Book Review

Why leftists should read John Ralston Saul — critically

It’s time for the left to join the debates instigated by a rare and influential public intellectual in Canada
Photo: johnralstonsaul.com

John Ralston Saul — author, president of the writers’ organization PEN International, and former vice-regal consort to former governor general Adrienne Clarkson — has had considerable influence in Canada and elsewhere. His unique style of writing can be recognized after just a few lines. He is hyper-educated, filling his work with references from the West in the 1600s to the present day, with the occasional leap back to the ancient Greeks or Romans. He takes a much broader historical sweep than almost any other writer who touches contemporary topics. [1]

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Read any of his books, and you will come away with new stories: about a French resistance fighter during WWII named Jean Moulin, about a female contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi named Elizabeth of Hungary, about the 18th-century Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli. You can read about how ancient Greece’s civilization began to flower because of the cancellation of debts by Athenian statesman Solon, or how the current period of globalization looks from New Zealand and Malaysia.

In a series of books about Canada, he has resurrected the history of responsible government and the political leaders Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, arguing they showed the world that you could “talk your way out of the Empire,” a method that was adopted by dozens of other countries after Canada showed the way.

Couldn’t we expect more respect for an uprising that was all about the power of words and the dignity of Indigenous people?

JRS brings fascinating characters to life, as well as tragic statistics. From one of his books I found out that in some years Alberta brought in more money from gambling revenues than from tar sands royalties, so low were the royalty rates and so high was the stealth tax set up through promotion of gambling among society’s elderly and vulnerable. Elsewhere he describes how Canada entered a health care crisis not because single-tier public health care is unaffordable but because of a decision in the 1990s to lower the number of doctors available to the population.

A central point he returns to in all his work about Canada is the need for Canadians, especially elites, to shed their inferiority complex relative to the United States, United Kingdom, and France. Canada is an interesting place, with a basis to build a better relationship between Indigenous people and those who have immigrated here than exists in most other places. The betrayal of that relationship, and the possibilities for repairing it, the responsibility for which lies on the non-Indigenous population, is the theme of his latest book, The Comeback.

In two major critical tomes, Voltaire's Bastards and The Collapse of Globalism, JRS criticizes Western society for being out of equilibrium. Balanced humanism, he argues, requires the exercise of six human qualities: common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory, and reason. Our society has held reason above all else, leading to pathologies in every part of life, from politics to economics, from war to the arms trade, from NGO activism to academia.

Part of why it’s so valuable for leftists to read JRS is that he starts from a different place and uses different referents, yet comes to many of the same conclusions. He advocates democracy, inclusion, the public good, and egalitarianism, but eschews what he calls ideology with a phrase he constantly invokes: “whether of the left or the right.” Thinking about these values and ideas and how they relate to leftist values of equality and solidarity, about how his stories relate to the ones we constantly return to, is a valuable part of the kind of dialogue and debate that JRS advocates.

Stories untold

While the absence of almost anything leftist means there is usually a lot in JRS’s work that leftists don’t know about, it also means that he paints an incomplete picture.

The remarkable story of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez includes the exercise of many of JRS’s six human qualities. Chavez worked as an instructor in a military school, attempted a coup against a corrupt neoliberal regime, took personal and public responsibility for it and went to jail, came out and explicitly rejected the armed path to power, and helped lead a movement that has, by any definition, advanced the public good in Venezuela and in Latin America. But JRS dismisses Chavez as a “nationalist populist.”

Cuba, with its extraordinary health care system and genuine south-south solidarity in countries such as Haiti, a place where thousands and thousands of Canadians travel to as tourists every year in defiance of the U.S. blockade, is never mentioned.

Haiti, whose elected government was overthrown in 2004 in one of the most disgraceful operations Canada (and the United States and France) has been involved in recently, is also never mentioned. Nowhere in JRS’s remarkable array of stories appears the astounding history of the indemnity extracted by France from Haiti for the crime of leading the first successful slave revolt and liberating itself. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led Haiti’s fight for freedom, does not get to be one of the characters JRS brings to light. Neither does Charlemagne Peralte or Bolivar. Too bad for us, because I bet JRS could have made connections that the rest of us missed.

The Zapatistas explicitly used “their word as their weapon,” and their uprising was one of the first and most original and powerful indigenous uprisings to repudiate globalization. The solidarity movement included thousands of Canadians, including many Indigenous people. Yet in his book The Collapse of Globalism, JRS dismisses the Zapatistas as having launched “an old fashioned bloody uprising in Chiapas.” Couldn’t we expect more respect for an uprising that was all about the power of words and the dignity of Indigenous people from the president of PEN, someone who is trying to argue to Canadians that Canada needs to change its relationship with First Nations?

Can a discussion of the collapse of globalism proceed in an informed way without any of these reference points? It evidently does. But there is a great deal lost in the process, and the result, one might say, is unbalanced.

A calculated monstrosity

The ethical imbalance shows up in JRS’s discussion of military issues, which runs through several of his books and was put together in his famous 2004 lecture at Canada’s military college, “A new era of irregular warfare?” Insurgency and counterinsurgency are the mainstream form of conflict in today’s world, he argues, because of the vast superiority of Western armies and the consequent inability of those who face Western armies to meet them head-on. Western armies continue to ignore this and prepare for WWIII, not thinking about how to deal with insurgencies, including addressing root causes and looking at political solutions. (These latter points are more implied than directly made by JRS).

And sure, it is certainly possible that the West’s bloody campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel’s wars against the Palestinians and Lebanese, proceeded without careful thought about insurgencies, without much thought at all about the political and human costs of Western actions in those countries.

South Africa has exited the club, but it didn’t disband it — and Israel and Canada are closer today than they ever were.

But it might also be possible that Western counterinsurgents have thought about this a lot and act with indifference to civilian lives, in order to secure their interests in those parts of the world. Reading Eyal Weizman's Hollow Land, or Breaking the Silence’s recent report about how the Israeli army fought in Gaza in August 2014, you don’t get a sense of people who haven’t thought about counterinsurgency.

You get the sense of people who have thought a lot about how to be aggressive against defenceless populations. You get a sense of people who have applied their minds and their vast resources to precisely that problem, with precisely the monstrous results that we see.

Of course, JRS barely ever touches Israel or Palestine, as to do so would be to drive himself straight out of the mainstream. (He did, in 2013, add his name to an open letter signed by Canadian writers opposed to Israeli evictions of South Hebron Palestinians and Negev Bedouin.) It’s too bad, because his writing on the subject would be interesting.

Palestine
Rusty Stewart

Applying his values and arguments to the Israel-Palestine conflict might have him arguing for a bi-national state, or an inclusive solution that treats everyone like human beings. He might find obscure stories in Jewish or Arab histories of hope, or examples from other parts of the world of a “positive nationalism” that could override the “negative nationalism” currently deployed to devastating effect against Palestinians.

None of this would help him against the organized pro-Israel forces that would go after him, forces that include most of the Canadian political class including its prime minister and challengers. But as the president of PEN, which advocates for freedom of expression, and as an author who has repeatedly talked about the importance of courage for writers, he could be expected to take a stand, at the very least, against Israel’s very detailed and constant war against Palestinian writers and culture.

JRS, or at least readers who rely on him, ignore Israel and Palestine at their peril. In The Comeback, JRS argues that the inevitability of history is on the side of Canada’s Indigenous people. They are making a demographic, civilizational, and political comeback, and non-Indigenous people can accept it gracefully or disgracefully, but they are going to have to accept it. (This position on the inevitability of history is one JRS made fun of in The Doubter's Companion, specifically making fun of Marxists, lumping them in with neoconservatives).

But that isn’t true. Canada could treat Indigenous people as a military threat (read Douglas Bland’s novel Uprising for a fictionalized scenario along these lines) and try to contain them, denying their rights while stealing ever more of their land and resources. There was a time when Canada, Israel, and South Africa shared information and ideas of how to suppress indigenous populations. South Africa has exited the club, but it didn’t disband it — and Israel and Canada are closer today than they ever were.

Even if Canada’s approach to Indigenous people does not worsen, JRS’s ideas may be insufficient to make it better. Radical critics of The Comeback, Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak argued in the Literary Review of Canada that while “to a large extent” JRS “gets it,” his proposed remedies at the ballot box and in the courts have so far led mostly nowhere and will continue to lead nowhere for Indigenous peoples unless there is a “Canadian comeback” that allows society to move away from “the mythologies of liberal capitalism.” They contrasted JRS’s ideas with those of Indigenous scholars Glen Coulthard, Audra Simpson, and Leanne Simpson, whose recent books offer a deeper re-envisioning of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in this country. [2]

When JRS discusses the Rwandan genocide and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he does so in a fairly schematic way, taking the perspective of Canadian general Romeo Dallaire. He concludes that the West’s slowness to act was the problem. But Alan Kuperman, in his book The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention, argued that a small intervention could have saved lives, but not prevented the genocide. Meanwhile the West’s unconditional support for Rwanda’s ruler, Paul Kagame, since before the genocide was a contributing factor in what happened and the decisive factor in the mass deaths in the DR Congo from 1996 on.

Adding Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Rene Lemarchand, Mahmood Mamdani, and Fillip Reyntjens to his reading list would round it out enough for JRS to see that the problem was not speed, but an intervention into Rwanda’s civil war and then Rwanda’s proxy wars that was guaranteed to produce mass deaths but which, because it did no harm to Western interests, was, for the West, free of consequence.

JRS’s military analyses have two problems. First, as discussions of whether the counterinsurgency strategies and interventions work or don’t work, they ignore the illegitimacy, the criminal nature, of these interventions and their unavoidable devastation of civilian populations. Second, they lead to some pretty weird political places. Instead of a straightforward anti-war or anti-imperialist view, JRS’s readers might end up demanding of their elected officials improved counterinsurgency doctrine and practice.

Such demands would be to the benefit of no one, the public good least of all.

A fictional view of capitalism

Another imbalance in JRS’s writing is in his discussion of economic matters. Unlike most writers, he is able to discuss taxes with minimal rationality, without the kinds of crazy taboos that surround most discussion of taxes. I think that his persistence in discussing taxes this way over the decades (along with others such as Linda McQuaig) has played a role in the fact that politicians can finally start to make arguments about taxes in public.

JRS criticizes the West for letting the Third World debt continue, despite how simple it would be to write off. He criticizes the West for creating an arms industry for export, creating an economic incentive to feed violence all over the world. He criticizes narrow views of society, what he calls the “economic prism” approach, which see people as essentially self-interested.

In Canada, he criticizes the elite for stealing the wealth of indigenous lands and denying Indigenous people the benefits of that wealth. These failings he attributes mainly to a narrow form of reason and to what he calls managerialism. The economy is run by managers, he says, not by real owners or capitalists.

Capitalists, as opposed to managers, take risks, and with their own money. They expose themselves to the market and to competition. Managerialism has marginalized these real capitalists, JRS argues. But this view of capitalists is fictional, perhaps one of JRS’s “positive myths.”

What are the limits of staying outside? What happens when you try to get inside? What is the price of one or the other?

When JRS quotes such “real owners,” he quotes people like Peter Munk, whose Barrick Gold is currently making fortunes despoiling indigenous territories in various parts of the world, and whose board has a revolving door for Canadian politicians. At one point JRS quotes Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, who analyze the behaviour and strategies of real capitalists, who are, as theories from two centuries ago predicted, primarily interested in accumulating fortunes at society’s expense, not making useful products, creating wealth, or exposing themselves to competition.

Nitzan and Bichler also analyze what they call the weapondollar-petrodollar coalition, an economic bloc involving flows of weapons from the West, oil from the Persian Gulf, and dollars back and forth, which JRS also has written about in different ways since the 1990s. His criticism of countries including Burma has been stronger and more direct than anything directed at Saudi Arabia. A friend recently pointed out that JRS seems to avoid criticism of Saudi Arabia despite its competitiveness with ISIS for beheadings, its misogyny, its suppression of free expression, and its recent bombing of civilians in Yemen. [3]

This leads to one of JRS’s fundamental points about elites. They can be responsible or not, but in his view, they are always present. But this, too, puts apples in with oranges for comparison.

Leftists, especially anarchists, and indeed any real democrats, seek a society where the only elite is one of esteem, people who might be admired for the exercise of their talents for, well, the public good. Such an elite would be completely different from today’s 1%, with their net worths equal to small countries, pay scales hundreds of times those of the average worker, elaborate webs of deceit to avoid taxes, backhanded benevolence through charity (which JRS rightly criticizes), and ability to influence politics through corruption and patronage.

Calling both of these groups “elites” is confusing and narrows what we might imagine to be possible. JRS would surely not want to limit our ability to use our imagination, to imagine a better, more equal world?

In search of a meeting place

JRS makes several rebukes against leftists, some of which are well taken. In his discussion of NGOs, he argues that by remaining outside of electoral and democratic contests, NGOs are implicitly arguing that they don’t believe in democratic legitimacy and don’t seek it. He makes an interesting comparison with pre-WWI union-based reformers, who had incredible influence but did not translate it into institutionalized power.

Chavistas in Venezuela, Lavalas in Haiti, Palestinians running for national elections and inside the Israeli Knesset, and the Zapatistas in Mexico have all struggled with this issue intellectually in life-or-death situations. What are the limits of staying outside? What happens when you try to get inside? What is the price of one or the other? Can you keep your integrity?

Another rebuke to the Canadian left and the activist community is the failure to realize the significance of decades of recent Supreme Court decisions that have the potential to change the relationship between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. If JRS is right, more of us should be thinking about how to use these judicial decisions as tools to expand indigenous sovereignty. His historical criticisms of 19th-century Canadian leftists Papineau and Mackenzie and their errors are also well worth considering.

An implicit critique comes from JRS’s basic philosophy. Because society is imbalanced, he argues, we have become obsessed with structure instead of content. By content, he means ideas. Most leftists, whether consciously or not, believe in some variation of Marx’s idea that ideas flow from one’s material situation and material interests, and they consequently look for structural problems and solutions.

JRS rejects this view. His books are full of structural critique and, in later books, policy suggestions. But he views bad structures as flowing from bad ideas, while most of us believe the reverse. The difference may not matter very much, since we have to battle with both ideas and structures all the time, but it is there.

JRS has much to offer leftists. The ability to see historical examples in today’s events, to revisit history for both inspirational and cautionary tales, and to weave them into “positive myths” could enrich our thinking. The idea of a balance of human qualities, of egalitarian societies that can bring out the best in all of their citizens — these are as much leftist ideals as anyone’s.

To the extent that his readers can find historical context, or common sense, or surprising facts or stories that help them to resist the mind-numbing propaganda we are all subjected to daily — whether about the latest terror threat or the need for poor people to suffer more to enrich those already wealthy — there is an opening for left values of equality and solidarity to take hold.

So, yes, leftists can learn a lot from JRS. But one of the effects of people like him is to make us look crazier than we already do. If someone who is willing to criticize everything from the arms trade to Third World debt to managerialism to our society's irrational views on taxes, who criticizes the West for its failures in the former Yugoslavia and Burma and Nigeria, who argues for a transformation of Canada into a reciprocal relationship between Indigenous and immigrants (and implicitly for an abolition of the settler category), if such a person still won’t criticize Israel, capitalism, Canada’s role in Haiti, or Rwanda’s role in the DR Congo, if such a person can’t see anything interesting in Venezuela, Chiapas, or Cuba, then those of us who do must really be crazy.

Too bad for us? Maybe. But maybe too bad for the elusive public good, too, if leftists and genuine public intellectuals like JRS can’t find a way to meet somewhere.

Squamish Nation canoe
United Nations

Notes

[1] Noam Chomsky is an exception. So was Eqbal Ahmad.

[2] King and Pasternak titled their article "Don't Call It a Comeback," and in his response JRS didn't seem to catch the LL Cool J reference. It seems that his encyclopedic knowledge did not encompass Mama Said Knock You Out, an album that came out two years before Voltaire's Bastards.

[3] There is some indirect criticism though. In a discussion about Ottawa on page 248 of A Fair Country, JRS points out that "two ugly embassies of dictatorships and one ugly condo... now stand side by side on Sussex Drive with Rideau Hall, 24 Sussex, the National Gallery, Foreign Affairs and the embassies of our closest democratic allies.... One of the dictatorships is a particularly fine model of repression when it comes to free speech and women's rights." The Ottawa Citizen, in reviewing the book, listed the Sussex Drive embassies as those of France, South Africa, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The dictatorships on that list are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and the "fine model of repression" is almost certainly, by process of elimination, the Saudi kingdom.

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