In his most recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson argues that over the past 500 years, the West has used a unique combination of institutions (or “apps,” as he likes to call them) to create preeminent wealth and power. The West has used these institutions to discredit competing political systems (fascism and communism) and convert former enemies to the Western way of life (i.e., Japan and Nazi Germany).
Before you object to characterizing particular countries or ideologies as non-Western, it should be noted that Ferguson doesn’t see the West as a geographical region, but as an adherence to a set of institutions. Those Western institutions are: competition, science, modern medicine, the rule of law, work ethic, and consumer society.
Possibly Ferguson’s most unexpectedly compelling example of Western institutions discrediting its competitors was America’s use of consumerism to create a market for blue jeans at a time when communist countries refused to produce them.
It's strange that a style of Californian work pants invented for miners and cowboys would be so lovingly embraced by the rest of the world. As Ferguson writes, before denim gained popularity, it was issued to American prisoners, because it was cheap, durable and easily cleaned.
How did jeans become popular? Ferguson says marketing was largely responsible. John Wayne, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe all wore jeans in popular culture. Add the moral outrage of older generations, and post-war Western youth were hooked on denim. Jeans were cool, they were associated with youthful rebellion, and because of mass manufacturing, they were cheap.
Behind the Iron Curtain, young people wanted denim too. However, communist central planners saw jeans as a corrupting Western influence and were unwilling to produce them. Ferguson writes, “The [Communist] Party knew what everyone needed – brown polyester suits – and placed its orders with the state-owned factories accordingly.” Despite what the youth of the Eastern Bloc needed, they wanted jeans and some resorted to smuggling to get them. People would pay up to 250 roubles per pair of jeans, when the average monthly wage was 200 roubles, and state-manufactured trousers cost 20 roubles at most.
The absence of denim didn’t cause people to march in the streets and overthrow communist regimes. But the lack of jeans was a constant reminder that communist regimes dictated how people could live, and that this control didn’t exist in Western nations. As a result, few people in communist countries wanted to uphold such a system. When East Berlin opened its borders for its own citizens on November 9, 1989, it sparked a huge shopping spree in West Berlin, signaling – for Ferguson – that the West had won the Cold War.
However, I think we should hold the triumphalism for our preeminent pants, at least temporarily. A more fashion-conscious friend directed me to the website of an upscale Toronto denim store where I found men's and women’s jeans approaching $400 per pair (I’m sure those prices are downright reasonable compared to other stores that I’ve never heard of). Remember that jeans used to be given to prisoners because they were cheap to produce.
Ferguson ends Civilization with a warning that the West’s ascendancy is in danger, because it has lost touch with the institutions that Western power is rooted in. One of those institutions is Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic, which values hard work and thrift. When people are buying $400 work pants while Western savings rates are low and personal indebtedness levels are high, there could be grounds to worry about the Protestant work ethic in the West.
It's too bad that Ferguson didn’t go full circle with his blue jeans example. In the past, jeans symbolized Western victory over communism. In the present, jeans may symbolize one of the West’s weaknesses: a vapid consumerism gone too far.
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada/e000761408/Ronny Jaques/NFB.