The thoughts of John Ralston Saul: One individual's democracy

Thursday, 01 June 2000


    The recent events in Fiji highlight the fragility of what we assume to be the enduring political institution of democracy.

    But according to Canadian author and essayist John Ralston Saul, our society is only superficially based on democracy and responsible individualism. John Arbouw reports

    Fijian coup leader George Speight may not realise it but he epitomises many of the faults that John Ralston Saul says characterises our societies that have been captured by the dominant ideology of corporatism and in which the idea of individualism, dominant today, represents a narrow and superficial deformation of the Western idea.

    Speight is a failed businessman who is upset over losing his elite access to a democratically elected government and the resulting withdrawal of his monopoly business advantage. His response was to organise a coup, announce himself as the new leader, overturn the Fijian constitution and deny democratic rights to 43 percent of the Fijian population who are Indian.

    As Saul would describe it "the acceptance of corporatism causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as citizen in a democracy. The result of such a denial is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of public good".

    Saul is one of those rare individuals who can challenge and excite the imagination with his ability to articulate the subliminal discomfort all of us experience, at one time or another, that something is very wrong with the way we live and organise our lives.

    He delighted and challenged company directors at the recent annual AICD conference on the Sunshine Coast when he placed a provocative philosophical dish on the table of the Feast of Reason (the theme of the conference) and invited delegates to rethink their role in the corporatist society.

    Saul's political and economic thought is largely contained in his philosophical trilogy Voltaire's Bastards, The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense and The Unconscious Civilisation. Last year he gave a series of lectures at University of NSW that were replayed on ABC Radio.

    He has a BA in political science, history and economics from McGill University in Canada, a PhD from King's College in London, he has worked in an Paris-based investment firm and also as an oil executive.

    At the heart of the Saul thesis is the crisis of power and its clash with the individual. It is a modern day conflict that has historical parallels in the France of Louis XIV and the ability of the state and its elites to subvert the Age of Reason.

    "Ours is a civilisation astonishing in the degree to which it seems to see and to know," he says. "Never before in history have there been such enormous elites carrying such burdens of knowledge. This success story dominates our lives.

    "Elites quite naturally define as the most important and admired qualities for a citizen those on which they themselves have concentrated. The possession, use and control of knowledge have become their central theme - the theme song of their expertise.

    "However, their power depends not on the effect with which they use that knowledge but the effectiveness with which they control its use. Thus, among the illusions which have invested our civilisation is an absolute belief that the solutions to our problem must be a more determined application of rationally organised expertise.

    "The reality is that our problems are largely the product of that application. The illusion is that we have largely created the most sophisticated society in the history of man. The reality is that the division of knowledge into feudal fiefdoms of expertise has made general understanding and co-ordinated action not simply impossible but despised and distrusted." (Voltaire's Bastards)

    Modern-day phrases such as economic rationalism or re-engineering the enterprise serve only to sustain the ideology of corporatism espoused by the technocratic managerial elite who Saul believes has hijacked Western civilisation.

    "Corporatism is an ideology which claims rationality as its central quality," Saul says. "The overall effects on the individual are passivity and conformity in those areas which matter and non-conformity in those that don't."

    This corporatism flows from the unquestioned acceptance that democracy was born of economics inherent in the Industrial Revolution and that this democracy is based on individualism.

    Saul argues that since the oil crisis of 1973 the world has been in depression but the technocrats have been living in denial while creating a new economic mythology.

    This mythology is based on the notion that management equals doing and that doing equals making.

    This technocratic management says Saul has been produced mainly by business schools and departments of economics and it is most comfortable functioning in large management structures such as trans-national or large national corporations.

    "The people who have been lecturing us for 25 years on the need to be capitalistic and take risk, these people themselves work for corporations which are not capitalistic. After all, the trans-national are run by technocrats, bureaucrats, managers, employees.

    "These people don't have any shares, they don't risk anything. The only shares they've got they either got free from the company, or by borrowing money from the company. I mean that's not exactly what Carnegie or Rockefeller meant by capitalism, its really called lazy bureaucracy."

    Saul lays much of the blame of the rise of the management technocracy at the feet of Frederick Taylor, one of the architects of economic thinking whose ideas still dominant many of the business schools.

    "Taylor saw the human being as an uncooperative human machine and he worked out ways to make the machinery work. Despite what is being taught in our management schools we are still stuck with this out-of-date idea.

    "Only in a managerial society would you believe that trust and collaboration would be intangible concepts. Middle management, the very people who honour this trust and collaboration have been betrayed every time there is a new management fashion such as downsizing and the result has been a collapse of trust and collaboration within a civil society.

    "It has been done in a managerial bravado way in which managers pretend to be doers and makers and pretending to be capitalists when they are actually employees and then being far more hardline and tougher in their methodology than was really necessary."

    Saul questions is the notion of inevitability.

    "For instance the World Bank which was convinced that economic growth would bring democracy to Third World countries no longer believes that. Five years it was considered impossible to set international rules governing corporation but the OECD is now looking at this very matter.

    "Whenever there is a great panic of change out there, the best thing to do is go home and think about for a couple of years. Nothing is inevitable."

    Saul also challenges the manner in which the modern education system has evolved. He finds it ludicrous that we get people into the education system as fast as possible then get them into the workforce as fast as possible and then retire them as fast as possible. The result is that people are being retired at a younger and younger age.

    What the nation state should be worried about, says Saul is that with advances in medicine and health people are living longer and longer and the life expectancy is increasing to beyond 90 years.

    "This is an astonishing revolution. It means that everything Frederick Taylor thought of as the basis of management and which is still being taught today is based on the idea that this uncooperative machine, the human being was going to be dead not long after he grew up.

    "Why are we pushing people into retirement younger and younger? Who is going to pay for this retirement? There is absolutely no economic model that can show that you can support 90 years of life on 25 years of work."

    At the heart of the Saul philosophy is a plea to re-examine the role of the individual in a democracy. He believes that the nation state rather than the corporate state can provide the salvation that has reduced an increasingly conformist society to passive bystanders.

    As one reviewer describes the work of John Ralston Saul, he has the ability to "strip away the rhetoric and received wisdom of our language, leaving in his wake a new way of thinking that is frequently funny, often ironic and always provocative".


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