Monday, October 20, 2008

John Ralston Saul: Elitism, Expertise & A Mythical Moral Code...

"The Industrial Revolution had caused a severe mental trauma, one that still reaches out and extinguishes the memory of certain people. For them, modern history begins from a big explosion--the Industrial Revolution. This is a standard ideological approach: a star crosses the sky, a meteor explodes, and history begins anew."

" In the West, there had been a persistent growth of corporatism in spite of the outcome of the last world war. And that this growth continued. Why would this be shocking? Because corporatism was part of the anti-democratic underpinnings of Fascist Italy in particular, but also of Nazi Germany. Beneath the uniforms and the military ambitions and the dictatorial leadership and the racism lay corporatism. It was the intellectual foundation of fascism. And it was supposed to have been destroyed along with both regimes in 1945.”
- John Ralston Saul, “Unconscious Civilization,” 2006).

“Voltaire and his contemporaries believed that reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the superstitions of religious dogma. It was the key not only to challenging the powers of kings and aristocracies but also to creating a more just and humane civilization. While the emphasis on reason has become one of the hallmarks of modern thought, today's rational society bears little resemblance to the visions of the great 17th and 18th century humanist thinkers. Our ruling elites justify themselves in the name of reason, but all too often their power and their methodology is based on specialized knowledge and the manipulation of rational "structures" rather than reason. Today the link between reason and justice has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical framework, have turned rational calculation into something short-sighed and self-serving. The result, Saul observes, is that we live in a society fixated on rational solutions, management, expertise, and professionalism in almost all areas, from politics and economics to education and cultural affairs.

The cult of expertise is one of the defining characteristics of today's rational elites, as Saul sees it. "Among the illusions which have invested our civilization is an absolute belief that the solutions to our problems must be a more determined application of rationally organized expertise. The reality is that our problems are largely the product of that application."

The division of knowledge into "feudal fiefdoms of expertise" has meant that general understanding and coordinated action are increasingly difficult and often looked upon with suspicion, as evidenced by our systems of education which reward the specialist and disdain the generalist. It has also resulted in a fracturing of society into smaller and smaller and increasingly insulated professional groups. While the emergence of professionalism has paralleled the rise of individualism over the last two centuries, the result has not been greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation.

"The professional [found] that he could build his personal empire but curiously enough, the more expert he became, the more his empire shrank."

The great schism between the principles of democracy and the practices of modern rational governments has brought about not only widespread public frustration and anger, but also a general contempt among the ruling elites for the citizenry. While they cooperate with the established representational systems of democracy, Saul says, they do not believe in the value of the public's contribution. Nor do they believe in the existence of a public moral code.

"This means that in dealing with the public, they find it easier to appeal to the lowest common denominator within each of us. That this often succeeds reinforces their contempt for a public apparently capable of nothing better."

-Scott London ( Book Review: “Voltaire’s Bastards-The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston Saul,” 1996. Image: -Lewis Wickes Hine, Child Laborers: Elsie & Sadie at their yarn machines, Yazoo City, Mississippi, May 1911).

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