John Ralston Saul

Canadian writer, International PEN president and public intellectual

John Ralston Saul (born 19 June 1947) is a Canadian author and philosopher.

Because the managerial élites are now so large and have such a dominant effect on our educational system, we are actually teaching most people to manage, not to think. Not only do we not reward thought, we punish it as unprofessional.
Societies grow into systems. The systems require management and are therefore increasingly wielded, like a tool or a weapon, by those who have power. The rest of the population is still needed to do specific things. But the citizens are not needed to contribute to the form or direction of the society. The more "advanced" the civilization, the more irrelevant the citizen becomes.



Voltaire's Bastards (1992)

Voltaire's Bastards : The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (1992)
  • [T]he ideal of the rugged individual opening up the American West is still applied as an essential truth to ten million citizens living in the small area of New York City, as if ten million bulls should and could be squeezed into a china shop.
  • Just as the unleashing of ideas and myths in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries cleared the way for endless changes in state and social structures, so the subsequent pinning down and splitting up of language into feudal states has now made it impossible for the citizen to participate seriously in society. The inviting humanist irony of the early days has given way to the off-putting rational cynicism and sloganeering of our time.
  • Elites quite naturally define as the most important and admired qualities for a citizen those on which they themselves have concentrated.
  • We talk endlessly of the individual and of individualism, for example, when any sensible glance at major issues indicates that we live in an era of great conformism. Our societies turn upon democratic principles, yet the quasi totality of our leading citizens refuse to take part in that process and, instead, leave the exercise of political power to those for whom they have contempt. Our business leaders hector us in the name of capitalism, when most of them are no more than corporate employees, isolated from personal risk.
  • Thus the Age of Reason has turned out to be the Age of Structure; a time when, in the absence of purpose, the drive for power as a value in itself has become the principal indicator of social approval. And the winning of power has become the measure of social merit.
  • Neither Capitalism nor Socialism can pretend to be an ideology. They are merely methods for dividing ownership and income. What is most peculiar for such theoretically practical methodologies, which are also theoretically opposed to each other, is that neither of them has ever existed, except in a highly tentative form. And even then they are invariably mixed together. Their mutually exclusive vocabularies have more to do with basic similarities than with differences.
  • [S]hould we attempt to use sensible words to deal with these problems, they will be caught up immediately in the structures of the official arguments which accompany the official modern ideologies — arguments as sterile as the ideologies are irrelevant. Our society contains no method of serious self-criticism for the simple reason that it is now a self-justifying system which generates its own logic.
  • A man who uses power to do evil is in theory judged to have been conscious of his acts and to be as fit for punishment as a perpetrator of premeditated murder. But the technocrat is not trained on that level. He understands events within the logic of the system. The greatest good is the greatest logic or the greatest appearance of efficiency or responsibility for the greatest possible part of the structure.
  • This breakdown of social order — rules of dress, sexual controls, speech patterns, family structures — has been seen as a great victory for the individual. On the other hand, it may simply be a reflection of the individual's frustration at being locked up inside a specialization. These acts of personal freedom are irrelevant to the exercise of power. So in lieu of taking a real part in the evolution of society, the individual struggles to appear as if no one has power over his personal evolution. Thus victories won for these individual liberties may actually be an acceptance of defeat by the individual.
  • Today, more than ever, women are occupying positions of influence. However, in the past they have been the exceptions to the rule and were usually obliged to hold on to their power by deforming themselves into honorary men or into magnified archetypes of the female who manipulated men. It still is not clear that women can successfully become part of the established structures without accepting these deformations.
  • The pinning on of stars reaches its full cynical significance when sanctified valour and bereaved families are used to lend dignity to wars stupidly fought. The courageous and their families are drawn into a circular trap. The sacrificed soldier was valorous under the orders of a commander who has rewarded his effort. The battle was therefore worth fighting. Courage made it worthwhile. The basic rule of war — that it is fought to be won — has been forgotten.
  • The rational elites, obsessed by structure, have become increasingly authoritarian in a modern, administrative way. The citizens feel insulted and isolated. They look for someone to throw stones on their behalf. Any old stone will do. The cruder the better to crush the self-assurance of the obscure men and their obscure methods. The New Right, with its parody of democratic values, has been a crude but devastating stone with which to punish the modern elites. The New Left, which will eventually succeed it, could easily turn out to be equally crude.
  • Societies grow into systems. The systems require management and are therefore increasingly wielded, like a tool or a weapon, by those who have power. The rest of the population is still needed to do specific things. But the citizens are not needed to contribute to the form or direction of the society. The more "advanced" the civilization, the more irrelevant the citizen becomes.
  • [T]he free market may be a good, bad or insufficient idea, but, in any case, it is just a crude commercial code. Now it is regularly equated with or given credit for or even precedence over the freedom of man. But the freedom of man is a moral statement on the human condition, both in the practical and in the humanist sense. To equate it with a school of business is to betray a certain confusion. An unconscious unease.
  • [Modern capitalism] is masterful at producing services people don't need and in large part probably don't want. It is brilliant at convincing people that they do need and want them. But it has difficulty turning itself to the production of those services which people really do need. Not only that, it often spends an enormous amount of time and effort convincing people that those services are either unrealistic, marginal or counterproductive.
  • The individual has been allowed out of his socially constructed cage. That, at least, is the contemporary myth. What is not clear, however, is what that liberation has to do with the fulfullment of individualism. The lessons of history seem relatively clear. Societies on the rise are simple, unadorned and relatively uncompromising. Those on the decline are given to open-mindedness, self-indulgence and the baroque.
  • Superficial nonconformism... leaves our rational structures indifferent. Questions of moral action and of physical appearance are increasingly irrelevant; they are categorized either as justified self-expression or conversely as suitable subjects for agitated public debate. In either case they are harmless vents.
  • If Marx were functioning today, he would have been hard put to avoid saying that imaginary sex is the opiate of the people.
  • The idea underlying such endless discussion and dreaming about the physical act is that sexual expertise confers worldliness and is therefore part of becoming an affirmed individual. This is a curious suggestion... Sex is many things — a need, a desire, an emotion, a release — but it has nothing to do with worldly sophistication, character building or even existential action. Sex, in general, is more of an obstacle than anything else for those who wish to free themselves and act as individuals... [W]e aren't dealing with a successful affirmation of responsible individualism in the real world. We are creating private dreams which compensate for the fracturing of the individual and the castration of his or her power in public life.
  • There is little to envy in the woman's position either. For perhaps the first time in history, she has a general sense of herself as an individual apart from men. This self-confidence gives her drive and makes her want to succeed. As a result she is eager to join the system. She does not have a clear idea of what it will do to her. Her focus is on her own past and on what men did to women — not on the male structure and what it does to men.
  • Societies either roll on blindly to disaster or they find the inner strength to stop themselves long enough to find ways for reform from within.

The Doubter's Companion (1994)

The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (1994)
  • The conclusion drawn by … most of our élites … is that the population constitutes a deep and dangerous well of ignorance and irrationality; if our civilization is in crisis the fault must lie with the populace which is not rising to the inescapable challenges. And yet civilizations do not collapse because the citizenry are corrupt or lazy or anti-intellectual. These people do not have the power and influence to either lead or destroy. Civilizations collapse when those who have power fail to do their jobs.
    • "Anti-Intellectualism"
  • In helping the arms industry to work with the Pentagon to work with the security agencies to work with the oil industry to work with the environmental agencies and so on, he encourages nationwide stability. If successful he will have indirectly eliminated interference from that rival system — citizen-based democracy — which technically maintains legal control over the constitutional structures of the Republic.
    • "Applied Corporatism"
  • Capitalism was reasonably content under Hitler, happy under Mussolini, very happy under Franco and delirious under General Pinochet.
    • "Capitalism"
  • We are the raison d'être of the entire system. We are also the employers of those in public office and in the public service. Why should we accept from them a discourse which suggests contempt for us and for the democratic system?
    • "Criticism"
  • Faith: The opposite of dogmatism.
    • "Faith"
  • Freedom: An occupied space which must be reoccupied every day.
    • "Freedom"
  • Freud, Sigmund: A man so dissatisfied with his own mother and father that he devoted his life to convincing everyone who would listen — or better still, talk — that their parents were just as bad.
    • "Freud"
  • Happy family: The existence and maintenance of [this] is thought to make a politician fit for public office. According to this theory, the public are less concerned by whether or not they are effectively represented than by the need to be assured that the penises and vaginas of public officials are only used in legally sanctioned circumstances.
    • "Happy family"
  • It is undoubtedly easier to believe in absolutes, follow blindly, mouth received wisdom. But that is self-betrayal.
    • "Humanism"
  • Which is ideology? Which not? You shall know them by their assertion of truth, their contempt for considered reflection, and their fear of debate.
    • "Ideology"
  • An important newspaper baron...explains that the cause of poverty throughout the world is indolence. Ten per cent of Americans would not be on food stamps if they simply worked harder.... If only they had followed his father's advice, they'd have "stuck it to the bastards" and become really rich. This image of hundreds and hundreds of millions of millionaires sticking it to each other, there no longer being any other category of citizen to stick it to, is so all-inclusive that there is no need for others to concern themselves with this word.
    • "Indolence"
  • [W]e have more than two options... a critique of reason does not have to be a call for the return of superstition and arbitrary power.... [O]ur problems do not lie with reason itself but with our obsessive treatment of reason as an absolute value. Certainly it is one of our qualities, but it functions positively only when balanced and limited by the others.
    • "Instrumental Reason"
  • In the humanist ideal, the mainstream is where interesting debate, the generating of new ideas and creativity take place. In rational society this mainstream is considered uncontrollable and is therefore made marginal. The centre ground is occupied instead by structures and courtiers.
    • "Mainstream"
  • Left to its own devices the market is capable of the most miraculous of inventions and the silliest of self-delusions. It is an extreme romantic. It also has a real purpose — the same one it has always had. That is to organize the supply and exchange of goods or to finance the production of goods — thus facilitating and financing the economy. But the market cannot achieve in a regular and lasting manner its own purpose because it is only an unconscious and abstract mechanism. The factor which must be added in order to create the restraint, balance, and consciousness necessary for long-term prosperity is human leadership. That leadership takes the form of effective regulation.
    • "Marketplace"
  • In all earlier civilizations, it should be remembered, commerce was treated as a narrow activity and by no means the senior sector in society.
    • "Marketplace"
  • Moral crusade: Public activity undertaken by middle-aged men who are cheating on their wives or diddling little boys. Moral crusades are particularly popular among those seeking power for their own personal pleasure, politicians who can't think of anything useful to do with their mandates, and religious professionals suffering from a personal inability to communicate with their god.
    • "Moral crusade"
  • Myrmecophaga jubata: The anteater. The existence of this predator demonstrates that thinking 71 percent of the time, as ants do, won't prevent you from being eaten. Thinking less than that, as humans do, will almost guarantee it.
    • "Myrmecophaga jubata"
  • Panic: A highly underrated capacity thanks to which individuals are able to indicate clearly that something is wrong.... Given their head, most humans panic with great dignity and imagination. This can be called democratic expression or practical common sense.
    • "Panic"
  • Pessimism: A valuable protection against quackery.
    • "Pessimism"
  • It is the considered opinion of most members of our rational élites that, in any given difference of opinion with reality, reality is wrong.
    • "Reality"
  • "The recession is over." This phrase has been used twice a year since 1973 by government leaders throughout the West. Its meaning is unclear. See: Depression.
    • "Recession"
  • The transnational corporations and the money markets have declared the era of human-designed regulations over. Now the market must reign. Because few people in the business community are paid to think about phrases such as "Western civilization," they don't seem to realize that they are proposing the arbitrary denial of 2,500 years of human experience.
    • "Regulation"
  • [C]ontent [is] an obstacle to the exercise of power.
    • "Triumph of the Will"
  • United States: .... A nation given either to unjustified over-enthusiasms or infantile furies.
    • "United States"
  • Venereal: From Venus, the goddess of love, this word refers to the reality of desire. With the rise of Protestantism and science, the word "disease" was tacked on in a revealing combination of categorization and moralizing. "Which disease?" "The disease of love."
    • "Venereal"
  • On June 22nd, [1633,] in the morning, in the great hall of the Convent of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Galileo was found guilty of holding a false doctrine. He went down on his knees and both abjured and condemned his own errors. He swore never to argue such doctrines again. It was thus definitely confirmed that the sun did rotate around the earth...Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Saint Mary Over Minerva. Power over wisdom.
    • "Wisdom"
  • There is something silly about grown men and women striving to reduce their vision of themselves and of civilization to bean counting.

The Unconscious Civilization (1995)

  • [G]iven our inability over the past two decades to deal with an unbreakable chain of unemployment, debt, inflation and no real growth, we have drifted farther and farther out into a cold, unfriendly, confusing sea. The new certitude of those in positions of authority — those out of the water — is that the certain answer is to cut away the life preservers.
  • Each [ideology], in the oppressive air of conformity which ideologies create, will force public figures to conform or be ruined on the scaffold of ridicule. In a society of ideological believers, nothing is more ridiculous than the individual who doubts and does not conform.
  • [O]ur élite is primarily and increasingly managerial. A managerial élite manages. A crisis, unfortunately, requires thought. Thought is not a management function.
  • Because the managerial élites are now so large and have such a dominant effect on our educational system, we are actually teaching most people to manage, not to think. Not only do we not reward thought, we punish it as unprofessional.
  • I would remind you...that Socrates was executed not for saying what things were or should be, but for seeking practical indications of where some reasonable approximation of truth might be. He was executed not for his megalomania or grandiose propositions or certitudes, but for stubbornly doubting the absolute truths of others.
  • [T]hree of [Newt Gingrich's] "Five Principles of American Civilization" deal with business, technology, and organization — all characteristics of work. There is no mention of liberty or equality or, for that matter, of democracy.
  • But now, in this century of ideologies, the Gods and Destiny have been given new life. "Miracles in the world are many," Sophocles wrote in the fifth century BC. "There is no greater miracle than man." Suddenly, at the end of the twentieth century, we discover that no, after all, it isn't true. Historical inevitability is a greater miracle than man. As is the dialectic. As is the superiority of various groups according to blood type. As is the genius of an abstract mechanism called the market. As is the leadership of inanimate objects — called technology — which worker bees create and then, inevitably, are led by. These inevitabilities are great leaps backward into the arms of the Gods and Destiny.

Reflections of a Siamese Twin (1997)

Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century (1997)
  • Realism isn't pessimism. And though the anti-reform interests have won an unconscionable number of battles over the last decade, the war is by no means over.
  • Canada was built from its very beginnings on the belief that public leadership in the economy and on social issues would be as effective and cheap as anything done by the private sector.
  • Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.
  • The rise of democracy was driven by the citizens' desire to escape from the paternalistic and arbitrary charity of those with money. They accomplished this by replacing charity with a fair, balanced, arm's-length system of public obligation. The principle tool of that obligation was taxation.
  • There is absolutely no reason why we have to deal with the mid-life crisis of our social policies by putting a bullet through their heads.
  • The state-initiated referendum has always been a part of this [anti-democratic] logic. Stop the talk, we're going to decide, yes or no. At this point the citizen's role is to wave one flag or the other and cheer for one side of the simple question or the other. In other words, we're reduced to children.
  • A referendum is little more than a "rumour of choice." The idea behind the mechanism, ever since its first modern manifestations two centuries ago under Napoleon, has been to replace democracy with the sensation of democracy. That is: to replace the slow, complex, eternally unclear continuity of democracy, and all the awkwardness of citizen participation, with something clear and fast which allows those in power to impose their agenda. Through an apparently simple question with a one-syllable answer, those who ask can get a blank cheque from the citizenry; that is, if they choose their moment well and come up with a winning question.
  • This is a citizenry which is annoyed, confused, insulted, and uncertain of how to protect the structures of the public good they struggled so long to put in place. Abruptly the national élites seem to prefer playing another game in which the public good is subjected to what they say are larger truths. All of these turn out to be either pedantically utilitarian or highly romantic. The utilitarian involves the reduction of society to self-interest. The romantic involves the selling of economic mythology as a new universal religion.
  • The strength of representative democracy is its ability to slow down those in power who wish to govern by blank cheque, but also those not in power who wish to yank the state about on the sole basis of their self-interest.
  • There are two fairly standard approaches to political power used by those who seek it. Some seek power with the assumption that the citizenry are the source of legitimacy and are to be treated with respect. Others concentrate on identifying whatever insecurities there are within the citizenry and on exploiting them.'
  • I am struck by the curious reflection that if everything is inevitable, as our élites tell us, well then we don't really need them. After all, this is the biggest and most expensive élite in history. Either they should do their job or make way.
  • The citizenry insist and insist and insist that they are proud of the Medicare system and that they want it to work. They continually send instructions to this effect to their governments. They do so in every imaginable way. And yet, day by day, the governments and the bureaucracies chip away at the system as if in the hope that, by opening holes in it and creating a new ineffectiveness, the citizenry will drop their commitment to it.
  • All the lessons of psychiatry, psychology, social work, indeed culture, have taught us over the last hundred years that it is the acceptance of differences, not the search for similarities which enables people to relate to each other in their personal or family lives.
  • The dominant system of power in the west has been Platonist — a system which functions on highly developed levels of structure and law. This is the school of pure rationality and fear of the undefined — fear of doubt. The minority system has been Socratic or humanist. It is interested in doubt and not overwhelmed by the Platonist-Hobbesian desperate need to tie things down.
  • We seem to be unable to allow ourselves the dignity of engaging in this sort of straightforward reconsideration of our acts. After all, questioning is the great strength of democracy; the ability to doubt without losing face. Instead we charge on, chanting 'Free Trade — Prosperity', the way in 1212 on the Children's Crusade they must have chanted 'Jesus and Jerusalem!' Most were snatched up before they could reach the coast and sold into slavery or sent across the Mediterranean, again to be slaves.
  • After all, in both languages we were dealing in large measure not with English and French, but with Scots and Irish, Bretons and Normans....There could be no more eloquent illustration of the colonial mind-set than a bunch of Celts and Vikings in a distant northern territory insulting each other as les anglais and the French as if they were the descendants of the people who had subjected and ruined them.
  • Canada is either an idea or it does not exist. It is either an intellectual undertaking or it is little more than a resource-rich vacuum lying in the buffer zone just north of a great empire.
  • The old cliché about having all your eggs in one basket takes on new meaning with Canada and the United States, because there is something even more wrong about having all your eggs in someone else's basket. It is worse still if that country is much larger than you and worst of all if they don't have all their eggs in your basket. This is not a relationship. It is a dependency. Canada's survival will depend largely on its ability to change that dependency back into a relationship. And one of the key factors in doing that will be the redistribution of our trade. But we can't do that if we have no politicians willing to take the lead.
  • Ever since the democratic systems permitted their various courts to give corporations the status of persons, the individual as citizen has been on the defensive. How could it be otherwise? If you are a person before the law and Exxon or Ford is also a person, it is clear that the concept of democratic legitimacy lying with the individual has been mortally wounded.
  • What I am describing is not only a society dominated by corporatist structures, but by the received wisdom of a corporatist atmosphere: one in which the élites are interest-driven, whatever their jobs. And so the society is gradually being redrawn to suit this ethic-free system.
  • As you would expect when individualism is based only on opportunity, no one asks what happens to those who have neither the financial nor the political clout to exercise their tiny portion of that opportunity.
  • Ten per cent of our neighbours survive on charity. 10 per cent of Canadians eat through charity. 10 per cent. Surely if you were prime minister or minister of trade or of industry, you would wake up each day thinking that, for reasons that escape you, the central policy chosen to drive the economy is not working. It is not working because it is not meeting the needs of a democracy in which legitimacy lies with the citizenry.

On Equilibrium (2001)

MAntokolski Death of Socrates
  • The clarity of Socrates' situation is remarkable. ... his exit is wonderfully seductive. It is calm, clear, convincing. Friends are present, wise words are said, the ethical unfolding of life is tied up in a neat package. And then he slips away, slowly becoming stone-cold from the feet up. It is our fantasy of the normal death, with the addition of social and prophetic implications, to say nothing of heroic proportions. Again, most of us will likely drop dead on a subway platform, in the middle of an orgasm or straining on a toilet seat early in the morning. The real tragedy of death may be just how often it is comic.
  • "Non-fiction", on the other hand, declares itself to be the carrier of fact, an expression of reality, and thus of truth. Why then does most fact-based work have a remarkably short shelf life? The reply might be that additional facts come along. That we are learning all the time. In that case, it was never an expression of reality or truth. And even if the facts are overtaken, the arguments built upon them should not date with such terrifying rapidity. Decade-old serious "non-fiction" often seems arcane, irrelevant. The written style itself seems to become old-fashioned. Two-centuries-old decent "fiction" on the other hand can easily remain fresh.
  • Of course, corporations and governments have a right to something for their money. They pay the wages. But they don't have the ethical right to literally purchase the copyright of a citizen's potential contribution to society. In a democracy they should not have the legal right to silence the quasi-totality of the functioning élite in order to satisfy a managerial taste for control and secrecy.
  • Romans disapproved of Greek sports because the athletes competed nude. That was shocking. On the other hand, people dripping with blood and dying for entertainment was fine. This is strangely similar to the moral standards of today's commercial television and family movies.

A Fair Country (2008)

A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (2008)
  • ...a clever Toronto lawyer was deep into a technical argument before the Supreme Court. His position was dependent upon a close reading of the legal text and turned on the letter of the law. Suddenly the chief justice, Beverley McLachlin, leaned forward and asked the counsel if his argument also worked in French. After all, the law is the law in both languages and a loophole in one tends to evaporate in the other. Only an argument of substance stands up. The lawyer had no idea what to reply.
    • p. 128
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