Wow, what an amazing, exciting and insightful historical analysis of how we all got here! By "here," I mean to say, at Amazon, browsing books on line, reading the reviews of anonymous readers with wildly divergent opinions!
Before I write anything, remember this: Comparative Culture is, by definition, based on human opinion, and its study can be polarizing and emotionally sensitive. This book will get your back up, one way or the other.
There are many detailed reviews already written on this controversial volume, so I'll just cut RIGHT to the chase: If you're a conservative American (or European, for that matter), and you think we are "by God, the strongest country on earth, never been stronger, and all you foreign hordes coming from Asia can love it or leave it!" then this book is NOT for you. If you're a Tea Partier or a Rick Perry supporter, this book is going to rankle you, maybe even offend you, because Dr. Ferguson recognizes that the United States is an empire in serious trouble. But he doesn't leave the story there.
On the other side of the coin, if you're a staunch "declinist," a radical environmentalist, an Occupier, or a gloom-and-doom jeremiah, this book will ALSO put you off. Niall Ferguson is far too sophisticated a social critic to be easily labeled. He's not a flag waving patriot, and he's not a red-hot revolutionary. He's an enormously accomplished historian who believes that our times are BAD, that civilization is dangerously close to rapid disintegration, that the loss of standards and civility in life are creating a world of unimaginable selfishness, that fear and greed rule the WORLD, not just the markets, and that mass consumerism leads to boredom, loneliness and depression. There's just one catch: He believes we can fix it. He believes we NEED to fix it, quickly, URGENTLY!
So who will actually LIKE this book? Political scientists, intellectuals, and liberals with enough time and money to contemplate BIG issues will love this book. Your typical suburban professional, with a mind inquisitive enough to wonder what the hell is going on will love this book. Anyone living in the "West" with the feeling that we're muddling through a decade-long malaise will appreciate this book. Your political persuasion is really not important.
Dr. Ferguson gets our attention by first dispelling the historical misconception that strong empires tend to fade away with time, due to internal stagnation and external competition. Well, he wants us to know that empires don't fade away, they CRUMBLE, usually within a generation. He supports this view with historical evidence. In other words, we live in a world within which many great civilizations have come crashing down due to [the same] internal stagnation and external competition in a matter of a few years. He thinks the "West," and the United States in particular, are dangerously close to falling off the cliff. The Eurozone, too.
He wants to "save" the "West" from this outcome by 1) sounding the alarm and 2) offering recommendations on how this might be done. This is really, REALLY important and amazing stuff.
The book centers around a metaphor of the "West" using its "killer apps" to rapidly advance economically from the "Rest" over the past 500 years. He sets up a beautifully effective structuralist argument that the "West" adopted an "operating system" which became the world standard, and that six "killer apps" were designed for that operating system that completely marginalized the rest of the world. Dr. Ferguson is quite specific about the six "killer apps" around which he constructs his argument. You'll have to read the book to learn what they are! He dedicates a chapter to detailed discussion of each of these killer apps, and explores how the "Rest" are catching up to the "West" because they have simply learned how to download these apps, and make them work within their own "operating system."
The "Rest" adopted an "operating system" that may have been technically superior, but became marginal because it was not pragmatic or expedient. Here, he's referring to the great Asian and African civilizations, and he's stuffing (and generalizing) the comparative political analysis into a "Beta vs. VHS" or "Apple vs. Microsoft" metaphor. I love it!
Here's the punchline: The six killer apps of the West have become corrupted by viruses and are losing there competitive advantage due to COMPLACENCY. We need to refocus on the continued development of our killer apps, and then "reboot" the entire system. We'll become the better performing, restored machine after this, moved back from the brink by own our effort and skill. We'll need to accommodate a new operating system too, because Asia is rapidly advancing.
If we fail to recognize the problem, our killer apps, and our entire operating system may be replaced by another more aggressive and adaptable standard. The world will become one-sided. The metaphor refers here to the emergence of Asia, once again, supported by historical trends. For those of you who rave that Dr. Ferguson's thesis is racist, I offer this: He's not comparing RACE anywhere in the text, but he is comparing CULTURE. Once again, we're talking about comparative culture, which is an extremely sensitive topic. And, if anything, he is praising the enormous advancements of the civilizations OUTSIDE the "West."
I think this is a brilliant thesis, told with powerful insight, strong historical references, and a lovely post-modern allegorical structure.
Niall Ferguson doesn't know everything, but he is smart enough to know when things are bad enough to take notice. And he's optimistic enough in the tools he learned as a "Westerner" to believe that there's much more good work to do. The West is too young to die. Our apps work. They need updates... now.
Will we heed the call to fix things, or will we let stagnant gridlock, selfish intolerance and complacency destroy our civilization? Niall Ferguson believes the choice is ours. WE can work for a better society, or we can continue to go our own way, knocking down anyone and everyone who stands in our way to... what? More debt, more stagnation, and more Lexapro?
This book is, obviously, highly politically charged, and it does NOT respect the decorum we would generally describe as "politically correct." It's an easy read about weighty issues, but it's going to make you either mad as hell or thankful for such a penetrating mind. But if it moves you to action or, at least to contemplation, it's a successful book.