Civilisation – The West and the Rest, Protestant Work Ethic Redux

Earlier this year here at the Ermine’s Nest we pondered whether there was a case to be made for saving £140 odd by outing the TV. That may seem obscure to non-UK viewers, but in the UK there is a thing called a TV licence that you are meant to have if you watch TV as it is broadcast. This largely pays for the BBC, whose programmes don’t have commercial advertising.

Anyway, we decided that we would see if we could find something that pleased us enough to justify the £140, so I occasionally look for stuff that may interest me.  The recent Panorama Finished at Fifty was one of these, and I had recorded Niall Ferguson’s Civilization -The West and the Rest. This was presumably a TV series of the book

Watching this was rewarding and I learned a few bits and pieces I hadn’t known before. Niall comes across as a dapper and personable enough chap, and according to this review in the Grauniad he targeted this series at teenagers.  Which explained why he had this infuriating catchline where he comes across as “Dad trying to be down with the yoof-speak and with it”, by endlessly referring to the six “killer apps” of Western Civilisation. I know he titled his book civilization but I just can’t bring myself to spell it that way, I have enough unwitting typos without adding deliberate ones 😉

Anyhow, that killer apps yoof-speak got on my nerves, because nothing made by the Apple corporation has darkened my door because I don’t have money to burn, and I am a crabby old git who has nothing to do with media and so I don’t refer to apps and folders on a computer but directories and programs. When I see job ads for appers rather than programmers I’ll rethink that.

Despite the killer app-speak, Niall was informative and reasonably to the point, though his perspective is a lot more upbeat about the advantages of the European empires than I am used to. Some people will hate it for that alone. He did at least tip his hat to Mahatma Gandhi’s delightful one-liner on what he thought about Western Civilisation, something to the effect of “yes, that would be a good thing”.

One takeaway I got from the series, particularly in the last program, was the effect of  the Protestant work ethic on the success of the West in economic terms. I’ve spent my fair share on here slagging off the Protestant work ethic, but Niall did make me think that perhaps I should be more nuanced about it.

When I was in America, it did strike me that there were an awful lot of churches about, both in New England and in California (I haven’t been anywhere else in the US, other than NJ, NV, MI, CO and AZ so it may be very different elsewhere). The sheer density of churches was remarkable. Niall made the case that this has something to  do with the dynamism of the US economy compared to those of Western Europe, a part of the West he considers in relative decline vis a vis the US, as it became largely secular after the Second World War.

It puzzled me because the presentation of Christianity in the US came across to me as extremely in-your-face, of a type which I believe is called evangelical. The last time I had significant dealings with Christianity was in the 1970s, and this sort of thing wasn’t around then.

In Niall’s program they showed some clips of what went on in US churches, and what strikes me is that the entire message seems to be mediated through the emotional centres, with rah-rah sessions of  ‘Can you FEEL the power of the Lord’ together with the raising of arms and clapping. The sort of thinking and reflection that I had observed in Christians in the Old World, albeit three decades ago just wasn’t there.

That sort of thing makes me uneasy – somewhere at the back of my mind I feel that if the Good Lord is worth believing in, He wouldn’t demand that His adherents check their brains in at the door. Each to their own, but I could see how this might lead to people being persuaded to defer gratification for other goals. And a lot of economic success seems to be about deferred gratification, so Niall makes the case that Protestant Christianity was a large part of the economic success of the West. In his final program he makes the case that as this fades, so the power of the West will also fade, particularly as it appears that Christianity is on the rise in China.

Now this is a TV program, and though Niall is bright he isn’t infallible. For instance he perpetrated a howler in saying Edison was associated with AC power in the US – he opposed it intensely in the war of the currents due to patent considerations.

I have no way of verifying a lot of what he claimed. I would agree with him that there is a decadence and a lack of people taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions in the West nowadays. There is a general infantilisation of public discourse, where we all too often resort to “the Government should” or “They should” fix one of the current malaises, often the result of earlier aberrant behaviour. For instance the years 2000-2007 where we all believed house prices would go up forever so it was worth lending NINJA‘s money in the knowledge the rising house price would enable them to pay off the loan?

It is also possible that the increasing secularisation means that one common source of a moral compass is lost, and this is why we are regressing and becoming decadent. It isn’t the only explanation, and humanists among others would object to the concept that only religion can provide a moral frame of reference. An alternative explanation would be that life has got materially easier, so we can get away with more lax behaviour. Or I might just be getting older and it’s all really okay as it is, despite the financial crises and the disappearing jobs that the POTUS noted a while back 😉

So all in all I can probably get my £140 worth, over the year. This programme was not on the BBC, so it was infested with ads. However, my Humax Foxsat PVR seems to be programmed well inasmuch as two taps of the >> button skips the whole ad break, so I am not troubled by companies trying to push consumerism on me. I  win much of the simple living/frugality battle by busting as much advertising and junk out of my sight as I can .

This also helps me in the fight against my power bill as it has a standby power usage of < 1W. Obviously that’s still more than if I got rid of the whole TV receiving system, however it is very low, so I can live with the £2 it costs me in power a year, as it spends most of its time in standby.

18 thoughts on “Civilisation – The West and the Rest, Protestant Work Ethic Redux”

  1. Aaahhh…
    I am not as old, but for sheer crabbiness, I am sharing the podium with you… and it will always be organiSation, directories and program(!)… etc for me as well 😀
    And yes, it is a “Daddy or Chips” question for me…. 😉 Is “yoof” more grating than “innit”?

    And the licence fee…. Sweet, sweet, Memories are made of this ;-)!

    I know Niall’s TV programme (another English word that won’t go from me ;-)) is a plot device to advance your thoughts, but have to pitch in:

    I’ve watched Niall’s “Empire” before. He’s a neocon, plain and simple. While it may be easy for him to peddle his wares to the layman or the not-so-well-informed, his agenda becomes very clear when the other person also has a modicum of Historical knowledge. I have visited the India Office (the entire 3rd floor) of the BL (much before his series came on air) and was amazed at the kind of machiavillainy and Larceny that happened at a grand scale at the height of Imperialism — just in India!

    >> Niall comes across as a dapper and personable enough chap
    A lot of what Niall spouts, goes through by sheer force of personality — very very dangerous. Niall is another manifestation of Homo industrialis… Everyone is like “us”, or wants to be “like us”, nd if you don’t you’re mental, dangerous and a threat to your own people. Part 3 of my Trade tirade talks about this with Helena’s book as reference.

    Nowadays, suave, erudite, media-friendly faces like Niall and Kaplan are used to sell the “grand scale Larceny” that “Eric Hoffer” points to in his book. What I allude to is the fostering of the numbing belief” “Since we made up the (6-7-whatever) spokes that the World wheel is now spinning on, we’re entitled to grabbing Angola, Libya, whatever — after all, *we’re worth it*, and those ungrateful tykes who use ‘our apps’ better be thankful for the spokes” for the masses.

    I hate to sound political and paranoid like this, but with the impending resource crunch (which you and I do acknowledge) and a World teetering towards eco-collapse, I follow an old Indian maxim: “Not all things White can be claimed milk”

    >> somewhere at the back of my mind I feel that
    >> if the Good Lord is worth believing in, He
    >> wouldn’t demand that His adherents check their
    >> brains in at the door
    I agree, and there at that point itself, Niall’s PWE house of cards collapses…. PWE has always been a smokescreen and has been used to successfully drive the masses to distraction — dead serious. You are welcome to become nuanced about PWE, but that might be mostly to satisfy the exacting demands of your “All ye few, yet faithful readers” (read, one Monevator :-P) ;-).
    PWE percolates all Governments modelled on Parlimentary republican model… “Work is Worship” is a very prominent GOI motif. But the Hindu model actually rejects PWE more or less as selfish manipulation. Found a brief reference here… Not the best peice and not complete, but sufficient for this discussion.

    >> increasing secularisation means that one common source of a moral compass is lost.
    You’re right here too and Humanists be damned. A Radio 2 programme nearer Christmas addressed this one. It came on just before Clare Teal’s Jazz programme. So I know 😉

    >> There is a general infantilisation of public discourse
    Thanks for the nod to Huxley that I was pointing to in my comment.

    >>> The sort of thinking and reflection that I had observed in Christians in the Old World, albeit three decades ago just wasn’t there.
    I agree. I’ve personally seen those in India too… Very irritatingly, “Sunday Worship” in India these days largely means “”Jesus Rock-n-Roll” karoked and belted to some popular film tunes….etc… Revolting, specially if you do understand where Christianity’s roots really came from.

    Am I ranting? Maybe. Finis!


  2. Oh dear,
    I actually *wasted*, I mean, spent some time looking at the “six killers”. What a letdown! What a silly book. None of the things he speaks of is the “West’s exclusivity”.

    I feel a major rant coming on.

    rant rant!

    competition ==> the Silk route wasn’t exactly sleeping in the times he is talking about…. Perhaps he is confusing Mercantilism with something else? Or perhaps proud of the stealing of the Tulip bulbs, the silk worms or coffee beans? Perhaps! and we can also be proud of Chinese piracy… good when there’s competition right?

    science => algebra – who?, Mathematics – Who? Trigonometry – granted, you developed it independently along with us. Taxila, Nalanda from where a lot of science was “sent” to Europe. And the moors….let’s not forget the moors, who acknowledge that they actively sought science and maths knowledge from India. The moors Aristotle’s works and alchemy came to Europe via the Moors. And they could build a mean garden!

    democracy => is a smoke screen. Old rulers were perfectly capable of ruling well regardless of the sytem in place, thank you.

    medicine => two words for you: Rhinoplasty, Sushruta

    consumerism => Was he really being serious? Did he say this with a straight face?

    work ethic => Oh God, what a stuck in the past, neandrethal… I mean neocon! Does he mean to say other cultures from around the World were goof-offs?

    rant rant

    Sorry for the rant chaps…

    Perhaps, you can read it while watching the video

    Competition -> Indian!
    Science -> Indian!

    Maybe the rant will be an acceptable one……


  3. I saw just a few bits of the programmes and I found them to be okay but, as you say, not really aimed at adults and fairly simplistic.

    Weber’s idea of PWE has a certain amount of truth, but chiefly because the north European work ethic coincided with Protestantism which saw a capacity for hard work as a sign of divine grace. Renaissance Italian bankers worked hard too and got rich, as do Asian entrepreneurs today. Hard work, thrift and self-reliance usually pay dividends, whatever the religion, — no great surprise there — if that is what you want out of life. As it happens, I have a historically themed post in preparation loosely related to this topic, but no time to work on it yet.

    Ferguson is a known and rather odd right winger, whom I once heard saying that the USA should develop a directly ruled physical empire like the British or the Romans did, whereas most neocons, I think, are happy with the idea of client states and economic dominance.

    PS. Recently purchased a cheapie Humax PVR and am delighted with its 0.9W standby mode.


  4. Sorry, pedantic follow-up. The term “Killer App” goes back, I think, to the days of VisiCalc on the Apple II. Ferguson’s software metaphor is a bit sloppy, really, since to my mind the virtues of the West (if that is what they are) are more systems than applications.


  5. @Surio, hehe, it was you I was thinking of when I wrote

    Some people will hate it for that alone.

    BTW I think that even Christianity’s fundamental doctrines would struggle with the concept of redemption by works rather than redemption by faith. I don’t know how the PWE ever got traction. But then consistency is the hobgoblin of foolish minds I guess, with religion things can mean exactly what you want them to mean.

    Top rant though 😉

    @SG – Yep, Niall certainly comes across as right of centre. I like the think the unthinkable approach. And he’s made for TV, looks and sounds good. I don’t have to agree with a TV programme’s thesis to learn from it, and I did learn from it, though the AC/DC howler broke the mood somewhat.

    I stand corrected on the killer app rant – though it still grated.

    That Humax power usage is great – I managed to squeak in at < £200 in total on electricity last year according to my supplier!


  6. Salis,
    In my post on PWE, there were two interesting comments that were made recently, that coincides and ties in with your assessment of the PWE palaver. Thought you might be interested to see it.

    >> “Top rant though”
    Thank you, Sir! We aim to please… 😉

    >> But then consistency is the hobgoblin of foolish minds I guess
    Ha Ha! I have to give it to you for that remark, even though I am of a religious disposition myself.


  7. @Surio – I can’t claim authorship, I pinched it from Ralph Waldo Emerson. I still reckon the PWE is out of order on the doctrine of redemption by faith not works, but I may be suffering from RWE’s hobgoblin in seeking such consistency;)


  8. I enjoyed this programme, although I did have to keep trying to remember what he meant by ‘killer apps’.

    (Incidentally I love the current ad ‘if you haven’t got an iPhone, you haven’t got an iPhone’ – because it makes me remember that I’m glad I have got one!!)

    Regarding getting rid of the television – I often felt a vague guilt for ‘wasting’ time watching until I found out that even the Dalai Lama watches a little TV in the evenings!


  9. @Layla,
    >> even the Dalai Lama watches a little TV in the evenings!
    Why stop there – we have the whole gamut.

    Even the Dalai Lama eats meat 😉
    He even takes an apologist’s stance on matters you least expect him to take
    etc etc….

    OTOH, the Dalai Lama’s attained Samādhi, and Turiya and of course, Nirvana too.

    We seem to be content to wallow in the basest form of consciousness and clutch at straws to justify why that level is good enough.

    Shouldn’t we keep the above qualities (samadhi…etc..) as ideals, rather than “vegetating in front of TV” and quoting the Dalai Lama as a “role model” 😮 … Just thinking aloud, no offence meant and did not mean to rain on your parade.

    a point to ponder?


  10. Ermine, I was wondering what you think of the Humax itself as a piece of kit. I am currently wasting £40+ a month on Murdoch’s Magic Lantern (I know, I know, I’ll have myself shot immediately!!) ostensibly to see what this HD malarkey was all about, but I find myself watching mostly what is free to air anyway.

    The MML is very slick in operation, I’ll give the Digger that; but, man, he makes you pay for it….

    You’re a techie; can I just swap my MML for a Humax without repositioning the satelite dish itself? (That would require me to be on the wrong end of a long ladder; and any cock-ups would find me packed off to the Maison du Chien).

    Sorry for going off point…


  11. @MM heve the Digger’s leechsome tentacle into your bank account shot instead, far more fun 🙂

    I used to have sky+, which takes two feeds from the satellite dish for reasons I won’t bore you with. The Humax takes the very same two feeds, for me it was literally a case of unscrew inputs to sky+ box, sell that box to a colleague and screw inputs into Humax – it doesn’t matter which way round. Job done.

    If you have just the sky digibox, ie just one feed from the satellite, then the Humax can deal with that but you lose out on the watch one thing while recording another function (okay it depends on which polarity and frequency range the two are, but assume the worst case)

    That wouldn’t upset me, but it depends on your TV viewing habits and those of other members of the family I guess.

    So to sum up if you have sky+ then yes, you will get the same functionality minus Murdoch’s channels and minus murdoch’s charges. There is no need to reposition the dish – the channels you will watch for free you will simply have been paying Murdoch to put on his EPG for you. If you just had a single digibox it then whether you get full functionality depends – you need to be able to feed two satellite feeds to the Humax to get full functionality.

    Most recentish (last 5+ years) Sky installs were two or four wire to cater for eventual Sky+ upgrades anyway.

    Cut the Digger loose, you won’t look back 🙂 The user interface of the Humax is similar-ish, you locate programme on EPG, press the ok button to record, sorted. Skipping ads is easier with the Humax as it has a skip forward two minutes button, two bresses of that nails most ad breaks, where on Sky+ you had to FF30x, overshoot and roll back. And the 30x was still enough for some ads to pollute your eyeballs.


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