VOLTAIRE’S BASTARDS: THE DICTATORSHIP OF REASON IN THE WEST
2013: 20TH Anniversary Reissue by Simon & Schuster with a forward by John Ralston Saul and an introduction by Chris Hedges.
Inspiration for opera Dennis Cleveland (1996) by Mikel Rouse
In a wide-ranging, provocative anatomy of modern society and its origins, John Ralston Saul explores the reason for our deepening sense of crisis and confusion. Throughout the Western world we talk end lessly of individual freedom, yet Saul shows that there has never before been such pressure for conformity. Our business leaders describe themselves as capitalists, yet most are corporate employees and financial speculators. We are obsessed with competition, yet the single larg est item of international trade is a subsidized market in armaments. We call our governments democracies, yet few of us participate in poli tics. We complain about “invasive government,” yet our legal, educational, financial, social, cultural and legislative systems are breaking down. While most observers view these problems separately, Saul demonstrates that they are largely manifestations of our blind faith in the value of reason. Over the last 400 years, our “rational elites” have gradually instituted re forms in every phase of social life. But Saul shows that they have also been responsible for most of the difficulties and violence of the same period. This paradox arises from a simple truth which our elites deny: far from being a moral force, reason is no more than an administrative method. Their denial has helped to turn the modern West into a vast, incomprehensible, direction less machine, run by process-minded experts – “Voltaire’s bastards” – whose cult of scientific management is bereft of both sense and morality. Whether in politics, art, business, the military, entertainment, science, finance, academia or journalism, these experts share the same outlook and methods. The result, Saul maintains, is a civilization of immense technological power whose peoples increasingly dwell in a world of illusion.
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The cultural malaise diagnosed here became epidemic when the intellectual, social and ethical values of the Age of Reason, of which the American Declaration of Independence is a textbook example, were rendered obsolete by the changing relationship between the individual and the political institutions of democracy.
“All men are created equal,” but if some of them have control of missile launchers, when in 1776 each had only a gun, such equality is illusory. “Inalienable Rights,” which to Voltaire or Locke would have had the revolutionary significance of the freedom of dissent or self-government, may well include, in modern times, the right to medical insurance.
“The pursuit of happiness” is a worthy ideal, but to the French philosophes or the American rebels it meant restraining or throwing off “absolute despotism”, while today it may mean no more than shopping at Chanel. Mass communications and modern weapons of mass coercion, the uncontrolled growth of corporate institutions and the diminished importance of the individual, have conspired to render the innovations of the Protestant Reformation and the French Enlightenment less and less applicable to 20th-century reality.
Instead of keeping pace with science, Western social thought has been dragging these innovations along, virtually unreformed, ever since the American Revolution. As early as the 1850s, John Stuart Mill had warned that their force to guide mankind was “well-nigh spent, and we can expect no fresh start until we again assert our mental freedom.”
This is precisely the reformation which Saul urges the West to attempt: except where Mill anticipated, Saul confronts us with what we know from experience and newspaper headlines. Today even a political innocent is aware of the chasm separating the expectations of the electorate and the actual policies of the state, and of the cynicism with which unelected government or bureaucratic or corporate elites view the principle of accountability.
Roaming a vast historical terrain, Saul concentrates on the “bastardisation” of the Age of Reason, and the attendant hypocrisies of democracy, in the past 50 years. We have become “Voltaire’s Bastards” because the “self-evident truths” of the Age of Reason, which nobody has bothered to make newly relevant to modern society, are nowadays little more than a respectable ideological cover for the usurpation of all real power by the unelected elites.
The social forms that Saul outlines are in many ways as bleak and in some ways more frightening than the ones sketched by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. “Whatever the ongoing changes actually hold for those living in what we used to call the Soviet bloc,” he remarks, “the Western reaction is inescapably one of relief…Here is another excuse not to address our own problems.”
The recurrent theme of this book is that for at least half a century the West, deaf to reality because it lost the ear for individual utterance, has become a conceited inept, passive imperium of its own delusions of permanence and grandeur. by smothering the would-be critic with institutional love, and the would-be dissenter with corporate hatred, it has severed the link with the Age of Reason that made the West master of our universe, champion of our knowledge and guardian of our morality. What remains is self-satisfaction, illusions and lies.
McNamara started the arms race, precipitated the failure of Vietnam and created the Third World debt crisis. It is a proud record that puts him at the head of Saul’s long list of blunderers who have been dazzled and hypnotised by a conception of rationality that is ineffective and, frequently, lethal.
The reason before which the incompetent rationalist technocrats prostrate themselves is a perversion of the reason of the Enlightenment. What the technocrats mean by reason is the objective application of expertise and analysis to the facts and to the future. Such a definition has certain implications: it excludes values, it simplifies and it creates hermetic sodalities of expertise. Furthermore, this reason is anti-democratic: the voice of the people will clearly get in the way and, from the perspective of the technocrat, will probably be wrong.
For Saul this is almost precisely the opposite of what Voltaire and Jefferson meant by reason. Their reason was explicitly soaked in values and, in the cast of Jefferson, entirely founded upon a faith in the will of the people. Similarly, modern technocracy has turned the Enlightenment concept of happiness on its head. Jefferson meant the pursuit of basic material comfort in a prosperous, well-organised society. We, however, mean an isolated, hyper-individualistic state in which we have access to a vast superfluity of gratifications – nothing to do with society and nothing to do with basics.
Armed with these mutant offspring of the Enlightenment, we have made a mad and incompetent world, the description of which forms the main body of Saul’s book. He covers politics, diplomacy, the military, the arts, literature, painting and almost everything else, in each case providing a grim, though lucid and entertaining, anatomy of perversion.
Inevitably in such a huge catalogue, there are moments when one pauses in stunned disagreement. I can, for example, understand why he scoffs at the absurd high culture status accorded to ballet and opera, but he is simply wrong to dismiss the arts themselves as “dead.”
One further criticism is that Saul mocks terms such as right and left, and is in favour of political open-endedness. But, in reality, his own prejudices are everywhere. He takes it for granted, for example, that his reader endorses freer abortions as a progressive development. I do not.
But, before the overwhelming rightness of what Saul is attempting here, these are trivialities. The broad outline of his thesis – that we live in an era of corrupted Enlightenment ideals – is, for me and, increasingly, for many others, unarguable. Something fundamental has gone wrong and Saul has found a large and engrossing way of expressing that failure.
Equally, the application of his thesis is generally convincing. Affairs such as Third World debt do demonstrate the way collective insanity can be disguised as reasonable behaviour. Honourable men like McNamara took logical decisions within a system, but did not have the perspective to see that the system itself was crazy. Similarly, the system of the worldwide arms bazaar runs perfectly rationally within its own terms, but it is out of control. Nobody can stop making weapons and nobody can stop buying them and everybody has perfectly sound reasons.
Saul’s specific point here is that perverted reason, with its insistence on its freedom from values, has created the deadly concept of the virtuous system. In the absence of any real perspective and with the imposed necessity of amorality, the system becomes the only good. Defending and serving the system – whether it be the financial markets, the civil service or the business methods taught at Harvard – becomes the standard by which people judge their effectiveness. They fail to notice that not one of these systems is working.
Saul has a perfectly good reason for not providing the answer to all this. He believes in the damaging futility of our modern demand for answers, so he would be justified in writing an onslaught and no more. But he does, in his conclusion, outline a few positives. He wants, for example, doubt to be welcomed rather than excluded from debate. He wants us to search for questions not answers. We must end the cult of the Hero and “denigrate self-interest, meaningless power, cynicism, rhetoric, and, for that matter, simply change our élites.” Who, in the last analysis, can argue with any of that?
The greatest virtue of this book is its over-ambition. Saul has been many things, including a historian and novelist; but he is not an academic and refuses to be a specialist. So he wanders into any specialist domain he likes and hurls amiable abuse. This is fun, true and necessary. If he and we few others are even half right, it may be the West’s last chance.
Voltaire’s Bastards is a long and very dense book but one that is buoyed by insights and fundamental questioning. Why, to take a simple characterization of Saul’s, are the “experts” so often wrong? They think that they have weighed and calibrated and analyzed everything, according to value-free and scientific procedures, but they bring us war and meltdown and pollution and famine. The most that calamities such as these accomplish is the firing of one lot of experts and the hiring of another set, which is why, as Saul mordantly notes, a man such as Robert McNamara can only be promoted after each successive managerial techno-failure.
Voltaire, of course, would not have recognized this depraved version of rationalism. His entire style and methodology consisted of doubting all forms of power and authority, whether secular, spiritual or intellectual. What I think Saul means to say is that utilitarianism – the supposedly unsentimental application of cost / benefit analysis – has deposed the alliance between reason and justice, and has made logical calculation into something shortsighted and self-serving.
Describing the methodical abuse of medicine by Nazi physicians who allowed themselves to perform “scientific” experiments on living fellow humans, Robert Jay Lifton originated the term “doubling,” which illuminates the psychic process by which quite ordinary people deceive themselves. Such self-deception did not, alas, evaporate with Nuremberg. Millions of skilled workers and salesmen in the civilized world are, as Saul points out in a lengthy passage, absorbed full time in the manufacture and distribution of armaments, all of them destined to end up in the parts of the world where they are least needed and will do the most harm.
What do these educated and sensitive people tell themselves they are doing all day? Does the question even come up? Or do the comforting accoutrements of flow diagrams, technological spin-offs and hard currency expert earnings succeed in keeping awkward questions in a separate compartment?
Technocracy and specialization supply ready alibis for those who are just doing their jobs. And again, the misfit always seems, or can be made to seem, irrational. Nothing is more logical, when you think about it, than Catch 22. When Yossarian, in Joseph Heller’s novel, is asked by exasperated authority, “What if everybody thought like you?” he sounds crazy when he gives the only possible answer: “In that case I’d be a damn fool to think any other way.”
Along with this comes a new priesthood of people who believe that “knowledge” is power, and for that reason seek to keep the knowledge to themselves. As Saul puts it: “The invention of the secret is perhaps the most damaging outgrowth of the power produced when control over knowledge was combined with the protective armor of specialization. Until recently very little was considered improper to know. Today the restricted lists are endless. And yet there can’t be more than two or three real secrets in the entire world.”
One might object here that the pre-Voltairean world wanted to keep from the vulgar even such open secrets as the availability of holy writ in the vernacular and the fact that the earth is a sphere. Still, the adaptation of that exclusive mentality to technological streamlining no more counts as progress than teaching a cannibal to operate a food processor. And the alienation between even educated people and their “leaders” is an aspect of this dysfunction. “The fractured individual offers himself or herself periodic tranquilizers,” writes Saul, but “the citizen expects his political leaders to take no tranquilizers.”
Only by challenging our self-definition as logical and rational creatures and demonstrating the superstition that lies beneath it can Saul engage us in this long and sustained meditation on the corruption of science, the emptiness of education, the vacuity of politics and the innumerable ways in which we teach ourselves to bear with greater stoicism the pain of others.
In Voltaire’s Bastards, his provocative reading of European and American history since the 18th Century, Saul argues that all the evils of modern society can be traced to one fundamental error. By misinterpreting the teachings of the great minds of the Enlightenment, we have become their illegitimate offspring. In the process we so crippled ourselves that we no longer have a clear vision of our political problems, let alone a chance of solving them.
“While not blind, we see without being able to perceive the difference: between illusion and reality,” says Saul.
Just before the French and American Revolutions, Western thought underwent a profound change. Thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau taught that the key to reforming the outdate society of their day was to subject all political questions to the scrutiny of reason, a proposal that quickly became the hallmark of modern thought. Unfortunately, subsequent generations twisted that methodology, generating thereby the intellectual straitjacket that now cripples us.
“Were Voltaire to reappear today, he would be outraged by the new structures, which somehow deformed the changes for which he struggled,” Saul says.
Indeed, our intellectual elites have become as oppressive as the kings and aristocrats of Voltaire’s age. For in contemporary society, knowledge has become the means by which cadres of experts and technocrats dominate everybody else.
“Reason now has a great deal in common with the last days of the ancient regime,” says Saul, who has a Ph.D. in history from London University and has been a business executive in Europe and North America.
The triumph of expertise has made democracy virtually irrelevant, Saul claims. Public officials no longer debate the right or wrong of a proposal. Instead, they send for the experts, to whose presumed special knowledge they defer.
For Saul, the perfect symbol of this shift is Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a technocrat par excellence. For McNamara, all questions could be reduced to data entries in a computer program. Thus he could go directly from running the Vietnam War, a questionable exercise in late colonialism, to trying to solve the Third World’s problems as head of the World Bank. In fact, McNamara was no more successful at the latter than the former task, but no matter. Modern experts no longer hold themselves to the standard of success: By their understanding, their special knowledge gives them a right to rule that they refuse to subject to external criticism.
Thus corporations executives pay themselves large salaries, even as profits shrink, and generals get more medals even as their Star Wars weapon systems fail the test of battlefield reality. To prevent criticism, the experts wrap themselves in a veil of jargon only they can understand.
“In many ways the differences between various languages today are less profound than the differences between the professional dialects within each language,” Saul observes. “There is no language available for outsiders who wish to criticize intelligently.”
Voltaire’s Bastards is hardly light reading, but readers who stick with it will be rewarded with a whole new way of looking at the political mess we currently inhabit.
John Ralston Saul is a Canadian writer whose four novels of international intrigue include The Birds of Prey and The Paradise Eater, set in Bangkok. His practical experience has been extensive: he managed an investment firm in Paris and served for 10 years with the Canadian government oil corporation. Saul also has a doctorate from King’s College, London; his thesis was on Charles de Gaulle.
Voltaire’s Bastards, Saul’s first published work of nonfiction, is an ambitious 600-page meditation on modern culture, tracing the roots of our troubled political, economic and intellectual systems back to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Despite its frequent overstatements, ponderous format and excessive bleakness, Voltaire’s Bastards is a rich, rewarding, highly original book that casts a fresh perspective on all aspects of public life. There are innumerable brilliant insights. Even when he gets his facts wrong – as sometimes happens in his rushed survey of literary and artistic history – Saul is suggestive and stimulating.
Saul argues that democracy is subverted by the dominance of rational systems of control that are essentially unreformable. The modern science of administration is king. Capitalism has been transformed; it is not the owners, the stockholders, but their amoral, faceless hirelings, the managers, who have unbalanced and bled the marketplace at no risk to themselves. The West is obsessed with a frenzied, sterile quest for ultimate efficiency: “Our obsession with expertise” has produced a master caste, technocrats who are consummate mediocrities. Whether in corporations or government, they are merely “number crunchers,’ ‘highly sophisticated grease jockeys” with “a talent for manipulation,’ who keep the machine humming. Our elites, like sycophantic 18th-century courtiers, stand for nothing but “cynicism, ambition, rhetoric, and the worship of power.”
Saul’s blistering indictment hits a great variety of targets – though not, regrettably, American academe, where self-propagating, overpaid technocrat-administrators are strangling education in a way that exactly proves his points. His account of the origins and influence of the Harvard Business School is fascinating: The founding Harvard deans were admirers of Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose theories of “Scientific Management” for industrial reorganization were also adopted by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, and by Albert Speer in Nazi Germany.
The business schools and schools of public policy in America and Europe enshrine “abstract, logical process” and an “obsession with structures.” Their students become “addicts of pure power,” without goals or vision. The economic transition from manufacturing to a top-heavy service sector has exacerbated social problems. Nearly three-quarters of business-school graduates go on to cushy nonmanufacturing jobs like consulting and banking. They avoid Pittsburgh and Birmingham, where the factories are, and settle in “the great centres of postindustrial self-gratification,” like New York and London. Saul thinks this steering of top managerial talent away from nuts and bolts experience is a major cause of our industrial decline.
In some of the most startling material of his book, Saul argues that the modern, discreet, ruthless administrative style was created by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, who was wounded by a cannonball passing between his legs. Though he claims religion is dead and comes perilously close to demonizing Catholicism, Saul is at his best in his comparison of the arbitrary investigative method of the Inquisition to that of today’s police-state torturers. He makes clever connections: Descartes, pillar of the Age of Reason, was educated by the Jesuits.
But Saul tries too hard to build a case against the last five centuries, when in fact the trends he identifies are also discernible in antiquity. For example, his cold, cynical company man is Caesar of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra or the Creon of Sophocles’ Antigone. And the amoral style of interrogation Saul claims was invented by the Inquisitors is already evident in Pontius Pilate’s treatment of Jesus.
Voltaire’s Bastards would be stronger with some consideration of the evolution of commercial and political bureaucracies in Mesopotamia and Egypt, which would demonstrate that the negative principles Saul isolates are universal and intrinsic to civilization and its discontents. The book also lacks sustained attention to the Greco-Roman origins of Western logic as well as to the complex status of reason in medieval theology. Even the presentation of post-Enlightenment culture suffers from a curious blankness about Romanticism, which Saul rarely mentions but which powerfully critiqued Western institutions and ideology from within.
Saul is superb, however, on military history, which is glaringly absent from the overliterary world-view of poststructuralism. With a novelist’s instinct for historical sweep, he presents the staggering development of the arms trade, which has distorted and impoverished the world economy. Secondly, he shows how this “Armada complex” is a direct result of the victory of staff officers over field officers in the past two centuries, a phenomenon that led to the carnage of World War I.
Although he is unfair to Napoleon, whom he blames for inaugurating the pattern of godlike hero that would produce Hitler but that again has ancient precedents. Saul’s profiles of military men from Lord Kitchener to Gen. William Westmoreland are models of quick-take psychological astuteness. There are dramatic juxtapositions, such as a wonderful comparison of Cardinal Richelieu to Robert McNamara, against whom Saul levels devastating charges of incompetence.
The last chapters of Voltaire’s Bastards feel like an awkwardly appended coda. Saul zips through 500 years of literature and art, flinging out opinions from the fruitful to the bizarre. The current crisis in literary criticism, perfect grist for his mill, is passed over with a few disparaging remarks about deconstruction. Popular culture is treated in a dismissive, harrumphing way all too familiar these days. The discussion of Christian images ignores Protestant iconoclasm. But the book ends with a thrilling celebration of the revolutionary power of clear, simple language against the “professional obscurantism” of the establishment. I was moved and inspired by Saul’s vision of the writer as “faithful witness.”
Despite huge leaps, frustrating repetitions and organizational uncertainty, Voltaire’s Bastards is a vigorous, continuously interesting re-reading of the principal issues of our time. Its enormous cast of characters includes Machiavelli, Marie Antoinette, Walt Disney, James Baker and T. Boone Pickens. Massively grounded in hard fact, the book unintentionally exposes the flimsiness and amateurism of New Historicism, a recent fad in literary criticsm influenced by Michel Foucault that finds imperialism under every doormat. Saul’s intricate analysis of the cold, mechanical operations of Western institutions and policy-making is informed and convincing where that of the careless, culture-bound Foucault was not. Voltaire’s Bastards should be required reading for graduate students in the humanities. It would break through interdisciplinary barriers without the posturing and clichés of poststructuralism.
After so dire a picture of western culture, we might expect some concrete proposals for reform. But Saul insists, perhaps to our disappointment, that the writer’s mission is “questioning and clarifying,” not providing solutions. In this, he has certainly succeeded. Rejecting the exhausted stereotype of Left versus Right, he opens up new lines of inquiry and creates new constellations of meaning. With his sophisticated international perspective and blunt freedom from cant, Saul offers a promising persona for the future: the intellectual as man of the world.
I’ve told this story before:
. . . . I recalled a brief exchange, one of many conversations we shared over clattering golf clubs. These words came shortly after my reading crossed a very special threshold:
“Dr. Crowther, do you find that the more you read the more everything seems to connect together?”
Dr. Crowther held her golf bag still and looked at me.
“Oh, yes, John!”
When one reads a lot and widely, the connections come fast and furious. Now and then, when one is, like me, a reader who always have a dozen books on the go, the connections appear unexpectedly between two books one is currently reading. This pleasant surprise has happened to me recently.
In 1989, Jules Verne’s great-grandson discovered the manuscript of an unknown novel by his famous ancestor. Paris in the Twentieth Century was published in French in 1994. Shortly after it was published in 1996, I bought Richard Howard’s English version, read it as a curiosity, and set it aside, largely forgotten save for its title.
That title, however, has stuck in my mind for almost two decades as the kernel of an art project I have finally started concrete work on. As I began preliminary sketches, I realized I should probably reread the novel whose title had been rolling around in my mind so long.
Two years before Verne’s lost novel was published, John Ralston Saul published the sweeping yet remarkably readable study of modern Western society and it’s history, Voltaire’s Bastards. Somehow, it took me two decades to get to it. And, somehow, I found myself reading Voltaire’s Bastards with Paris in the Twentieth Century as its tag-team partner.
So, 19th century French science fiction writer and 20th century Canadian philosopher. Two hundred page dystopian novel and six hundred page carefully researched (I’ll ignore the little Frankenstein error) philosophical study of western social history since the Renaissance.
What’s the connection?
Just this: Verne and Saul describe virtually identically structured societies, although the details are, inevitably, different.
As I remember, the marketing of Verne’s novel in North America concentrated on the Gosh! Wow! factor of his predictions. This emphasis is evident in the blurb’s on the back of the paperback. People Magazine is quoted about the “overcrowded metropolis”, the homeless, and automobiles. And elevators and fax machines. Of course, when we really think about it, none of these predictions were that unpredictable. Indeed, Paris in Verne’s time was far from sparsely populated or free from the homeless. In fact, Verne’s technological predictions are minor details of the novel. Ray Bradbury, as quoted on the paperback, is perfectly correct that Paris in the Twentieth Century is “an absolute necessity” for those interested in the history of Speculative Fiction. But Verne’s novel, hidden until just twenty years ago, has not been at all an influence — it was unknown. Its science fiction interest is purely antiquarian and its technological prophecy is modest.
Of another kind of interest — again antiquarian — is Verne’s predictions about the shape of Western society in the second half of the Twentieth century. It is here that Verne is startlingly on the money, and on the money to a degree made clear by a reading of Voltaire’s Bastards.
Voltaire’s Bastards is a challenging book, not because of its size — it is stunningly artful and, as I mentioned, readable — and not because its arguments are complicated — Saul is conversational, straight-forward, and eminently sensible. I took thirty-seven pages of notes while reading Voltaire’s Bastards — not as a chore, but because Saul’s points are so darn well taken and so worth remembering. What is challenging about Voltaire’s Bastards is that it challenges almost everything you think you know about Western Society and its historical underpinnings. If you read Voltaire’s Bastards well, you will be changed, the scales may just fall off your eyes, you may just have taken Morpheus’ Red Pill. But it probably won’t make you feel too happy.
The world Saul delineates — our world — is a society run by administrators of a system — technocrats. The System, either the perpetuation of it or personal advancement within it, is the ultimate reason for every decision. The bottom line is always the bottom line. Saul is emphatic that all the social -isms — Fascism, Communism, and so on — are “dialects” of the single language of “Reason” that has ruled the West with ever growing strength since the Renaissance. Art and literature are no longer about pursuit of beauty or social engagement. Rather, artists and writers have become technocrats within their own branch of the system. Saul argues that everything in Western society is directed at sustaining the system rather than toward the well-being of the people trapped within it. When one considers, as Saul does at length, the obscene waste of money spent on arms in the modern world, one can’t help but conclude that most of Voltaire’s Bastards is filling in the details.
Verne’s Twentieth Century Paris is drawn with less detail — it’s a novel, after all, concerned with character and the personal impact of Verne’s future, not with the minutia of that culture. Verne concentrates principally on the arts in his future. And the state of the arts is disturbing. All art is absolutely dismissed from 1960 Paris unless it has been turned to the purposes of applied science, technology or finance. Great drama of the past is rewritten to conform by assembly lines of dramatists, each specializing in a type of scene. Symphonies are written to commemorate great chemical experiments. The languages of the past have been abandoned, poets are out of print, universities have become the “Academic Credit Union” which now teaches only science and business. The language itself is changing into a collection of jargon. I’m afraid I see too much of Verne’s Paris 1960 in the 21st Century world, not least in the fact that most universities have become mildly glorified vocational colleges producing technocrats in their bloated business schools, defunding “frills” such as the humanities, and turning students’ minds to “this is how” and away from “let’s ask why?”
Saul ends his book referring back to Rome through Voltaire, calling for “sensis communis”, a true, old common sense, a sensibility which relies on questioning, including self-questioning. Saul is calling for the embracing of dissent, of kicking at the traces of all that we do without thinking.
Verne’s protagonist, Michel, is just such a dissident in 20th century Paris, a poet in a world with no use for true poetry. He is unable to live the life of the system drone, and, in the end, is crushed by that system and its failure. Verne’s vision of the future is a brutal dystopia a hundred years ahead of, and so more prescient perhaps than Orwell’s.
Disturbing is the uncanny resemblance of Verne’s fictional dystopian Paris to our own society as Saul exposes it. Here, all decision is administration, fundamental doubt or questioning is either ridiculed or impossible to consider, and the corporate model is applied to all aspects of life, including the life of the individual. Can anyone really deny that today “public good” means not increasing individual well-being but “economic growth” and “economic growth” means “maximized profit and maximized GDP”. As Saul writes on p. 74:
In other words, reason equals structure equalls happiness and that is freedom.
What both Verne and Saul point out is that technology and systems administration are dehumanizing when accepted without questioning and doubt. Absolute reliance on “Reason” leads to failure followed by ever thicker layers of “reasonable” systems. Not only are doubts and questioning the only route to discovery and invention, but only the flexibility doubt brings us, indeed, sometimes only panic gives us what we may need to see and solve a crisis. In the closing chapter of Verne’s novel, a killing winter descends on Europe. The administrative State’s efforts to help the poor are ineffective and “Scientific resources were impotent.” (p. 196) But “Public charity did somewhat more.” (p. 197) Only individualParisians operating from their hearts can help their fellows where scientific management has failed them.
A good portion of Voltaire’s Bastards is devoted to pointing out the failures of scientific management in the real 20th century. Saul is very careful to explain that the system our technocrats manage, whatever the -ism they labour under, is the hopeless idea that human society can be managed by rational means alone:
Perhaps the most damaging part of our obsession with expertise and systems has been the restructuring of elected assemblies to make them more efficient. This equation of the idea of efficiency . . . with the process of democracy shows just how far away we have slipped from our common sense. (p.28)[Professional managers] have been free to apply the theory of unfettered capitalism as if it were a perfectible abstraction, not a human reality. (p. 29)
These technocrats Saul describes are the identical twins of the horrid, joyless cyphers who labour to no real human purpose in Verne’s 20th Century Paris:
“A hundred times over,” Jacques opined. “This world is nothing more than a market, an immense fairground, and you must entertain your clients with the talents of a mountebank.” (p. 78)
In his novel, Vern concerns himself principally with the life of his poet protagonist, Michel, and with Michel’s writer and musician friends, the hardship of their lives under the Parisian technocracy. In Paris, poetry is moribund, just as, Saul argues, it is passé in our society. Poetry has led the charge into obscurantism, followed closely by the “serious” novel, Saul argues. If Byron were alive today, he would be a rock star, Saul writes (p. 610), lamenting the disengagement of the poet and the common folk. Of course, in the early ’90s, Leonard Cohen had not yet resurged to the stadium-filling rock star poet he is today. And I expect Saul would find hope in the remarkable engagement and popularity of Canadian spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan. Perhaps Cohen and Koyczan are exceptions that proves Saul’s point. “Serious” writers, Saul argues, no longer engage with society at large. In contrast, Verne anticipates a society which no longer engages with its poets. But, is it not a two way street? How long will a poet be a voice in the wilderness before she either caves and writes what sells, or, on the other side, starves in a garret, or freezes in a cemetery above Paris?
Both Verne and Saul describe a world which has lost human meaning, in which individuals carry on within the system they’ve inherited, unquestioning, never imagining the possibility of a different way, let alone a better one, deriving little joy from their petty advancements. Verne’s novel is disturbing because it is at once absurd and prescient. Such a society in fiction seems impossible, but our own society is a pea in the same pod. Saul’s sensibly argued examination is terrifying because he is brutally correct. Modern society is an organism which serves only its meaningless self, not the humans who service it and are indifferently sloughed like so many skin cells or fingernail clippings.
A technocratic, systematic society always has answers, whether or not those answers are helpful. But, as Saul concludes of societies such as ours
If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility. It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children. That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions. (p. 630)
John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards is published by Penguin Books.
Richard Howard’s English translation of Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century is available in paperback from Del Rey Books.
Now I think I’ll reread Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Grâce à Dieu, John Saul possède une écriture fluide. Sinon, la “brique” de plus de 650 pages qu’il nous propose en manière d’essai aurait pu en décourager plus d’un. Le sujet, il est vrai, attire d’instinct, car nous n’avons pas fini d’écarquiller les yeux pour essayer de “lire” notre société. Connaissez-vous beaucoup d’ouvrages où le chapitre premier s’intitule ainsi : “Où l’auteur donne sa position”? Combien d’ouvrages gagneraient à fournir ainsi au lecteur, dès le premier contact, la clé de leur entreprise! Profitons-en.
John Saul en est persuadé : nous vivons sur la conviction absolue que la solution à nos problèmes réside “dans l’application hardie d’un savoir-faire organisé rationnellement, alors qu’en réalité nos problèmes résultent en grande partie de cette application même” Nous sommes “les bâtards de Voltaire”. Si ce dernier revenait parmi nous, il serait horrifié par cette dictature de la raison, qui a balayé tout le reste et notamment l’humanisme.
Pour développer son propos, l’auteur a accumulé (pendant dix ans, précise-t-il) des preuves historiques, économiques, culturelles, sociologiques. Picorons dans cette “somme” les éléments les plus saillants. Nos élites modernes, estime John Saul, n’ont pas plus confiance dans le public que les courtisans du dix-huitième siècle pratiquant le culte du pouvoir. Simplement, c’est à la logique arbitraire et à la superstition du savoir que nous faisons nos révérences. Machiavel, Loyola, Descartes, Richelieu, McNamara, même combat pour la technocratie rationnelle qui trouve en l’Etat-nation un partenaire à longe terme. Et, quant la logique devient folle, qu’elle alimente le “Héros” et le “Technocrate”, on aboutit à l’Holocauste.
John Saul trouve dans l’exemple des industries d’armement la démonstration parfaite de la manière dont fonctionne le système rationnel. Les États-unis, la Grande-Bretagne, la France et naguère l’URSS ont trouvé que le meilleur moyen de financier leurs propres programmes d’armement consistait à vendre un maximum d’armes à l’étranger. D’où une prolifération démente de tous types d’armements, y compris nucléaires (sous couverture civile) au cours des vingt dernières années.
Pour masquer cette offense au bon sens, certains experts ont essayé de vanter les retombées économiques de ces dépenses en les considérant comme affectées à…des biens d’équipement! Notre auteur est aussi sévère, au reste, pour les chefs militaires qui substituent la technologie à la stratégie et considèrent la guerre sous sa seule forme d’emploi d’une sursaturation d’armes, comme à la Grenade, à Panama ou en Irak, sans parler du Vietnam.
La dérive de l’image
John Saul trouve bien d’autres exemples de “dictatures de la raison” : le style unidimensionnel des bureaucraties, le culte du secret chez les experts, l’assurance des dirigeants entravant la marche de la démocratie, etc. Sur le “détournement du capitalisme”, il a d’excellents passages : “Ni l’Histoire, ni la philosophie N’associent marchés libres et hommes libres”, écrit-il, repoussant ainsi d’un trait de plume les affirmations les plus connues du professeur Hayek.
La libre entreprise, poursuit-il, fonctionne souvent beaucoup mieux sous les auspices des structures gouvernementales autoritaires, comme on l’a vu, par exemple en France, sous Napoléon III. Saul n’a pas de mots trop vifs contre les manipulations de l’argent aujourd’hui, “la zone crépusculaire” de la finance off-shore, etc. Comme bien d’autres analystes, John Saul s’indigne de la dérive de l’image en instrument de propagande, constatant que “la télévision est le service religieux quotidien du monde moderne”. Comme Roland Barthes dans ses Mythologies, il nous parle des stars. Pour lui, “elles apparaissent plus réelles que les individus qui détiennent le véritable pouvoir, de sorte que ces derniers se sentent de plus en plus obligés d’imiter les stars. Être réel ne leur suffit plus : il faut qu’ils aient l’air réels”.
Enfin, l’hymne à l’intellectualisme chanté aujourd’hui tombe à faux, note notre auteur, dans la mesure où le conformisme des consommations n’a jamais été aussi prégnant. Toute exploration faite, la leçon de John Saul est claire. Face au “totem de l’efficacité”, il faut retrouver nos racines humanistes, appliquer au fonctionnement de notre société “esprit, foi, émotion, intuition, volonté, expérience, c’est-à-dire changer notre civilisation (…) qui cherche automatiquement à diviser en recourant à des réponses toutes faites”.
La crise à multiples facettes que nous vivons aujourd’hui n’est pas le moment le plus inadapté pour se poser, en effet, les bonnes questions.
Si Voltaire devint champion des droits de l’homme à travers l’affaire Calas ou du chevalier de La Barre, c’est finalement parce que les rois n’ont pas voulu de lui comme courtisan : il maniait trop bien le langage, puissance énorme que le Prince veut annexer par-dessus tout. Lui et ses petits camarades de l’Encyclopédie préparèrent les temps modernes en les construisant sur la Raison. Ils n’ajoutèrent pas qu’elle devait être contrebalancée par l’humanisme : pour eux, cela allait de soi. Leurs idées furent portées par la Révolution, voguèrent en Amérique du Nord. Ils ne s’étaient même pas aperçus que leur pire ennemi était né deux siècles avant eux : un homme chafouin. Ignace de Loyola, l’inventeur des jésuites, “le premier technocrate rationnel”, écrit John Saul, qui sous-titre son essai : “La dictature de la raison en Occident” (traduction héroïque de Sabine Boulongne).
La raison ne veut bientôt plus servir qu’elle-même, et tout gouverner. Aux premières écoles de jésuites ont succédé la Harvard Business School et sa méthode des cas concrets, et l’ENA en France, destinée à mouler des élites qui ne savent plus que donner des réponses à des questions que personne ne leur pose. Inutiles, et nuisibles, poursuit férocement Saul : “Robert McNamara est un des fleurons de cette technocratie : il planifia la guerre du Vietnam tout en jouant un rôle central dans la course aux armements nucléaires et dans le commerce des armes.” Puis, mû par ses sentiments chrétiens, il fut modestement “à l’origine de l’endettement catastrophique du tiers-monde”. De Richelieu à McNamara, dit l’auteur, l’Age de la Raison est bouclé.
Les autres? Le plus cynique, Kissinger, aurait bien recruté Machiavel dans son équipe! L’énarque Chirac fut deux fois Premier ministre, alors qu’il ne le méritait pas. Et Giscard (que John Saul déteste avec gourmandise), “en se distinguant du lot par ses moindres capacités, Giscard vous en dit long sur les technocrates et sur le pouvoir. D’une intelligence limitée”, dit l’auteur, il n’a finalement qu’ “un talent de comptable”. Fermez le guichet!
Qu’ont-elles donné, ces élites, ces écoles, cette Raison? Beaucoup de bonnes choses au début de la démocratie. Mais, la Raison étant une structure qui fuit la morale, l’éthique, l’humanisme, elle a voulu être démocrate toute seule, avec ces élites et leur goût du secret, laissant au citoyen le choix de croire qu’il vit dans un monde libre, là où les hauts fonctionnaires et les industriels “sont responsables de plus de 90% des trafics d’armes”, écrit froidement Saul, dans son chapitre le plus éclairant sur l’illusion que nous avons de vivre sous un pouvoir civil. A part l’Occident, le reste du monde est en guerre : “Nous vivons dans une économie de guerre permanente. L’armement est aujourd’hui le premier secteur des biens d’équipement en Occident.” En 1914, les généraux demandaient toujours plus d’hommes : aujourd’hui, toujours plus d’équipements, bien qu’ils ne gagnent plus de guerres – sauf contre l’Irak – depuis 1945.
Mais nous n’en sommes qu’à la moitié de cet essai si riche (Saul a mis dix ans à l’écrire) où il traite aussi de la peinture, des nouvelles images, de la star, héros moderne en ces temps sans mythologie ni valeurs, du pouvoir des juges et des tribunaux, supérieur à celui des élus du peuple et, enfin et surtout, de la grande misère de la littérature en Occident. Ceux pour qui les mots étaient des balles contre l’injustice et la superstition, Rabelais, Cervantès, Swift, Voltaire, Goethe, Balzac, Zola et Flaubert, ces “romanciers étaient aussi pamphlétaires et polémistes, auteurs de tracts et de diatribes, satiristes politiques et moralistes” …Ils incarnaient “le témoin fidèle”.
Puis vinrent Proust et Joyce. De beaux feux, certes, mais à leur suite le langage se referma. Les énarques avaient déjà confisqué la langue en inventant leur propre sabir, incompréhensible au citoyen : voici que les romanciers se ferment à leur tour, n’écrivant plus que pour eux, les universitaires abscons et les critiques redondants. Leurs œuvres ne reflètent plus la réalité, celle qui éclaire le lecteur, l’incite à la réflexion, voire à la révolte…Pas étonnant que, dans ses “remerciements”, à propos de littérature, Saul cite Julien Gracq et René de Obaldia! Il pousse le même cri que D.A.F. de Sade : “Occidentaux, encore un effort, et vous (re)deviendrez républicains!”