Episode 14 – Niall Ferguson

The team turns its attention to Niall Ferguson to ask serious questions about the dangers and advantages to popular history and how history is consumed by the general public. Using Civilization as a back drop, Historyish looks at how Empire is remembered, the problems with “watering down” world history, and whether or not Ferguson’s personal politics might unduly influence his grand narratives.

We also discuss:

Mediaeval Heresy – The burning of 200 Cathars on 16 March 1244 after the Fall of Montségur.

Joseph Priestley – the scientist and minister died on 13 March 1733.

Epidemiology – the bicentenary of John Snow, pioneering epidemiologist, born 15 March 1813.

If you have a suggestion for who we should feature in a future podcast, want to correct factual errors, or generally just get in touch with us, you can: via e-mail, Twitter and/or Facebook.

Gareth (@MillieQED) and Linda (@MillaisDoll) are also on Twitter. Martin is yet to be convinced of the merits of being “social”…

Niall Ferguson, however, is! (@nfergus)

Niall Ferguson (1964 – )

Niall Ferguson is a controversial figure in academic history. His popular television series and books have brought a new style of history based on grand narratives and “What If?” hypotheses of alternative historical paths. Yet his critics have accused him of superficial research and Whiggish interpretations of Western “progress”.

Niall Campbell Douglas Ferguson was on 18th April 1964 in Glasgow, Scotland. He won a half-scholarship to Magdalen College Oxford in 1983, graduating in 1985. During his time there he became enchanted with right-wing politics and punk rock, two things he said “challenged the stuffy corporatism of the 1970s” but would, at first glance, appear to be diametrically opposed. Perhaps the “do it yourself” culture was what drew Ferguson to punk, a trait seen in the free-flowing thoughts and hypothetical scenarios found in his works, particularly Virtual History.

He gained most critical acclaim from the academy for his works on the Rothschild family. The close access he had to the family and its archives, coupled with deep analytical research showed Ferguson’s ability as an academic historian. For Benjamin Wallis-Wells, however, this was a blip in his career. “Research restrains sweeping, absolute claims” he wrote, something that characterises the more populist history for which Ferguson is more widely known.

One of the reasons for this more sweeping style – which is not necessarily to be seen as a fatal flaw – is Ferguson’s habt of producing popular history books from popular television series. His latest, Civilization is the one we shall focus on here. At the time of writing, this is still available to British listeners through Channel 4’s On Demand service.

Ferguson uses the current fettish for smart phones to characterise Western civilisation as possessing  “six killer apps” – competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.

It is pretty difficult to argue against Ferguson’s central premise that these six aspects of Western behaviour allowed the various city states and feudal kingdoms of Europe to financially and politically dominate the globe (though one can debate the subtelties of how this came about or was put into practice). The process of adapting from television to book has meant some license has been taken to make the narrative work for a lay audience, but the concept is sound. Critics and supporters of capitalism and modernity have made these arguments themselves. The problem is the moral and political significance attached to them. Ferguson is adamant that the West’s ascent – our ascent – was “a good thing”. The benefits of empire outweighed the costs.

One of the criticism of Ferguson is that he is an apologist for Empire. It does appear from his work that he believes that eurocentric traits such as industrial output, property-owning democracy, the biomedical model, capitalism and military power are morally better than other historical forms of government. Quotations from the book suggest that either Ferguson is unaware of the critique of modernity or he has not adequately engaged with the material on a philosophical level:

There are those who dispute that claiming all civilizations are in some sense equal, and the West cannot claim superiority over, say, the East of Eurasia. But such relativism is demonstrably absurd. No previous civilization has ever achieved such dominance as the West achieved over the Rest.

The fact that the West dominated the Rest is not really open for debate – the issue is over moral superiority rather than political and economic subjugation. That Ferguson does not understand this (or has deliberately misrepresented the argument of the political left) shows that he himself equates the too – might is right. It is this that his critics find most worrying.

Ferguson is one of the most influential historians in the Western world. He has endorsed presidential campaigns and advised the British government on the history curriculum in schools. He holds posts at Harvard and Harvard Business School, and has held professorial positions in Oxford and New York. Claims that he “isn’t really an historian” (which one might level at other television historians such as David Starkey) ring hollow. The question is whether he serves a purpose or whether his work has academic merit. I argue on both cases it does. Academic history can be too insular and too complacent. The Thatcherite-Punk has shaken things up.

Let me be clear – I believe he is wrong. But giving the academy the call to prove him wrong keeps us all on our toes. For all the bluster, there are too many who take it as “fact” that Empire was morally “bad”. Forcing it to make these arguments more forcefully and in public can only benefit the discipline in the long run.

After that sermon, we will end on a quotation. This comes from Pankaj Mishra, whom Ferguson threatened to sue after Mishra effectively accused him of racism.

Western Civilisation is unlikely to go out of business any time soon, but the neoimperialist gang might well face redundancy. In that sense, Ferguson’s metamorphoses in the last decade – from cheerleader, successively, of empire, Anglobalisation and Chimerica to exponent of collapse-theory and retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past – have highlighted broad political and cultural shifts more accurately than his writings. His next move shouldn’t be missed.

Further Reading

The London Review of Books has published the exchanges between Mishra and Ferguson on its website. The final quotation is taken from this.

Details of Ferguson’s books can be found on his website.

And, of course, Ferguson’s Wikipedia entry offers an interesting overview of the controversies and praise Ferguson has received over the years.

Main image courtesy of Wikicommons.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Episode 14 – Niall Ferguson”

  1. I just listened through most of your episodes, I wish you’d continued the podcast! The ‘this day in history’ segments were humorous and enjoyable, and there certainly aren’t enough podcasts around which deal w/ topics like Gramsci !

Leave a Reply

To get your own thumbnail image, go to gravatar.com