It may be that civilizations, like individuals, are often ignorant of their own true natures. While most people at any given time act with what seems to be good sense, it is entirely possible that they exist in an illusory state, blinded by ideology, or by a sentimental view of themselves. That is certainly John Ralston Saul’s contention about modern industrial society in The Unconscious Civilization, a book that brings to fruition the themes the Toronto-based novelist and social critic developed in his earlier studies, Voltaire’s Bastards (1992) and The Doubter’s Companion (1994). Broadcast last fall as the 1995 Massey Lectures on CBC Radio, The Unconscious Civilization maintains that society is unwittingly destroying the one instrument with which it can forge a livable future—democracy.
The most eloquent of Saul’s three books on this subject, The Unconscious Civilization has a compact, incisive elegance that bristles with epigrammatic wit and quotes from sources as diverse as Plato and economist Adam Smith.
For Saul, the greatest threat to the democratic way of life stems from what he calls “corporatism.”
Some of Saul’s critics have misunderstood his use of this term, as if it referred only to large business corporations. But for Saul, IBM, Mussolini’s Fascist party and government bureaucracies are all corporatist: all are undemocratic, expansionist, and tend to co-opt the loyalty of their members from society as a whole. Saul contends that today, one-half to one-third of the workforce of Western democracies is engaged in the corporatist administration of the public and private sectors. He calls these people the “managerial elites,” and sees them as the unwitting prisoners of practices and ideologies that favor their own corporatist structures and undermine the health of the broader culture.
Saul believes that the corporatists are influencing government policy—and the general direction of society—to a dangerous
degree. He argues that big business has been particularly successful in getting its own ideology widely accepted, from its insistence that the “global marketplace” is inevitable, to the new emphasis on business and technical training in schools and universities, to governments’ current obsession with eliminating deficits. (While Saul admits that deficits must be tackled, he thinks that business’s emphasis on national debt reduction is a screen to hide its real aim: the scaling down of governments. Governments, he argues, have traditionally defended society from the excesses of the corporatists, and have extracted a share of their profits to help support social programs.)
For Saul, society’s general acceptance of the corporatist view as a kind of “common sense” amounts to an unconsciously selfdestructive act that will lead to collapsing social infrastructures, weak governments, a passive, culturally ignorant workforce and a degraded environment. Yet, his rather bleak view does not prevent him from making some highly original attacks on the corporatist mentality. Most notably, he argues that the vast bureaucracies of the managerial elites—which, following Adam Smith, he sees as the unproductive sector of business—“are a far more important factor in keeping the economy in depression than is any overexpansion of government services.” This is Saul’s crucial point: that big business itself is the source of much of society’s waste and inefficiency. But like so many of his seductive generalities, it suffers from a lack of detailed examples and analysis to back it up. Yet, the overall slant of his argument is forceful, and when he does tie it to specific cases, he can be powerfully persuasive, as in his examination of President Bill Clinton’s failure to introduce a comprehensive medicare system for all Americans. As Saul shows, the corporatist mentality is so ingrained in the medical establishment that even those experts who were in favor of universal medicare created such a complex, unworkable plan that it alienated almost everyone. And so, in the end, the democratic will of the electorate was thwarted.
Saul offers some important ideas for taming the big corporations, including international agreements that would establish decent minimum wages and tax rates—Saul estimates that, in the global economy, the large companies pay an average of only 13 per cent on their profits—as well as strong environmental-protection laws. Such measures would prevent them from holding countries to ransom by threatening to move where the cost of business is lower.
Yet, ultimately, the governments that would have to create such legislation are no better than the people who elect them. At the heart of Saul’s book is a vision of human beings as more than consumers and employees, motivated by the narrowest kind of self-interest. The Unconscious Civilization is a plea to revive the old, humanistic idea of the citizen—a concerned, thoughtful individual dedicated in a disinterested way to the good of the society as a whole. Only the democratically combined actions of such people, Saul believes, will ever slow the corporatist juggernaut.
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