This is the full edited version of Canadian intellectual John Ralston Saul in conversation with Brian Easton about globalism, ideologues and rediscovering moderation, from which the Listener version of September 10, 2005 was extracted.
Keywords: Globalisation & Trade; History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;
EASTON: It strikes me that you are a very cosmopolitan person – Canadian father and a British or English mother
SAUL: She was the daughter of an officer in the Indian army. The Scottish army officer family probably skipped a generation, most of them ended up in India.
You have a degree in French from London, you’ve worked in Paris, you have a house there as well as in Canada. You’ve written about North Africa and South East Asia.
I spent a lot of the 1980s actually in South East Asia. I never lived there but I’d go for a month, two months, three months at a time.
That was with an oil company you were working with?
No I’d just go on my own..
You have a Chinese-Canadian wife. You’ve written successful novels as well as internationally best-sellers on the contemporary issues, beginning with “Voltaire’s Bastards,” through another three to your latest “The Collapse of Globalism”. Yet you seem to be to an intensely Canadian nationalist. New Zealand historian, Keith Sinclair, said every page of his history of New Zealand was illuminated by his nationalism. Your works are like that too aren’t they?
The non-ideological reality is that people come from somewhere. It is an impossible romantic dream that you can be from nowhere. In a sense that was the failure of the internationalist movement after the Second World War which is the reaction of a many decent good people to the catastrophe of nineteenth century nationalism. They said ‘now we belong to the world’. There was a the sort of United Nations movement which was thousands of good people doing good things but rootless. In a sense the worst abuses of the globalist period were made possible by the fact that so many of the internationalists who preceded them didn’t have any purchase anywhere. They couldn’t really make a counter argument about internationalism which touched people where they lived. It was too abstract and too romantic.
I’ve always believed that the way human beings really live is that they come from somewhere and it colours or shapes the roots of what they think and then you try to find how that fits into the common good. The common good may be in your town and it may be in your area or your country or it may be in your world. There are great truths about democracy and yet every history of democracy starts out in very, very different circumstances. It works its way through the particularities of where people belong and it is only once it has worked its way through those particularities that it starts to resemble the democracies in other places. Suddenly you find that experienced democracies can sit down and talk to each other even though their basis is totally different because the core of it shares something but it has to grow out of those different experiences. That is where you get this difference between positive nationalism leading to real internationalism versus negative nationalism which does not work at the international level in any humanist way, or a sort of pretending people don’t come from somewhere which leads to romantic internationalism. So you’ve kind of got three possibilities, the book talked about the first two.
What you call positive nationalism might also be called call civic nationalism. [Conversely JRS’s civic nationalism is sometimes called ‘ethnic nationalism’ – added in editing. BHE]
You might call it civic nationalism. It has to do with accepting that do come from this place and therefore you have an obligation to ensure that it works. If it doesn’t work then you are really being very, very egotistical to say you can make it work somewhere else.
Yet there is a sense that Canadians identify themselves in contrast to the US. Do we define ourselves nationally in terms of somewhere else
When I go to see people where they live – including New Zealand, Australia, and France – in normal conversation with people they don’t really define themselves that way. What you’re describing is a terrible failure. Maybe it’s a leftover of that old pure nationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It began by saying ‘we are pure and we are better than …’ and now it is ‘we define ourselves in comparison to … ‘ There is some of that left over, but it’s really not very interesting. What is interesting is the ability to say ‘they do it that way and we do it this way. That may be good or bad but how do we get along?’
I was told that Canadian support for gay marriage is a way of distinguishing itself from America.
I don’t think it is quite that pure. What happens is that as you move along and experiences get longer and the relationships get older. People start to understand almost instinctively what they do which is true to them. It may not be true to the others so they are conscious that in doing this they know that it differentiates them but they are not doing it because it differentiates it but they know it will differentiate them.
I don’t think they are doing it for them, that would be insulting to someone who is gay to say well we’re only doing this because we want to be different from the Americans. They know that in doing it it increases the definition of different.
I enormously enjoyed your “Reflection of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century” which explores the roots of Canada’s national identity. You said in ‘some countries such as Canada are on the leading edge of how to build a society with constantly evolving set of citizens and cultures.’ That’s a claim New Zealand would probably want to make too. We are a nation of immigrants too. [In fact New Zealand has a higher proportion of foreign born 19.6 percent than Canada (18.2 percent] But Canada seems to take their immigrants more seriously. Is not half of Toronto born outside Canada?
It will soon be over half. It’s a 250,000 immigrants in a year plus 30,000 refugees so that’s 280,000 from I don’t know how many countries. The biggest numbers are in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary. But the medium sized cities are also desperate to get the immigrants. In a country where freedom of movement is basic, how can you encourage immigrants to go to smaller cities and not go to Toronto.
We need to help migrants understand that they’ll probably have a more interesting time in smaller communities. They may be much more successful much faster because they won’t get caught in big groups so they find a place for themselves much faster. In the last five years we have been working on this much more seriously. They have reception committees, I don’t know what you do, the citizenship ceremony which in Europe they send them a letter. We have a ceremony and those ceremonies are increasingly becoming big public celebrations. It’s one thing I really believe in.
Canada and New Zealand are in a small group of countries which have decided they want immigration and they want the immigrants to be citizens.
The most interesting phenomenon psychologically is that you invite people to come in order to become citizens. Yes, you want them to work; yes, you know they are going to produce wealth and you know they are going to work harder than people who are born here in general. Let’s face it. On average, immigrants work harder and create more wealth than people born here. We know this: we have a long history to prove it. So we are inviting them to become citizens.
It is part of the positive nationalism. When I say that in Germany, I say that in Holland, their eyes go like this because they just can’t get the theory. It’s a theory of movement which is both international and national at the same time and you’re also saying to them something very interesting. It’s in Louis-Hypollyte la Fontaine’s address to the electorate of Terreborne [Canada] in 1840. It’s in a speech by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a great prime minister at the time of the federation and the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. They were mainly people who had come between 1890 and 1905. He said “We do not anticipate, and we do not want, that any individual should forget the land of their origin or their ancestors. Let them look to the past; let them also look to the future; let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look to the land of their children.”
I was struck how bilingual Canada is. I heard people on the streets of Ottawa chatting in French. You don’t hear people speaking Maori on the streets of New Zealand’s capital city.
Thirty percent of the Ottawa population are Francophones. Today there are a million to a million and a half Francophones outside of Quebec. Things have been worse. The great novelist Gabriel Roy’s describes in her autobiography in St Boniface on the south side of the river they were all Francophones. But as they crossed the bridge when they went to shop on the north side, they started speaking English because they would not be served in French in the stores. Today it is completely different. It would be good to be heard speaking French and people should be embarrassed if they couldn’t help you.
We try to make sure that a primary immigrant to Canada will have one of the two languages. But of course once they are there, they are going to want their wife and children to come and they may not. But they’ll get it in the public schools so it’s not a big deal. Their grandmother may not, but the children will have it.
You have to be relaxed, you have to take the time, you have to give people the time to adjust. That is getting away from that awful purist nationalism of ‘now that you’re here, you’re this’. The other way of putting it is that on the day you become a citizen you inherit the total history of the country. So you are now responsible for all of the anti-Semitism of the past. You are now responsible for all the evil done to our originals, the ceasing of the lands of the Japanese. You are personally responsible for everything wrong done in this country. It’s not a buffet table. You don’t get to choose the good stuff from the bad stuff. You have to help work the whole thing out. In addition you bring all this new stuff with you. This may create new problems but it may also help us deal with what we’re working with in our past. It’s that process of just continually rolling, you keep the old and you build onto the new. You have to be relaxed about it.
Audrey Hepburn said “I do not believe in collective guilt, but I believe in collective responsibility.”
Absolutely, that is exactly right.
There are people today who will say ‘oh my god you know these people are going to bring certain attitudes that are very backward towards women’ for example. The answer is that once you’re a citizen you are perfectly within your rights to go out and try and convince the population through the democratic process to alter their approach. The likelihood of there being a backwards step on women is pretty small but you’re going to learn through the democratic process what it is to ask citizens to agree with you. What we’re describing here is the way in which societies have to function and they function in detail, they function locally, they function through new people coming and fitting in and what all of this does is it breaks the sort of great abstract theories of we will be driven by economic forces. It makes it nonsense because that’s not the way societies work.
The last time we seriously tried to do what countries like New Zealand and Canada are trying to do now was just before the sixteenth century wars of religion. This is both hopeful that we’re back at it again, and frightening because it failed last time. There is no question that just at the moment when we’re trying to do these creative positive relaxed things out of the blue we see the return of precisely that dark side of pure religious belief. It’s in every country. It’s in our country as much as elsewhere. Look at Islam but it is as much in Christianity. It’s everywhere.
Do you know the biggest selling book in the United States is from the ‘left behind’ series by Tim Lehay. It’s about the direct will of God. The devil is elected Secretary General of the United Nations. You know he’s the devil because he speaks more than one language. This kind of stuff is big.
We have an astonishing opportunity to undo the damage that started with the wars of religion and to really re-embrace the humanist idea of complexity and multi-level ideas of belonging in a sophisticated internationalism. By sophisticated I’m not talking about PhDs. I’m talking about what I actually find when I go into homes or in small towns and I find people very relaxed about multiplicity. I find the elite uptight. It is they who created the wars of religion. It is the elite who created negative nationalism, it is not the people. The people got backed into the corner.
Sarajevo in Yugoslavia is interesting because it was on the road from Constantinople to Rome. I’ve only been once and they talk about the valley where there were shells from both sides. That valley is actually is very narrow and it is through that valley that the road passed. In Sarajevo there is the temple with a church side by side. The place worked until whatever you put the blame down to ugly nationalism came back and destroyed it. Now they are trying to put it back together again, rebuilding the town as it had been for 2,000 years. This is really the opportunity that we have now. If we are as I think we are in this in between.
I understand your argument about globalisation and trade but I think that the counter weight to that is what else happens.
I don’t want to talk too much about myself, but to make myself clear. There are two key issues that come from economics of globalisation. One of whether is policy convergence is inevitable, the other one is whether cultural convergence is inevitable. The chapter about Canada in my book is to say ‘Canada has existed next to the US for ever so long and theirs is the greatest trading boundary in the world and yet there has not been a cultural convergence.’ Nor does globalisation mean across-the-board policy convergence. Let me go on to your latest book, “The Collapse of Globalization”, although in a way you have already been talking about it. It seemed to me that the book is actually a celebration of nationalism or perhaps even the modern redemption of nationalism.
It’s really all about balance. If you look at everything I’ve written it’s all about seeking a balance. What I think is fascinating about this period is that the ideological positions are such that when you make moderate statements about choice and about people at a national level – you talk in a moderate complex manner – and you find yourself treated by the ideologues as being romantic, backward, dangerous, extremist, spineless, can’t come to terms with reality. Whereas my whole discourse – it goes through my novels as well – is really all about the nature of moderation, the nature of choice, of multi-possibilities. The point is – this takes me back to the idea of positive nationalism – you can’t have choice if you don’t have a mechanism for choosing. What the economic-led theory, eye-of-the- needle theory, does is that it removes the possibility of a rooted citizen making choices which will give directions to governments in terms of the type of water in a local swimming pool, what we will do about debt in Africa, what kind of terrorists or absence of terrorists we should have.
One of the most important decisions made in the last five years which indicate the new direction the world is taking very clumsily and confusedly is when 127 countries meeting in Paris signed a cultural diversity convention (3 June 2005).
Starting with anti-land mines and international criminal court, this is the third, not-economically-based, major international treaty since 1995. It was pushed by Canada and France. I feel quite good about it because in a way it was one of our ideas. What it does is recognise the right to protect culture, not in a nationalist negative way, but to ensure that your own culture can function and sub factors of your culture. It might be smaller groups, it might be Maori language, or one of our 56 or 57 languages.
So you have the right to protect your Maori culture, and to help build it and it is not in any way, shape or form to be treated as subsidy. From the beginning of globalisation we moved towards that moment in 1995 when culture was included in the WTO. It was included in things like intellectual property and so on. We started getting cases taken to the various commercial tribunals (by the Americans mainly) saying you are subsidising your magazine trade and that is an unfair trade practice. And they won. Every one of those cases they won.
This agreement removes culture from economics. I don’t mean there is no economics in culture but it no longer is the prism through which you see culture. It is a very, very important decision, needless to say virtually uncovered by our newspapers because they don’t understand the theory of what makes economics dominant. What makes it not dominant is that you remove whole sectors of civilisation from economics as a primary means of identifying them. You say culture exists in it’s own right. It’s pretty self evident, but that wasn’t the case in 1995, so it’s a very major decision.
You’ve been criticised for the meaning of globalism, the fact that you don’t properly define it, But you do so in “The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense”. The book is an excellent introduction to the principles that underpin your thinking.
It’s also saying this is a terrorist tool – linguistically, for a verbal terrorist.
Before I go to globalism I must commend your remarks about economists: ‘The social scientist most given to wild guesses and imaginary facts presented in the guise of inevitability and exactitude”. Although Keynes remarked that we all depend upon defunct economists. In a sense that you’ve got that problem too. To move on, the book defines globalism.
With a lot of irony and humour.
That is what makes the book such a great read. It says ‘The global economy is usually presented beneath four banners. The first is the global economy is inevitable.’ That is really what your new book is about isn’t it? That it need not be inevitable in a certain kind of way.
If you are in ideologue your ideology tells you that you must see the world through something very specific. Everything then is filtered, sifted, limited or defined by that prism. Globalism as we have experienced in the last two to three decades is about seeing everything through the economic prism.
Why through the economic prism? Because those economic forces are inevitable. What I’m saying is that this is an ideological position. Am I speaking in favour of protectionism? No. Am I speaking against international commerce? No. Am I against the market place? No. Nowhere in any of my books do you find me making a statement against competition, in fact my criticism of the transnationals is that they are not a private enterprise. For me one of the most interesting things I say in the book is that we’ve actually returned to a mercantilist period and that the transnationals are the modern equivalent of the British East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company. They are profoundly anti-capitalistic and anti-competition and anti-efficiency.
Let’s face it the humanist argument is about the willingness to live with tension and doubt, the willingness to live with choice and the willingness to live with the possibility of difference. If this is not problem and you know it’s always there, it is not always the winning school but if ever there were an era when it was possible this is the era.
We have an opportunity because the ideologues of the last 25 years have run out of steam. They are protesting and they are huffing and puffing and blowing. One of the biggest problems is that both politically, but above all in the administrative forums, we are surrounded by people who made their careers on the basis of the inevitability argument, the prism argument and all the language that goes with it. A lot of them don’t have the imagination to change vocabulary and it’s too late in their careers to change without the quicksand opening up beneath them. This language they use is their theoretical solid ground and so they are preventing us from dealing with what is before us. They just have to hold on to this sort of language. I just saw something written by the former number two of your Reserve Bank, an interesting guy. [Rod Dean] He’s sort of talking about some of the things I said and you can just feel he is holding on to this language. He just can’t let go and be more relaxed about it.
Actually there is a problem, which comes through very well in the last few days as we discuss the era of David Lange [who died a few days earlier] and that is to admit one is wrong. We’re all getting together and rewriting history in order to hide our failures.
I really like to know who thought up the good ideas, who thought up the bad ideas. I love in a meeting saying I was wrong because it gives people the sense that you can be wrong in public. What is the matter with being wrong? It’s good to admit it fast so nobody dies, if you’re in that kind of position which I’m not. The ability to change your mind in public is a sign of intelligence.
The G8 has now written off the debt of 18 countries. They seem to have done it relatively cleanly in spite of some language. What they can’t bring themselves to say, which would be very helpful is to say, is ‘we could have done in this way in 1980, in 1981, in 1982, in 1983 and why didn’t we do it then’. The real question is not what they’ve done. It is why didn’t they do it before.
The reason they didn’t do it before was because they believed in the argument of inevitability. They actually are better than they think they are, because they have their courage back. They are no longer acting like Castrati: they’ve got their balls back. They are doing things again which globalism told them they couldn’t do and the technocrats told them they couldn’t do and the economists told them they couldn’t do. They couldn’t do any of these things for 25 years and suddenly they are doing it even if it’s only a tiny little thing.
Instead of saying you know it really feels good that we’re doing something intelligent and policy driven and we’re not listening to the technocrats, we’re not listening to the people who say we don’t have control. We have control and we’ve done this now we have to do more. It would help them to do more if they could admit that they had been weak not efficient, not strong but weak for 25 years.
Consider De Gaul, a very interesting public figure who was only in office for ten years and got a few things wrong but a lot right in those years. He ‘s great strength was his ability to change his mind in public. He had an elegant way of doing it but he never lied about changing his mind, he never tried to pretend that that’s what he always meant. He simply produced the intellectual argument for changing his mind. There are other people like that, I can think of examples in Canadian history which won’t be interesting here.
There is one thing about what you were saying about economists. We are in a specialist society. Everybody feels obliged to stick to their turf. If they move outside of it they are dumped on for being unprofessional, romantic whatever. Except over the last 25 years economists who pronounce on everything under the sun and they are supposed to be taken seriously. They pronounce on prostitution, they pronounce on agriculture and areas they know nothing about. This is like the priest, this is the proof that it’s an ideology as opposed to anything sensible and moderate.
Why should we be in the least bit interested by the opinion of some guy who sits at his desk and crunches numbers and tells us he has a serious opinion about the way people live in villages in Indonesia? He’s never been to Indonesia, he knows nothing about Indonesia, he doesn’t know anything about their religion or culture, and therefore his predictions will usually be wrong. What we’re living now is not that economics are unimportant or that global trade is unimportant but that these sort of ideas about how this is going to fit together has been put together by people who actually don’t understand how it could fit together because they don’t understand for one thing the cultural differences or links.
One of the great scandals of the last quarter century is the inflating way of the real economist question. We have virtually doubled the workforce by putting women into it, at every level from head of state on down. In classic economic terms that is a real growth in income. Yet at the beginning of it the middle class family with two or three children could survive on one male salary: at the end of it it requires a salary of the man and women. In other words the value added by the women was inflated away in a quarter of a century under this economic theory. There has been no discussion about that which tells you that the economists are men.
American’s, because the constitution mentions it, surveys on happiness back to the 1950s. The basic conclusion is there has been no rise in average happiness in America in fifty years. Even more surprising, men’s happiness has risen slightly and women’s happiness has fallen slightly despite the feminist revolution. What is going on?
One of the things that is going on of course if the understanding of the word happiness has become further and further away from what meant in the eighteenth century which was something to do with public good and fulfilment in a noble sense. Now when people ask you if you’re happy it means have you had an orgasm this week. Are you buying the right kind of clothes? What does happiness mean?
Your new book quotes New Zealand all out of proportion to our importance (but totally in line with our self importance). You’ve used New Zealand as a paradigm example of people who have changed their mind haven’t you?
In a way yes. It doesn’t mean that you’ve abandoned the international market place or that you don’t want to trade or that you’ve become protectionist. It means that you’ve decided again that you can set policies which will work for New Zealand.
One of the government’s key principles is ‘global connectedness’.
You have a rather good quotation from Helen Clark when she became prime minister. She ‘began to try to turn a country around without succumbing to a globalist panic. She said her aims were based on a broad policy which “reduces inequalities, environmentally sustainable, improves the social and economic wellbeing of our citizens”. That sounded like a risky package’, you said, ‘in 1999. Today it sounds common place.’ I thought that was a really interesting way of characterising the paradigm shift in New Zealand capturing the sort of shift in world view which you’ve got in mind.
It’s all about being moderately sensible. Can you get to the point of emotional and intellectual being where the ability to assume moderation is no longer considered extreme? I’ve been thinking about this more and more since I finished the book.
The reviews of the kinds of books I write are often quite interesting whether they are for or against. You hear the psychology in people coming through. People have lost the habit of moderate thought. The muddiness which is liveable that comes with moderate thought. We’ve become addicted to the sort of ‘I am strong, I am a real man, and I believe in getting those barriers down and we’ll trade’. Someone like me says ‘sure trade is great, so trade. Now what are we going to talk about? Let’s talk about something interesting.’ We’re not going to spend our whole time talking about trade. We might want to talk about is: is all trade the same? does all trade create wealth? has the trade we’ve done created the wealth we want?
For me the most interesting conversation which is not taking place is that almost all of our economic theory, and certainly the economic theory of globalism, which is basically nineteenth century theory was based on the civilisation of scarcity of production. That the idea was that through, as you described so well, the growth and technology communications we would be able to produce more and trade more and we would compete as we raced up this scale out of scarcity towards self sufficiency. What has happened is we’ve gone right over the top and we’re in surplus in almost every way. And that I have a feeling is at the heart of what is not functioning, of why the incredible growth in trade isn’t producing an equivalent growth in wealth.
Let’s use some really basic words like ‘dignity’ which is what do you have to have. Back to the original question of you said that am I making a nationalist argument and I prevaricated on purpose because my answer is people to belong somewhere. We have to belong somewhere because it is one of the ways that they feel they know themselves. It’s a form of dignity. You don’t get dignity from a sort of floating obstruction of wealth.
I say somewhere in the book that I know more and more people who are very clever and quite well educated who made their fortune, usually in the high tech business, once or twice. By the time they are 45 they sold their business to another company and now they don’t know what to do. The reason they don’t know what to do is in essence because they’re not rooted anymore. I’m always saying to them well you’re free now you’ve got $12 million dollars clean you realise you could just pick a cause you know, take fifty percent of the time off and fifty percent of the time on but they can’t bring themselves to do it. They’ll give money but they can’t bring themselves to give themselves because what produced them is not rooted in anything.
Is my approach nineteenth century nationalism? No. Is it a humanist concept of belonging to society? Yes. Is that is what allows you to build some sort of international arrangement? Yes. It is real. Out of that comes a willingness to send troops abroad, to be involved in helping people rebuild their societies elsewhere, and so on.
Brecht’s play “Galileo” has a scene in which Galileo tells the priest that we have to tell people what the truth is, but the priest says people don’t want the truth, they want certainty.
It takes you right back to the fundamental Western division which is between the Plato and the Socratics. The Priest is a Platonist: the ideologues are always Platonists. They are always afraid of the people. They always believe certainty is necessary, inevitability is necessary or else there will be panic among the people. You have to limit the horizons and set them on the track. When someone like Thomas Freidman talks about the glories of globalisation he is talking like a Platonist. The very fact that he picks a title which is the flat world. I mean can you imagine anything more unconsciously stupid? In other words he picks as the dream of globalisation precisely the image used by the worst of Platonic Catholicism to say if you don’t stay home, if you sail out you will fall off the edge of the world and go to hell. That is his image of the perfect future. It indicates illiteracy but it indicates the extent of which ideologues live through fear.
Gregory Vlastos looks at ten themes in all of Plato – say citizenship, democracy, justice and so on. He takes all of his works in know the order in which they were written and he finds that Plato was a democrat and loved citizenship as a young man and as an old man hated them and in the middle he was confused. His argument is that as a young man Plato was an admirer of the real Socrates and Socrates friends were still alive. In those early texts which are humanist he is describing Socrates. In the later texts he is himself and he is describing Plato and they are complete opposites. That’s why today you can say this it’s typically Western if you have a single viewpoint(?) encompassing a single subject which has a full contradiction of Western civilisation in it. In every single subject you can take it.
I’ve got one last question which comes from journalists. How come your wife who is a journalist became the Canadian Governor General.
I don’t think it’s on topic. I think she is doing a great job.
We can’t think of any New Zealand journalist who could become a Governor General!
The new one that has just been named is also a journalist, a young 48 year old woman immigrant – a refugee from Haiti when she was young. As is her husband and he is a philosopher.
It would be really great and come back to New Zealand and talk about this whole philosophy of cultural diversity because although we’re dealing with it in different ways we have the same issues.
I’d love to come and do something which went on for, say, a week and then go and see the South Island for a week.
Thank you very much not only on behalf of “The Listener”, but also for helping me with my own thinking, both today and with your books.