The Doubter’s Companion (1994, ISBN 0-670-85536-7) followed Voltaire’s Bastards in Canadian writer John Ralston Saul‘s books on modern economics, politics and culture. His Wikipedia entry identifies him as a philosopher. I see him as a public intellectual and a social critic. His academic background appears to have been in economics. His arguments blend careful analysis with colourful and forceful presentation.
This book is subtitled “a dictionary of aggressive common sense”, which plays out as an alphabetically organized collection of essays running from a few lines to a few pages. His essays explore concerns that are discussed in more detail in several of his other books.
One concern is the role of business corporations in dominating public policy and discourse about justice in America and Western Europe. He sees large corporations as having gained since the 1970’s, to the point that our political structures are more corporatist than democratic. Public discourse by politicians and the media has become heavily ideological, with a set or subset of capitalist ideologies being accepted as if they were unchallengable truths about society and human nature, when they are simply self-serving arguments about property and justice. Capitalism is a complex theory of social organization and the importance of private property and profit as factors driving creativity and change to produce better living conditions for human beings.
Another concern is challenging the business class’s assertion that globalism is inevitable. He views this as propaganda. He attacks this ideology in his latest book, The Collapse of Globalism (2005). A short version of his central argument appears in an article called “The End of Globalism” first published in Harper’s Magazine in March 2004.
Several of his essays are case studies in propadanda or arguments about economics. He places himself among the critics of globalism. His economic and policy arguments are far more complex than those of other Canadian writers against globalism, like Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians or Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo. His discussions of propaganda align him with Noam Chomsky, but he is far more accessible, and less burdened with his own radical ideology.
Another concern, explored in more detail in his Voltaire’s Bastards, is technocracy, the domination of corporate and public policy by intellectual elites who try to control matters on the basis of expertise which is usually inadequate to the task and exercised on a self-serving basis or in the service of corporate interests. I have Voltaire’s Bastards on my bookshelf and I will probably come back to it after I have read a few other things on my list.
Saul identifies himself as a humanist, and emphasizes balance or equilibrium between various human needs and qualities as the guiding principle for social justice. He suggests that modern political discourse emphasizes technocratic reason over the other relevant qualities. Again, this part of his thinking has been emphasized in Voltaire’s Bastards and another separate book, On Equilibrium. I think he manages to avoid the more emotional, Romantic aspects of humanism.
He seems to write within the tradition of common sense, skepticism, and liberal values. His attacks on corporatism and globalism leave him vulnerable to right-wing propaganda labelling him as an anti-American, a leftist, an elitist. He is a good writer with a number of good arguments about culture, communications, economics and justice.