John Ralston Saul's The Collapse of Globalism

4 June 2005

Ah the isms, can't live with 'em, can't have good arguments without them. And for the past thirty years, we've seen a flourishing of isms, one that could almost be said to have sprung from the fertilized soil of the World War's dead a generation prior. To some they were flowers, to others they have been weeds.

And JRS is one who's seen them as weeds. I've come to find them somewhat noxious myself, which is one of the reasons that I've grown fond of his thinking, and over the winter I read most of his books. It is also for that reason that I was particularly excited when I learned in March that he had a new book coming out. There was also a geeky pleasure to know that with the publication of a new text he'd be speaking in Toronto at some point, which turned out to be sooner rather than later.

JRS spoke at U of T's MacMillan Theatre a week ago now, which I eagerly attended and like the keener I am took a seat dead centre in the third row because lectures for me are more exciting than rock concerts.

Having received a review copy of The Collapse of Globalism a week and half before, I must say that I was only able to get half way through it before seeing JRS in person. The first half of the book traces the history of the globalist ideology, which swept through the governments of the Western world over the past 30 years (which is also equivalent to my lifetime). But, even JRS conceded while presenting an overview of his arguments, 'what could be more boring than economics'. I tried to cram last week to get ready for the talk, but found myself easily distracted by such mundane activities as mowing the lawn, because it was sunny out and I didn't want to be stuck inside reading boring economic history, albeit written with Saul's wonderful style. There is also the element of extreme annoyance at seeing, in the black and white of the text, at how stupid the political leadership has been, those which Saul refers to as 'elites' in his indiviudal way (a sort of Saul glossary is available through his 1994 book, The Doubter's Companion).

Near the end of his talk, Saul referenced the coming democratic crisis, noting that the political energy of a critical mass of people under 40 is going into NGOs and similar enterprises, seeking influence over political decisions, and noting how that's all they can ever hope to accomplish. (He spoke at length on this in his inaugural Lafontiane-Bladwin speech five years ago, from which I excerpted the relevant portion for my Goodreads list). But, this follows from the globalist ideology, because as he noted, what better way to drive young people away from politics than to keep telling them they don't have power, that the whole thing is run by corporations?

That's been the story that I grew up with. It's also one of the reasons I find someone like Saul so refreshing, because he's part of that generation seduced by the neo-conservative economists who call themselves neo-liberal (liberal as in 'free trade' etc), and yet speaks for the other side; speaks in a way that gives me hope for a better tomorrow, as soon as my generation is given the power to change things. As a traitor to the ideology of his generation, I see Saul as a potential hero to the younger ones.

He's certainly been my intellectual hero, as he's attacked those who've who constructed another an ism to be a prism: the prism of economics to explain the rainbow variety of the world's reality. Of course, it should be obvious of how much of this is nonsense. But we've lived under this reality because the political leadership essentially through up their hands and said, 'it's inevitable, we can't do anything about it'.

Saul has particular loathing for that word, 'inevitable'. It's background was a little mysterious to me when I first heard him speak 7 years ago. He's continually bitched in his books at how the political leadership was arguing that globalization was inevitable, and there was nothing they could do except jump on the bandwagon. He explained where this came from: the apparent root of this loathing which has spurned him on to write all these books over the past while.

While he was in Paris in the early 70s (during the time I presume in which he was working on his PHD thesis on the modernization of France and basking in his own hero-worship of De Gaulle) the then president of the country, ValĂŠry Giscard d'Estaing came on television to announce (and I paraphrase Saul's paraphrase here): 'thank you very much for electing me, you're all very smart to have done so since I know everything, and I've studied the problem, and concluded there's nothing I can do about it.' It's worth quoting the relevant passage from the book:

"Giscard came to power in the midst of those seminal crises of oil, inflation, unemployment, and no growth. He counterattacked as a technocrat could and made no impact ... Giscard became bewildered. Discouraged.

"Then one night he appeared on television to address the people. He told them that great global forces were at work. These were new forces. Forces of inevitability. Forces of economic interdependence. There was little a national government could do. He was powerless.

"This historic appearance was probably the original declaration of Globalization as a freestanding force escaping controls of all men. It was also the invention of the new leader: the manager as castrato. This approach created quite a fashion among leaders at all levels. The easy answer to the most difficult problems was increasingly to lament publicly that you were powerless. Impotent. That your large budgets, your public structures, the talents and determination of your population could make little difference. These were not problems to be solved. These were manifestations of the global reality."

Here seems to be the roots of his argument against technocratic experts and impotent political leadership and throwing one's hands up in the face of inevitability. The crisis was an economic one, simply a lack of imaginative thinking. Saul argued in the Unconscious Civilisation that since politicians had given up leadership in favour of management, all they could ever do is manage, they didn't have what it takes to lead society with creative solutions. I guess this is where I got my fire burning toward civic engagement, and the lingering bitterness I have toward the artworld in which I'm immersed: because if artists are the ones society trains to be creative, they're wasting everyone's time with these installations.

Not that I'm advocating all artists go into politics (remembering the Hitler example, I don't think that's such a good idea for the most part) but he argued last week that we're in a vacuum now. Since 9/11, the castrated politicians suddenly realise they have balls and are pulling the strings, but they come from a generation who went into politics with the understanding that they would be making concessions to corporations. Now that the situation has reversed itself, and corporations are showing no respect for community infrastructure, the governments don't really know what to do. Hence, Ottawa for past six months.

I see that whole circus as the chickens coming home to roost: the consequences of what he spoke about in his Massey Lectures ten years ago. At the same time, he's married to the head of the government, so the chicanerie doesn't seem so bad, since Mom and Pop have good heads on their shoulders even though they aren't really supposed to have any influence. (I have faith that everything will turn out fine because Saul has the ear of the GG).

Now I have to bring something up which bothered me about his argument,something he opened himself up to. It's a case of illogic, for he stated that one can recognize an idealogue by how much they won't even admit to potentially being wrong; to the idealogue, what they believe is simply 'true'. This got some laughter from the audience, but from then on, I wanted him to address the 'truth' of his arguments. He's got it pretty good right - married to the Governor General; and he gets to write books destined to be bestsellers, he gets to work out the thoughts via lectures delivered on the ribbon-cutting itinerary, and he draws a sell-out crowd of the city's thoughtful citizens. He gets to preach to a choir, and those unlike myself who haven't reached the level of the sychophantic I imagine are at least impressed by His Excellent resumé.

Which is all to say that JRS is enabled in promoting his own ideology. His own ism. This one is older than most, being the one called humanism. As I see myself most influenced by those set of ideas, and operating within that history myself, it follows that Saul's ism arm me for great arguments, and are breath of fresh air in the sickly academic atmosphere of bullshit that I've associated in.

I first saw Saul speak at Kings College in Halifax in 1998, and I found it very influential. It's perhaps one the reasons I'm writing this now, on a blog I mean, since the way he disparaged the elites then as 'not doing their job' (in the earlier books he speaks of Canada's elites as being the laziest in the world) prompted me to believe in the power of the public intellectual. That ideas and art and all this stuff that I was studying at the time belonged to everybody, and that it was part of a civic duty to criticize bad ideas as much as it was a duty to vote and follow politics because it's there that decisions are made that affect our lives.

His relentlessly fair approach as well, as mocking what is foolish, and conceding his own defects now and then, is one of the reasons I find his writing extraordinary and highly influential. The belief is that we're all in this together. We all want what's best. There are many forces of divisiveness that we need to overcome. Perhaps his basic argument is 'pay attention'. In that way you become conscious, and can decide for yourself. That's the essence of a democracy, people deciding their own future, rather than giving up in the face of inevitability. That way, we emerge from being an Unconscious Civilisation.

You have the choice to read this book or not. You have the choice to buy it in a small bookshop or in a Chapters. Of course you can see that I'll recommend that you do, since I'm a fan an all. But I can say that a knowledge of the history of this ideology from his perspective is quiet valuable, and that Saul's work as a whole functions in the ways that education is supposed to: it empowers you in your own choice making. It helps you become a better citizen, and by becoming a better citizen, the world becomes a better place. As for the lecture - as I type this, I have TVO's Big Ideas on in the living room, and I have a feeling this lecture will be broadcast on Big Ideas sometime in the coming months, so you'll have the chance to see it for yourselves.

You'll see how he began the talk by telling us of how on May 19th, the City Council of Burlington rejected an application from Wal-Mart to build a centre there, even after all the experts (the evil technocrats of Saul's cosmology) said it would be a good thing. Here, the 'common' men and women of the council said something to the effect that Wal-Mart may know how to lower prices but they know nothing of fostering communities. And here is Saul's story over the past decade's happy ending: the collapse of an ideology of markets, when the common citizens take back the power their ancestors won from aristocrats centuries ago, to be able to say no thanks.


  1. June 2005: Published on
  2. 2005-2015 Archived on my websites & blog
  3. May 2023: this version produced