John Ralston Saul’s ‘Unconscious Civilization’

Originally published in John McCrory’s Pause
Thursday, January 29, 1998

John Ralston Saul’s recent book asserts that the most pernicious problem in the West today is our addiction to ideology and utopianism, which he calls a “desperate need to believe that the solving of a single problem will solve all our problems.” The universal answer. The magic bullet.

unconciouscivI found Saul’s argument to be powerful and convincing, utilizing a broad reach in history, philosophy, and literature. (The man is an incredible polymath.) Although on a few occasions as I read this book I found myself saying, “What is he talking about?” more often I was nodding in agreement, delighted to read in clear and incisive prose so many gut convictions I have been unable to give words to myself. Overall, Saul’s argument is persuasive and on target.

A friend of mine who also read this book commented to me that he found many similarities between Saul’s ideas and the libertarian ideology. I could see his point, yet as you shall see, it is by more than just a subtle shift of emphasis that Saul’s ideas differ from libertarianism. Saul’s definition of the individual as a person who doesn’t mind her own business is the single idea that completely separates him from Libertarianism, which is after all, just selfishness masquerading as democracy.

The dominant ideology of our times, holding all of our civilization in its grip, says Saul, is “corporatism,” an ideology that puts all faith and power in group action rather than action by disinterested individuals. “Corporatism. . . claims rationality as its central quality. The overall effects on the individual are passivity and conformity in those areas which matter and non-conformism in those which don’t.”

Saul’s purpose in The Unconscious Civilization is to challenge and overturn two contemporary notions that he believes undermine democracy. One is the way we conceive of the individual, the other is the idea that economics and capitalism gave birth to democracy.

Saul shows how contemporary definitions of individualism are narrow corruptions of the original concept of the individual, which has been hijacked by ideologues to mean a “single ambulatory centre of selfishness,” a person who is free to mind her own business. “What’s wrong with minding one’s own business?” the reader may ask. To demonstrate precisely what he means by this phrase, Saul quotes the end of Socrates’s speech in Plato’s Apology several times in the book. It is the point at which Socrates has been given his sentence, which gives him the options of exile from Athens and keeping quiet or a deadly cocktail of hemlock:

Perhaps someone may say, “But surely, Socrates, after you have left us you can spend the rest of your life quietly minding your own business.” This is the hardest thing of all to make some of you understand. If I say . . . I cannot “mind my own business,” you will not believe that I am serious. If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and that examining both myself and others is really the very best thing a man can do and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me. Nevertheless, gentlemen, that is how it is.

Socrates chose the cocktail, of course. Saul’s argument is that, in our unconscious acceptance of corporatism, we have effectively chosen exile, sacrificing our active engagement in the polis as disinterested citizens. Without vigorous participation by disinterested citizens, Saul convincingly argues, the source of legitimacy — from which society takes its form — falls to interest groups, whether they be corporations or trade associations or even (although Saul’s critique doesn’t specifically mention them,) community organizations. How can we call our civilization democratic when the individual resigns herself to such powerlessness?

For Saul, individualism implies the responsibility to be engaged as a disinterested individual. The notion of disinterest is of central importance, because it requires an amount of distance in order to insure fairness. Disinterest, Saul points out, is precisely what enables a jury to make a fair judgement. Yet the overwhelming view of the elite today is that individuals are incapable of disinterest. One finds this view in the cynicism of the media, and it is coupled with a profound pessimism about the human character. Saul wrote in Voltaire’s Bastards, that regardless of their political orientation,

[Elites] consider it unlikely that the average individual will work hard enough or recognize beauty or vote for the best policies or even obey in a suitable manner. They take as a given that this individual cannot or will not understand the complexities of whatever responsibilities fate has thrust upon someone who has expertise and power.

This pessimism serves the elites’ own self-interest, Saul explains, because “the establishment of self-interest as the prime driving force of the human character is the key to their approach.” Which brings us to Saul’s other main point about the ideology of corporatism: the notion that economics and capitalism gave birth to democracy and make it possible.

The Unconscious Civilization was originally given the alternate subtitle, How Mussolini Won the War, and Saul’s point is that the corporatist ideology is simply a modern cloak for fascism. It may seem odd to hear a contemporary writer raging about ideology now that overtly Communist and Marxist states have, with few exceptions, collapsed, or like China, morphed into quasi-capitalist states. But consider how economics and its “miraculous cure for all that ails us” — trade and the marketplace — have triumphed as the primary means of understanding the “human condition” today; Saul suggests that “the marketplace, Marxism, and Fascism strongly resemble each other.” Economics an ideology? Saul points out that these modern ideologies are all prefaced on the supremacy of economics. Economic Man is a creation of Marx, one will recall.

Saul directly challenges the notion that capitalism makes democracy — and, hence, individualism — possible by critiquing the four pillars of the corporatist ideology: the marketplace, technology, globalization, and the money markets — all of which are based in economic theory. Our unconsciousness arises, Saul argues, from the fact that we consider these unshakable realities rather than ideas or practices which may be subject to debate. In its evolution as a “science,” economic theory has come to be considered economic law.

If the reader is skeptical, Saul buttresses his argument by showing how these four pillars masquerade as economic laws by being identified as inevitabilities. We are repeatedly told resistance to them is futile. But, Capitalism is no more the handmaiden of democracy than rational self-interest is. Why else were the French selling gasoline to the advancing Nazis in World War II? No, capitalism does not necessarily lead to democracy, argues Saul, as evidenced by the Asian nations that until recently had booming economies but encourage conformity and passivity among their people rather than individualism and participation.

Ironically, the move to “fix” these broken-down economies is now centered around a call for stricter regulation of economic actors. Placing a bundling board between corporations and government is a positive step. But without encouraging the active engagement of disinterested citizens, the unrestrained power of large institutions will allow fascism to persist.

So why, in ostensibly strong democracies, has fascism managed to win the war? Saul places the failure of democracy at the feet of our weakness for ideology, for the fact that “power in civilization is repeatedly tied to the pursuit of all-inclusive truths and utopias.”

Where does this weakness come from? Saul suggests that it arises from our fear of appearing ridiculous, which leads to self-contempt and a debilitating passivity in the face of crisis. One can see this passivity in the fear most of us have about speaking out on matters in which we are not specialists. Who am I to dare disturb the universe? What do I know? We sacrifice our free will to the supposed inevitability of destiny — in modern terms the inevitable rewards and punishments of the marketplace, technological change, the global economy and its money markets.

The key to the success of corporatist ideology is its perversion of the idea of individualism. Ideologues want us to mind our own business, which simply means to not act as disinterested participants in the give and take of debate that occurs in a civilization. By encouraging us to feel free to mind our own business, corporations and interest groups are unfettered in their ability to dominate the decision making process, to enact legislation, to set standards and define policy in ways that serve them best.

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In the eerie 1931 German film, “Mädchen in Uniform,” in which the Catholic boarding school girl Angelica and the kind nun who is her teacher fall in love, the independently behaving Angelica is chastised at one point by the Mother Superior, “Don’t think! Obey.” Of course, ideologues today would never say such a thing for fear of being recognized as fascists who want us out of the way. Instead, they tell us that individualism is about self-interest and the freedom to mind one’s own business.

In recent times the notion that the individual has a direct responsibility to others has come to be considered by many a romantic, naive idea that might work in a perfect world, but not in ours. Our main responsibility today appears to be the freedom to choose one consumer product over another. The best way to change the world for the better, we are told, is to patronize “socially-responsible” corporations, and an activist group called the Council on Economic Priorities has even given us a socially-responsible buyer’s guide in its bestseller, Shopping for a Better World. How do young people nowadays disasssociate themselves from the dominant mainstream ideology? By dyeing their hair purple and piercing their navels with decorative jewelry that provides a convenient conversation piece to literally encourage navel gazing. Better yet, they buy consumer products (a.k.a. “goods”) emblazoned with ostensibly countercultural slogans. “Conformism in those areas which matter, and non-conformism in those which don’t,” as Saul says.

The one remaining vestige of responsibility to others as a social value finds its form in the contemporary yearning for community. What people pine for today is a sense of community, we are told, right before we are spoon fed sepia-toned visions of community: small towns in Kansas or Arkansas or vibrant urban neighborhoods that haven’t existed for half a century. There is also the consciousness-raising notion of community one finds in politically correct descriptions of subcultures. One critic even takes his notion of community from a fictional television show: “Community” he says, “is like the bar Cheers, where everybody knows your name.” Community, community, community. It has become the mantra of everyone who is seeking a new panacea for our society’s ills. Yet few who use the word have any concrete understanding of what community is or how to create it.

Could this recent obsession with community be another manifestation of our weakness for ideology? In as much as it deflects us from antagonizing the dominant corporatist ideology, yes. Much of the discussion of community among city planners and architects today centers around New Urbanism. Critics have pointed out that New Urbanism is neither New nor Urban: its primary accomplishments have occurred in beach resorts and suburbs that are the home of the managerial class of elite, with their above-average incomes and homes full of consumer goods that are the bounty of the global economy.

Instead of obsessing over the loss of community, we first need to escape ideology by recognizing the people as the only true source of legitimacy — not Gods, not kings, not corporations or even organized groups. Part of the problem with groups is that they tend to rely on rational self-interest as their primary motivator. The trouble with giving rational (also called “enlightened”) self-interest this supremacy is that it allows us to slip into unconsciousness and delusion. Our civilization is in a long-term crisis, Saul justifiably states, yet the elites — who should know better — blithely comfort themselves with the apparent state of prosperity and economic growth in which they live. “One of the tricks that makes this sort of closet delusion possible,” Saul explains, “is that the very size and prosperity of the elite permits it to interiorize an artificial vision of civilization as a whole. Thus, ours takes seriously only what comes from its own hundreds — indeed, thousands — of specialized sectors.”

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As a student of city planning with a strong commitment to the legitimacy and importance of real community, I am forced by The Unconscious Civilization to critically examine “grass-roots” community-based organizations. Although I am attracted to community organizing, I am also suspicious of it.

Community organizations can be the individual’s means of combating the entrenched elites and their “corporate” interests. At the beginning, a community organization can be a useful conduit through which citizens gain access to government. “Fight fire with fire,” goes the adage. Community organizations are touted as vehicles for citizen empowerment. Saul Alinsky, the grandfather of modern community organizing and founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), believed that to light a fire under people you had to “rub raw the sores of discontent.” Alinsky’s successor, Ed Chambers, is famous for arriving in neighborhoods where the IAF had been invited and screaming at the people there that they were living in a garbage heap. Out of shame (the fear of appearing ridiculous) and self-interest, it is hoped they will join the new community organization.

Indeed, political scientist Tim Ross (in his recent unpublished dissertation on East Brooklyn Congregations, an affiliate of IAF), has pointed out as much. While noting that since Saul Alinsky’s death in 1972, IAF has been changing its methods, traditionally, Ross says, IAF relied on self-interest as the “primary justification for joining the organization,” the result being that “organizers gave members little reason to continue their participation once the group focused on issues outside of their concerns. When an organizer departed, groups frequently split into competing factions.” Todd Gitlin has observed that the left has a tendency to “eat its own.” All of which serves the corporatist elite because it sidetracks us from the main business of challenging their authority and legitimacy.

As a community organization grows through successes, it becomes an institution, and when that happens, it begins operating in parallel to government. The participation and money of citizens is put to work maintaining the organization, and is therefore siphoned off from direct involvement with governing. The institutionalized organization becomes just another interest group. One knows that point has been reached when members of the organization become angry about “free-riders” — individuals in the community who do not belong to or contribute to the organization but still benefit from its accomplishments. So, community-based organizations — without question vital elements of a strong community — may appear to be a means of empowerment, but in the long run, the reality of institutionalization prevents them from curing the initial problem of disenfranchisement that individuals in the poor communities they serve suffer from.

Ideally, Saul’s disinterested citizen should need no conduit in order to actively participate in the process of governing. For government to be truly of the people, as it should be in a democracy, then it cannot be a collection of competing interest groups, but rather must involve active participation by citizens who are able to eschew narrow self-interest and work instead for the Public Good.

This is not to say that grass-roots community organizations are not useful or important. Rather that, ultimately, despite their honorable goals, and even some significant accomplishments, community organizations like the IAF and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) are still bound by the problem of institutionalization that affects any organization, from political parties to multinational corporations, which themselves, as Saul points out, are necessary elements of any society. Moreover, changing their organizing methods is not likely to help much, because, as Saul shows, the real problem is that groups dominate the process of governing society to the exclusion of the disinterested individual.

Since community-based organizations’ traditional method of empowerment relies, in the long run, on rational self interest that ultimately consumes and extinguishes the individual, perhaps we’d be better to light fires in individuals rather than under them. More must be done to truly activate the people to work for progressive change than simply getting them to lace up their combat boots and enlist in the fight. As John Ralston Saul makes abundantly clear in The Unconscious Civilization, educating our children to think for themselves and encouraging people to not mind their own business would be a good way to start.