Saturday, July 07, 2012

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Jackwagon

Much like its third chapter, the fifth chapter of Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson's Civilization in My Pants, which discusses the "killer app" of consumerism, has some useful things to say and some vapid and silly things to say. Our Man Niall opens this chapter by arguing, quite correctly in my view, that there would have been no Industrial Revolution in the West without a previous consumer revolution, and that Western consumerism began with the manufacturing and consumption of inexpensive, high-quality clothing. In Britain, the consumer age began (as Joyce Appleby* noted) with widespread demand for imported calico, which British, European, and American weavers then began to manufacture domestically. When countries like Japan wanted to Westernize, Ferguson observes, they did so most conspicuously by adopting European-style clothing. And when Soviet citizens looked West in the mid-twentieth century, they coveted its high standard of living, and one particular Western export, blue jeans, came to symbolize all that capitalism could offer and communism could not. On the way to the fall of the Soviet Union, Ferguson offers a useful structural explanation of why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain – expensive labor and cheap coal – and introduces, though does not develop, the fascinating idea that the industrialization of the East Asian "tiger" economies in the 1960s decisively shifted the balance of power against the Soviet bloc. In the end, though, it was consumerism, the West's better "version of a civilian life" (237), that brought down the Berlin Wall.

There is much in this chapter that would give American conservatives brain embolisms, which is to say there is much to like about it. Ferguson's idea that economic development requires growing aggregate demand is textbook economics, but it is unlikely to win favor from Rand-Paul-type Republicans, who ascribe economic growth solely to the labors of a few great-souled geniuses whom the lumpish masses owe adulation and tax exemptions. His ascription of the fall of the Soviet Union to economic causes is a bit simplistic, but it is more consistent with the available evidence that the American right-wing dogma that Star Wars killed the Evil Empire. Ferg even has a kind word to say about John Keynes, whose proposals he credits with releasing the United States from the deflationary "trap" of 1929-32. This is of course heresy among Anglo-American conservatives, and suggests that the author may in fact favor counter-cyclical deficit spending, as long as it benefits politicians who are either A) dead or B) people he likes.

Ferguson's more valuable insights, however, are interwoven with the clumsy prose, half-baked observations, and cheap shots characteristic of his earlier chapters. In discussing Karl Marx, for example, he pauses to denounce the philosopher as a personally "odious individual" (207), which is not relevant to a discussion of Marx's ideas. In his account of the rise of American-style consumerism, he includes the ghastly mixed metaphor "The [blue] jeans genie was out of the bottle, and the bottle was more than probably distinctively curved glass container of…Coca-Cola" (242). Ferguson may consider this a beautiful and thought-provoking image, but it's more likely he gave that sentence little thought while he was writing it. Finally, Niall-o spends several pages toward the end of the chapter discussing not consumerism but the Western youth movement of the 1960s, whose damnation he considers an essential part of his own mission civilisatrice. What young male protesters in Berkeley and Paris wanted above all else, Professor Jackwagon asserts, was "unlimited access to the female dormitories" (245). "In the West," he continues a few pages later, "students indulged themselves with Marxist rhetoric, but what they were really after was free love" (248). These DFHs, as Ferguson would probably label them without irony, were not merely sexual reprobates; they were also responsible for a wave of violence that hit Western countries in the form of "race riots" and terrorism.

As one of my college professors once told me in a seminar meeting, this observation is so wrong that one is nearly at a loss at how to respond to it. While I can't speak for students in Paris, the fundamental issue for young male American protesters in the 1960s was not sexual freedom but avoiding the draft and, if possible, ending the Vietnam War. Mssr. Ferguson seems so impatient with '60s-era protesters – or, perhaps, so obsessed with other people's sexual behavior – that in reading the slogan "Make Love Not War" he loses interest after the first two words. And blaming race riots and terrorism on sex-crazed juvenile delinquents is ridiculous. Race riots were a recurrent phenomenon in American cities from the Civil War through the early 1990s; those of the 1960s were reactions to poverty and police brutality, not generational strife. International terrorism in the 1970s, meanwhile, had much more to do with cheap machine guns, dysfunctional Arab nation-states, and covert Soviet manipulation than Youth in Revolt.

Ferguson's excoriation of DFHs is not entirely gratuitous. He probably intended it to be part of an ironic observation: that while young people in the rich, consumerist West were embracing Marxism and taking off their clothes, young people in the Eastern Bloc were embracing American culture, represented by blue jeans, and trying to throw off Marxism. Niall-o's heavy-handed treatment of Western youth, however, and his dismissal of their actual ideas (muddled as they were) suggests he is more interested in indulging his own disgust than drawing readers' attention to the ironies of history. Either that, or he hopes that condemning the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll generation will make him more appealing to These Kids Today.

* The Relentless Revolution (New York, 2010), 103-104.

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