Tyler 's Reviews > The Unconscious Civilization

The Unconscious Civilization by John Ralston Saul
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Sep 02, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, philosophy
Recommended to Tyler by: Trevor
Recommended for: Libertarians; Fans of Social Sciences

The denial of the public good in favor of private interests is a theme which gives this book as much relevance now as when it first came out. In this critique of modern society the author, J. R. Saul, raises the humanist banner of Socrates against the ideological standard of Plato.

Since about 1870, he tells us, Western individualism has given way to “corporatism,” the idea that power involves only group interests. The corporatist world view denies that individuals can be a source of social legitimacy in light of the manifest differences among them. Humans, so the theory goes, are incapable of objective thinking; their needs, even their very speech, reduce simply to self-interest. The displacement of the individual by group interests has given rise to an “unconscious” civilization in which people specialize in one subject and suffer almost childlike ignorance of other branches of knowledge.

Why would corporatism, or group interest, necessarily undermine the public good? The answer lies in the uniquely disinterested nature of the public good as opposed to the inherent self-interest of groups. A significant corollary of this definition is that the opposite of self-interest isn’t altruism at all, as is commonly supposed, but rather disinterest.

A society based in the power of group interest has disturbing deficiencies. Absent the disinterested authority of the public good, individuals are reduced to their immediate needs. Freedom becomes linked in people’s minds with a winner-take-all version of capitalism. The educational system actually impedes integrated thought as it changes to turn out a class of technicians and small-picture experts serving some private group or other, usually business interests.

A society with a weak sense of the public good has no memory from which to act. By the same token it becomes directionless, with a decreasing capacity to plan for the future. Knowledge, in such a scheme, cannot be converted to meaningful action by individuals. Free speech has little practical effect on policies. Public discourse lacks any appeal to human decency, grinding down instead into discussions among professionals about technicalities.

Economically, a false capitalism emerges in which efficiency substitutes for effectiveness, and decisiveness crowds out thoughtful action. Low interest rates lead to inflation, not growth: Economic activity gets dissipated in property speculation, mergers and acquisitions, and privatization of public goods. People, for their part, become functions, rewarded by their ability to integrate into groups in which loyalty trumps merit. Such a structure strands us with a sense of being entrapped in an imaginary dialectic yielding ineluctable conclusions. Neoliberalism and the end of history have arrived.

By contrasting the public good to private groups, the author exposes in libertarian thinking the fallacy of the excluded middle. When libertarians limit the scope of the public good, Saul argues, power simply moves into the hands of private organizations, not private individuals. That’s because any privatization scheme involves three players, not two. Individuals are little more than a third wheel to this power play between public and private. The dangerous end product of the elimination of the public good from decisions is power without responsibility.

How can we counteract that? The author suggests vaguely that we insert the individual wherever we can into ongoing debates and discussions. While individuals may not be able to change policies, they may be able to affect the dynamics of a society. Above all, individuals should develop personal virtues antithetical to a corporatist social structure, virtues such as common sense, creativity, personal ethics, memory and reason.

By looking carefully at the concept of the public good, Saul orients readers dramatically away from useless thinking about current social trends. The book is engaging, if at times rhetorical. Fifteen years in print, it is more relevant today than it was when it first appeared. The concise, innovative thinking the author brings to these pages makes the book a must-read for any reflective citizen anywhere in the developed world.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
August 19, 2009 – Finished Reading
September 2, 2009 – Shelved
September 7, 2009 – Shelved as: non-fiction
September 7, 2009 – Shelved as: philosophy

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

John Ralston Saul is the husband of our last Governor General of Canada. She has written a biography on Dr. Bethume, a Canadian who is famous in China. It is currently on the top ten list of non-fiction books in Canada.

I guess I going to have to move up JRS's book " A fair country , telling truths about Canada" on my "to read" list. Canadians often do not know the important authors amongst us. JRS is one of them. I guess you have just read another Canadian writer.

I liked your review. Public good versus private interests is always a relevant topic. No pat answers.

It will probably be small news in USA but our Conservative PM just appointed Mr. Doer, the retired Premier of Saskatchewan (for ten years) to the position of ambassador to USA. He was leader of the New Democratic Party ( a democratic socialist party). Doer knows a few American governors and is known for his negotiating skill. Saskatchewan is now known for it's potash, uranium, and oil although it has always been the bread basket of Canada. The public good is probably better served when a politican chooses the most capable candidate rather than one with the same ideology. In my opinion, the best leaders are usually the most pragmatic.


Tyler Yes, this my second Canadian author as far as I know. The authors I've come across this past year have been European or American by and large.

I've always thought that Canadians have a much stronger sense of the public good. So when your ambassador negotiates mineral rights, the outcome has a better chance of serving the general public interest than is the case in the United States.

The sense of a disinterested public is far weaker here than in other Western countries. It puzzles me to think how exactly this has happened, but we have here a distinctive hatred for public enterprise among many here that's absent elsewhere. It is emotional, fed by the media and hard to counteract.



message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

It puzzles a lot of people. I think it is more related to the the U.S.'s status as a super power than actual value systems.

I found a recent interview with the Canadian ambassador that may shed light on the issue. He said Americans were always interested what the Canadian's view were on international issues. It was easier to deal with bilateral issues after the international issues were discussed. In a nutshell, international issues have a very high priority in USA as your actions in international politics has such a significant impact. For example, I don't think what Denmark does internationally will create much international reaction. Yet they have a reasonably good standard of living.

Because of your super power status, military spending also has a much higher profile and priority. Your financial needs to maintain your status as the most powerful country in the world, in some ways, competes with the financial needs for social services. Do you want to be the most powerful country in the world or be the best place to live? Hard to do both, when other countries are spending more of their budgets in non-military areas. At the same time the American economy, although still very large, is becoming a smaller part of the world economy.

I found the book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" by Paul Kennedy (1988) interesting. I think America wants to maintain their existing international power in the world, when it is becoming more evident that status is starting to impact on the country's ability to maintain the services desired by it's own citizens.

Great power is not always a blessing. Marcus Aurelius found it more difficult to live by his own principles because his power allowed him to do whatever he wanted. It also meant everyone else was wanting a helping hand from him. You can't be all things to all people.

USA will have to make adjustments as countries such Brazil, China, and India begin to spread their economic wings. Canada will have to adjust too, as their economies become so much larger than our own.

Some American's may think of Russia and Nazi Germany when they think of socialism. Americans already have a mixed economy and it's hard to understand how they believe that private enterprise can be self policing. You would think the bank crisis would have illustrated that for them.

I think Obama's remark that USA has to lead by example rather than force is correct. However, that is easier said than done. Without a big stick some people will try to dominate. We've had many lessons of that in the past.

Without government intervention western Canada would have probably become part of USA. They ensured the the railway went across the Canadian shield (tough place to build a railway) and got to B.C.. A right of centre goverment bought B.C. Electric when it refused to develop the Peace River Dam and now the province owns most of it's hydro electric power. Quebec Hydro supplies New York with a lot of electricity. A big cash cow for Quebec. Many projects in Canada require large financial investments when Canada could not attract investment without government participation. What private company would build a road across the Canadian Shield (about 1000 miles) with little population.

The government also gave incentives for the development of the aircraft industry (I think it is currently the 4th largest in the world) and communications. These industries are vital to a small country with a large body.

I think being a northern country , there was a collective need to work together to survive our climate. When I lived in the Cariboo, you would always stop for someone on the road during the winter. You're not going to last too long if it's 30 below .










Tyler Some American's may think of Russia and Nazi Germany when they think of socialism. Americans already have a mixed economy and it's hard to understand how they believe that private enterprise can be self policing. You would think the bank crisis would have illustrated that for them.

I think the corporate media ensures these confusions by presenting a one-sided picture of neoliberalism, by propagating misinformation about about what a mixed economy is and by constantly referring to concepts such as "self-policing" as if they had been proven for centuries. The displacement of argumentation in the media by emotional rhetoric compounds the problem.

Government incentives and investment have worked well in the past for the United States as well as Canada. People here just don't hear about it as such anymore. If the investment helps business, it's portrayed as the only right and fair thing the government should do; if it helps society, it portrayed in the media as socialism or communism.



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