On Contact: Covid-19 & critic of globalization John Ralston Saul
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to John Ralston Saul, author and president emeritus of Pen International, about how the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the weakness of American society, and accelerated the decline of the American Empire.
Among Saul's many books are: The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World, and Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.
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CH: Welcome to “On Contact.” Today, we discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weakness of American society and accelerated the decline of American empire with the author John Ralston Saul.
JS: By removing the control of regional and national and even multinational governments, 2 or 3 governments on things like, you know, work standards, employment standards, and so it was part of the move massively toward lower standards. And it was done by breaking the power of the national and regional governments. It was very conscious. It was very intentional. Break the tax system, break the protection of the citizens’ system. And it wasn’t just the working class. It was the lower middle class and a large part of the middle class.
CH: The United States, its infrastructure, economy, and political system degraded and deformed to serve the exclusive demands of corporate power and corporate profit, has been unable to cope with the stress caused by the current pandemic. The U.S. Government has proven incapable of protecting its citizens from the ravages of COVID-19, while providing leadership to the global community. The disastrous handling of the outbreak of COVID-19, which has included an absence of federal planning, severe shortages of basic medical items such as test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators, and a White House that peddles quack remedies and patent falsehoods has exposed the deep rot within American society. The United States now has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world—15 times the number of cases reported in China. The two ruling parties rushed to pass 3 relief bills, but some 85% of the financial relief is for corporations--this while some 40 million Americans have lost their jobs, bringing the unemployment rate to about 20% of the workforce; this while health care is inadequate and states face bread lines of up to 10,000 people. “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger,” the columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in the “Irish Times.” “But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity.” Joining me from Toronto is John Ralston Saul, the President Emeritus of Penn International and the author of several books that have profoundly shaped my own thinking, including “Voltaire’s Bastards” and “The Collapse of Globalism.” John, let’s begin by discussing a term you use in your books to describe the technocratic elite. You call them “systems managers,” and I’ve been struck as the pandemic has unfolded in the United States how these system managers do just what you have predicted they do, which is serve the system even when that’s counterproductive not only to the common good, even when it’s not of course rational but even when it’s self-destructive.
JS: Well, you know, the interesting thing is that if you’re talking about government and the essence of civil service is on the one hand they’re professionals and on the other hand they have to serve whoever the President is. But that has to be limited by their independence from politics and their own ethical standards. So that if you actually look at the history of civil services, they’re all about this balance between professionalism, service, and ethics. And what we’ve really seen—and that’s what I was writing about in a way in “Voltaire’s Bastards” and books since then is the gradual squeezing out of the ethical element, the turn towards the idea that there’s amorality. You just do what you’re told, you know, which is completely different. Amorality is not independence. It is not loyalty. It is not service. Amorality is evil. So that you can make comparisons with civil services that were very clear in their own minds. You know, in the 19th—second half of the 19th century, first half of the 20th century, middle of the 20th century, when they basically said “No” or they resigned en masse or they were very clear they could speak up. It was quite interesting. It wasn’t that they were sort of a secretive force behind the scenes. You could actually know what the scientists very clearly were thinking and the engineers were thinking. And you can see this with things like the installation of clean water throughout the western democracies. I can tell you that large—the entire business class was against it and large parts of the political class were against it because it was gonna cost them money. They wanted--you know, they thought things worked just fine with the dirty water, even though it produced massive diseases and so on. But the civil services stood for those principles and spoke up very—all the time. So I mean, I’m judging countries in the middle of this crisis largely on the basis of not just your politicians but the extent to which the civil services are willing to speak up as ethical.
CH: And, well, and our civil service and technocratic class—and we’ve seen this with the pandemic—has served the interests of this cabal, this corporate global cabal at the expense of the citizenry. And as you point out in several of your books, we have trained this technocratic class so that that’s all they know how to do. They only know how to reinflate the system of corporate capitalism even in the moment of, you know, severe social stress exacerbating the problems that that stress, in this case the pandemic, has caused.
JS: Well, I mean, what’s fascinating is, of course, you’ve got this gigantic civil service, right. You don’t have the biggest population in the world, but you’ve got a very big population, a very big civil service and of course, like Canada and Germany, federal and state or provincial. You know, so there are whole thousands of pieces to it. The tragedy is that certainly in the last half-century after, say, 50 years of progress, the last half-century has seen the penetration, I think, of pretty well all civil services in the world. But in terms of the developed economies, the Americans leading the way, unfortunately, the penetration of the civil—large sections of the civil service by the lobbyists and the large corporations. And so once they get control of tax policy and then of standards, you know, environmental standards and so on, you just go through all those areas. Then what remains of the civil services, which one to stand up to that is in a minority position. So you can see there’s a tug-of-war going on in the U.S. civil service, a real tug-of-war. But the power—there’s no question. The power lies in the areas where the lobbyists and the corruption has had its biggest effect, and that’s what makes it so tragic because there are a lot of good people in there who would act differently if they had the power. And there’s no question that really, up until Ronald Reagan, things don’t just cut off and start differently. They go in slopes, right? But up until Ronald Reagan, you could see a really interesting American civil service, and then it goes into this slow decline. So that even under Republican presidents like Eisenhower, you can criticize him, but the fact is, you know, he basically went along with what I would call the ethical aspect of the civil service. Whereas Ronald Reagan began the move towards not giving a damn about their ethics and what was a political side which would dominate everything. And that is not how democracy works. It is not. Democracy is always a balance between these different forces, and one of them is ethical professionalism.
CH: You write “A civilization unable to differentiate between illusion and reality is usually believed to be at the tail end of its existence.” Sitting in Toronto watching the follies in the White House, that line particularly resonated with me.
JS: You know, there are two possibilities, probably there’s some stuff in-between. It’s entirely possible that this is a clear sign of decline from which there’s no return. I mean, I can only look at this as an historian and look at what happened in various other empires, right, which would be the British, the Roman, the French, and so on. So unless something radical happened to change direction, it would have to be pretty strong. For example, if Mr. Trump is reelected in whatever conditions, that’s 8 years. The damage will be enormous, enormous, and the comeback would be very, very difficult to do. And if I look at it from the outside, what is, you know, the power of the UN at a national level. It’s lost its leadership role. You talked about pity, embarrassment, confusion. People just don’t know what to do. Some people haven’t given up on the U.S. yet, but it’s lost its leadership position. It’s no longer really an economic leader. I mean, let’s--it isn’t. I mean, it doesn’t matter how much bluffing there is. It’s not. So what you really have is a…the high-tech companies, which is why Washington, whatever the government, is so eager to sign deals in which they are—their power is protected, because for the moment, they have a kind of enormous power in large parts of the world. And that communications is very important for…
CH: Let me try—they’re also fused. They’re also fused with security and surveillance apparatus as well.
JS: Totally! They’re fused with that, and so you have this kind of security structure, communications structure, and military structure. United States is—whatever it is—58% approximately of international military finance activity. So that’s a—those are mechanisms to hold an empire together, but they’re not anything at all to do with what people dreamt the American leadership would be, and I don’t think they’re anything to do with what most Americans think American leadership should be. You know, the kind of very, very uninteresting end of negative nationalism. And I don’t—
CH: Well, you can go back to the—in “Voltaire’s Bastards,” you write about, you know, both Louis XVI in Versailles and the inability to differentiate between what you call appearance and reality, but also you write about the Roman empire, where they no longer grow their own grain, in the same way that we kind of outsource. Public office is infused with the ability to accrue power and wealth in the same way that we see within the United States that these are—that even if there is a kind of brief resurrection under a figure like Hadrian, these are kind of fatal structural flaws, which I think we see in the United States.
JS: Well, you know, you’re absolutely right that, you know, when people like me spoke up against globalization, we weren’t speaking up against trade. We weren’t making a call for narrow, negative, nationalism and for borders being closed. We want borders to be open for the public good and trade to take place. What I and others are speaking up against was that this was not about trade. This was about the removal of the idea that place mattered, that it mattered that you lived in some place in the United States, whether you lived in some place in France or Germany or Canada. And then instead, the power would lie in a kind of middleman port, which was the large corporations and the trading groups. And what you’re seeing with the COVID-19 is the outcome, a very narrow part of the outcome of that, which is you don’t even control the making of masks and the making of medical supplies, in spite of putting trillions of dollars into medical research—the government of the United States, not the private corporations. And so people are suddenly waking up to this, but the problem is this—that a guy like Trump, just like his equivalent in England and a few other places—came to power because the Liberal class was so addicted to the idea that place didn’t matter, that ownership didn’t matter, that citizenship didn’t really matter. And we didn’t—
CH: And we’re gonna come back to that, but also the rights of workers because, of course, workers were disenfranchised, but we’ll come back to that. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with author and philosopher John Ralston Saul.
Welcome back to “On Contact.” We continue our conversation with author and intellectual John Ralston Saul. So we were talking about the betrayal of the ruling elites before the break, and there’s a passage I just wanted to read. You write, “Elected officials and private sector leaders seem to have been tied together by the politicians’ acceptance of the ideology that the world must be dealt with through the prism of the market. The politicians and their willingness to accept the ideology of the inevitable forgot the perpetual warning tied to the public good succinctly put by Aristotle ‘wealth is desirable but not at the price of treason.’” Is that what we’ve seen, in essence, a kind of—a treason by the ruling elites towards their own societies?
JS: It—well, yes, it’s treason. Yes, it’s a refusal of the idea of citizenship and their citizens. I do think at the heart of it lies a bigger problem than the problem of the 1% that has been presented. I do think a lot of it has to do with this enormous desire of the elite to reestablish a traditional class system--the kind of class system that existed until, let’s say, 1929, just to pick a date—and there are various parts to class systems which they wanted to put back into place. So that it’s worse than treason. It’s a refusal of the idea of their role as citizens in nation states or civilizations. And you know, it’s hidden by kind of the prettiness of giving money away and things like that, which is-- [audio distorts]
CH: I just want to—because you make this point. You make this point in your book repeatedly, John, that neoliberalism never made any economic sense, that it was an ideology that justified, essentially, the consolidation of wealth and power by the ruling oligarchy, but was, in terms of economic theory, was perpetuated by complete outliers—you know, Ayn Rand and Hayak—but it wasn’t—
JS: Well, I don’t think I’d use the word “rational,” but it wasn’t economics. It just wasn’t economics. It was very, very—you know, I mean, Hayak and Ayn Rand are second—marginal, almost third-rate, second-rate people. They’re not very intelligent. They’re not saying anything very interesting, and it’s filled with contradictions. It’s not sound economics in any way, shape, or form. And it was really about a shifting of power, and it was shifting of power towards a class system and away from the idea of citizenship and inclusion. And I actually would say that I never use the terms “neoliberalism” and “neoconservatism,” because those are classic high-theft. These movements have nothing to do with liberalism and nothing to do with conservatism. This isn’t what conservatism stood for. These are not Whigs. You know, these are not Whigs. They don’t stand for what Whigs stood for, and they certainly don’t stand for what Liberals stood for. This is self-interested, narrow ideology, which has nothing to do with sensible economics. And you’ll note that the people who were the absolute lovers of this whole ideology which they call “neoliberalism” or “neoconservatism” haven’t said a word through this crisis because they wanted governmental money to be spent to save their bacon. So we’ve been through half a century of “Oh, no! Don’t spend money,” and then suddenly “Spend money.” And I do want to—so there’s two things: one was the thing about working class, lower middle class, but the other thing which we should talk about is his attitudes towards death, which is what we’re heading into right now. So I mean, if I can just say, yes, the system that was set up at the international level was to break the backs of what you might call respectable life for individual citizens by removing the control of regional and national and even multinational governments, 2 or 3 governments, on things like work standards, employment standards, and so on. It was part of the move massively toward lower standards. And it was done by breaking the power of the national and regional governments. It was very conscious. It was very intentional. Break the tax system, break the protection of the citizens’ system. And it wasn’t just the working class. It was the lower middle class and a large part of the middle class. But I think that—and you haven’t asked about it, but I mean, I do think we’re now at this stage in this crisis where so many people said, “Well, we have to do it differently when we come out of this.” And what you’re seeing in the rush to open up again, part of that rush is to make sure that we go back to the way it was done before. If you can do it, if you can open it up fast enough, there’s no time for change. There’s no time for consideration of how we would do things differently. And it is this---what we failed miserably in 2008-9 to get the changes which were required considering the failure of the ideology in place, and the question is “Are we going to fail a second time?” For me, 2008 and COVID are one and the same battle. They just happen to come from different sources.
CH: You, in your book, quote Gramsci, the interregnum. And at one point, you write how in essence the credibility of the ruling ideology is collapsed. “Each of globalizations strengths has somehow turned out to have an opposing meaning. The lowering of national residency requirements for corporations has morphed into a tool for massive tax evasion. The idea of a global economic system mysteriously made local poverty seem unreal, even normal. The decline of the middle class, the very basis of democracy, seemed to be just one of those things that happened, unfortunate but inevitable. That the working class and lower middle class, and even parts of the middle class, could only survive with more than one job per person seemed to be the expected punishment for not keeping up. The contrast between unprecedented bonuses for mere managers at the top, and the poor job families below that seemed inevitable in a globalized world. For two decades, an elite consensus insisted that unsustainable Third World Debts could not be put aside in a sort of bad debt reserve without betraying globalism’s essential principles and moral obligation which included unwavering respect for the sanctity of international contracts. It took the same people about two weeks to abandon sanctity, and propose bad debt banks for their own far larger debts in 2009.” Are we seeing, and I think we are, on both ends of the political spectrum this loss of credibility in terms of the ideology that’s been shoved down our throats in economic departments and by pundits on television, and what will that mean? What are the consequences of that?
JS: Well, I mean, the very practical consequence is that if they’re allowed to do what they want and they can governments—if they can get 10, 15 governments to go along with them, particularly in the west—I’m including Japan and Australia and such—and that would be to convert the money printed over the last couple of months into the weight of debt, then they will have succeeded in a massive in holding onto power, even though it will be catastrophic for them and everyone else. And this is one of those very, very important moments in history. We’ve been so long on moments. This is literally the fourth moments when you actually have to say, “This is not real debt.” I mean, first of all, this is not an economic crisis. This is a health crisis, right? There were enormous problems with the economy, but that’s not what caused the printing of the money. We are not in an inflationary period. There is no excuse for austerity. There’s only one excuse for austerity, and that is runaway inflation 1920s style in Germany. That’s the only excuse there is for austerity. There is no other. When all the horses are out of the barn, and you just have to do something radical, we’re not in that situation at all. We’re in a deflationary period. And so the most important thing that can be done now—I can only say this and what will sound really irresponsible, but it isn’t. It’s deeply responsible, which is I would call for a meeting of—probably not invite the government of the United States—of as many developed economy countries as possible. Hold it at Versailles or someplace. You know, and they would agree that the money they have printed is extremely serious and will be paid back in about 200 years. And everybody will write on beautiful pieces of paper, and they’ll get lovely people with wonderful handwriting to write out their moral and ethical obligations to pay back this money on these beautiful pieces of paper, and it’ll be signed by the right authorities. And they’ll all be put together, and they’ll be put in the most beautiful Louis XIV desk in a drawer, and it will be locked, and the key will be thrown away. I mean, I’m joking, but I’m not joking. This is what needs to happen. They just need to find a way to say, “This is not debt.” The worst thing you could do is to allow governments and state banks to convert that debt into the formality of public bonds that start being traded in the marketplace and create a complex mess. The sooner we actually say, “We don’t owe this. This is not something owed by our children and grandchildren,” all that nonsense. We have to walk away from all of that. And if we walk away from all of that, I think you’ll find it will be extremely easy to relaunch an economy, but what will be important is not something to relaunch the economy but to rethink some basics about how we relaunch them. I mean, if you want, we can talk a bit about that, but—
CH: We have to end there, but I think the consequences of not doing that, and we’re already seeing it, are social unrest. In the United States, we have rent strikes, people are not paying their mortgages. This is just going to cascade. They can’t pay their car loans, student debt, household debt and with all of the economic catastrophes that that will engender, and this is once again because of service towards—
JS: If this is converted into expanding, inflating the role of the speculative group in society, then we are in, and the United States in particular, are in a decline from which I think it will be very hard to recover.
CH: Great. Thank you. That was author and intellectual John Ralston Saul speaking to us from his home in Toronto.
JS: Thank you.
CH: Thanks, John.