Book Review: The Unconscious Civilization, by John Ralston Saul

As mentioned previously, House of Anansi recently re-released their acclaimed CBC Massey Lectures series. This news is a significant boon to the reader who values provocative, intelligent discussion which often straddles the fine line between social anthropology and philosophy. Having been pleasantly surprised with Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (reviewed previously here), I picked-up John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization with hesitant interestI say hesitant because I’m already well-acquainted with his work.

I was first introduced to Ralston Saul many years ago with his book Voltaire’s Bastards (ISBN 9780140153736). I was impressed with his bold and thoroughly-referenced perspective on what he contends is the growing paralysis of Western civilisation throughout history. However, in retrospect, this was probably the wrong book to start with; for one thing, it’s about 656 (trade paperback) pages which, considering his dense style and cogent analysis, makes for a bit of a brain slog. Nonetheless, I followed this with the successive releases of Confessions of a Siamese Twin (ISBN 9780140259889), his treatise on Canadian social/political identity, and On Equilibrium (ISBN 9780140288032), his elaboration on six foundational aspects of civilization.

I wish now that I had first read The Unconscious Civilization.

Clocking-in at a comparably svelte 205 pages, Unconscious Civilization finds Ralston Saul boiling down the magnum opus that was Voltaire’s Bastards into something much more approachable for the average reader without filing down its fangs. The thesis is partially revealed in the Preface, written for the 10th anniversary re-release:



When I wrote these Massey Lectures, I was convinced they would cause a shock. After all, I was describing the state of the West in a manner quite off the radar screen. I was saying there had been a persistent growth of corporatism in spite of the outcome of the last world war. And that this growth continued. Why would this be shocking? Because corporatism was part of the anti-democratic underpinnings of Fascist Italy in particular, but also of Nazi Germany. Beneath the uniforms and the military ambitions and the dictatorial leadership and the racism lay corporatism. It was the intellectual foundation of fascism. And it was supposed to have been destroyed along with both regimes in 1945.



So, it’s not exactly light reading. Throughout history though, concepts and arguments that heed us to re-evaluate our surroundings (whether or not we end up holding fast to them) are often dissonant to our day-to-day perspective on life – in other words, controversy often ensues difference. Ralston Saul is unafraid to call a spade a spade.

The Unconscious Civilization lays out in dense, history-shifting references, the problems and origins of corporatism and how it has become an increasingly acceptable means to run modern societies, in spite of its history of stifling democracy and rewarding conformism.

One of the key points made is how one can propose to adjudicate the underlying strength of any given society – that is, asking: where does its legitimacy lie? He proposes that this legitimacy lies in one of four areas: God, a king, groups, or civilian individuals working as a whole. While the history of Western society has largely been influenced by the former two, Ralston Saul feels that we are most certainly in the hands of groups: think-tanks, specialists, and managers.

The corporatist model, he argues, in the tradition of the Catholic Church, is obsessed with God and Destiny – albeit transposed onto contemporary concerns such as the trade markets and privatisation of public interests. Corporatist language is thus cloaked in a similar sense of inevitability and sycophantic awe that the Church used to instill fear and hold power over the populace.

Although the density of Ralston Saul’s arguments is impressive (in particular, his contention that Jung and Freud allowed the posterity of their work to fall victim to an inarticulated obsession with mythology) , I feel it’s this same quality that weighs down the over-arching themes of the book. At points, particularly with his repeated references to Athens in the days of Socrates, I longed for the simple first-person perspective that gave Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose To Live Inside its sprightliness and pactical immediacy. At times, Unconscious Civilization buckles under the considerable thickness of its content, which makes me wonder what the average reader will take away from it (without re-reading).

However, this doesn’t change the fact that this is powerful stuff. Not content to only point out what’s wrong with society, his last chapter is dedicated to thinking towards solutions. In particular, I found great interest in his contention that the public school system is out of step with the lifestyle changes over the last 20 years – as people are set to retire later and later, would it not make sense for children to enter into school later and then be required to receive a more complete education than the current system which is only concerned about cranking out specialists for the marketplace? Ralston Saul also delves into his equilibrium theory, to which he devoted a book in 2002, in which he postulates that individuals and society alike must work to remain balanced rather than hyper-focused on any one quality, in particular rationality, which has been used to justify abuses throughout history.

I would not hesitate to suggest this book to anyone interested in challenging views of society in general, and Ralston Saul’s ideas in particular. For the latter, The Unconscious Civilization is the ultimate primer. For the former, you will undoubtably find yourself spending a great deal of time wrestling with its well-researched and sometimes scathing message.

The Unconscious Civilization is available for sale at a fine independent bookstore near you and online at House of Anansi Press, as well as…Powell’s, Amazon, Chapters. Published by House of Anansi Press (ISBN: 0-88784-586X)


Media Linguistics: What the hell?

I was reading the following post on CNN (from Reuters news service):


Kenya’s first lady: Abstain, don’t use condoms

Risks anger of anti-AIDS activists in her counsel to young people

NAIROBI, Kenya (Reuters) — Kenyan first lady Lucy Kibaki risked the wrath of anti-AIDS campaigners by advising young people against using condoms, saying they should practice abstinence instead.


However, I have to ask: what the hell is an “anti-AIDS activist”? Furthermore, an “anti-AIDS campaigner”?

Aside from the story itself (which is troubling enough), why does Reuters insist on using this ridiculous terminology?

In a similar story on a cholera outbreak in Angola, I see no reference to groups such as Medecins Sans Frontieres or the World Health Organisation being “anti-cholera activists”. Why? Because it’s bloody obvious that the distinction isn’t necessary, unless of course I’m wrong and there is a burgeoning tide of “pro-cholera” and “pro-AIDS” campaigners in our midst*.

Particularly considering how tragically difficult it is to stabilise the AIDS epidemic in certain parts of the world (via basic medicine and education), there’s no need to further complicate the matter with ridiculous qualifiers such as “anti-AIDS” – it only serves to compound an already embattled cause.

* (conceivably, any politician who supports abstinence alone as a means of battling AIDS is probably the closest thing to a “pro-AIDS campaigner” as we’re likely to see)


The Not-So-Great Debate

With every year, particularly since 9/11, it’s harder and harder to find reasoned debate. By ‘reasoned debate’, I mean a discussion where arguments are backed up with reason, a bit of logic, and some semblance of research/understanding of history. What doesn’t pass for ‘reasoned debate’ – what we currently have before us – is hyperbole, name-calling, grand-standing, and ridiculously partisan follies paraded in all forms of media.

Before I go any further, I encourage you to look at the dictionary definition of debate. The important word repeated throughout is discussion. I don’t think this word needs defining, though some days I think it should be printed on t-shirts and handed out to school children so that it’s not forgotten. But I digress.

Two reasons for the lack of true (as in useful) debate come to mind, although I’m sure there are more:

1) The replacement of individual thought with self-invested group-think.

2) The perversion of language and its subsequent use as a weapon.

– – –

The first point is as clear as it is demonstrable. Increasingly, individual citizen input (from either the public or private sector) is bypassed in favour of specialists from advocacy groups and so-called think-tanks. Some examples: in Canada, The Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, and the Canadian Taxpayer Federation. In the U.S., examples include the CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.

Whether leaning towards a particular side of the political spectrum or specialising in a particular avenue of advocacy, all of these groups have one thing in common: self-interest. In corporatist style, think tanks and advocacy groups have been propped up as representatives for a discussion which should take place within the public arena but doesn’t. It doesn’t because the public arena is seen as messy; in an increasingly corporatist society, messy doesn’t compute. Messy needs to be streamlined. The rise of advocacy groups, think-tanks and (increasingly) NGO’s often has nothing to do with the public and everything to do with establishing each group’s predominance in their field. Indeed, the first and last thing both the Canadian Taxpayer Federation and the CATO Institute have in common is making sure their organisations keep running – certainly not fostering independent thought.

One thing you can count on is that advocacy groups and think-tanks are consistent: everyone tows the line, everyone knows the script. Their facts, usually half-sided, are provided-for internally and what research they do is with the sole intent of reaching a pre-conceived conclusion that suits a pre-defined format, whether it be economic, social, or political.

When these organisations are inserted in place of the citizen’s voice, democracy becomes Kafka-esque. Often, one ideological think-tank is pitted against another, and what is discussed has no relation to truth (as either the citizen sees it or would like questioned) but to the safe consistency of “staying on-message”. Thus, there is very little debating in lieu of ideological advertisement.

It’s tempting to admire projects like Media Matters for America, which can be very effective at spotting media bias, but my frustration is that its interests are inherently one-sided: attack Republican bias, but support/protect Democrat initiatives. Indeed, it would be daunting for an organization devoted to highlighting media bias if it was looking at all sides of the media paradigm – and this comes to my concluding point: vested interests are easy to finance. Complexity is not.

– – –

The second blockade to real debate is the perversion of language. Media pundit Bill O’Reilly is probably one of the most accomplished when it comes to the distortion of language. His polemic style, his bullying aggression towards dissenting opinion, and his partisan hatred are broadcast every weekday to an audience of millions. He begins and ends most of his addresses with the well-worn cloak of false common-sense: everyone wants to protect freedom, everyone is concerned about terrorism, everyone knows that there are far-left extremists among us. Everyone. His consistent target is a group known previously as liberals, but most recently goes by the moniker secular progressives. In O’Rielly’s words, they are elitists and only Bill O’Reilly can identify this imminent threat to our safety. Obviously this is all very partisan and prejudicial and not dissimilar to what has been said and demonstrated throughout the 20th century by both fascists and Communists – but everything about O’Reilly and FoxNews is paradoxically draped in the opposite: his show is called The No-Spin Zone and his channel’s mantra is Fair and Balanced. The paradox continues the more attention is spent on their language: leftists are compared to Nazis…actually, that’s wrong: everyone who takes a different side ends up being portrayed as a Nazi…or alternately a Communist. (I suggest FoxNews create a doll that, on cue, devotees could raise and shake towards the TV screen at opportune times, whilst shouting “Ooogey boogey ooogey!”.)

A less outraged sentiment is echoed by newspaper columnists such as the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, who habitually tut-tuts those who question authority (save for when she decides to). Her approach, albeit certainly less vitriolic than O’Reilly’s, is to portray dissenters as part of a privileged latt√©-sipping middle-class elite. Her motto seems to be: shut up and live with it – ostensibly the antithesis of debate itself.

Again, we come back to the word elitist. Elitism is, we are told, our enemy. It’s an easy way to cast aspersions on dissent – let’s face it, there are always going to be a smaller percentage of people who ask disinterested questions (that is, questions that are not self-serving but serve the ideals of the community). In her book, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside (reviewed here), Doris Lessing is philosophical about the word elitism and it’s accusatory usage. She goes so far as to determine it a necessary evil if it means the freedom to ask important, if unpopular, questions aloud. In other words, if painted an elitist – so be it.

– – –

From a local perspective, the debate disconnect was driven home – literally and figuratively – when in 2000, Toronto broadcaster CityTV refused to hold an election debate between the incumbent mayor, Mel Lastman and his opponents. This was the first time CityTV had decided to do this since they began hosting televised mayoral debates*. While it was arguable at the time as to the feasiblity of any of Lastman’s opponents winning (and it should be noted that Lastman won with 80% support), it was shocking to see a local broadcaster that wraps itself in a mantra of street-level community-building refuse to even go that simple distance. I remember watching an evening call-in show on CityTV, hosted by Lorne Honickman, whose guest was mayoral hopeful Tooker Gomberg – this took place after the announcement that there would be no debate. I clearly remember the disbelief, bordering on contempt, that Honickman displayed as caller after caller phoned-in to simply ask: why? Why no debate? His retisence to discuss the subject was as obvious as his clear disdain for his guest.

– – –

Debate is inclusive, not exclusive. Its aim is perspective – not the promotion of canned answers or unmovable positions. The object of debate is not disgracing dissent, but putting forth reasoned arguments. I think there’s a long road ahead as regards our ability to communicate, to argue respectfully, and to share ideas. These things happen at a smaller scale all the time in our communities, but I think we’ve forgotten how important they are, thus it’s going to take a while for citizens to feel attached to it again; to take command of their own voice, as it were.

The responsibility to restore true debate falls on civilians – when the citizenry abdicates responsibility for public discussion, we shouldn’t be surprised when the gap is filled by self-interested interest-groups. When societies forget about their social responsibilities those responsibilities are often annexed as anachronisms, and replaced by the empty comfort of technology (ie televised think tanks). The Internet is a good tool for the restoration of debate, but it’s only a tool and not in and of itself anything more. What’s needed is the will to reform, reason, and a sense of responsibility to society as a whole.

* (I can find no record to refute this, but I’m open to correction)