2014: A Howdy-Do Year in Review

Last January, I didn’t get my 2013 lookback, The Great Eighteen, up until the 20th, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to call this prompt. Efficient. Timely — at least for me! Reflection on accomplishments never comes at a bad time. (Does it? Of course, you ninny! Okay, but — Which doesn’t mean it’s always foolish to look backwards, either. Alright then, so maybe — Just get to it!)

I posted to 93 times last year, which is as productive as I’ve ever been, and that with December nearly ringing up a doughnut. (That’s jock-talk for nada. Zero. Hole in the JZone layer. Nuttin’, honey. I missed that bizarro perfection by one lonely post, so the rest of the year must’ve been excellent.) Starting with my self-conscious blurts in the middle of 2005, now has an archive of 637 posts. That seems like quite a few.

So, I consulted a panel of experts. What were the most meaningful, artistically satisfying and world-changing posts of 2014 on No. I didn’t. I trawled through 2014 and asked myself, “Okay, self, what do you still like and think others might, too?” Oh, I did take my readers into account, based on what got read most, or what found life elsewhere on the ‘Net, but mainly this is me Me ME. So here is a quick skate through some of the things I wrote here last year. It gives a reasonable portrait of what gave my head a shake in 2014. It’s a quick read, and you can click on anything that appeals. Here, then, are the

Fabulous Fifteen!

1. Sequel: The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show* Must Go On (Jan. 2)                 (with Chinese Characteristics)

For the last three years in China, my wife and I taught in the School of International Business, a small college within our university in Dalian. Every December, there was a spangly student SHOW. Here, I reviewed this incredible, excessive, odd, passionate, obligatory celebration of something-or-other. Warning: this is only the second half of the extravaganza, and you may not be able to resist dipping back into December 2013 for the full jaw-dropping effect. It was amazing. (And only occasionally depressing.)

2. Lost in Cambodia  (February 5)

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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.”

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Better Read Than Never: Saul’s Unconscious Civilization 5

I’ve been studying, considering and writing about this book off and on for months. My first look at The Unconscious Civilization (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the previous installment was summarized – in 500 of the best available words – here.

The middle lecture of the 1995 series of five Massey speeches was titled “From Corporatism to Democracy”, and today I’m concerned with the fourth of these lectures, titled “From Managers and Speculators to Growth”. All were published in book form later that same year, but I’ve been repeatedly struck, in this re-reading, by how fresh and even daring some of his insights still are. Partly this comes from Saul’s determined practice of the “art of the long view”, as it has been called, founding his arguments about contemporary life on long looks back at history, philosophy, even literature. He is no hermit, though, and is very plugged in to the most essential debates on social policy, city design, the place of the arts; what he is not plugged into, I suspect, is a computer. He wrote this book in a left-handed scrawl on a legal pad. However, he does have a Twitter presence, so he’s no Luddite. (And as this chapter makes clear in one historical reference, none of us are, as John Ludd and his followers were not the quaint, so-retro-they’re-almost-cute, dopey but harmless technophobic non-adaptors that our modern usage of the term implies.)

John Ralston Saul, when he employs the word “manager”, or the term “managerial elites”, is not being complimentary. He compares such people to power-seeking but ultimately irresponsible ‘courtiers’ that would gather around kings or any locus of authority. He blames much of our social and economic malaise on the prominence of people our society has trained to confirm and conform to and perpetuate corporatist “self-interest”; he contrasts this with the “disinterest”, the detachment that true and enlightened citizenship requires in seeing past our own good, and the benefits accruing to our particular group, to imagine and organize the common good.

As I’ve previously done, here are 500 words that try to capture Saul’s argument in this second-to-last chapter of The Unconscious Civilization:

  • The Industrial Revolution brought prosperity only to the few, producing “a full century of unimpeded social decline and disorder”, the full Dickensian nightmare.
  • Widespread prosperity eventually came from the work of “citizens [who] publicly opposed the conditions created by the Industrial Revolution”; social balance came via the practice of democracy.
  • McCall’s Magazine in 1929 celebrated the boom economy just as the stock market crashed. We still haven’t learned the lesson: “we keep on hoping that we will rediscover prosperity through…market forces”, merely an absorbing game for the elites.
  • “Our belief in salvation through the market is very much in the utopian tradition.” Corporatism is a religion, and the managerial class its priesthood. Forget conspiracy theories; technocrats aren’t super-conscious visionaries, they just benefit from the existing structure.
  • They fear all the most effective qualities of capitalism itself (risk, innovation). “No matter how badly the MBAs are doing, they just go on hiring clones of themselves.” They preach capitalist ideology, but only simulate it through unproductive preoccupations like mergers and acquisitions. Their incomes skyrocket, the economy founders, the middle class erodes.
  • They profit by flipping between nationalization and privatization; “an unnecessary move in either direction merely makes money for the political friends of the party in power”. Privatization of government functions is foolish, as business is better suited to fuelling real growth.
  • We have “lost all sense of Adam Smith’s concept of ‘useful labour’”, and lost historical and philosophical perspective in favour of econometric game-playing. Do the “four pillars” of economic life help or hinder our progress?
  • Pillar One: the marketplace. Not only does it “not balance or encourage democracy”, it “cannot give leadership even on straight economic issues”. Consider fish stocks, depleted because it was in nobody’s self-interest to maintain them, or industrial pollution, whose “inclusive costs” are not calculated in a market-driven, profit-based economy.
  • Pillar Two: technology. We learn to worship it because corporations profit from it, yet it often interferes with or trivializes the need it supposedly serves. Windows 95, for example, provides impetus “not to thought but to minor technical manipulations”. The computer craze in education results in classrooms “full of students behind machines where they can be educated in isolation by something less intelligent than a human”. Modern machines follow centuries of invention that were supposed to “reduce work hours rather than to reduce workers”, proving their service of corporate, not social, interests.
  • Pillar Three: globalization. The “invisible hand” mentioned by Adam Smith referred to comprehensible local markets, not unregulated global ones. Trade increases, general prosperity doesn’t. Corporate taxes decrease because jurisdictions fear they’ll flee to tax-friendlier regions, where corporatism reigns in “a sort of limbo, devoted solely to production…[but] devoid of the characteristics of human society” (sweatshops) Extra profits go to managerial game-playing, not to productive innovation. Cynical neo-conservatives ignore “the repeated admonition of their idol, Adam Smith, that high wages are essential to growth and prosperity”.
  • The Luddite movement warned against “impossible work conditions, uncontrolled preference for technology over humans, and a market-led society”. Two centuries of “impossible social division” followed, provoking the great disruptions of recent history. Years of relative general prosperity since WW2 are again threatened in the name of globalization. Only democracy can truly lead, using the advancements that enabled globalization to regulate it.
  • Pillar Four: money markets. A “tragicomedy”. Minimal taxation of currency trading would easily finance public institutions, if this money was real. “Money markets unrelated to financing real activity are pure inflation…, false growth [promoting] a feeding frenzy of delusion”. We have skewed views of assets and liabilities, in which health and education are technically financial liabilities, while “the illusion of growth through the sale of golf balls remains firmly in place”. We must reconceive growth and our societal priorities as more than consumerism, and “only a persistent public commitment by the citizenry can bring that about”.   

When I started this chapter, I thought this might be the easiest summary – that is to say, the least interesting of the lectures, given my general inattention to the nuts and bolts of economics. Instead, my first draft ran towards 1500 words, axing so many good ideas was painful, and this time I lied to you: in fact, this précis runs at 650 words, and I hadn’t the heart to cut further. I’m a little worried, because the last lecture, “From Ideology Towards Equilibrium”, might be even better.

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”.

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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.

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Better Read Than Never: SAUL’s The Unconscious Civilization

I’ve come back for a second assault of John Ralston Saul’s 1995 book The Unconscious Civilization.1 It’s a brainy thing, but not awfully long. And it’s not that it was such tough going; Saul’s prose is quite readable even on difficult subjects. I just wasn’t bringing my mind to it, and there are always Other

JRS in book-signing mode. Best advice I’ve ever heard on writing a book: “Finish it so you can go write a better one!” I remain heedless.

Things to Read. Saul made his early reputation as a novelist, but that phase of his career has been eclipsed by his recent prolific output of essays and book-length arguments on globalization, citizenship, the true nature of democracy and of his Canadian homeland. He is something of a gadfly, and sometimes the epithet “philosopher-king of Canada” is muttered irritably, usually by fellow Canucks suspicious of both thinkers and those who dare to do it in public.

I find him a witty, scarily smart and superbly opinionated voice. In the mid-oughts, when I was writing for the Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, I got to spend some time in various front-row seats for the JRS experience.

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