The Beginning of the End

The October 2006 issue of Vanity Fair contains two important articles, which are worth reading: Empire Falls, by Niall Ferguson, and Under Egypt’s Volcano, by Scott Anderson.

In Empire Falls, Fergusson uses historian Edward Gibbon’s theories on the decline and fall of Rome to make an interesting, if not convincing, case for the same state of conditions currently in play in the West. Gibbon’s blamed Rome’s decline on external military overreach, internal corruption, social decadence, religious transformation, and barbarian invasion. Fergusson counters with the War on Terror, the cult of personality, superficiality, reality TV, cultural decline, immigration, and the rise of political Islam.

Fergusson argues that the decline of the West is not a new phenomenon but has been a slow process for the past 100 hundred years. “Far from being a time of Western ascendancy, the past century has in reality witnessed something more like a re-orientation of the world—albeit only a partial re-orientation—and the relative decline of the West.” [Fergusson, p.148]. He goes further by reminding the reader of Western hegemony in the 19th century that amounted to 37% of global territory and 28% of mankind under colonial empires.

“What enabled the minority in the West to rule the majority in the East in 1900 was not so much scientific knowledge in its own right as its systematic application to both production and destruction. By contrast, the empires of the East, from the Ottoman to the Qing, failed disastrously to modernize themselves. Their economies remained trapped in subsistence agriculture while the West forged ahead, colonizing and industrializing, devouring sugar and burning coal. Their tax systems were inefficient, forcing Oriental rulers to borrow from Western capital bankers. Eastern armies remained long on pageantry and short on firepower, while the West could deploy well-drilled troops equipped with machine guns and heavy artillery. Eastern navies stood no chance against the Western combination of steam and steel.” [Fergusson, p.148].

Fergusson then proceeds to outline some of the conditions that afflicted Rome which are similar to conditions faced by the West. It’s an interesting read.