Better Read Than Never: SAUL’s “The Unconscious Civilization” Part SIX

I’ve been studying and writing about this book off and on for months, and today I’ve finished. My first look at The Unconscious Civilization (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the summaries of the first four chapters are also linkable (and brief):

I The Great Leap Backwards

II From Propaganda to Language

A practical humanist.

III From Corporatism to Democracy

IV From Managers and Speculators to Growth”  

The final instalment of the 1995 Massey Lectures series by the notable Canadian writer/activist John Ralston Saul was titled “From Ideology to Equilibrium”. All were published in book form later that same year, and it’s a measure of the enduring value and bold vision of the book that a tenth-anniversary reissue came; I wouldn’t be surprised to see another edition come out next year for the 20th. (His 2004 The Collapse of Globalism came out again in ’09, with some extra commentary in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that he had predicted.) In this lecture/chapter, Saul advances and finally summarizes his argument; these thoughts also point towards his later book, On Equilibrium. He doesn’t believe in air-tight utopian dreams, but in the same way that Socrates advocated a lively but humble journey “towards knowledge without the expectation of finding [absolute] truth”, Saul describes his philosophy on genuine societal progress this way: “Practical humanism is the voyage towards equilibrium without the expectation of actually arriving there.”

Continue Reading >>

Better Read Than Never: Saul’s Unconscious Civilization 4

My first look at this book (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the first and second chapters were summarized – in 500 words or fewer – here and here. Wow. I’ve been two months getting to this chapter since the last one. Sorry.

The middle lecture of the 1995 series of five Massey speeches was titled “From Corporatism to Democracy”. If you have read some John Ralston Saul, or even my previous summaries, you won’t be surprised at his opposing of these two currents of civilization. Indeed, much of The Unconscious Civilization dwells on the insistent, apparently inextinguishable rise of corporatism – the elite groupings that oversee the manipulation of capital –  and its constant undermining of the democratic process and principles which Western nations allegedly hold dear. (I resisted using the word “zombie” in that last sentence. Decorum, and so on.) However, corporatist “self-interest” erodes the “disinterest” that broad expressions of conscious citizenship produce, which are aimed toward the general good. Saul defines such thoughtful, big-picture citizenship as the expression and the consequence of humane individualism, which he contrasts with bands

Milton Friedman, RIP. In 1995, Saul ridiculed his equation of democracy with capitalism, among other things. He is gone now, but his economic disciples remain strong.

of minority elites pursuing their corporate agendas.

As was done for the previous two lectures/chapters, here are 500 words that try to capture Saul’s argument:

  • Individualism is not isolationism; we live in society, and “the most powerful force possessed by the individual citizen is her own government(s)”. This source of social legitimacy encourages citizenship; “gods, kings or groups” diminish it.
  • Advocating reduced government for the sake of personal “freedom” puts “artificial limits on their only force”; the power vacuum will be filled by corporate interests and their bureaucracies.
  • Hume’s assertion that people are “governed by interest” is misused by advocates of market forces to “suggest that the public good is a fiction”. Hume urged civic duty as a replacement for the superstitious rule of the Church, not to substitute the marketplace as a new deity.
  • Democracy is independent from economic theories, and citizens (and governments) must not become corporate subjects.
  • In the rise of humanism, “democracy and individualism have advanced in spite of and often against specific economic interest”, while anti-democratic corporatism is always aligned with economic power. Market theorists and demagogues like Mussolini share an “inability to see the human as anything more than interest-driven…[or] to imagine an actively organized pool of disinterest called the public good”.

    Continue Reading >>

Better Read Than Never: Saul’s Unconscious Civilization 3

My first look at this book (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the first chapter was summarized here.

Saul called Chapter 2 of The Unconscious Civilization – the second of the speeches he originally gave as the 1995 Massey Lectures in Canada – “From Propaganda to Language”. To bring (Western, or maybe even global) civilization to a more conscious state, to encourage genuine democracy and real citizenship in pursuit of the general good, he advocates fundamental changes in the way that we communicate, and in the role of

JRS at the lectern.

education in producing such true and meaningful expression. These are big ideas. Saul is often criticized for his sweeping generalizations. Even his fans might find occasional pronouncements positively tsunami-like in their breadth, force and where-did-that-come-from suddenness. This is also his greatest strength: he describes philosophical and historical forests to a public too often entranced by the trees.

And speaking of sweeping general statements, then, here are my no-more-than-500 words in summary of “From Propaganda to Language” by John Ralston Saul:

Continue Reading >>

Better Read Than Never: SAUL’s The Unconscious Civilization 2

I began talking about John Ralston Saul’s book back here, though on that occasion I mainly focussed on the writer. Here is the first part of my precis of this short, bold, stimulating, even visionary book.

Kind of a cheesy cover, but don’t judge…

“Know thyself.” “The unexamined life is not worth living.” John Ralston Saul might have chosen these Socratic aphorisms to lead off The Unconscious Civilization, his 1995 lecture series and book. Instead, he chose a slightly more modern reference to self-knowledge, and his fundamental argument is that this same imperative of understanding applies to societies and even entire civilizations, hence his title.

Saul argues that mere propaganda has become a domineering substitute for the socially constructive use of language in public discourse. He warns that our practice of what we call ‘democracy’ is in fact warped and even thwarted by the steady march of corporatist thinking.

Continue Reading >>

John Ralston Saul (on corporatism and individualism)

In The Unconscious Civilization (1995), Saul traces the rise of individualism in the West, but complains that the term has been “hijacked” in modern times:

“Nowhere…was the individual seen as a single ambulatory centre of selfishness. That idea of individualism, dominant today, represents a narrow and superficial deformation of the Western idea….[We are] a society addicted to ideologies – a civilization tightly held at this moment in the embrace of a dominant ideology: corporatism…[It] causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as a citizen,…which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good….The overall effects on the individual are passivity and conformity in those areas which matter and non-conformism in those which don’t.”

John Ralston Saul is a Canadian thinker, writer and activist for the public good. I was lucky enough to watch from close range, in the mid-2000s, as he continued to develop the ideas he put forth in The Unconscious Civilization (1995) and to poke and provoke conversation about ideas that matter, from the neighbourhood to the globe. He’s an intellectual fireball. In the midst of watching too much basketball and reading too many student papers, I’m stealing the chance to re-read Saul.