January 22, 2012
DEMOCRACY CASTRATED, WILLFUL ILLITERACY, AND WESTERN CIVILIZATION UNDOING ITSELF
John Ralston Saul, Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (New York: Basic Books, 1992) (This is one of those sadly wonderful books. "Wonderful' because it gets it, and gets the reader to get it. 'Sadly' because what is gotten, the truth that is gotten to, is a tragic misfortune: the West destroying itself by its own misguided successes. Although published twenty years ago, the insights of this book remain most relevant today. Many of the historical events of the two to five decades ago, which Saul uses to demonstrate a point, could be made with more recent events of the last two decades, if not just the last five years. In short, the downward trend that Saul describes has continued, has worsen, since we have entered the twenty-first century, since the events of September 11, 2001, since the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, since, the economic meltdown of 2007 which continues today. "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." Id. at 21. "The case of government is more complex. There has been a gradual, widespread improvement in social standards, thanks in good part to the work of large bureaucracies. But the conversion of the political class into an extension of the technocracy has been a disaster. Perhaps the most damaging part of our obsession with expertise and systems has been the restructuring of elected assemblies to make them more efficient. The equation if the idea of efficiency--a third-level subproduct of reason--with the process of democratic government show =s how far away we have slipped from our common sense. Efficient decision making is, after all, a characteristic proper to authoritarian governments. Napoleon was efficient. Hitler was efficient Efficient democracy can only mean democracy castrated. In fact, the question which arises is whether the rational approach has not removed from democracy its single greatest strength--the ability to act in an unconventional manner. When you examine, for example, our twenty-year old battle against inflation, you can't help but note that politicians who become devotees of technocratic logic also become prisoners of conventional solutions." "It follows that the theology of power, under which the technocracy prospers, marginalizes the whole idea of opposition and therefore that of sensible change. It is irrational, And this trivialization of those who criticize or say no from outside the power structure applies not only to politics but to all organizations." Id. at 27. I can not read the following without thinking about the decline in legal education and the legal profession, especially given the 'new' focus on training law students to be 'practice ready.' "The technocrats of our day make the old aristocratic leaders seem profound and civilized by comparison. The technocrat has been actively--indeed, intensely--trained. But by any standard comprehensible within the tradition of Western civilization, he is virtually illiterate. One of the reasons that he is unable to recognize the necessary relationship between power and morality is that moral traditions are the product of civilization." "Literacy is only defined as the ability to read because the assumption of Western civilization is that man wishes to read in order to participate fully in that civilization. Literacy refers to civilization as a shared experience. One of the signs of a dying civilization is that its language breaks down into exclusive dialects which prevent communication. A growing, healthy civilization uses language as a daily tool to keep the machinery of society moving. The role of responsible, literate elites is to aid and abet that communication." "What then is to be thought of elites who seek above all to develop private dialects? Who seek to communicate as little as possible? Who actively discourage the general population from understanding them? They are proponents of illiteracy." "What is to be thought of doctors, earning several hundred thousand dollars a year, whose annual reading is a at best made up of two or three formula thrillers? Whose political understanding is limited to a schematic view of Capitalism versus Socialism? Who, by virtue of their profession's internal class system, are increasingly rewarded and admired as their knowledge of medicine narrows? In the nineteenth century, doctors were at the centre of political, social and cultural change. Today, a doctor tends to reach her summit when her view of the human body consciously limits itself to a single organ. Is this woman not illiterate? "What of a full professor of English literature who views fiction as an exercise separate from society? Who encourages such ideas as deconstructionism, which render literature inaccessible except to the most intimately initiated? Who seeks to destroy the great populist tradition of literature as a weapon used in the forefront of social change? Who recognizes in modern literature only those forms incomprehensible to the outsider? Who recognizes as proper subjects for literature only subjects distant from the world of the citizen? And in the process, who becomes himself incapable of understanding the movements of the outer world? Is he any more literate than, say, a small farmer who cannot read but who has an immediate and real understanding of the world about him?" "What of the banker or economist, called upon to make real decisions about the evolution of his society's economy in a time of instability and inflation, who either has never heard of John Law or has endeavoured to forget who he was and what he did? He probably thinks even less about the nineteenth-century railway 'bubbles' or the crash of the 1880s. What does it mean when he talks seriously of the catastrophe which awaits if debts are forgiven, given that he doesn't know that the entire strength and civilization of Athens--upon which we still model Western civilization--was created through Solon's wiping out of all cripplingly loans? Or indeed that America's economic strength in the twentieth century was in great part the result of constant financial defaultings during the nineteenth?" "None of this is illiteracy as we normally understand it. Perhaps the right term is willful illiteracy. It isn't surprising that the modern manager has difficulty leading steadily in a specific direction over a long period of time. He has no idea where we are or where we've come from. What's more, he doesn't want to know, because that kind of knowledge hampers his kind of action." "Instead he has learned to disguise this inner void in ways which create a false impression of wisdom. Voltaire had a genius for deflating the credibility and thus destroying the legitimacy of established power. His weapon was words so simple that anyone could understand and repeat them. Genius, unfortunately, is something which can't be passed on. Voltaire did however introduce an auxiliary weapon which was perfectly transferable. Scepticism It was a useful tool when applying common sense to the unexplainable mysteries of established power. Scepticism was something that most men of average intelligence could handle. It was to become the great shared tool of the new rational elites. "But it is virtually impossible to maintain healthy scepticism when power is in your hands. . . . " Id. at 11o-112. Reread all of that, substituting law, lawyers, etc., in the appropriate places. How can the legal profession be at the center of our civilization, of our political, social, economic, well-being, if even elite lawyers are willfully illiterate? "Not only have the humanities been singled out as the enemy of reason, but there has been a serious attempt to co-opt them by transforming each sector into a science. Thus architecture has become a quantitative, technological formation in which the details add up to the building. Even art history has been converted from a study of beauty and craft into a mathematical view of creativity. The new art historians are interested not so much in art or in history as in technical evolution. The social sciences, new creations of the mathematical obsession, are of course the principal example of the humanities deformed. The reduction of politics, economics, social problems and the arts to mathematical visions and obscure, hermetically sealed vocabularies may well be looked upon by those who come after us as one of the greatest follies of our civilization." "The removal of the humanities from education has undermined common sense and restraint and thus encouraged us to lurch from extreme to extreme in public policy. And yet there is still too much of the humanities in education to suit the technocratic elites. They blame the troubles of state-funded education on this." Id. at 130-131. "The essence of Corporatism is that each group has its own purpose, organization and financial strength. These group interests negate democracy, which depends in the contribution of individual citizens. It was generally believed that the last world war had defeated Corporatism. But the growing democratic void has enabled organized interests to occupy more and more of the structures of Western political leadership in the name--astonishingly enough--of the individual voter frustrated as he or she is by the rational state. Thus, beneath the guise of populist rhetoric, the democratic system has turned increasingly to the service of specific interests. It is a remarkable confidence trick in which voters have begun voluntarily handing their gains of the last two centuries back over to the same small groups--or their modern equivalents--which for so long were the principal beneficiaries of a grossly inequitable civilization." Id. at 234-235. "Free enterprise throughout the West is dominated by employees, more and more the products of business school training or an equivalent. Like bureaucrats, they do not lean naturally towards the inventive approach--neither inventive investment, nor developing goods, nor winning markets by selling goods. They specialize in developing systems within which they can operate and in producing tight programs which are modelled upon the case study approach. They are invariably eager to change circumstance and to force it into a set pattern." "An individual who stands out, disagrees or takes risks is a danger to such systems and is effortlessly, unconsciously sidelined. The top management of large Western corporations and multinationals has been chosen by the system--because the system have an inbred logic--for their mediocrity. There are exceptions, of course. But there are exceptions to everything. . . . " Id. at 364-365 "A glance at our contemporary situation indicates that while the area of greatest economic expansion is in the service of self-indulgence, growing percentages of the population are slipping back into pre-twentieth-century poverty." "And there lies the real paradox of modern capitalism. It 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 of those services which people really do need. Not only that, it often spends an enormous amount of time and effort convincing people that these services are either unrealistic, marginal or counterproductive. Never have our skills of organization been so developed, never have our desires for the accumulation of objects and comforts been so realizable, and never have events seemed so difficult to control. In other words, a rational economics structure finds it very difficult to give people what they really want because real human demand does not follow a fixed pattern. Giving people what they what is inefficient because it is irrational. On the other hand, it is efficient to give people what they do not want, because an artificial sales structure can ensure some rational buying patterns. Id. at 383. Being in law, let me end with a little Learned Hand. "The fixation of most eighteenth-century thinkers on inviolable legal codes was produced by two factors: their desire to end the intolerable rule of arbitrary, absolute authority and their belief in some sort of social contract.. Their assumptions was that this contract would automatically encapsulate and defend acceptable social standards. . . ." "Even so, to a minority these dreams of justice, rendered absolute by the application of unfettered intelligence, seemed dangerous dissociated from the realities of human society. Rousseau, for example, reacted by attempting to reattach the new legal concepts to their roots--that is, to humanity. . . . In the 1950s that idea was still being expressed by Learned hand, the greatest American judge of his day and a constant advocate of social justice. Surrounded by the explosion of regulation, he wrote" 'I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there no constitution, no law, no court can save it.' . . . " Id. at 324 (citing Learned Hand, The Spirit of Liberty: Papers and Addresses of Learned Hand (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 189). Has liberty itself, as opposed to the mere rhetoric of liberty, died in the American heart?).