Saul, John Ralston. The Unconscious Civilization. Toronto: House of Ansansi Press, Inc., 1995.
I’m not a believer in totalizing theories of human experience. They are necessarily reductive, framing history as determined by a set of specific elements, and assuming that humanity’s problems have a single specific solution. I’m interested in how complex the world is, and ideologies of all sorts seem almost childishly simple when framed against the sweep of human history. Unfortunately, ideologies can also be appallingly destructive.
John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization centres on the rise of ideologies along with modernity. A few months have passed since I first listened to the 1995 Massey Lectures, not much longer since I read the book. Saul raises a great deal of questions about western civilization in a volume that barely scratches 200 pages. Though the lectures date back to 1995, Saul’s arguments have only become more timely.
In brief, Saul contends that though we claim western civilization is based around the idea of the individual, modernity and the advent of mass communication has led to a conformist and corporatist society prone to mass ideologies. Legitimacy lies ostensibly with the individual but actually lies with group interests, specifically groups cut off from the interests of the citizenry. Corporatism and ideologies are the two main enemies of a modern democratic state, and are all-pervasive in modern western society. Marxism, fascism, nationalism, neo-conservatism, and many other political –isms that promise utopia–in other words, the totalizing theories I mentioned above–fall under Saul’s gaze.
“We suffer an addictive weakness for large illusions. A weakness for ideology” (19) Saul writes. “[W]hy do we have this desperate need to believe that the solving of a single problem will solve all our problems?” (22). That is, at its heart, the problem we must overcome. However, in a conformist society we are urged not to ask questions. Indeed, it is foolish to do so. Ideologies “offer two choices—no more. And these two are only one. Accept the ideology or perish” (22). Alarmist rhetoric presents a seemingly simple and attractive answer to our difficulties, often couched in language centred on the corrective nature of abstract ideas. These abstracts are no more certain than older superstitions, merely expressed through different language. Rather than appeasing invisible spirits through sacrifice, we make sacrifice to the invisible hand of the market. The all-pervasive idea of progress inherent in modernism carries with it an idea of destiny, and destiny is an essential characteristic of all ideologies—movement towards a perfect system. All who question that movement are thus ostracized as reactionaries, and in governmental systems where adherence to ideology has trumped individual rights (such as Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R.), those who doubt the ideology are at best ridiculed, at worst eliminated.
We paint ideologies as necessary responses to inevitable collapse. Yet even back in 1783, William Pitt recognized that “[n]ecessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”
Beyond environmental factors, we create the forces of history. By personifying external abstract results of human action as forces themselves, we’re essentially running blind. Society cannot magically correct itself. Putting faith in ideology takes the onus off humanity to act responsibly; instead, destiny will see us through.
For example, Saul takes on the idea that democracies and free speech are only capable of existing in free market economies. In this view, democracy and personal freedom begin with the Industrial Revolution. Yet, the ideas of democracy and freedom of thought pre-date the Industrial Revolution by thousands of years; “this ethical, humanist, democratic line stretches across 2,500 years, free and independent of the evolving specifics of economics, technology, intellectual elitism and military force, among other periodic expressions of the Western experience” (61). He, of course, specifically refers to ancient Greek philosophers as expressing democratic ideals in a pre-industrial society. In the modern era, “democracy and individualism have advanced in spite of and often against specific economic interest” (87). Yet we are led to believe that the opposite is true:
It is as if the Industrial Revolution had caused a severe mental trauma, one that still reaches out and extinguishes the memory of certain people. For them, modern history begins from a big explosion—the Industrial Revolution. This is a standard ideological approach—a star crosses the sky, a meteor explodes, and history begins anew. (89)
We don’t have to look far to see the sort of twisted views of history produced through ideological ends—it is the ideology that comes foremost, the events come second. History must be squished and stretched to fit a neat interpretation of, say, the Marxist dialectic.
It’s pretty heavy stuff. But perhaps the most provocative statement in The Unconscious Civilization is this:
Certainly corporatism is creating a conformist society. It is a modern form of feudalism with none of the advantages of the early urban guild system, where obligation, responsibility and standards played a role.” (94)
I’ve thought on this a while. Saul isn’t the only one to assert that western society has fallen back into rigid hierarchies that resemble a set of neo-feudalist states, made far more problematic by the advent of globalization. Catherynne M. Valente even connected this viewpoint to the popularity of medieval-esque settings in modern fantasy, as an unconscious recognition of what is happening around us. Multi-national corporations and outside agencies can now determine the policies of states by mustering lobby groups or else threatening to take their business elsewhere; real power lies with these groups, the individual stands little chance against them. In today’s world, those at the top of the hierarchy no longer owe anything to those at the bottom.
I won’t say Saul’s argument isn’t without problems. His championing of Socrates as the avatar of the individual and Plato as the avatar of Corporatism is based on some rather…creative conjecture. I also have many quibbles with Saul’s characterization of medieval scholasticism and the Middle Ages in general. He follows Colin Morris in asserting the twelfth-century “discovery of the individual.” Morris’s work was quintessentially presentist, seeing modern ideas of individualism having a specific, marked beginning. To Morris, intention and, subsequently, the individual, are the great achievements of western civilization. Unfortunately, it’s rather easy to poke holes in Morris’s argument—no period of history completely conforms to any one set pattern, and locating “the individual” in the twelfth century necessarily involves twisting and bending source texts to fit the mould (a simple reading of Guibert de Nogent’s memoir is enough to call Morris’s claims on that topic into question).
There are other historical fumbles mixed in with some truly fascinating analysis, but Saul is best when examining trends of the last century. The Unconscious Civilization is a work that transcends political lines by critically examining the very base of our current society. Though not as accessible as Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, this is a valuable entry in the Massey Lectures series and worth a read, or at least a listen.