The Unconscious Civilization

208 pages,
ISBN: 088784586X

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Two Saulitudes
by Waller R. Newell

John Ralston Saul's major contention in this book is that the "idea of individualism, dominant today, represents a narrow and superficial deformation of the Western idea. A hijacking of the term and-since it is a central term-a hijacking of Western civilization." Whereas in the past-classical Athens, the Renaissance, or in the theories of early modern proponents of liberalism and the free market such as Adam Smith-individualism was placed in the context of our rights and obligations as citizens, today the individual is "seen as a single ambulatory centre of selfishness." This narrowing of individualism, Ralston Saul argues, can be blamed on the neoconservative Right with its unqualified defence of free market forces and on what he calls the "new corporatism", the contemporary tendency to identify people according to their membership in a group, rather than on the basis of their autonomy as individuals.
According to the author, the neoconservatives equate democracy with the opportunity for economic self-advancement, and reinterpret the past to prove that "the very heart and soul of our 2,500-year-old civilization is, apparently, economics." In so doing, they mistake effect for cause. In reality, the cultural, moral, and constitutional structures of democracy and individualism were established first. Within this broader civic culture, free markets were allowed to flourish, along with other consequences of the prior, and more fundamental, liberation of the individual from despotism and superstition. In other words, liberal democracy is not caused by capitalism, as Marx and, bizarrely, some neoconservatives have argued. On the contrary, liberal democracy permits capitalism, and the economic prosperity of the individual is one among a number of dividends of liberty including the freedom of opinion, association, and worship, and long-recognized rights to public support for such basic services as education and health care.
So far, so good. I'm in agreement with Ralston Saul that much of what passes for neoconservative thinking in both Canada and the United States displays this basic confusion of cause and effect, with the consequence that unbridled greed and limitless inequalities in the distribution of wealth are considered part and parcel of the democratic regime. In truth, no major philosophical exponent of liberalism or a free market economy ever advocated a life of unbridled materialism and money-making. On the contrary, it was always held that an education in moral character was needed if individual liberties were not to degenerate into licence. Adam Smith (one of Ralston Saul's favourite examples) is famous for formulating the argument that what had traditionally been regarded as private vice-the pursuit of profit through commerce-engenders public virtue. The kernel of this argument appears in the tenth Federalist, where James Madison argues that the peaceful and prosperous "effects" of economic competition neutralize the ineradicable "causes" of vice in the human soul more effectively and beneficently than any attempt to root them out directly through the kind of pedagogical politics envisioned by Plato, Aristotle, or the mediaeval Church. But Smith's endorsement of free-enterprise economics presupposes educating the "inner man" in the moral and intellectual virtues that prevent us from being totally absorbed in money-making. According to Smith, people will not treat each other in an honest and law-abiding manner in their commercial relations unless those relations are guided by a wider moral training of our capacities for reason and sympathy. You have to treat the causes of vice in the soul through liberal education before you can enjoy the effects of a free market economy.
Ralston Saul maintains that, during the last twenty years of neoconservative ascendancy in economic policy-making, living standards in the Third World and even within the Western democracies have arguably declined. Moreover, the elevation of maximum profit as the supreme legitimating purpose of democratic society has led to a corruption of liberal education. The assimilation of education to managerial expertise "is creeping now into general pre-university education. The teaching of transient managerial and technological skills is edging out the basics of learning." Perhaps thinking of the computer Croesus Bill Gates, with his lavish toys and pretensions to show us "the way ahead" (the title of his autobiography), Ralston Saul asks, "What could be cruder than a human being who is limited to a narrow area of knowledge and practice and has the naiveté of a child in most other areas?"
To put Ralston Saul's critique of neoconservatism in Aristotelian terms, he is objecting to the absorption of the city by the household-that is to say, the absorption of public life by the oikos and the art of household management (oikonomia, whence our term "economics"). According to Aristotle, whereas the city is a realm of shared responsibilities among equal citizens, soliciting our moral and intellectual virtues through common deliberation about public affairs, the household is a hierarchy ordered according to the division of labour and efficiency in the production of material goods. In a healthy republican culture, the household's concern with self-preservation and economic independence will be severely circumscribed by the wider and higher concern of the city with the good life. When the household slips its civic bounds and absorbs the city, politics itself becomes a hierarchy based on efficient technical production and the maximization of wealth. Even short of the complete usurpation of the city by the household, if inequalities of wealth among private households become too severe, allowing individual citizens to corrupt the political process by buying or bribing voters and legislators, democracy will suffer. A long line of modern thinkers, from Rousseau through Hegel and Tocqueville, have echoed this Aristotelian caution about severe inequalities of private wealth and the need to constrain economics within civic culture. To this extent, Ralston Saul's critique is more or less sound-though agreement with this general position doesn't necessarily imply agreement with his specific views about policy debates on health care or public education.
Where the book goes awry, and undermines much of what is sound in his argument, is over Ralston Saul's peculiar understanding of what he terms "corporatism".
As best as I can follow him, there is a healthy strand of rounded individualism stretching back to Socrates and carried on by later friends of liberty like John of Salisbury, the Renaissance humanists, Adam Smith, and Hume.
Running counter to this healthy strand is the attempt to impose on human affairs a rigidly stratified, pyramidal, hierarchical order, within which "the primary loyalty of the individual is not to the society but to her group." This strand begins with Plato, extends through "mediaeval" hierarchies up to the "old Catholic" corporatism of the nineteenth century, the Fascists of the twentieth century, and Marxist and Nazi totalitarianism. Today it has re-emerged in the "pyramidal technocratic organizations" of the global economic paradigm. In other words, the political alternatives embodied by figures as diverse as Plato, Metternich, Franco, Lenin, and Newt Gingrich all flow from a common utopian impulse, according to which suffering in the present is the necessary precondition for a future era of permanent bliss: "Marx promised this. The Nazis promised this. And, indeed, the market-forces ideologues promise this. Suffering is inevitable in the short or medium term, but Paradise is the next stop."
This view of Western history as a dyadic struggle between good guys like Socrates and Heinrich Böll, on the one hand, and bad guys like Plato and George Bush, on the other, has a superficial clarity and dramatic appeal that must help explain the extraordinary success of The Unconscious Civilization. In an era when so much academic writing has become a self-referential enterprise written for a few hundred other people on the planet who share one's precise training and specialization, it is not surprising that non-academic writers like Ralston Saul, willing to write boldly and without qualification on the most pressing controversies of contemporary life, quench a great thirst among the educated public for vigorous sources of reflection. Still, there is a Reader's Digest quality to the way in which various museum busts of grand culture are rolled out, the number of big names spanning millennia dropped in a single paragraph, that reminds one of earlier cultural pot-boilers like The Fate of the Earth and The Greening of America. In making such enormous leaps from one kind of philosophy and culture to another, compressing everything into the basic dyad of heroes and villains, Ralston Saul sometimes panders to the reader, making it seem as if qualifications and reservations would be so much academic pedantry distracting us from the main point.
But there is much in this dyad that is open to question or simply wrong. How can one compare the utopia of Plato's Republic, which banished economic productivity and recognized the pursuit of wisdom and civic virtue as the two highest faculties of the soul, to the utopia of Lenin, which derided the very notion of the soul, reduced human beings to bodily drives, and harnessed them to no purpose beyond economic productivity? Precisely because Socrates believed the good of the soul transcended even the best ordering of politics, he concluded that the republic could never actually be founded as a political project, but could only be founded in the individual soul, a "pattern in the sky" to guide one's conduct in one's dealings with an imperfect world.
To turn to modern cases: "market-forces ideologues" have no vision of a future comparable to the utopian politics of Lenin or Hitler. They promise no more than a future of increased leisure time, consumption, and technologically aided fantasy (better and bigger TV and movie screens, virtual reality games, more entertainment). One might argue that this vision of the future is vulgar and philistine. But there is nothing drastic or dangerous about it. By contrast, Lenin's vision of an economically classless society and Hitler's vision of a racially classless society both required the actual extermination of millions of people thought to embody the "contradictions" preventing the realization of this utopian society "beyond" politics. By the same token, the conservative corporatism of the nineteenth century differed significantly both from full-blown fascist or Bolshevik totalitarianism and from laissez-faire capitalism. The conservatism that became dominant in France, Germany, and Italy in the wake of 1848 contained a large element of distrust and hostility toward market forces, which were blamed for encouraging the middle and lower classes' disrespect for the Church and their social betters and for unleashing unreasonable demands for individual prosperity and rights.
The thinness of Ralston Saul's argument, its too quick desire to settle matters, is especially evident in his claim that "the corporatist movement in Germany, Italy, and France during the 1920s"-as he says, "the people who went on to become part of the fascist experience"-shared three broad goals: (1) to "shift power directly to economic and social interest groups"; (2) to "push entrepreneurial initiative in areas normally reserved for public bodies"; (3) to "obliterate the boundaries between public and private interest-that is, challenge the idea of the public interest."
This is supposed to establish that Newt Gingrich and Marshal Pétain share the same basic agenda. But it is misleading to equate fascism with a project for liberating free markets and laissez-faire. Just like the Bolsheviks, the Nazis embodied a profound hostility toward capitalism, liberalism, and the entire Enlightenment project of constitutional democracy and pluralism, summed up in the phrase "anti-capitalist nostalgia". They appealed to the earlier corporatist disdain for the moral anarchy and licentiousness of the free market economy and harnessed it to the far more revolutionary project of creating a racially homogeneous utopia of the future by exterminating the race with whom they falsely identified the worst features of capitalist greed and exploitation. Hence, the longer the Nazi regime lasted, the more it "shifted power" away from "economic and social interest groups", centralizing heavy industry, regulating production, transferring key economic sectors to the state, the Party, and the SS, even aping the Soviet terminology of "five-year plans". Moreover, through the organization of vast, compulsory rites of participation like the Hitler Youth and Strength through Joy, the Nazi regime obliterated the boundaries between public and private not-as Ralston Saul says-by obliterating the idea of the public interest, but, on the contrary, by obliterating the idea of the private interest, assimilating all traditional, sub-political centres of loyalty and obligation such as family, village, labour union, or political affiliation to a monolithic cult of state propaganda and Jacobin ritual.
The missing link in Ralston Saul's diagnosis of political culture at the end of the millennium is the current preoccupation with "community". He excoriates the emphasis on group rights and group identity as a tool whereby the managerial elites weaken the individual's sense of a right and a duty to criticize the status quo. But he is curiously vague about which groups he has in mind and what characterizes them, claiming that "the point is not who or what they are." But it matters very much who and what they are. The reason for this vagueness, I suspect, is that if Ralston Saul were to be more specific, it would be obvious that many of these groups are rather strongly opposed to the agenda of the corporate Right. Environmentalism, feminism, ethnic nationalism, the entertainment subcultures of rock music and film, youth subcultures that experiment with the boundaries of eros, sexual identity, and passion through the marking of the body-whatever one may think of their various strains, they are hardly marching arm in arm with Preston Manning or Newt Gingrich. It may well be that the imprudence, self-marginalization, or self-absorption of some of these communities help the global economic paradigm advance its project for economic maximization by draining creative energies away from the mainstream civic culture and open, balanced political debate. But that is very different from treating them as mere witless tools of economic globalization. Ralston Saul does not appear to understand this, because he does not understand the appeal of postmodernism as an independent variable in contemporary cultural analysis, which cannot be simply derived from economic globalization or reduced to one of its "masks" or instruments.
Postmodernism is the theoretical foundation for the contemporary rediscovery of "community". Put simply but not misleadingly, postmodernism expresses the longing to dismantle the institutions and mores of liberal democracy ("modernity") in order to recover an alleged golden age of the past when human beings lived free of contradiction, alienation, oppression, want, competition, virtue, vice, obligation, authority, or constraint. It is a leap beyond modernity because it is a leap back behind it, to "the year One", to "the Goddess", to "the earth", the "millennium", tribal eco-friendliness, and a deconstructed "open" personality. This longing for a pre-political golden age free of contradiction has accompanied modernization as a built-in dissident ever since Rousseau, who declared the happiest moment in his life to have been the day when, walking along the shores of Lake Constance, he was knocked over by a dog and experienced a complete loss of identity, merged for a few blissful moments with the primordial nothingness. Rousseau's "sweet sentiment of existence" re-emerges as Marx's species-being and still haunts the search of postmodernists for a new social movement to carry on the struggle against liberal "hegemony". As one postmodernist writer recently put it, we all need to "go with the flux." These movements vary enormously within and among themselves, and their longing for the postmodernist nirvana entails more or less real and reasonable protests against injustice and discrimination. Assessing them is a large task, but Ralston Saul's book misses their importance altogether in its haste to derive everything from the single bogeyman of neoconservatism and economic globalization.
I would sum up our era roughly as follows: On the one hand, we face the relentless dynamism of global technology and its impatience with the inherited customs, bonds, and institutions of the nation-state (exemplified by the management guru Peter Drucker's call for the "reinvention" of liberal democratic government to purge it of those inconvenient political and civil institutions that retard our complete transformation into producers and consumers of commodities and nothing else). Global technology is the continuation of what Marx called the revolutionary mission of the bourgeoisie, the most radical revolution in history. Now worshipped as the global economic paradigm, it continues to uproot and destroy whatever remains of vestigial human loyalties and bondedness. Hence, so conspicuous a success both as a financier and a citizen as George Soros has recently warned that capitalism is in danger of severing its links with the virtues of character previously thought to be the common source of civil society and commercial prosperity.
Into the vacuum created by this global imperative of radical modernization on the Right slip the postmodernist communities dreaming of social nirvana longed for by the Left. Just as in Marx's diagnosis of modernization, the bourgeoisie unwittingly brings about proletarian consciousness and emergent species-being when it pursues the maximization of profit to the exclusion of every other understanding of the human good and at the cost of corroding every substantive national and local community, so also our new version of "capital", the paradigm of global competitiveness, while preening itself on being the cutting edge of conservatism, unwittingly prepares the postmodernist nirvana when it seeks to subordinate and assimilate all other valid political and social concerns to its single imperative of dismantling the modern nation-state as an impediment to its revolutionary global mission. Its cheering section, eager to inform us that we must dismantle social welfare programs and the rudiments of national sovereignty altogether, ought to remember Marx's remark about grave-digging.

Waller R. Newell is a professor of political science at Carleton University and the co-author of Bankrupt Education.


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