Loading...
 

The Unconscious Civilization by John Ralston Saul

The Unconscious Civilization is the 1995 Massey Lectures series by John Ralston Saul. This is a cite link.

It is a deep critique of corporatism and its pre-requisites the free trade and neoclassical economics beliefs, from the point of view of conventional Western philosophy and even classical economics.

It is particularly critical of a top-heavy management culture where analysis is valued as much as doing real work. This is similar to John Kenneth Galbraith's analysis of the way managers usurp owners rights.

Saul asserts that one reason this is being tolerated is the unconcious mimickry of ideology and unconcious use of conceptual metaphors. It is comparable though less specific to George Lakoff's "moral politics" analysis.

It is overtly political in tone:
On page 30 Saul compares Newt Gingrich's ideology to that of Petain and Mussolini. On page 59 he asserts that Platonists "with their fundamental belief in authoritarianism justified by high intelligence and high learning, have been able to count Socrates as one of their own. Worse still, they have been able to cite Socrates' trial and execution as proof that democracy is a base affair and citizens contemptible."

Saul is not entirely unconcious however of the key role that infrastructure plays in forming and reflecting idea: He uses the ontological metaphor of balance - as in balance of power throughout, e.g. on page 192:

"Thomas Jefferson, one of the most successful politicians of the modern era and a man who, though full of faults like the rest of us, sought an equilibrium as best he could, put it that a great deal lay in the manner in which you approached reality. If the approach was balanced, "the knot which you thought a Gordian one will untie itself before you". The very juxtaposition of our qualities produces in and of itself powers that cannot be intellectually identified by normal analsyis, but which clarify our situation and open clearer avenues for action. Jung and Freud might call this the power of conciousness. I call it the power of equilibrium."

He proceeds to cite an architectural example: the retirement house of 16th century Korean Confucian teacher Yi On-chock as a physical realization of an ideal of balance that reflects civic best practice also:

"Recently I saw a physical realization of this balance in the very southern tip of Korea, near the old royal capital of Kyongju. On the edge of a river in a deep mountain valley a great Confucian teacher, Yi On-chock, built himself a retirement house when he left government service in 1516. The five Confucian qualities with which until then he had governed other men were Wen, Ren, Chunzi, Li and De. They are the arts of peace; of goodness; of superior behaviour, which is the opposite of the petty and mean; of propriety or grace; and finally, of the just use of power. As you can see, these are surprisingly similar to our own view of human qualities."

According to Amartya Sen these are not so "surprisingly" similar but due to a common root of all civilizing. Saul continues:

"The house he built is an expression of those qualities. When I came upon it I was immobilized without being able to identify the cause. At first, I had not even conciously seen the house. It wasn't so much a matter of its modesty and integration into the place, although it had both. There was no hint of the man's ego. Non sense of his having built as opposed to having found a way to be part o the place. Buthte longer I looked, the more I could see sometihng which expressed itself as harmony. Grace, yes, but harmony above all in its own terms and in those of nature. The materials, the lines of the myriad of free-standing walls, the roof lines, all swam into the surrounding land, the rocks, the riverbed. The walls combined layers of boulders, flat tiles and unbaked clay, thus combining the mountains with sophisticated human skills as well as with the surrounding earth. Even the pavilions behind the walls had a sense to them that was not immediately apparent. Yet as I walked through the passageways it was as if the human flowed from one to the other in a discreet sonnet."

"I am not suggesting that we should seek to live at the level of harmony of a great Confucian teacher. Or even that harmony is appropriat to the democratic balance. But the constant movement towards equilibrium is. What I found in that house was an expression - his expression - of balanced individualism. Ours is far more rought and tumble. It depends upon the commitment of the citizen to the common good. This is the true meaning of obligation. Those who govern or have power cannot on the one hand invoke obligation and on the other deny the common good and the real legitimacy of the citizen."

After some questionable hint that Wilfred Laurier wsa somehow responsible for the collapse of colonialism and an odd reference to the Luddites, he says:

"Equilibrium, in the Western experience, is dependent not just on criticism, but on non-conformism in the public place. The road away from the illusion of ideology towards reality is passable only if that anti-conformism makes full use of our qualities and strengths in order to maintain the tension of uncertainty. The examined life makes a virtue of uncertainty. It celebrates doubt."

Rather than define a list of political virtues similar to those of Bernard Crick, however, he resorts to bromides but attempts to knit them into justifying imaginative rationality as an approach:

"Common sense, creativity.
ethics, intuition, memory and reason. These can be exploited individually as a justification for ideology; or imprisoned in the limbo of abstract concepts. Or they can be applied together, in some sort of equilibrium, as the filters of public action."

"The virtue of uncertainty is not a comfortable idea, but then a citizen-based democracy is built upon participation, which is the very expression of permanent discomfort. The corporatist system depends on the citizen's desire for inner comfort. Equilibrium is dependent upon our recognition of reality, which is the acceptance of permanent psychic discomfort. And the acceptance of psychic discomfort is the acceptance of conciousness."