How About the Unreasoning Civilization?

A Review Essay on John Ralston Saul's The Unconscious Civilization

Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Brock Review (1996) Vol.5, No.1, p.82-6.

KEY TERMS: John Ralston Saul -- the managerial/technical elite -- economic determinism -- the corporatist society -- false capitalism -- false populism -- Adam Smith -- David Hume -- free trade -- Emile Durkheim -- Max Weber -- bureaucratization

Saul's specific thesis is relatively straightforward. It has two parts, the first being that a rapidly expanding and relatively unproductive and costly group -- the managerial and technical elite -- has gained control of both the public and private sectors of modern industrial societies. Second, Saul claims that this group is more responsible for the perilous financial state of this country than is any over-expansion of governmental services. He thinks that this is due both to the unfortunate economic consequences of their self-serving decision making and to the expanding share of the Gross Domestic Product that they have been able to appropriate. A supporting and more general thesis is that, ever since the Industrial Revolution, the increasingly specialized and historically unaware profession of economics, which spawned this increasingly powerful elite, has been emerging as the driving force shaping all other cultural institutions. This takeover has been so successful, he implies, that most of us have been persuaded to buy into a simplistic belief in economic determinism in spite of the fact that Marxism (the original source of the notion) has been totally discredited.

Saul declares that our entire civilization has, in fact, accepted the premise of economic determinism -- albeit unconsciously". Indeed, he says, many now believe without question in the conventional wisdom that the very process of democracy is a product of economic relationships -- and that our cherished individualism emerged from that source as well. This conventional wisdom implies that the natural law of economics -- or the "invisible hand of free-market forces -- is sufficient in itself to guarantee both democracy and individualism. He notes that the supremely ironic result of all this is that we have unknowingly allowed ourselves to become a corporatist society based on Marxist economic principles -- even though we fought World War II to destroy Fascist corporatism and engaged in over four decades of the Cold War to combat communism.

According to Saul, our current faddish obsession with the rights and interests of "the group rather than the individual is a sign of the extension of corporatism into every arena of modern life. He sees the university system as one of the chief culprits in promoting this, in addition to a host of other delusions that prevent us from recognizing the real nature and dimensions of our problems. According to him, clarity of language, and the thought encased in and shaped by it, is no longer a mark of the university-educated person. He is particularly critical of schools of business administration in this regard, but admits that even departments of humanities have contributed to the spread of an obscure, closed language designed to prevent rather than to facilitate communication. He refers to it as a corporatist" language characterized by intentionally obfuscating rhetoric, propaganda and specialized dialect. The world view underlying and justifying the pervasive corporatism reflected by that language is grounded in "holistic illusions -- in an addiction to Utopian, single-cause ideologies. It is spread by the expanding ranks of neo-conservative courtiers who are the graduates of a non-substantive schooling in managerial technique. And it is spread, as well, he claims, by the supposedly authoritative voices of the social science academics.

Saul explains that he is not opposed to capitalism, but to the "false capitalism" which views the market not merely as the most effective means of conducting business, but as an infallible mechanism capable in itself of producing and guaranteeing a Utopian society. The reification of technology and our tendency to let it drive the process of social change worries him as well. He is also critical of the push toward globalization and the resulting control of all aspects of civilization by global money markets: the latter being, in his view, simply "old-fashioned speculation run by sophisticated new technocrats. (p.150)

For Saul, corporatism in economic affairs is a far cry from the kind of fruitful capitalism envisioned by Adam Smith. It is characterized not by the investment of capital and the effective deployment of labor for general social profit, but by three quite different features which serve to mask the fact that no-one is actually benefiting except the managers. These are (1) privatization -- often of the most profitable of governmental enterprises rather than the subsidized ones; (2) mergers and acquisitions -- resulting in losses to shareholders and consumers alike and gains only to the managers; and (3) widespread speculation in resources. He quotes Adam Smith on the corrupting cultural effects of the latter. Wherever capital predominates, industry prevails; wherever revenue, idleness,"wrote Smith in the middle of the eighteenth century. Saul's conclusions are "that we have lost all sense of Adam Smith's concept of useful labor and that economists, business schools and private-sector management are responsible for that confusion." (p.131) Saul is similarly critical of what he calls the false" populism of some of our modern right-wing movements. In fact, he sees the popular idea of the referendum as "the ideal consummation of the rational as irrational, or the anti-democratic posing as democracy. (p.109) It is this unacknowledged (or unconscious) substitution of a positive process by its antithesis that seems to be the focus of his concern. Ironically, he may even have fallen into this trap himself in a previous work. In a reference to reason (which he subjected to a rather indiscriminate attack in Voltaire's Bastards) he now admits that "the not reason, but what we have done to reason by raising it to a state of divinity. (p.101) This admission marks considerable progress for Saul, in that he need no longer be in the position of cutting off the bough on which he is himself so comfortably and ably perched. For it is clear that his entire discussion of the 'unconscious civilization is grounded in a laudable attempt to apply reason to our present-day problems. He even defines these problems in terms of a prevailing commitment to illusion rather than to its opposite -- what most people would identify as a reasoning skepticism, but which he is forced (by his previous writings) to name in more ambiguous terms. However, to give him his due, he has been emphasizing ever since the earlier publication on the dictatorship of reason" that his attack was never intended to be on reason per se, but on what amounts to false reason. One can only wonder if a certain university-induced ambiguity of language may have been at fault here, where Saul's original confused and confusing attack on reason was concerned.

Regarding popular illusions about the social efficacy of the market's invisible hand, Saul says there is no evidence that the economic injustices created by the Industrial Revolution were self-rectifying. As a social scientist I can only wonder why anyone would expect otherwise. I would go even further and suggest that it is a mark of the general failure of social science to progress beyond the ideology which Saul rightfully deplores that we still have so little reliable knowledge about how to rectify today's injustices. But I would depart from Saul on one important point. I suggest that the dismal record of many of the social sciences" is not due to our operating scientifically, as he seems to be implying, but rather to our abysmal failure to develop the kind of sound theoretical foundation that would enable us to begin to apply an authentically scientific approach. Rather than writing off all of the above efforts, Saul could have included in his listing of false reason," false capitalism and "false democracy," the pseudo quality of much that today goes by the name of social science.

Saul tells us that our belief in salvation through the marketplace is very much in the Utopian tradition associated with all ideological thinking -- both secular and religious. He provides an enlightening comparison of the later Scholasticism with much of our modern academic discourse, noting that the latter actually functions to obfuscate rather than clarify, and to close off the inquiry process rather than to open it. This very much needs to be said, but the total message would be stronger if the references that followed were more appropriate.

He offers as an example of the nonsensical language of the technocrat the claim that the country is experiencing economic growth, but is at the same time threatened with bankruptcy. He asks, "Which is it?," implying that it cannot be both. But this is not a logically impossible state of affairs! Saul has indicated that he recognizes the existence of a public and private sector; why not, therefore, the possibility of the coexistence of a business surplus with a crippling government debt? Of course, if business is profitable tax revenues should be up (as they inevitably are, regardless of the effect of global competition on corporate tax levels) but governments in Canada have been overspending in good times as well as in bad -- something implicitly forbidden by Keynesian economic theory. Saul also seems to recognize the fact that, in both sectors, a disproportionately large share of the benefits of economic growth has been going to an elite group of specialists and managers, with less and less available for the working poor and unemployed. He should also have been able to recognize that, as a direct result of all this, the cost of goods and services to everyone -- and particularly the cost to government of the services it renders -- has been increasing. An associated and entirely logical result is that the federal government (operated by politicians who tend to resist making decisions likely to be objectionable to influential opinion setters such as John Ralston Saul) has for two decades been spending approximately one-third more annually than it has taken in. This universally popular practice has brought Canada to the point where one-third of every dollar of revenue collected now goes to servicing our burgeoning public debt. Surely it is not illogical to see in all this the possibility of bankruptcy! What is illogical is the conclusion that a country can live beyond its means for years while still remaining free of the control of global money markets.

This problem will not be solved merely by redefining economic growth as Saul suggests. However, his objections to a concept of growth that rests on an accelerating rate of consumption of non-renewable resources is likely to be widely shared by concerned readers. Many will agree as well with his claim that today's neo-conservative technocrats are misreading Adam Smith and David Hume when they refer to these great beacons of the Enlightenment as their philosophical mentors. Hume did not believe in the concept of natural law governing social relations (economic or otherwise) and Adam Smith acknowledged the need for wise legislation to ensure the provision of necessary services like health and education. However, I question Saul's suggestion that Smith would have opposed free trade in today's world. Adam Smith was most certainly a proponent of free trade in the global context of his times. He (and his followers in the Anti-Corn Law League of the early nineteenth-century) were convinced that it is the poor who always suffer the most from all forms of protectionism and local monopoly of control over goods and services. The Irish Famine was perhaps the most tragic historical example of this.

This may be the place to discuss Saul's reading of two other theorists: a reading that has left me somewhat puzzled. He seems to have misunderstood the perspectives of two turn-of-the-century sociologists to whom he refers disparagingly a number of times: Emile Durkheim who is responsible for establishing sociology as an academic discipline in France, and Max Weber who is remembered for the same accomplishment in Germany. It is noticeable that all of the references to Durkheim came from one particular secondary source: one which I believe badly misrepresents the ideas of this most democratic of social theorists. Like Saul, Durkheim saw public education as central for democracy. Also like Saul in his uneasiness about referenda, Durkheim distrusted non-representational approaches to democracy. At the same time, he felt that representation along regional and class lines was inherently divisive. It is in this light that one must read his suggestion concerning the functional grouping (from the lowliest laborer to the most prestigious owner or manager in any particular enterprise ) as a possible political constituency. Anyone who has studied all the works of Emile Durkheim could not help but be appalled at such a total misunderstanding of his concept of organic solidarity" as is revealed by those who accuse him of proposing a version of the Syndicalism of Sorel. It is the latter which may well have been the source of Mussolini's corporatist notions.

Saul's references to Max Weber are similarly puzzling. I would think that he would recognize a kindred spirit when he encountered one! In his distrust of science wherever the approach is directed toward the study of the human condition -- and in his ambiguous attitude toward reason -- Saul is closer to Max Weber than to any other influential theorist. It was Weber who, somewhat like Saul, commonly referred to the cause-and-effect reasoning of science as "the rationalization process" and placed it in the same league as the rationalization occurring within bureaucracies. It was Weber who, again like Saul, preferred the historical and motivational approach to the social studies over the empirical or scientific one. Saul says that Weber predicted a bureaucratized society governed by specialized managers. Indeed he did but, throughout his writings he, like Saul himself, expressed concern about that possibility.

Saul is recommending a more balanced approach than what is presently being followed: one which he associates with the concept of equilibrium. He thinks that we must move beyond the ideologies of Right and Left -- both of which, he says, are based on the notion of individualism as short-sighted self-aggrandizement and on a worship of individual rights without recognition of corresponding obligations to society. I join him in this conclusion, and in his regret that there are today few broadly humanist philosophical voices issuing from academic philosophy departments to provide leadership in the struggle to solve our problems. And that there are so few of the same types of voices from within the social sciences. However, in this lecture-series -- as in Voltaire's Bastards -- he tends to somewhat misrepresent his designated culprits in the process of criticizing them. I am reminded of Voltaire's comment concerning Rousseau's Discourse on the Arts. Voltaire said, "I saw here a man who started by hating the abuse of the arts and came in the end to hate the arts themselves." What Saul did earlier with reason he seems to have continued to some extent with social science. As in the case of the earlier work, Saul has wielded too broad a brush. I can only applaud him for criticizing pseudo-science in all of its prevalent forms within the social studies. But let us not at the same time attack authentically scientific attempts to better understand the human condition. I cannot help but wonder if the value of Saul's generally commendable critique might have been increased by a bit more familiarity with modern social science -- especially with those areas of economics and psychology where there does exist a considerable body of well-documented findings.