2010-02-25 Understanding why we flounder, help from John Ralston Saul “On Equilibrium”
For me, the preceding newspaper article USING DEFENCE STOCKS TO BOLSTER YOUR INVESTMENT PORTFOLIO is a tragedy of epic proportions. Not a tragedy of a single person or family, but of our society. It is bizarre that this can be an article from a “normal” newspaper, on a normal day, written by a normal person. It’s not normal; it is insanity.
If we can understand WHY or HOW it is that our society embraces insanity – how it is that we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, we should be in a better position to move ourselves onto a different plane.
WHY do we flounder? John Ralston Saul explains some of the answer in his book “On Equilibrium” (2004).
“Common sense, Ethics, Imagination, Intuition, Memory, Reason”
Qualities are most effective in a society when they are recognized as of equal, universal value and so are integrated into our normal life. Ralston Saul says (among other interesting things) that we divorce “reason” from everything else. It becomes distorted. We are out of balance.
“… Some might argue that the disposal of waste and the distribution of clean water are among the most important areas of solid progress we have made in the last 150 years. They would be right. But that doesn’t make process rational. And it would be impossible to prove that this process was a child of reason.
If you examine the sources of the initiatives for waste disposal and clean-water distribution you find individuals and societies driven by a constant mix of human qualities. Thought and argument were of central importance. But so was ethics – a sense of ‘the other’ and of inclusive responsibility. So was imagination, allowing people to conceive of what was happening to their society. So was intuition, driving people to make decisions. So was the memory of what happened to their society when these elements were not dealt with.
You could argue that there is rationality constantly at work in the conceiving of such systems. And that would probably be so. But that doesn’t make the systems rational.
The point is: if utilitarianism is given leadership in a given area, it will set about demeaning, marginalizing and unraveling the non-utilitarian elements at play. Why? Because utility is not thought. Nor is it argument. It does not, in and of itself, have a purpose or a direction. A toilet would just as happily dispose of fresh caviar or unwanted goldfish. It will indifferently send its cargo off through a system of pipes to be deposited in a sewage-treatment plant or directly into your drinking-water supply. That was the point about the IBM Hollerith punch-card machine, indifferently an organizer of death camps and of efficient workplace structures.
Utilitarianism can only lead us if it reduces all else to its own narrow truth of utility. The closest utility can come to a purpose is efficiency and, related to that, self-interest. This can be made into a seductive proposition, thanks to myriad fast, apparently clear, short-term answers and concrete illustrations of those answers.
But what makes a society or a civilization is precisely its more complex, less clear, more long-term, non-utilitarian aspects. And so it was a consensus around the ‘nature of the other’ which solidified the idea of responsible individualism and social inclusion, which drove the movement for egalitarian waste removal and clean-water supplies. This was an illustration of culture in its broadest sense. It included what we have always considered to be culture – ideas, literature, images, music, architecture, the sciences. Why do we think of these as culture? Because they are the repositories and the mechanisms of thought and argument.
… None of this is a comment on whether utility is good or bad. Or waste disposal. Or trade. Nor is it a comment on the necessary function of self-interest. I’m simply pointing out that these characteristics and functions are not in and of themselves rational. They are not equipped to lead society.
Why then are we so obsessed by utilitarianism? We have always wanted the comfort of clarity and permanent systems. We remain uncomfortable with our own qualities and strengths – with complexity and uncertainty. …
… Rousseau: “As soon as public service ceases to be the main concern of the citizens and they come to prefer to serve the state with their purse rather than their person, the state is already close to ruin.
What does that mean today? Think of the facility with which democracies now talk of training youth rather than educating them. Tony Blair is typical of those seduced and excited by the utilitarian solution. Echoing the latest utilitarian fashion, he argues that “human capital” is the key to future prosperity. I’m not suggesting that students shouldn’t have training, but a rational citizen is not human capital any more that she is a utilitarian mechanism.
… (There is a quote from Mussolini, followed by) .. My point is not to call anyone a fascist. Rather it is to point out how seductively the utilitarian, interest-based corporatist viewpoint has chased reason from our public imagination and replaced it with mechanistic dogma. It is so omnipresent that we no longer recognize it as such. …
When I say utilitarianism chases out reason, the impetus is obvious. Reason will press us to be conscious. It will force us to use our memory, to say nothing of our ethical judgement. The utilitarian, being mere method and self-interest, is dependent on perpetual virginal naivete. Its short-term clarity is intended to bring results and produce a direction. And we must not notice when it doesn’t.
So a rational leader like Harry Truman quite naturally points out, “That people have to keep their eyes and ears open at all times or they’ll be robbed blind by … the big business interests. Every generation seems to have to learn that all over again, and it’s a shame.”
And indeed, various arguments of inevitability tied to what we now call globalization have caused us to willingly suspend our disbelief yet again, even though the evidence of our naivete continues to pour in. Think of Nike withdrawing its financial support from American universities such as Michigan, Oregon and Brown. Why? Because these schools expressed concern over working conditions in Nike’s overseas factories. Universities are supposed to be independent centres of thought – of rationality – but they were caught in a web of utilitarian logic. They need money. They are an attractive, soft, advertising centre for sports-equipment manufacturers. And the equipment in question is produced according to an utilitarian model.
Or think of a current fashion which is presented as utilitarian truth: the new large markets created by globalization require larger corporations. We should therefore be pleased by a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions, leading to many companies larger than national states. But the logic simply doesn’t work. A decade or so ago we were told to deregulate and open our borders in order to stimulate competition. Today we are told that the return in force of monopolies and oligopolies is a healthy and in any case inevitable outcome of opening up to the world. So the plan to increase competition has done the opposite.
Which is it meant to be? In utilitarianism it really doesn’t matter because there is no direction and there are no ideas. Looked at rationally, these big corporations are bad for the global market and for our societies. Anyone who THINKS he is in favour of the marketplace must be against the trend. Anyone who BELIEVES in the marketplace may be able to trick himself into naïve acceptance.
… There was – is – no real danger, only the fear. The fear of danger here is the fear of uncertainty. And because of that fear, reason can swing into deformity perhaps faster than any of our other qualities.
All that is needed is a troubled time or a voice capable of exacerbating our fears, playing upon them, or a critical mass of insecure minds in a critical place. Suddenly we discover that our ability to think and argue has been locked up in methodology, truth and dogma. This is the cheapest, the fastest, way to self-confidence. And in fleeing the dangers of free enquiry, reason is blown immediately into the truly dangerous waters of certainty. Thought, after all, may be our most unusual quality. Perhaps it is also our most delicate, the one most immediately dependent upon the tension created by our other qualities.
That is why the worst thing we can do is to overstate the rational case. Of the six qualities it is the least capable of assuming such hyperbole.
Treat it as mere reason – as thought and argument. Cut loose the sucker-fish – the facts, methodology, instrumentalism, utilitarianism. Stop treating it as the source of truth. Stop pretending that thought is virtue. “Sometimes it is reasonable to act contrary to reason.” Remember that life is not a Manichean choice between good and evil. Only a false rationality leads us into that trap. Ethics can deal with the choices of life in a much more complex and interesting way.”
. . . . Cripes! John Ralston Saul is right. I applied ethics to the case of Lockheed Martin. Think how simple and dull my life could have otherwise been! I would not have been hauled into Court wouldn’t know the many of you, would not know all that I have learned through experience, and working with a network of other people.