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The Unconscious Civilization (1995)
Voltaire's Bastards : The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (1992)

        I'm not in the business of suggesting solutions... I don't belong to the Platonic
        tradition, I belong to the Socratic tradition.
           -John Ralston Saul

John Ralston Saul, one of Canada's leading political philosophers,  has drawn an apt analogy in comparing himself to Socrates, but pointedly not to Plato, because he offers a great insight (which is essentially liberal in nature) into the Modern condition, but his personal political predilections (which are essentially Liberal in nature) blind him to the implications. Thus, he is an amusing gadfly, puncturing many myths and prejudices, but he backs off of several cows that are sacred to him, unwilling to apply the rigor of his own argument, and he presents no general program or solution to the problems he perceptively delineates, perhaps because such a program would jibe so closely with the conservative agenda.

Saul's essential insight is that Reason has replaced Religion as the central organizing principle for human affairs, but that Reason, which is essentially just a competing set of beliefs, is extremely dangerous because it has no inherent moral structure. The danger, and this is the most compelling part of Saul's argument, is that rational elites (bureaucrats) have risen up as a modern priesthood; acting as if they are blessed with some special sacred knowledge, they impose rules and regulations on the rest of us to try to make reality fit their technocratic vision.  This social engineering inevitably leads to the repression of human freedoms, but at it's worst, can also lead to outright tyranny and state violence (i.e., Communism, Nazism).

So far so good. But from there on, Mr. Saul goes badly astray, seemingly unable to face the fact that his is a conservative critique of the Modern World.  He ends up flying off into nonsensical diatribes against free marketeers and advocates of globalization, as if these apostles of freedom were the fundamental threat to liberty.  What is the better alternative to the Free Market, if you oppose having elites impose their ideas?  He offers none (perhaps because there is none).  Meanwhile, forgotten are the bureaucrats, technocrats and the Social Welfare State itself, which should be the real targets of his righteous anger.

His other big bugaboo is what he calls Corporatism--the tendency of voters to act as members of blocks rather than as individuals.  But he mistakenly believes that they are voting as members of Large Multinational corporations; in fact, the real problem is that Union members, Blacks, Jews, etc. reflexively vote Democrat in overwhelming percentages.  There are no comparable conservative voting blocks, except perhaps for conservative Christians.  One wishes that every employee of a multinational did vote for free market solutions, lower taxes, etc.  But obviously this is not the case.  Once again, Saul has lit out after a straw man.

As he goes along, Saul continually repeats this pattern, bang on the mark on many issues (particularly his criticisms of  Freud, specialization, the modern university, economists, pursuit of happiness, etc.), then failing to apply his own logic on other issues (inexplicably he supports public schools, adopts Galbreath's opposition to the Growth Economy [read Orrin's review of The Affluent Society by Galbreath], etc.)  It's like reading a book by Harvey "Two Face" Dent as cogent analysis alternates dizzyingly with purblind defense of liberal canards and gratuitous attacks on his natural allies.

The end result is that Saul emerges as a kind of idiot savant; on the big issue--the triumph of Reason over Religion--he has had a significant, though unoriginal, insight, but frequently when it comes time to spin out the implications of his epiphany, he stumbles badly.  And there are virtually no policy prescriptions here, other than that we should cultivate doubt (no duh!, one of the 20th century's conservative icons, Karl Popper, explained that the essence of Scientific Thought is the maintenance of doubt) and that people should be given time off from work to participate in civic affairs (during which time they would universally head for golf courses or bars).  These conclusions are so heavily indebted to others, on the one hand, and so feeble, on the other, as not to deserve being taken seriously.  Saul, like the libertarians whom he obviously resents resembling (see Orrin's review of The Future and It's Enemies by Virginia Postrel), is strong on the critique, but weak on the constructive, as anyone who opposes the omposition of faux expertise must be..

Saul has some interesting things to say and, simply by virtue of the virulence of his polemic, he is often quite amusing, but, because of the dichotomy between his insight and its application,  these books, which overlap one another extensively, can basically be graded in descending order of the length of their argument.  Voltaire's Bastards, weighing in at 600  pages, is so long that the weaknesses in his argument become obvious and they have time to become tedious.  Unconscious Civilization is
based on a series of lectures and is short enough that the problems are less evident.  Far and away, the best of the three is Doubters Companion, although it is somewhat dependent on the other two.  It is essentially an alternative dictionary, offering Saul's observations on myriad political and cultural terms in a breezy, aphoristic style.  As the examples below show, he is pretty amusing and cares not whose ox is being gored:

    A Big Mac: The communion wafer of consumption.

    Birth Control Pill: responsible for a sense of loss and even failure among people who came of
    age in the 1960's, the birth control pill produced a twenty-five-year-long holiday from reality.  For
    the first time in history, sex had no consequences.  It was what it felt like.  Nothing more.

    Buddhism (Tibetan): The most popular form of Buddhism in the West because it has the least
    Buddhist content.

    Corporatism: Corporatism is the persistent rival school of representative government.  In place of
    the democratic idea of citizens who vote, confer legitimacy and participate to the best of their
    ability, individuals in the corporatist state are reduced to the role of secondary participants.  They
    belong to their professional or expert groups--their corporations--and the state is run by ongoing
    negotiations between those various interests.  This is the natural way of organizing things in a
    civilization based on expertise and devoted to the exercise of power through bureaucratic structures.

    Deconstructionism:  A generalized denial of Civilization can't help but be a voice of evil.

    To insist that language is in contradiction with itself or nothing more than a system of self-serving
    formulae or essentially meaningless is to argue that human communications have no ethical, creative
    or social value.  Fortunately deconstructionism can also be seen as a school of light comedy.  After
    all, to argue that language has no meaning is to eliminate your own argument.  The
    deconstructionists may after all simply be suffering from an acute lack of Irony.

    Dialects:  Formerly variations in language produced by geographical isolation, dialects are now the
    variations encouraged by specialists to prevent non-specialists access to their professional territory.

    Dictionary:  Opinion presented as truth in alphabetical order.

    Direct Democracy:  An appealing idea which has been unworkable for more than two thousand
    years.  This makes it a favourite with political groups whose basic instincts are anti-democratic.

    Doubt:  The only human activity capable of controlling the use of power in a positive way.  Doubt
    is central to understanding.

    Florida: Former American state.  Latin Americans are now locked in a long-term struggle with
    Canadians for control.  The Latin Americans are driven by their need for financial and political
    stability, the Canadians by theirs for warmth and a place to die.

    Freud, Sigmund:  A man so dissatisfied with his own mother and father that he devoted his life to
    convincing everyone who would listen--or better still, talk--that their parents were just as bad.

    Growth:  The assumption that prosperity is dependent on growth is an inseparable part of our
    obsession with Competition, our confusion over Debt and our exclusionary approach towards

    Individualism: The exercise through public participation of our obligations to the body of the

    Happiness: A tired and twisted notion which has become an increasing embarrassment in a
    confused society.

    Humanism: An exaltation of freedom, but one limited by our need to exercise it as an integral part
    of nature and society.

    Mythology:  Having killed God and replaced him with ourselves, we are dissatisfied with the
    results.  How else can the rise of mythology be explained.

    Private Lives:  The private lives of public people may be considered private only so long as they
    don't trade on them to advance their careers.

    Technocrat:  This is someone whose skill is the exercise of power.  It follows quite naturally that
    there is no suggestion of purpose, direction, responsibility or ethics.  Just power.

    Tennis: A middle-class version of professional wrestling.

    Tenure:  A system of academic job security which has the effect of rating intellectual leadership on
    the basis of seniority.  This may explain why universities are rarely centers of original thought or

    University:  a place in which a civilization's knowledge is divided up into exclusive territories.
    The principal occupation of the academic community is to invent dialects sufficiently hermetic to
    prevent knowledge from passing between territories.

There is much chaff here, but there's sufficient wheat to be gleaned that he's definitely worth a read.  I especially recommend The Doubter's Companion.
GRADE: C+  (Unconscious Civilization)
GRADE: C  (Voltaire's Bastards)


Grade: (B+)


See also:

John Saul Links:

    -REVIEW: of John Ralston Saul, On Equlibrium (Michael Paton, Drawing Board)

Book-related and General Links:
    - John Ralston Saul - The Internet Doubter's Companion
    -1996 Governor General's Literary Award citation
    -ESSAY: "The truth is out there, unfortunateley" (John Ralston Saul, The Australian 15/01/1999)
    -LECTURE EXCERPTS: Democracy vs. Corporatism and the role of education
    -LECTURE: John Ralston Saul at C4LD April 7, 1997
    -Are MDs more intent on maintaining their élite status than in promoting public good? (Charlotte Gray, Canadian Medical Assoc. Journal)
    -Quotes from The Unconscious Civilization
    -John Ralston Saul (The National Library of Canada)
    -INTERVIEW: The End of Rationalism (Scott London From the Radio Series Insight & Outlook )
    -INTERVIEW: Thoughts of a rational heretic: Fed up with governments? Banks? Bosses? Fear not, salvation is at hand (MARK RILEY, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -INTERVIEW/REVIEW: Friends, Corporatists, Countrymen.... (Amar Dev Dhindsa)
    -REVIEW: (Martin Rumsby, Moving Image Centre)
    -BOOK REVIEW: The Unconscious Civilization (John McCrory, The Pause)
    -John Ralston Saul on Humanism by Rosslyn Ives (HUMANIST SOCIETY OF VICTORIA)
    -Public debate in dumper: Author urges Canadians to channel their rage and demand they be heard
    -REVIEW: VOLTAIRE'S BASTARDS The Dictatorship of Reason in the West Let's Not Be Reasonable (Terry Teachout, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century No enemies to the left  (Kenneth McDonald, Next City)
    -The Absentee Owners (John Veitch  Inspired by "The Unconscious Civilisation" a book by John Ralston Saul)