John Ralston Saul , Penguin Books, 1995, 1997
FROM CORPORATISM TO DEMOCRACY
THE MOST POWERFUL FORCE possessed by the individual citizen is her own government. Or governments, because a multiplicity of levels means a multiplicity of strengths.
The individual has no other large organized mechanism that he can call his own. There are other mechanisms, but they reduce the citizen to the status of a subject. Government is the only organized mechanism that makes possible that level of shared disinterest known as the public good. Without this greater interest the individual is reduced to a lesser, narrower being limited to immediate needs. He will then be subject to other, larger forces, which will necessarily come forward to fill the void left by the withering of the public good. Those forces will fill it with some other directing interest that will serve their purposes, not the larger purposes of the citizen. It would be naive to blame them for occupying abandoned territory. There are those who talk about individualism as if it were a replacement for government. There are others who see it as the enemy of government. Let me begin from the self-evident. We are more than one. We are more than a family We are more than several families. We are many tens of millions. We exist, therefore, in societies. It has been several millennia since those of us in the West have been able to live outside society, except in odd, temporary cases. The opening of the American West, for example, was, for better or worse, a short-term exception available to a small number of people. In Canada the West was opened without the larger social structures falling away There are a few people today who can live virtually alone in the Arctic on research stations and the like. They constitute a few hundred of us out of millions. The individual therefore lives in society That is the primary characteristic of individualism. The only question is what form that society will take. As I have already pointed out, the form of society tums upon where legitimacy lies. There are four options a god, a king, groups or the individual citizenry acting as a whole.
How then could individuals possibly replace government? In a democracy they are government. This myth of the triumphant, unattached individual is pure romanticism and, I repeat, romanticism is a handmaiden of ideology. Individuals do not beat large companies or defeat large armies; why would we expect them to replace governments? The point is that there will be a government as there has always been. People ask: What kind of government? How much government? I think the primary question is: Whose government? If individuals do not occupy their legitimate position, then it will be occupied by a god or a king or a coalition of interest groups. If citizens do not exercise the powers conferred by their legitimacy, others will do so. Many of those who see individualism as an altemative also believe that government should be formally excluded from certain areas. Public enterprises are the first thing to go on their hst for exclusion. Some wish to reduce government to the minimal occupation of dealing with violence interior violence (law and criminality), and external violence (defence and foreign affairs).
The citizenry might well wonder why they should put artificial hmits on their only force. The power we refuse ourselves goes somewhere else. Yet no other legitimacy is capable of disinterest. If the citizenry agree to exclude themselves from any given area, they are automatically excluding the possibility that in that domain the public good could have any role to play. A moment ago, I referred to those who see government as the enemy of the individual. They believe that govemment has fallen into the hands of one of the other three legitimacies. Many individuals in identifying government as their enemy have focused almost exclusively on the bureaucracy of government. Their belief is that the bureaucracy has taken over. This is a perfectly justifiable fear containing large elements of truth. But attacking the problem at that level government is bureaucracy and bureaucracy is the enemy, therefore government is the enemy is to miss the point and to invite far worse.
In fact, this bit of pure logic suffers from the classical fallacy of the undistributed middle. The logic involved is so flawed that, although it is in the style of the medieval schoolmen, it would have been rejected by them as an infenor specimen of abstract reasoning.
Nor is it particularly useful to worry about the theoretically dubious intentions of bureaucrats. Most of them see themselves as civil servants in the full sense of that term and are well intentioned. Nor is the problem that the public bureaucracy in particular has become so bloated as to be uncontrollable. The twentieth century has seen an explosion in aH types of management. Our entire education system is aimed at creating managers of every sort. Managers of the government, yes, but business is also dominated by a top-heavy bureaucracy. I would suggest that today the problem of managerial dead weight is far greater in the private sector than in the public. I would suggest that one of the key reasons that the private sector has been unable to revive and reinvent itself over the last two decades has been a lack of creativity brought on by a managerial rather than a creative owner-based leadership. A second key reason is that the cost of the managerial superstructure is now far too heavy for the producing substructure. The managers are weighing the economy down.
It is therefore naive or disingenuous for those leading the fight against govemment to suggest that society will be reinvigorated by smaller government. Responsibility will simply have been transferred to an equally if not more sluggish bureaucracy in the private sector. What's more, by demonizing the public civil servant they are obscuring the matter of the citizen's legitimacy and of the public good which only that legitimacy can produce. People become so obsessed by hating govemment that they forget it is meant to be their govemment and is the only powerful public force they have purchase on.
This is what makes the neo-conservative and marketforce arguments so disingenuous. Their remarkably successful demonization of the public sector has turned much of the citizenry against their own mechanism. Many of us have been enrolled in the cause of interests that have no particular concem for the citizen's welfare. Our welfare. Instead, the citizen is reduced to the status of a subject at the foot of the throne of the marketplace.
A single line from David Hume lies at the heart of this argument: 'Nothing is more certain than that men are, in a great measure, governed by interest."' The tendency has been both to drop that qualifying clause 'in great measure" and to use the remainder of the phrase out of context in order to suggest that the public good is a fiction and that self-interest must rule. Self-interest, it is suggested, is best served by the marketplace.
However, that isn't really what Hume said or meant. Yes, he was a bit sceptical about human qualities. And yes, he believed in 'the civilizing powers of the commerce which was then transforming Western Europe."' But he also sought how civilization could best hmit the negative effects of self-interest. As his biographer, Nicholas Phillipson, puts it:
All of Hume's philosophy, all of his history, was to be directed towards the goal of teaching men and women to seek happiness in the viorld of common life, not in the hfe hereafter, and to pay attention to their duties to their fellow citizens rather than to a superstitious god.'
God has been replaced today by another ideology called the marketplace. Hume may have admired commerce. He didn't see it as a deity.
But even if you do take the market theorists' interprets-' tion of Hume at face value, why should that encourage the citizen to abandon govemment in favour of the private sector? After all, ff man is govemed by interest, then those who succeed have no obligation to worry about the 999o living at various levels below them.
Adam Smith was very clear about how the monied class the masters, as he called them act in their own interest if allowed to:
Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination, not to raise the wages of tabour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things.... Masters, too, sometimes enter into particu lar combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution. . .
That was Adam Smith, I repeat, not Karl Marx.
The process Smith describes may sound familiar. The argument in favour of dropping wages today is that high salaries, given global competition, are self-destructive. Smith, however, attributed the masters' attitude to pure
self-interest: 'In reality high profits tend much more to raise the price of [a piece of] work than high wages.
My point is that the individual and the govemment are linked together by an artery. If we act to sever that artery by replacing or opposing a central role for goverru-nent, we cease to be individuals and revert to the status of subject. If democracy fails, then it is ultimately the citizen who has failed, not the politician. The politician can always find a new place in a new configurafion of power witness the growing attachment of the elected to private sector interests.
I would argue that to a great extent we are already well engaged in the act of cuffing our own arteries in both the wrists and the throat. If we are slipping into such a foolish act, it is largely because we have allowed ourselves to be convinced by our own elites that the democratic system is a secondary product of the free market system. And so, if the system and its managers supported by their acolytes in departments of economics around the West and by the invasive buzz of their eager neo-conservative courtiers -
if all of these people and institutions indicate that there must be changes, wen, we bow our heads in respect.
Let me therefore lift my head long enough to expand a bit more on the true roots of democracy and individualism. I've spoken of both our humanist origins in Athens and the sources of freedom of speech. I've described bits of that twelfth-century renaissance which produced the modem intellectual liberation of the individual from the status of subject.
It was a process which affected many parts of society For example, religion saw the rise of individual confession. During the preceding 1,000 years the confessing of sins had been done rarely and in general as a group absolution. Power lay with the priests as the essential intermediary between mankind and God. Suddenly, confession was something done and done frequently by the individual. It was recognized that not only do individuals sin, but he and she also have the right to individual forgiveness. Interestingly enough, the emphasis was not on priestly absolution but on an automatic absolution from God if the sinner had good intentions, which of course was between him and God. If the intentions of the believer were to be recognized as important, then the priest had lost a fundamental authority over what until then had been mere subjects. This rise of the very idea of intent was central to the subsequent rise of individualism and democracy. Intent is a form of self-knowledge.
The same century saw the rise of personal portraits: that is, portraits no longer painted as stereotypes of the subject's social condition. Artists began signing their names. They were individuals, responsible for each visual act, not functionaries. juries arose thus citizens took responsibility for justice being done, and the weight of their votes counted. This was a major step away from direct democracy (i.e., mob justice) and from hierarchical or qualitative justice in which the power to decide lay with experts or those in authority. In the villages, citizens chose their own local officials, made up their own regulations and administered them. In the towns, associations, unions, fratemities and guilds sprang up. As in the villages, members of these organizations were equal members. They voted and adn-dnistered as equals.8These guilds were quite different from the hierarchical special interest groups that the corporatist movement sought to create in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and which have such power today.
These original guilds led to increased public services. Santa Maria della Scala the hospital in the centre of Siena, in northem Italy has been in service since the eleventh century. It was a creation of the public good involving various citizen groups.
John of Paris was writing a few years later that the 'natural instincts" (instinctus naturales) of individuals caused them to form communities which made up the state.9
In that same twelfth century, Aelred of Rievaulx was talking about the three loves love of self, of others and of God. These three, 'though obviously different, yet so amazingly dovetail into one another that not only is each found in all of them and aH in each, but where you have one there you have all, and should one fail, all fail."" Note that these three loves have nothing to do with faith, hope and charity, the standard hierarchical qualities of a faithful believer as recognized by the church. Note also that faith and hope were passive qualities. The behever's faith and hope were expressions of what he would receive from divine forces. Charity also was passive for the vast majority who were rarely in a position to do more than receive the moral, ethical and concrete charity of the elites.
In this same era love poetry grew to celebrate the single male-female relationship. Satire that basic tool of the individual citizen was reborn.
Eventually the twelfth-century humanist renaissance of the individual faltered before the onslaught of a bureaucracy of Catholic lawyers who had begun to reorganize the papacy. Royal families began to grab away the power of their citizens in an attempt to centralize their kingdoms. A certain bittemess grew in humanist circles, particularly against the professional careerists the specialist courtiers of the day
Yet the humanist movement by no means died. In the thirteenth century the Magna Carta did far more than settle power on the barons. Particularly in dause 39, the rights of afl free men were laid out. Essentially no free man was to be dealt with by authority outside the law. Over the years that term quickly expanded from 'no free man' to . no man' (Edward III statutes, 1331) to 'no man of whatever estate or condition" (1334).
Thomas Aquinas cleverly laid out the concept of the natural versus the supranatural; that is, the citizen versus the faithful Christian. The natural was regulated by the active Hellenistic virtues Justice, Temperance, Prudence and Fortitude; the supranatural by the passive official Catholic virtues of faith, hope and charity This meant that the individual citizen could now participate in public affairs without being overwhelmed by Christian requirements or assumptions.
A few years later Dante in Monarchia declared that 'man alone was the constituent member of the human dvilitas" and Marsigho of Padua that 'acting in their totality as a community of citizens, [men] now possessed sovereignty, because they alone were held to be the bearers of original power.
This whole humanist movement fell back for a while, then advanced again with the translations of the Bible in the sixteenth century, which took powerful language out of the hands of authority and put it into the hands of the individual. Part of that wave of humanism was led by Erasmus; another part by the Italian Renaissance. The next setback came with the Reformation and its reinforcement of authority. The result was the rise of pessimism or passivity because of predestination. Almost at the same tim e, Loyola and the Jesuits breathed fire into the Counter Reformation by adapting reason to their purposes undermining humanism and individualism.
But then the revolution in England in the middle of the seventeenth century brought a whole new class to the fore as Cromwell was supported neither by money nor the big families but by the yeomen and the gentry. The decline, later in the century, of the whole idea of hell with its threats of etemat fire led to the rise of the idea that the majority had the right to heaven. That, in tum, led to theories of democracy
You will notice that through this whole process there hasn't been a single mention of the role of economics, let alone of the determining role of economics. That's because there wasn't any Any more than there was in the whole Enlightenment movement.
In general, democracy and individualism have advanced in spite of and often against specific economic interest. Both democracy and individualism have been based upon financial sacrifice, not gain. Even in Athens, a large part of the 7,000 citizens who participated regularly in assemblies were farmers who had to give up several days' work to go into town to talk and listen.
How is it then that we have fallen into taking seriously someone like the economist Milton Friedman who walks about equating, in a silly, indeed an immature manner, democracy with capitalism?
I suppose, in part, the answer is that that other view the traditional anti-democratic view has been slowly advancing behind a variety of masks for much of this century. Mussolini found his financing in the large industrial corporations by promising them that once in power he would discard democracy to make Italy flourish and govemment effective. Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology, had already laid out the ideal structures of corporatism in which the state and the interest groups would be as one. 'The corporation's rule secures for the state the deferential citizenry ... and so frees it to govern on the basis of 'morality itself ... not the deformation it undergoes in being incamated in current practices which can express it only imperfectly' because they are 'reduced to the level of human mediocrity." 12 'Current practices" and "human mediocrity" are references to democracy.
The neo-conservative godfather, Michael Oakeshott, after showering contempt on democracy, decried ideology and reason in favour of common sense and practical experience. But when he addressed himself to economics, he was abruptly converted into what I can only can a rational ideologue who sees economics as a scientific abstraction completely independent from the realities of human society. Listen to him:
Economics is not an attempt to generalize human desires or human behaviour, but to generalize the phenomena of price. And the more completely it leaves behind the specifically human world, the more completely it discards the vocabulary which suggests this world, the more unambiguously will it establish its scientific character.1'
Thus, social order should be based upon human experience except, inexplicably, when economics are in question. Economics are to be treated as an absolute scientific truth.
Dozens of other corporatist and market theorists toiled away through the thirties, forties and fifties. Mihail Manoilesco, Alfredo Rocco, Friedrich von Hayek. What linked them was a religious devotion to the market and an inability to see govemment as the justifiable force of the citizen. That is, their inability to see the human as anything more than interest driven made it impossible for them to imagine an actively organized pool of disinterest called the public good.
It is as if the Industrial Revolution had caused a severe mental trauma, one that still reaches out and extinguishes the memory of certain people. For them, modem 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.
The result is that you find well-known management experts like Peter Drucker declaring today that 'the nanny state is a total failure." 14
Well, actually, it isn't. A great deal of what it does, it does very wefl. True, some serious problems have now, developed, caused in part by management leadership and in part by too many incremental changes over too long a period. In addition, no one has experienced more than a partial nanny state. Let's not exaggerate reality.
But what is the meaning of wanting to demolish everything rather than considering repair or consolidation? The meaning is ideology. Those who have a miraculous vision of the world created in seven days or, in this case, from the Industrial Revolution on, require a total break in order to assert their model. And at the heart of this model, whether market-centred or corporatist, is the idea of interest and the denial of disinterest.
What I am describing is not a new problem. I've mentioned Dante, in the late thirteenth century, castigating the elites of Florence for being 'all too intent upon the acquisition of money." In 1993 the retiring head of the French secret service (the DGSE) spoke to his assembled agents. He said the most dangerous situation they had to deal with was "the extraordinary rush for money in all its forms" and 'the corruption of the elites." He said 'the governing classes pohfical and economic in much of the world, now treated money as if it had no odour," so that the clean is mixed with the criminal.1' This surprisingly extreme statement from a public official mind you, on his last day in the office is nevertheless not a surprising description of a society that beheves only in self-interest.
But while corporatism limits society to self-interest, it is far more than that. When I look back over the early and recent definitions of what corporatism was to be, I am continually amazed by how close we have come to those intentions.
First there is the continual confusing of industrialization with capitalism with corporatism; the sort of confusion that ought to drive a modern economist crazy, but doesn't because all three fit together in a comfortable, flexible way. AR three are interest oriented. They are now seen to be about organization and capital.
Remember: the origin of corporatism in the second half of the nineteenth century lay in two things the rejection of citizen-based democracy and the desire to react in a stable way to the Industrial Revolution. These original motives would evolve into the desire for a stable managerial, hierarchical society.
Listen to Emile Durkheim again. The corporations are to become the 'elementary division of the state, the fundamental political unit.' They will 'efface the disfinction between public and private, dissect the democratic citizenry into discrete functional groupings which are no longer capable of joint political action." Through the corporations, 'scientific rationality [will] achieve its rightful standing as the creator of collective reality""
It all sounds like obscure nonsense. But think about our society How are real decisions made today? Through negotiations between the specialized and interest groups. These are the fundamental political units. Citizens who rise, citizens who win responsibility, who succeed, enter into these units. What about the distinction between public and private? The concept of arm's length is evaporating. Government services are slipping into private hands. And the govemment is adopting private industry standards and methods. As for the individual, the one-third to onehalf of the population who are part of the managerial elite are indeed castrated as citizens because their professions, their employment contracts and the general atmosphere of corporate loyalty make it impossible for them to participate in the public place.
Now listen to the first three aims of the corporatist movement in Germany, Italy and France during the 1920s. These were developed by the people who went on to become part of the Fascist experience:
(1) shift power directly to economic and social interest groups;
(2) push entrepreneurial initiative in areas normally reserved for public bodies;
(3) obliterate the boundaries between public and private interest that is, challenge the idea of the public interest."
This sounds like the official program of most contemporary Western governments. Finally, there is Philippe Schmitter, who in 1974 published a paper called "Still the Century of Corporatism?"' This sparked the creation of a whole industry of academics working on what they called 'neo-corporatism." Together, they began the process of legitimizing a corporatism that had been intellectually unacceptable since 1945. The words 'interest representation" are central to Schmitter's theory. He writes with an assumption of 'the erosion/collapse of liberal democracy." Schmitter and the others seemed to assume that this new corporatism would involve a deal between the govemment and the private sector. They saw it as perhaps resembling what the English tried to do in the 1970s, when the unions, business and govemment sat down to thrash things out. Or, with deep misunderstanding or misrepresentation, these apologists mentioned Sweden, where this was done much more successfully What they didn't see was the growing isolation of the steadily fracturing specialist and interest groups and the opening of borders that would make corporatism an intemational affair in which the governments and the employees were increasingly weak players. The peculiar thing is that this little army of academics around the world is constantly debating the merits of state' corporatism, which they see as a dictatorship, versus society' corporatism, which they praise as merely removing some of the citizens' democratic powers. They never seem to discuss whether it is a good thing for the citizens and democracy to be losing any power. Or whether democracy has enough power.
What is remarkable about corporatism is its inherent strength. What we are witnessing today is its third or fourth run at power in a little over a century. Each time, it is beaten back as it was during World War Two then, a few years later, it reappears, redesigned and stronger.
Even the model of the strong corporatist chief reappears in a new guise. Look at the Itahan neo-fascist leader Gianfranco Fini, who is now a key govemment player. He makes a point of resembling a wefl-dressed merchant banker. Look at the Austrian neo-fascist leader J6rg Haider, who now wins a quarter of the votes in national elections. He resembles a movie star and has hterauy designed his aura in movie star manner. This, of course, is only a detail in the latest rise of corporatism. After all, the system is the same throughout the West, where, in most places, perfectly normal party politicians are holding power.
However, the great unspoken issue is why no Westem population has been asked to choose corporatism, let alone has demanded it. It simply creeps up on us, a bit more every day.
Bismarck played the corporatist card very hard when he was German chancellor in the second half of the nineteenth century, continually holding it out as a threat to the democratically elected members of the Reichstag. He even let it be known, through others, that he might go as far as a coup d'gtat" in order to change the system. The atmosphere which he left certainly weakened the Reichstag, both then and after World War One. It could be argued that we are now in the midst of a coup d'6tat in slow motion. Democracy is weakening; few people would disagree. Corporatism is strengthening; you only have to look around you. Yet none of us has chosen this route for our society, in spite of which our elites quite happfly continue down it. Mussolini said that 'liberty was an right for cavemen, but civilization meant a progressive diminution in personal freedoms."20 He had a kind of idiot savant feeling for the twentieth century at its worst. Certainly corporatism is creating a conformist society. It is a modern form of feudalism with none of the advantages of the early urban guild system, where obligation, responsibility and standards played a role. It's not surprising that Japan, Korea and Singapore should do so well in such an atmosphere. They resemble the perfect corporatist state or benign dictatorship. As for us, we are reverting back to our role as the faithful servant of the church. We continue to struggle with the old question which has been with us since Gregory the Great in the sixth century of whether to obey a superior even when the order is unjust. The slow emergence of strict modern corporatism can be seen in our attempts, over the last half-century, to deal with this issue of obedience. It was given enormous play after World War Two when German officers and officials were tried and convicted at Nuremberg for having obeyed orders. Today we are inundated by trials and official inquiries revolving around this same question of whether or not to obey orders. What if contaminated blood is being in the health-care system? What if a car as used
a faulty part?
We are almost an of us employees in some sort of corporation, public or private. Increasingly, those who follow orders are being acquitted. Why? Because increasingly our society does not see social obligation as the primary obligation of the individual. The primary obligation is loyalty to the corporation. It is, as Jung described it, 'that gentle and painless slipping back into the kingdom of childhood, into the paradise of parental care." Why? Because 'all mass movements slip with the greatest ease down an inclined plane made up of large numbers. Where the many are, there is security; what the many believe must of course be true. "21
We usually think of mass society in Marxist terms or in those of modem communication technology. But nothing could be more of a controlled mass than a corporatist society. Max Weber, the other founder with Durkheim of modem corporatism and sociology, predicted the emergence of a world of efficient, exact managers, all of them trained to solve problems.
Of course, there has always been another view. Flaubert wrote of the 'mania for conclusions' as "one of humanity's most useless and sterile drives.' 12 He saw this now one of the manager's most desirable attributes as a minor expression of religion. Those who have the truth must have the answer.
We are faced by this truth every day. We hear nuclear experts, for example, blaming the problems of their industry on 'extreme environmentalist groups," playing 'cleverly on the factors of'dread'and'the unknown'in the public mind."2' It is here assumed that the public couldn't know enough to understand and it isn't worth wasting much effort explaining things to them.
Mexico has acquired a whole new layer of these managers over the past few years almost all of them educated in the United States. Called los perfumados the perfumed boys they have been in charge of the country's radical modernization program. When the peso and the economy collapsed at the end of 1994, the new managers were at least partly to blame. But the attitude of the corporatists was one of hne loyalty The United States Under-Secretary of Commerce for Trade, Jeffrey Garten, went public in order to say that he had full confidence in them (the United States was paying the bill for the crisis). He said Mexico's U.S.educated technocrats were 'one of the very important links that exists between the United States and economic teams in virtually all Latin American countries. Under no circumstances can that be anything but a great advantage."4
Now that is almost word for word what Field Marshall Sir Wilham Robertson, the British Chief of the Imperial Staff, said about Alhed staff officers at the end of World War One. Most soldiers and field officers thought them responsible for a prolonged slaughter and guilty of the worst incompetence.
None of what I am describing is a simple matter of Left versus Right. Corporatism cuts across political lines. The official voices of reform are as much a part of the structure as are the voices of the Right. Look, for example, at the American liberal attempt to put in place a decent healthcare structure. First, an American president was elected by the people with, as his principal platform, health-care reform. Once in power he turned to the relevant elites and they produced a new health-care structure which was, a technocrat's nightmare. Even its supporters couldn't understand it. The president put this proposal forward for debate and it was flung aside with the flick of a wrist.
How? Why? In large part because the whole approach to reform had been so corporatist, so technocratic, so complex, that most people even allies could not get involved in the debate.
But at the end of the day the question was far bigger. An American president was elected to do something. He was prevented from doing it, not by Congress, but by the corporatist structure. Can we say that such a country is functioning as a democracy?
One of the ways of dealing with that question is to look at the effect of corporatism on the elected representatives of the people.
The corporatist idea that elected representatives are merely representing interests has led them to apply pressure directly on the politicians. The result has been a remarkable growth in the lobbying industry, which has as its sole purpose the conversion of elected representatives and senior civil servants to the particular interest of the lobbyist. That is, lobbyists are in the business of corrupting the people's representatives and servants away from the public good.
This may be done over the long term or the short term, with cash in bank accounts or on country weekends, with understandings about jobs or board positions to be made available on retirement. Once the principle of legalized corruption had been accepted, the methods of corruption turned out to be inexhaustible, as the leadership of the previous Canadian govemment demonstrated. This year, Conservative MPs in London are furious because they may have to declare what they eam as "parliamentary consultants." They may even be banned from continuing as paid agents for lobbying firms. But Britain seems no worse than anywhere else.
Those governments freshly elected elsewhere on "clean the house out" platforms frequently turn out to have been on the take before their arrival, if we are to judge the new governing parties in Italy and the new Gaullist govemment in France.
The point of these examples is not to demonstrate that politicians are corrupt. It is to suggest that the discomfort in our system comes largely from a long-term undermining of the representative'system by the corporatist system. Those who are elected know that power has slipped elsewhere. Their frustration, to put it in the'most general terms, leads them to try to get something else out of the situation. They are being corrupted in a much more profound sense than the merely financial.
Cromwell said that 'the King's head was not taken off because he was King, nor the Lords laid aside because Lords ... but because they did not perform their trust." Instead they formed an alliance with a group of big London capitalists, who loaned money in return for titles and privileges. 15 Virtually every politician portrayed in film or on television over the last decade has been venal, corrupt, opportunistic, cynical, if not worse. Whether these dramatized images are accurate or exaggerated matters little. The corporatist system wins either way: directly through corruption and indirectly through the damage done to the citizen's respect for the representative system.
Yet in no Western parhament has more than marginal action been taken to deal with this problem. From within the system it seems as if nothing more than the details of corruption can be dealt with registrations, open accounting and so on. But from the outside the entire system is seen as intolerable and the population is losing confidence while it waits for a fundamental change. The same could be said for the vast majority of those elected. They gain no pleasure from this degrading system and most are as honest as the average citizen. But the system seems unable to free itself from the tentacles of what corporatists such as Schmitter admiringly caned 'interest representation."
In spite of this, governments continue to deliver services that are and have been historically better in the long run than those provided by the private sector. Our lives are filled with these services. They run so smoothly that we scarcely notice them.
Yet in imitation of the marketplace, govemment is busily transforming itself to meet business standards. It isn't quite clear what these are when it comes to public service. The flaw in the logic can be seen in very simple things: for example, there is a tendency now to refer to the citizen as a customer of the govemment. The customer of the police. The customer of the fireman or the health officer. But we are not customers. We haven't walked into a shop to think about buying. We are not going to make a purchase and then walk away. We are not even customers with long-term (in business this is rarely very long) service contracts. We are the owners of the services in question. Our relationship is not tied to purchase or to value for money, but to responsibility Not only are we not the customers of public servants, we are in fact their employers. I suppose that if this mania for business terms is uncontrollable, then the most accurate term to describe the citizen would be shareholder. But even that is inexact because (1) we cannot buy and sell our shares (we are stuck with them for life) and (2) we do not own these shares for profit.
This little linguistic slippage within the bureaucracy shows how essentially directionless the corporatist system is. Once the idea of management for management's sake takes over, the organization, whatever it is, begins to skitter about aimlessly, following one expert system after another, obsessed by problem solving without really considering the problem in its own terms. And control. Everything is a matter of control. Yet control, hke efficiency, is a secondary or tertiary business, wen behind policy and purpose and, for that matter, effectiveness.
As Leon Courville, the president of the Banque Nationale du Canada, has said, the manager's principal aim is to remove uncertainty, thus forgetting that uncertainty is essential to successful action.' A terrible fear of error possesses them, because in a pyramidal structure there is no admission of the possibility of error. Management is about systems and quantification, not about policy and people.
Robert McNamara, near the beginning of a long tome designed to deal with his blunders in Vietnam, nevertheless pauses to talk about quantification as a revelation. "To this day, I see quantification as a language to add precision to reasoning about the world. ' Given his record on the counting of body bags, among other statistics, I should have thought he might have considered softening the sentence. But then an obsession with quantification does tend to end up in superstition.
In spite of his track record of errors, McNamara remains in many ways the star of the systems men. At the height of the Vietnam War he gave a speech that set out what the system and some of those in it believe:
Undermanagement [of society is] the real threat to democ racy... To undermanage reahty [is to let] greed... aggressiveness ... hatred ... ignorance ... inertia... [or] anything other than reason [shape reafityl. If it is not rea son that rules man, then man falls short of his potential.
The key word here is 'rules.' Man must be ruled. This is the Hobbesian, corporatist view. If not kept under control, man and woman will run amok.
Some time later McNamara moved on from the Pentagon to apply this same system to the World Bank. There he played a major role in creating the Third World debt crisis. Years before he had said, 'Running the Department of Defense is not different from running the Ford Motor Company or the Catholic Church, for that matter." Now that is a very fine summary of the structure that underlies corporatism. His career is eloquent proof that what he says is not true. Still, there is no point in demonizing McNamara. He is merely an unfortunate, large catastrophe in an unfortunate, much larger system. Even his idol, John Kennedy, beheved strongly in the management approach and used all the new methods. For example, he avoided calling cabinet meetings. Though cabinet members represented a formal element in the democratic system a table of counsellors approved by the mechanisms laid out in the constitution he preferred to see them separately in order to control the agenda and to spend the rest of his time with his courtiers. The bloated White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George Bush with 1,300 courtiers were direct descendants of Kennedy's Camelot. There is nothing new about bureaucracies as opposed to management. Since the Roman Empire they have tended to grow uncontrollably and to lose purpose. This is not evil. It's just a characteristic. What is new is the devotion of the whole elite to the bureaucratic ethic that is, to management as if it were a primary skill. This is the product of corporatism. It is what happens when you rank reason and method over content. The result is that those elites which should counter-played a major role in creating the Third World debt crisis. Years before he had said, 'Running the Department of Defense is not different from running the Ford Motor Company or the Catholic Church, for that matter." Now that is a very fine summary of the structure that underlies corporatism. His career is eloquent proof that what he says is not true.
Still, there is no point in demonizing McNamara. He is merely an unfortunate, large catastrophe in an unfortunate, much larger system. Even his idol, John Kennedy, beheved strongly in the management approach and used afl the new methods. For example, he avoided calling cabinet meetings. Though cabinet members represented a formal element in the democratic system a table of counsellors approved by the mechanisms laid out in the constitution he preferred to see them separately in order to control the agenda and to spend the rest of his time with his courtiers. The bloated White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George Bush with 1,300 courtiers were direct descendants of Kennedy's Camelot.
There is nothing new about bureaucracies as opposed to management. Since the Roman Empire they have tended to grow uncontrollably and to lose purpose. This is not evil. It's just a characteristic.
What is new is the devotion of the whole elite to the bureaucratic ethic that is, to management as if it were a primary skill. This is the product of corporatism. It is what happens when you rank reason and method over content.
The result is that those elites which should counter-balance the bureaucracy, do not. Instead, time is wasted on fights between the interest groups: public versus private; regional versus national; national versus international; an blaming each other for whatever it is they say is wrong. Whatever they claim, these fights are rarely over policy Corporatism is about interests and the division of those interests. Their fights are over who gets what.
In this context there is no disinterest and no direction and no reward for thought or disinterested participation. The result is a growth within the population of contempt for the elites. What follows from that is what we are now experiencing: the rise of false populism, which is usually linked to the enemies of democracy.
I'd like to pause here, just for a moment, on the subject of reason, which hes at the heart of democracy's problems and, indeed, of management's. First, I am not attacking reason per se. I am attacking the dominance of reason. Reason as an ideology. Sensibly integrated along with our other qualities, reason is invaluable. Put out on its own as a flagshi p for society and for all of our actions,it quickly becomes irrational.
We all know that reason came into the modem world with a fanfare of great expectations. It came to save us from arbitrary power and religious superstition. As early as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas was saying that every man must act in consonance with reason." And that great idealist, Robert Owen, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, was certain that 'man has no other means of discovering what is false, except by his faculty of reason.'
The difficulty is that, from Plato's Republic on, reason and utopia have been inextricably linked. This has been more than a marriage of convenience. It is reason that is used to explain why each successive utopia I should say ideology is inevitable. And it is reason that, we are told, will make it run. The truth about how we should be organized will thus be revealed. It isn't surprising that the ideologies of the past two centuries have claimed to be the children of reason.
Many people have attacked this presumption, but they themselves have tended to do it from an ideological point of view. The Frankfurt School made brflhant critiques that were undermined by their own Marxism. 'The new order of fascism," Max Horkheimer wrote, 'is reason revealing itself as unreason." Michael Oakeshott attempted to do the same from the Right, but was undermined by his pretence of shuffling conservatism. Bertolt Brecht found himself under attack in East Germany for his opera The Trial of Lucullus. He was accused of 'a relapse into doubt and weakness."' Reason knows no doubt. It is strong because it finds the answers.
Most of the Communist parties are now gone. What remains in the West, and in the old Communist bloc wherever anarchy doesn't reign, are the structures of corporatism. In particular, the technocrats have inherited the Platonic marriage of reason and ideology. That's why they react somewhat hysterically when arguments are raised against the clear leadership of reason. They say they fear the opening of the door to superstition. To our dark side. In reality they fear losing their own self-confidence or being faced with a trial in which the successes and failures of reason are compared.
This desperate need for reason and the accompanying latent addiction to solutions are good examples of the unconscious at work. Take McNamara during the 1960s on his new nuclear strategy flexible response: '. . . basic military strategy in general nuclear war should be approached in much the same way that more conventional military operations have been regarded in the past.' 32 This is a perfectly rational statement that suggests lunacy. He might have found it helpful, even calming, to read a bit of Diderot before announcing his latest truths. The following is Diderot's definition of facts those elements so beloved in the creation of rational truth as laid out in the onginal [email protected]:
Facts: You can divide facts into three types: divine, natural and man made. The first belong to theology, the second to philosophy and the others to actual history. AU three are open to question.
The problem, as you can see, is not reason, but what we have done to reason by raising it to a state of divinity Various professors in our schools of philosophy have tried to deal with this problem by developing a sub-category of reason: instrumental reason. This term is intended to describe reason as it is actually apphed in the real world. But such a distinction only accentuates the problem. It is as ff they were saying, now we have both the deity and the deity's representative on earth. Reason as a deity is an untouchable perfection. Instrumental reason the representative on earth, so to speak is responsible for everything that goes wrong, but might go right. Such an approach takes us right back to earlier demeaning distinctions. For example, there was that of the untouchable divine monarch versus his incompetent, corrupt ministers. Or just as once the flaws of the Christian faith the Inquisition, for example could not be addressed because buming several thousand people was on a lower level than the Holy Trinity, so now the follies of reason the nuclear strategy of flexible response, for example cannot be addressed because it is merely instrumental reason.
This is perhaps an expected development in a corporatist society where the large picture, the longer term, is lost in the incremental details of spedalization and fact collecting and reason is raised ever higher to the status of a father figure. Or rather of a God the Father figure. That this problem of specialization and fact collecting stretches deep into our universities, even into our departments of philosophy where the larger picture, the longer view would be particularly valuable, only makes the arrival of small-picture experts more expected.
I said earlier that one of corporatism's problems apart from being anti-democratic is its aimlessness. That comes in part from this myriad of small-picture experts. A world in which those trained to know are not permitted to look up and look around. This is knowledge reduced to ignorance. The more knowledge is limited to a single corner, the more ignorant the expert. John Ruskin said technocrats were an 'intricate bestiality." Perhaps, but it isn't really their fault. This is what our society requires of them. An interesting example of the small picture versus the big is the matter of cuts in public programming. The desperate need to cut the fat in order to get at the various government deficits has been high fashion for several years now. Governments keep cutting, public service programs get thinner, the citizen gets less for the tax dollar, yet the deficits don't go away and the cry for more cuts grows louder. Now the curious thing is that the people who have led the campaign for public cuts are the senior management in the private sector. Their voices are amplified by the think tanks which they finance, as well as by various economists and their friends in the press. What this group has rarely mentioned is that the large private corporations have also been engaged in a fat-cutting program. Their bureaucracies had also got out of control. They were far too deeply in debt. In fact the fashion for cutting in the private sector started a good fifteen years ago and the results have been in for some time. In general, what they call 'downsizing' has not worked. In companies like IBM, Sears and GM, tens of thousands of workers were laid off. It did not produce a tumaround. Not in the first year and not in the second, when thousands more were laid off. In fact, many companies sickened. Some died. Yet it had all been done with the best intentions. The problem they have discovered is that 'you can't shrink to greatness," as the president of Petro-Canada put it." When you cut seriously, the first thing to go is creativity and risk taking. The company shps into an encircled mentality. Employee morale plummets and so does productivity. The advisers then call for more cuts to get the company out of its slump. The general term for this state is corporate anorexia.
Industry-wide results of such severe self-infficted punishment between 1989 and 1994 were as follows. Only [email protected] of companies showed an increase in productivity Only half showed any increase in profits. Employee morale dropped by 86%. 34
The problem is that cuts can't produce growth or prosperity or effectiveness, but cutting a negative tool is the natural implement of a corporatist society.
If the religion is self-interest, then no one is paid or encouraged to take the distance that disinterest requires. And only with a certain distance can you identify fundamental problems. Just as the characteristics of religion pass from one ideology to another, so too the superstitious behef that suffering is necessary to pay for our sins has been passed on and reformulated as the cutting process.
The curious thing in all of this is that private-sector leaders, knowing that they themselves were caught up in corporate anorexia, still pushed the pubhc sector to go down the same route. But this cannot have been malevolence on their part because they are honourable men, au honourable men. At worst it was perhaps malevolent mediocrity. Somehow, no one was able to look up from the little picture and see the relationship between these two machete-armed patrols.
Indeed, the experience of the public process of cutting has run exactly parallel to the private. The more they cut, the more the citizenry are annoyed because they are paying the same taxes and not receiving adequate services. They then blame the public sector for ineffectiveness and either go along with or cau for more cuts.
Had the private-sector leaders been malevolent which surely they were not in their call for public cuts, then it would have been a very effective way to undermine support for public services. Here perhaps is a good example of how the failure of an elite to lead effectively drives them further into the arms of ideology where everything is inevitable. The suffering of the public sector certainly provides some twisted comfort to those who came to grief in the private.
Clearly, what is needed is not cutting, but the consolidation of years of incremental growth in services. This ability to stop periodically, re-examine and consolidate progress is easy if people are able to deal with problems in a calm way through an overview. The corporatist atmosphere makes this almost impossible.
Yet consider our society. Everywhere in the public domain there has been a good haff-century of rapid growth. Most of that was incremental. Perhaps the single most important innovation needed today is a calm look at the overall effects of what we have accomplished, followed by serious attempts at positive consolidation. We must force ourselves out of the corporatist obsession with form in order to concentrate on the content that is at stake.
Instead we are falling prey to an anti-public sector campaign that has created a sense of panicked urgency around the subject of privatization and cuts. We have slipped into the religious flagellatory mode of asset-stripping the citizens' public possessions. Considering how much effort went into building this society, we have nevertheless engaged in an unconscious process which can best be described as slow, masochistic suicide. And suicide, except in very rare cases, is the product of an inability to see ourselves in the context of our reality. Death appears to be the door of salvation from our illusions.
What was it Socrates said to the jury after they had condemned him to death?
"But I suggest, gentlemen, that the difficulty is not so much to escape death; the real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong." Wrong, he said, 'is much more fleet of foot.-"
The escape from doing wrong is where I would like to end this discussion of public life, by glancing at some areas in which we are not yet identifying the effort needed to escape.
Decentralization of bureaucratic power is increasingly a popular theme. The hated massive bureaucracies will have the important public-service programs taken out of their hands. These will be broken up and moved down to regional and local levels where the citizenry can have a human relationship with more modest groupings of bureaucrats and even have an impact on the nature of the programs.
This could make good sense if two conditions were met: funding guarantees and national, indeed multinational, standards. Countries inside the European Union have more or less dealt with this. The rest of us, in a fit of childlike unconsciousness, can't seem to draw the elements together.
It isn't all that difficult. Central governments everywhere are in a long-term funding crisis, in good part because they get less and less tax revenue from the large corporations who, in a global marketplace, play one country off against another. Who can blame them if we are too incompetent to organize ourselves at a multi-govemment level? Instead, our governments are handing essential, but now unfundable, programs down to the regional level in the name of increased democracy But the regional govemments are also in a funding crisis and in a far weaker position vis-a-vis the large private corporations. 'Too bad," say the central governments. 'You'll just have to raise taxes to pay for th,e programs. Go on, assume responsibility!'
Whenever governments adopt a moral tone as opposed to an ethical one you know something is wrong. Of course, the regional governments can't raise taxes. The source of revenue would simply leave for another region. In fact, the effect of decentralization without guaranteed funding and national or multinational standards is a competition between regions for the lowest possible tax rates. The regions with the fewest tax sources must drop to the lowest tax rates. The standards of programming drop with the taxes. Inequality between regions reappears rapidly, to such an extent that the programs may not even survive. .
So the point of decentralization is not really to deal with the tension between big government and the citizen, because there are actually three players in this triangle: the citizen, big govemment and big business. Any move by two players is affected by the third. Interestingly enough, the big companies are mostly in favour of decentralization. The president of a large Canadian bank recently broke Adam Smith's 'utmost silence" of the employers and said publicly that national standards in social programs were nonsense. Everyone, he said, has different needs. He didn't, unfortunately, go on to explain the different regional needs of cancer and heart attack victims.
Interestingly enough, those who are against govemment social programming are almost all in favour of decentralization the neo-conservatives, the market economists, the funded think tanks. As Captain Joshua Slocum, who in the nineteenth century was the first to sail solo around the world, put it: "Fishes will always follow a foul ship."@ More precisely, Wilham Kristol, an important neo-conservative lobbyist in Washington, says: 'Send [all the social programs] down to the state [level], let the states experiment much more, and have private charities take care of people."37
More or less the same grouping is in favour of referenda and 'direct democracy" as against the slow tedious grind of representative democracy. The false simplicities introduced by referenda and direct democracy are much more open to the effects of Heroic leadership that is to say, manipulation. The Heroic leader's direct relationship with the people is combined with an attack on what J6rg Haider, the highly successful Austrian neo-fascist leader, called 'party politics." Cabinet debate is 'idle gossip and a waste of time, " 3' as is parliament. That is the central theme of Silvio Berlusconi's politics. He alone, via his dominant ownership of Italy's television networks, will have intercourse with the people. Sylvester Stallone, in his role as the justice giver, Judge Dredd, clarifies the sit-
uation: 'It's almost fascism, it's almost a military state, but that's the price of having someone protect YOU. The key to the referendum society is that it tums on a mystic evocation of past grievances, gathered together into a chuming, aggravated spleen, where the are magnified y and isolated from reality Everything that is not a grievance disappears. This anger is then dovetailed into an heroic solution. Simple, absolute, salvatory. An answer.
The modern referendum, as Napoleon understood when he invented it, is the ideal consummation of the rational as irrational, of the anti-democratic posing as democracy. The complex issues of reality, which democracy can deal with in its own slow, indirect way, are swept aside by single, clear issues, often modelled on single human qualities either we must have common sense, or we must have reason, or we must have memory. It is as if any combining of human qualities is impossible.
Not surprisingly, both the referendum and direct democracy are a happy marriage with corporatism. The complex, real questions are dealt with behind the scenes through efficient 'interest mediation" between the different interest groups. As for the citizenry, they are occupied and distracted by the fireworks of their direct involvement on the big questions and their direct relationship with the big people. A simple 'yes' or a 'no' and history, they are told, will be changed, as if by the wave of a magic wand.
Henry Kissinger used to talk of historic destinies being changeable only in moments of white heat. He claimed to have taken the idea from Metternich. In fact, Mussolini said it best: 'Only blood ... makes the wheels of history turn."40 Referenda and direct democracy prov . ide the sensation of blood without the reality; what George Grant called "decisiveness ... at the expense of 'thoughtfulness.' "41
Alvin Totter and his wife and apparently their disciple, Newt Gingrich seem to have understood an of this, consciously or unconsciously. A pamphlet written by the Totters and introduced by Gingrich adds the Dada of technology to the Napoleonic methods of manipulation through referenda and direct democracy. The message in their pamphlet, Creating a New Civilization,42 is that technology makes not only possible but inevitable that old ideological characteristic government by semi-direct democracy and referenda.
Majorities will soon be looked upon, the Totters claim, as 'an archaic ritual engaged in by communicational primitives." They propose an "heretical" leap forward into . minority power." The suggestion is that we, the ahenated citizens, are the minorities. In reality they are proposing: (1) a return to the medieval system of qualitative in place of quantitative majorities; that is, a hierarchical society; and (2) the legitimization of the corporatist system, of rule by interest groups.
Technology, the Totters say, makes traditional democracy archaic. They wrongly describe this technology as the third great wave of societal change. More accurately, it is the Nth important wave of technical change since democratic principles were first established 2,500 years ago. Finally, the Totters insist that 'the institutions of govemment must correlate with the structure of the economy and the information system. . . ." A more sensible approach might be that technologies come and go. Economic structures evolve and change. Society adjusts. But democratic basics persist in spite of the Totters, Gingrich and the chorus of corporate voices. 'Must correlate"? Did you notice? They insisted that we must correlate with economics and technology. 'Necessity," William Pitt said two centuries ago, 'is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is "41 the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves . What the corporatist system is telling us in various ways is that the democratic system is no longer appropriate. This attitude involves the active or passive agreement of large parts of our elites. But democracy is not what they imply It is not about prosperity You can have poor democracies. And you can have prosperous dictatorships. The world today is peppered with authoritarian market-based societies where Adidas, fine cooking, sexual pleasure and higher education prosper. Nor is democracy merely necessary as a protection for the poor. Even basic authoritarian societies need some sort of social contract, unless they are ready to make constant use of brute force. Democracy is simply about the nature of legitimacy and whether the repository of that legitimacy the citizens are able to exercise the power its possession imposes upon them. We are having great difficulty today exercising the power of legitimacy. It has therefore shifted away into other hands.
In the final chapter I'll come back to the practicalities of individualism and democracy. But the problem we face is not one of incomprehensible complexity. Unlike the tormented unconscious acts with which Freud dealt and that respond only marginally to self-knowledge, societies can quite easily use consciousness to provoke action. Nothing in our current crisis is untouchable because of great mystic forces of inevitability. Technology and the market are useful phenomena to be respected. But they are neither gods nor wild animals. Legitimacy itself is not a matter of mystics but of practicality, as are the actions of a healthy democracy.
Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West
John Ralston Saul, Penguin Books London. ISBN 0-14-015373-X
From: Images of Immortality OR THE VICTORY OF IDOLATRY
There are differences between the late-twentieth-century Western television viewer and the paleolithic inhabitant of Lascaux in the Dordogne. The former sits in a half darkened room, holding a remote control device. The latter was equipped with some sort of rudimentary torch while he stared at his cave drawings. These and other differences relate more to social organization than to the sensibility with which they see the images. If anything, the Lascaux viewers had a clearer, more conscious and more consciously integrated concept of what they were seeing than we do today. Not that the seventeen-thousand-year-old paintings of bulls, horses, deer, buffalo and men are simple or primitive. In fact, they are the products of accomplished craftsmen. We cannot know precisely what the cave dwellers saw in their images or expected from what they saw. Our guesses are based largely on comparisons with isolated civilizations which maintained until recently a theoretically similar way of life dependent on hunting, gathering and stone implements. What we do know is that the phenomenon of the man-made image has always revolved around three interdependent forces conscious or unconscious fear, which in turn is counterbalanced by some combination of magic and ritual. This is not particular to the West. And it is as true today as it was in the paleolithic era. The list of fears which drive civilizations is endless. Fear of the unknown world outside the cave, outside the settlement, outside the country or world. Fear of being unable to survive because of hunger or enemies. Fear not of death, but of ceasing to exist that is, fear that life is followed by a void. The cave dwellers seem to have conceived their animal images as magic traps which might give them control over their prey, in the same way that Christians would thousands of years later conceive many images of Christ or the Virgin Mary as miraculous. If successfully communicated with, these statues and paintings seemed to give indeed, in many places still seem to give the supplicant some control over disease, poverty or death. just as the ritual used in order to communicate with these images was key to Christian miracles, so the same must have been true for the Stone Age hunters who prepared to seek out their prey. With time the relationship between fear, magic and ritual has changed. None of our fears was conquered as civilizations became first sedentary and then urban. But doubt and anxiety over the most obscure of fears that of an external void grew in importance. And while magic has gradually retreated back into our unconscious which does not mean it has disappeared ritual has grown to take its place. In this civilization, in which God is dead, there is no clear sense that the high levels of endemic social doubt or angst or fear are an inheritance of the lost Christian promise of eternal life. Nor is there a recognition that the vast structural web of our society and the endlessly predictable images of television and film are successors to religious ritual. We have been confused in part by the rapid and revolutionary change in our official view of why images are created. Until the simultaneous beginnings of the Age of Reason and the Renaissance, this craft played a social, political and above all metaphysical or religious role. From the fifteenth century on in the wake of the final technical breakthroughs which made it possible to paint a perfect image the idea of art began quietly to separate itself from craft. By the eighteenth century the divorce was more or less formal, although there have been regular attempts to reunite the two. In the early nineteenth century, museums were created for the sole purpose of aesthetic enjoyment. The idea that art is its own reason for existence has now been so firmly established that few people would question it. And yet it is improbable that the image, which has played a fundamentally religious or magical role for more than fifteen thousand years, could simply be freed of itself in the space of a few centuries to become a mere object of art. This is where the Western experience parts company with that of other civilizations. For the last two thousand years, Christianity has presented and fought for a monotheistic, anti-pagan, anti-idolatry dogma. Those who view Christianity from the outside have always been surprised by the aggressiveness of these claims, because the reality of our worship has always contradicted them. The monotheistic argument, for example, was immediately negated by the division of Cod into a trinity. This idea of three in one or one in three was so complex that Christians themselves were constantly fighting over its meaning. The Virgin Mary was then given, to all intents and purposes, the status of a divinity, as were an increasing number of saints. In the opinion of everyone except the Christians, they had reconstituted a polytheistic religion. The concept of the pagan was even more confusing. It indicated someone who did not worship "the true God." And yet the Muslims who worshipped the same God as the Christians, used the same texts and adopted most of the same moral codes -were pagans, as were dozens of other sects who adopted minor doctrinal differences. Finally, no civilization anywhere in the world has been so resolutely idolatrous as the Christian. The need to create and worship images designed in our own likeness is a constant in the history of the West. It is a virtually unaltered constant from the Greeks through the Romans to ourselves, with only marginal variations in the panoply of major and minor divinities. In spite of Christianity's Judaic origins, the Church managed so successfully to circumvent the Old Testament interdiction on image worship that only the images of other religions have been defined as idols. Six hundred years after Christ, Islam was provoked in large part by uncontrolled Christian idolatry. The Church responded by categorizing them as infidels nonbelievers. Some religious and social orders have avoided dependence on the image or even its use. From the West's point of view, Judaism is the prime example. Islam has been almost as successful, as have Shintoism, Confucianism and, for a long period of time, Buddhism. During the nineteenth century, Western colonial administrators were constantly coming across groups in Africa and Asia who avoided creating human likenesses and were highly suspicious of images. There was the standard clich6 about the native who was afraid to be photographed because he feared the photographer would capture his soul. The reaction of a Lascaux resident would no doubt have been the same. This attitude actually makes very good sense. The native in question is an animist and does not believe in worshipping idols, but believes that everything, animate and inanimate, is alive. He is therefore an integrated part of the entire universe. He is unlikely to be frightened that death is a black hole leading to a void. Death simply returns him to the universe. The particularity of Westerners has been their obsession with presenting gods, through images, not as devils or animals or abstractions, but as human beings. The painter's role has always stemmed from that basic metaphysical and social need. The gods live forever and we are created in their image. These repeated identifying mortal imitations do not simply reflect our dreams of immortality. The image, in idolatry as in animism, is a magic trap. In the West the painter's and sculptor's job has been to design the perfect trap for human immortality. As craftsmen their efforts were aimed for thousands of years at technical improvements. In the years around 1500, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo made the final breakthroughs to the accurate representation of reality. There was, however, no accompanying metaphysical change. No heightened sense of magical power. The Age of Reason has since witnessed a long and confused decline of the image as a source of general expectation; a decline accelerated by the inventions of the photograph and the motion picture, television and video. As expectations have dropped, confusion has grown. First, the confusion of a civilization without beliefs. Second, confusion over the significance of astonishingly perfected new images. As their technical power grows, the confusion they provoke also breeds distrust. The result has been a growing chasm between the image and society. The craftsmen-artists have retreated onto a plane of their own. In their place as social participants we have two groups of image makers: the modern equivalent of the official artists, who receive approval from the museum experts; and the new ritualists, who produce electronic imitations of reality. What television and film have brought us is images realer than reality and yet, images separated from belief in a society which for the first time in almost two millennia does not believe. The end of the Age of Reason is therefore a time in which the image is popularly felt to be false and yet also a time of idolatry, pure and simple. As electronic images have gradually slipped into a comfortable, highly structured and conservative formalism, our rational methods have been powerless to capitalize on what are, in fact, astonishing changes. A civilization of structure tees doubt. And so quite naturally, rational man has debased modern imagery into the lower ritual forms of a pagan religion.
Almost all civilizations have had an obsession with the possible relationship between immortality and the image, but most of them have limited the hypnotic effect of idolatrous self-reflection. The Christians took the full power of the divine image from earlier religions those of the Greeks and the Romans and integrated that pagan divinity into their own.' It is actually quite hard to blame the early Church fathers for doing this. They were devout men but socially and culturally unsophisticated, almost universally from lower or, at most, middle-class backgrounds. Abruptly they found themselves thrust into the centre of affairs thanks to Constantine's Christian-inspired conquering of Rome in 312. The civilization they were expected to run was dominated by the cultured, ancient and sophisticated Roman aristocracy. Within a few years these simple priests were responsible for the theological anxieties of all the citizens of the greatest empire ever known. With so much power to be exercised, their honest simplicity, which had attracted Constantine in the first place, became a handicap. How were they to capture the imaginations of such an enormous population, one which was devoted to a bizarre combination of rational Greek philosophy and baroque idolatry? The easy answer was to integrate both of these elements into Christianity. This solution took on the aspect of official policy when Damasus became Pope in 366. Rather than continue a failing effort to convert the Roman pagans to pure Christianity, he set about making the Church Roman. He brought in the ruling classes of the city, along with their Athenian philosophical background and their attachment to highly sophisticated imagery as a central characteristic of religion. Only a half century later this approach was integrated into the intellectual mainstream of Christianity through the writings of Saint Augustine, who was then Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. On the subject of Christian art versus idolatry, he laid out a very fine difference between the two: "God is not the soul of all things but the maker of all souls."' As so often when complex distinctions are applied to simple moral questions, the effect was simply to provide justification for de facto idol worship. This approach was doubly and permanently locked in place by the arrival on the papal throne in 590 of the great Pope Gregory, who popularized and universalized the message of the Church through a simplification of the Christian message and the embrace of magic and miracles. This he did not by rejecting the sophisticated rational idolatry of the preceding two centuries but by building on its profound assumptions. Finally, the devotion to magic and mysticism came to fruition in the middle of the seventh century when Eastern Christians, fleeing the Muslim explosion and its condemnation of idolatry, settled in Rome and took over the Church. Between 678 and 741, eleven of thirteen popes were Greek or Syrian. Refugees from the East. They brought their obsession with miraculous images and relics. Cartloads of saintly thigh bones and pieces of the Holy Cross arrived in Rome. It wasn't long before images decorated the inside of each church and became the central focus for the parishioners' anxieties. If there was any doubt over the Western approach, it was removed during the Iconoclastic struggle in the Eastern Empire from 726 to 843. Constantinople's attempts to eradicate the rampant use of ima I es were constantly undermined by the Pope and the Church in Rome. This focus remained in place for a thousand years until, that is, Christianity began to weaken beneath the pressure of a revived rationality. As the churches collapsed, the image was freed from their grasp.
But it was not freed from divinity. We killed God and replaced him with ourselves. In the process man himself inherited the full, divine power of the idolatrous Christian image. The curious thing about the pagan heritage was its artificiality. Man had first to make the image, then believe in its powers. By comparison, the animistic native who believes that there is life in everything and that he is an integrated part of that everything holds an intellectually sound position, He is part of a concrete nirvana on earth. The Buddha added a wrinkle to this with his idea of a nonconcrete nirvana. Man, he said, would have difficulty leaving this earth, but if he succeeded it would be an eternal escape. It's worth noting, in passing, the miraculous ability of Greek culture to stir in any civilization the deep, unconscious anxiety tied to fears of mortality, then pander to it with promises tied to idolatry. The Buddhists managed for centuries without statues of the Buddha. It was the passage of Alexander the Great through India that first tempted them down the ambiguous path of Buddha images which are theomflcally respected, not worshipped in somewhat the same manner that statues of the Virgin were theoretically respected, not worshipped. As for Mohammed, he brought a clear description of Paradise to the Koran:
But for those that fear the majesty of their Lord there are two gardens planted with shady trees. Each is watered by a flowering spring. Each bears every kind of fruit in pairs.... They shall recline on couches lined with thick brocade and within their reach will hang the fruits of both gardens. They shall dwell with bashful virgins whom neither man nor jinnee will have touched before. Virgins as fair as corals and rubies.... And beside these there shall be two other gardens of darkest green.... Each planted with fruit trees, the palm and the pomegranate.... Which of your Lord's blessings would you deny?'
It isn't surprising that this clarity should have been accompanied by a general ban on images. God had passed on the full details of heaven through his Prophet. There was no room for humans to fiddle with his description. Strangely enough, Christ had spoken to roughly the same sort of simple desert people some seven centuries earlier and done so almost entirely in parables. But at no time did he offer a hint of what heaven was like. He said a great deal about who would get there and how, but offered not a single word on the place itself. The faithful Christian who looked for hints found instead:
"Blessed are ihey which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Or, "Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Or, "A rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven."5
If Mohammed passed on a detailed description of heaven, while Christ didn't describe it at all, this can only have been intentional on both their parts. And yet we are talking about the same God, the same prophets and the same heaven. Any explanation for the divergence would be mere speculation. If we-take Christ at his word, he seemed to be suggesting a heaven not unlike the Buddhist nirvana. But the Christian success in Europe was unrelated to this suggestion. Instead, the very vagueness of Christ's heaven left the West free to continue its pagan devotion to the melding of the mystic with the concrete. It was through the image that this Western imagination had always revealed, and would continue to reveal, itself. Very little from the preChristian past needed to be changed. Even Christ's parables fitted neatly onto the foundations of Greek mythology and philosophy. The abstract simplicity of Christianity allowed its rapid assimilation into the image madness of Roman Europe. Christ's vague heaven was an apparently revolutionary new contribution. It formalized the nascent idea of immortality. But it was Roman Europe which converted that idea into a concrete image. And it was Europe Greek, Roman and barbarian which instilled magic into the immortal dream. Miraculous statues and paintings and objects were a gift from pagan Europe to Christ's lean religion. And from the bleeding statues of Christ and the healing images of the Virgin Mary, it was only one more step to the civil image as unconscious guarantor of human immortality. The power of the pagan image whether Christian or postChristian has little to do with believing and a great deal to do with the myths and archetypes of Western man. A fifth-generation urban atheist is today as much a prisoner of these expectations as a medieval peasant once was. If anything has changed at all, it is that with the Renaissance, the Reformation and the rise of reason, man finally learned how to produce not just images but the perfect images that he had always dreamed would carry great power. Faced by the impotence of this progress, he succumbed to confusion and to greater inner fear. Long before that the Christian Church had set about developing Christ's heaven into a doctrinal, concrete reality. The Church paid painters to illustrate the official heaven. These craftsmen were initiated into a complex protocol which indicated precisely where everyone would sit or stand for eternity. They formalized the idea that Christians would lie on clouds. The Church set the record straight over the exact manner in which decomposed bodies would be recomposed to perfection on judgment Day. Again, they commissioned thousands of painters to illustrate this. As the old Roman aristocracy gradually disappeared, the role of illustration became more, not less, essential for both magical and practical reasons. Almost everyone, including the new and diverse, indeed fractured ruling classes, was illiterate. And while the priesthood could not read out to the public reassuring illustrative holy texts on heaven, as the Muslims could, they were able to bring the people into churches where eternity was demonstrated on all the walls. When, in the Late Middle Ages, the Church began to use its definition of heaven as a corporate tool for fundraising via such things as indulgences, it damaged the credibility of its eternity. Subsequently, under attack for corruption, it began to slide away from its earlier commitment to a concrete description of heaven. The people in turn began to believe less. At first, with the Reformation, there was a move to create new Christian churches. But increasingly the Westerners reverted to a more properly pagan use of the image a use which predates the conversion of Rome to Christ's cause. Today we are surrounded by millions of perfect, live images. The role they play is almost identical to that of the ancient idol: reassuring reflections whichever way man turns. What we have kept from the Christian period is the feeling that the painter and the image maker have the power to deliver a sense of eternity.
The slow, difficult technical progress towards the perfect capture of the image came in a disordered manner over several thousand years, with advances being made here and there or simultaneously in several places at once. The most intense scenes of this struggle took place in northern Italy from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. In Siena, for examPie, each step of this creative explosion remains exposed on walls around the city like clues in an unfolding mystery. Until the early 1500s, painters were obsessed with technical progress. They had always struggled with problems, such as perspective, in the unconscious expectation that if the perfect image could be created, something magical would happen. And so, even before rational man got hold of the idea of progress, it had been hopelessly confused between a technical process and a moral improvement.
542 Surviving in Fantasy Land
The second outbreak again began with simple language, again unwritten but this time preached. Christ's populist prose was inevitably pitted against sophisticated religions first Judaism and then the heroic and divine panoply of Roman gods. The few simple words he uttered seemed to have a universal and inherently uncontrollable strength such that their influence grew despite the obscurity of his life and death. They survived the interpretations of the unknown scribes who produced the texts which were gathered together as the Gospels. Christ's language witnessed reality in such a way that no organized power could control his meaning or profit from it. Even the subsequent compromises made by the Church in order to win support from the emperor and the bureaucratic officials in Rome did not limit the force of his actual words. It was only thanks to the contested and late inclusion in the New Testament of the Book of Revelations that governments and the administrators of formal religion were able to gain control over Christ's language. Rome pushed hard for inclusion. Constantinople and the Church in the east were strongly opposed. This fourth-century argument was almost a rehearsal for the subsequent dispute over idolatry, which began in earnest with Damasus's election as Pope in 361 and dragged on until 84 1, when the iconoclastic struggle ended with virtual victory for Rorue's position in favour of idol worship. The premise of Revelations was that an old man called John, living on the island of Patmos, could deliver a prophesy revealed to @ him by the risen Jesus Christ. Five verses into the text, John establishes his privileged relationship by introducing Christ as "the faithful witness" who, with "a great voice as of a trumpet," instructs him to write. The "faithful witness" is the one who sees and speaks accurately and thus is to be trusted. John therefore goes on to convey Christ's message to the churches on earth. What follows are pages of raving. These include the entire pagan, superstitious, dark tradition which had dominated the Western barbarian imagination until the arrival of Christianity. Northrop Frye has shown that the Book of Revelations is nothing more than a compendium of mythological elements drawn from the Old Testament. 2 But this is precisely the sort of mythology which, when isolated from the main narrative, Judaism had in common with every other sect in the Mediterranean basin. The mesmerizing beauty of the words and images cannot be denied majestic, filled with foreboding, threats and promises offering a tantalizing physical view of heaven, which Christ had so carefully avoided; providing, in fact, a complete and complex model for the Christian imagination. Once the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Seven Seals and the whores of Babylon, along with a false and facile division of the world into good and evil, had been given equal footing in the New Testament with the Sermon on the Mount, it was hardly surprising that the Christian language had been undermined to the point where it was as malleable as any old moon cult. In fact, more malleable. Pagan cults were often difficult for those in power to deform or manipulate because they combined strict public ritual with a narrow set of ironclad rules. Paul and his Epistles are often blamed for Christianity's strange tangents. But his contributions were merely politics and policy. John's Revelations altered the nature of the Christian ethic. It blew the Christian message so wide open that any extreme action, good or evil, could be justified self-sacrifice, martyrdom, purity, devotion and concern for others had no greater purchase in Christ's official Testament than did racism, violence or absolutism of any sort. Whoever wrote John's text was consciously or unconsciously in the service of organized authority. Official inclusion did not necessarily guarantee Revelations equal standing with those earlier Gospels which actually quoted the living Christ on the basis of firsthand evidence. Much of the credibility for a prophesy theoretically received from the risen Son of God came from a widespread belief that the author was the Disciple John who, years before, had also theoretically written one of the Gospels. Of course, anyone who wanted to know knew that they were two different people. For a start, the earliest manuscript of John's Gospel is in Greek, while that of Revelations is in Hebrew. The Church never actually said that the young fisherman/Disciple and the old man on the island of Patmos were one and the same. Instead the authorities remained vague on the subject. They permitted the misunderstanding to spread, which it did so successfully that most preachers, pastors and even priests still believe there was only one John. For the quasi totality of believers who, from the fourth century on, simply accepted that one man wrote both texts, it was impossible not to give his later revelations equal value with his earlier work. If he lied on Patmos, then why would we believe his original Good News about Christ? And since his Gospel matches those of Matthew, Mark and Luke, if John lied, then why should anyone believe any of them? Thousands of theologians would later contribute to the capture, binding and disarming of the original Christian language; Saint Augustine first among them. Perhaps the most effective method they found was the maintenance of the Bible in Latin, so that the original simple oral message could only be received in the form of an authorized interpretation by a priest. Even so, the real victory of official complexity over simple free language was already long over, having taken less than four hundred years from when Christ first preached.