Letters – Mishra and Ferguson Continue · LRB 1 December 2011

Letters · LRB 1 December 2011.

Pankaj Mishra is now in full and ignominious retreat. As my last letter explained, in his review of my book Civilisation, he made a vile allegation of racism against me (Letters, 17 November). In his response he nowhere denies that this was his allegation; nor does he deny that he intended to make it. He now acknowledges that I am no racist. Any decent person would make an unconditional apology and stop there. But Mishra proves incapable of doing the right thing. His mealy-mouthed acknowledgment is qualified by the offensive suggestion that I lack ‘the steady convictions of racialist ideologues’, to whom his original review so outrageously compared me. Mishra’s slippery spin on his original words is that he meant to accuse me only of a ‘wider pathology’ of ‘bow[ing] down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible’. Unfortunately for his reputation, this new smear is also demonstrably false.

If Mishra bothered to read my work – or if he were not so intent on misrepresenting it – he would have to concede that since my book Virtual History (1997) I have consistently argued against the notion of irreversible trends in history. He would have to concede that the first article I published on the subject of ‘Chimerica’ (in the Wall Street Journal on 5 February 2007) explicitly concluded with a warning that the Sino-American economic relationship could prove to be a chimera. Far from writing ‘whatever seems resonant and persuasive at any given hour’, I have consistently sought to challenge the conventional wisdom of the moment.The Cash Nexus (2001) – published at a time when most bien pensants were ardent proponents of European monetary union – accurately foretold the current crisis of the euro. My book Colossus (2004) was subtitled ‘The Rise and Fall of the American Empire’ and warned that neoconservative visions of American imperium would likely founder on three deficits, of manpower, finance and public attention. Throughout 2006 and 2007, when others fell victim to irrational exuberance, I repeatedly warned of the dangers of a large financial crisis emanating from the US subprime mortgage market. And, far from hailing ‘the Chinese Century’, I spend pages 319-324 of Civilisation discussing the numerous challenges that China is likely to face in the coming decades. In fact, the phrase ‘Chinese century’ does not appear in my book.

As Mishra – and the LRB’s editor – must have appreciated, the allegation of racism in Mishra’s review was ostensibly buttressed by repeated accusations of omission of important issues and evidence. In my last letter I took five of these supposed omissions and showed they are in fact in the book under review, in black and white – and in the index. Had Mishra read the book so casually that he missed all five? Or was he wilfully and maliciously misrepresenting it?

Exposed, Mishra now retreats into quibbling about my tone. For example, my reference to Kenneth Pomeranz’s work is said to be ‘uncouth’. Really? Here is what I wrote:

For a century after 1520, the Chinese national savings rate was negative. There was no capital accumulation in late Ming China; rather the opposite. The story of what Kenneth Pomeranz has called ‘the Great Divergence’ between East and West therefore began much earlier than Pomeranz asserted.

I leave readers to make up their own minds about whether or not this is uncouth. (By the standards of serious economic historiography it is actually pretty polite.)

Mishra’s disingenuous approach is exemplified by his treatment of Chinese economic history at the start of the modern era, a central topic of Civilisation. Mishra’s original review said I gave no evidence for my position. Now that he stands corrected, Mishra responds that ‘[Ferguson] now unearths a footnote’ citing ‘two obscure Chinese scholars’. I find this extraordinary in two respects. First, the reference needed no ‘unearthing’. It was there, in the source notes and bibliography, for him and other readers to see. Second, David Daokui Li is hardly an ‘obscure scholar’. He is one of China’s leading economists. Not only is he the director of the Centre for China in the World Economy at Tsinghua University, he is also a member of the People’s Bank of China’s Monetary Policy Committee. He is, moreover, a former fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a former editor of the Journal of Comparative Economics. To say that Professor Li’s curriculum vitae is more impressive than Pankaj Mishra’s would be an understatement. A simple Google search, had Mishra bothered to do one before he wrote his rejoinder, would have spared his blushes. Your readers can now draw their own conclusions about the quality of the work you allow into your publication.

My book is not a ‘paean to the superiority of Western civilisation’, as Mishra describes it in a last pathetic salvo. I explicitly disavow triumphalism in the introduction. Rather it is a dispassionate examination of why the West came to dominate the Rest economically, geopolitically and even culturally between the 1500s and the 1970s. Besides the familiar, ugly methods of expropriation and enslavement – employed by Western and non-Western empires through the ages – there were novelties, not all of them pernicious. One of these was the scientific method, whereby claims are not advanced that patently conflict with empirical evidence. Another was the rule of law, under which, among other things, the freedom of the press does not extend to serious defamation, at best reckless, at worst deliberate and malicious. It is deplorable that the London Review of Books gives space to a man who seemingly cares about neither of these things.

I am still waiting for an apology, from both Pankaj Mishra and the editor who published his defamatory article.

Niall Ferguson
Harvard University

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