to all combatant states,” (280). Religion has produced mixed results throughout history.
Today, Christianity is shifting from its historical roots, as some worship in the United States now is “not unlike a trip to the multiplex cinema,” complete with a Starbucks, while it demands little of practitioners, and “consists of an extended series of requests for the deity to solve personal problems. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost has been displaced by” various personalized forms suited to individual problems and requests (276). As China today has as many as 130 million Christians of different varieties, could there be a corollary between the Protestant ethic and wealth creation, as we are seeing an economic shift in productivity and accumulation from West to East (277-78)? “America’s continued Christian faith” (273) suggests that the institutional nature Christianity can offer is a large reason for the difference, as the personalized variety of God popular in much of the United States represents a dramatic shift from the religion’s historical roots.
Indeed, the financial crisis of 2007-2009, the after effects of which we are currently living through, “was a crisis made in the Western world as a result of overconsumption and excess financial leverage,” while in Asia during the same time, private debt was small, and industry and thrift were popular (277).
Conversely, European working hours have been declining since 1979, when Europeans and Americans put in roughly equivalent time on the job. The average South Korean today works 39 percent more than the average American, while workers in Hong Kong and Singapore work about a third more hours over a year (265). This is very significant.
The West has gotten away from a culture of thrift and industry. These characteristics were significant parts of the Protestant ethic that Weber witnessed, though the reliance of the characteristics on Protestantism seems to be non-crucial, as the rising rates of Christianity in China are lower as a total percentage than in the United States, where rates of productivity is lower. Workers in China and other Asian countries work more than in the US, though the rise of Christianity in other Asian countries is not as marked as in China. In other words, the work ethic does not seem to be inextricably linked with Protestantism.
As an institutional actor, however, there is no doubt that Christianity can encourage its practitioners to work toward greater earthly success, particularly in those who believe great worldly achievements yield greater heavenly rewards. Also, though, in some of its versions, at least, it teaches the importance of hard work (industry), and of the importance of trustworthiness (necessary for the production and preservation of credit networks, as Ferguson identified). So while not all of the story, the characteristics and values espoused in Christianity certainly can contribute to the work ethic.
What is true is that as Ferguson makes clear, the gap between the rest and the West is narrowing in each of the “killer apps” he identifies. If it is necessary to have all six advantages present in a rising power, then aspiring rising powers likely have at least one advantage that is lacking. Because this was the formula identified as the factors behind the rise of the West, though, does that mean that there is not another road to reach similar gains? Basing this on life, it would seem that as there multiple, indeed infinity, paths toward most goals and achievements in life, it would be the same with this.
In a text and thesis that proclaims the superlative nature of Western institutions, it is important to remember that Western civilization has its share of historical flaws. From imperialism, to its “intense materialism,” and the loss of the characteristics observed by Weber (324), it has great faults.
If one believes, however, that the benefits conferred by Western civilization and Western modes outweigh the deficiencies, that the “Western package still seems to offer human societies the best available set of economic, social and political institutions,” (324) then the diffusion of Western ways of being is universally good. It seems to me that in analysis such as this, one must hew toward advocacy of one system or another. Other systems have proved insufficient in one or many ways. The West as a distinct set of institutions and practices has proven to be the best blend for achieving the quantitative “killer apps” Ferguson identifies.
In the end, there are quantitative measures (for which concrete outputs and analysis exist) and qualitative ones (for which measuring outputs is more difficult). Bridging the two is difficult, as such exercise is not capable of finally resolving the differences in any meaningful way. It seems that relativism is a very real threat in the West, then, as “the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity,” (325).
As per Ferguson, and as per Hitchins, the liberal democratic West, and the freedoms it promotes, is the best system that has existed for the promotion of human society and affluency. The spreading of Western institutions would by their measures be reason to celebrate. It would be a great tragedy if the “pusillanimity” so popular today in the West leads to its own self-revocation.