I am currently reading John Ralston Saul’s book, “Voltaire’s Bastards” (buy it at Amazon.com or Kalahari.net). He is a Canadian philosopher with an impressive reputation.
I have only just started his book, but it seems his intent is to show that reliance on amoral, “pure” reasoning, logic and systems is destroying the world. Specifically it is destroying our humanity. In the opening chapters as he sets up his case, he has taken some potshots at business and business education. I like where he is going with this. Here is an extended extract that may be a bit “heavy”, and I hope makes sense out of context. But it got me thinking…

Pages 21-23, “Argument
Our society contains no method of serious self-criticism for the simple reason that it is now a self-justifying system which generates its own logic.
It is hardly surprising that there has never been such confidence as there is today within our leadership about the unity of outlook. No matter which way they turn, they find other elites to confirm the reflection of themselves and of one another. Virtually identical programmes in business schools and schools of public affairs are turning out people trained in the science of systems management. The Harvard Business School case method is the most famous example of this general obsession with management by solutions, a system in which the logic will always provide support for the conclusions…. In a sense the training in all these schools is designed to develop not a talent for solving problems but the method for recognising the solutions which will satisfy the system. After that the established internal logic will provide all the necessary justifications…
In reality we are today in the midst of the theology of pure power – power born of structure, not of dynasty or arms. The new holy Trinity is organisation, technology and information. The new priest is the technocrat – the man who understands the organisation, makes use of the technology and controls access to the information, which is a compendium of “facts.”
He has become the essential middlemen between the people and the divinity. Like the old Christian priest, he holds the key to the tabernacle out of which, from time to time, he produces and distributes the way for – those minimal nibbles at the divinity which leave the supplicant hungry for more. The wafer is knowledge, understanding, access, the hint of power. And the tabernacle is what it always was: the hiding place of this knowledge, the place which makes secrecy one of the keys to modern power. Finally there is a matter of absolution from personal responsibility. All religions seem to need special-case facilities to deal with the uncontrollable realities of a world which refuses to respond to the official ideology….
No member of this priesthood would call himself a technocrat, although that is what he is. Whether graduates of Harvard, ENA, the London Business School or any of the hundreds of similar places, they are committeemen, sometimes called number crunchers, always detached from the practical context, inevitably assertive, manipulative; in fact, they are highly sophisticated grease jockeys, trained to make the engine of government and business run but unsuited by training or temperament to drive the car or to have any idea of where it could be steered if events were somehow to put them behind the wheel. They are addicts of pure power, quite simply divorced from the questions of morality which were the original justification for reason’s strength.
They may or may not be decent people. This amoral quality of our leadership is essential to understanding the nature of our times…. [The technocrat] understands events within the logic of the system. The greatest good is the greatest logic or the greatest appearance of efficiency or responsibility for the greatest possible part of the structure. He is therefore unpremeditated when he does good or evil. On a bad day he is the perfect manslaughterer, on a good day the perfect unintentional saint. What’s more, the people who succeeded this kind of training are those whom it suits best. They therefore reinforce this amoral quality….
This form of education is not only applied to the training of business and government leaders. In fact, it is now central to almost every profession. If you examine the creation of an architect, for example, or an art historian or a professor of literature or a military officer, you will find the same obsession with details, with the accumulation of facts, with internal logic. The “social scientists” – the economists and political scientists in particular – consist of little more than these elements, because they do not have even the touchstones of real action to restrain them. The overall picture of the role of the architect or the officer is lost in the background, but the technocrat who set out to build or to fight is convinced that he is equipped with the greatest good of all time: the understanding of the system for reasoning and the position of the equipment which fulfils that system, thus providing the concrete manifestations of its logic.
Robert McNamara was one of the great figures of this technocracy. While Secretary of Defence under Kennedy and Johnson, then as president of the World Bank, he shaped the Vietnam War, was central to launching both the nuclear arms race and the commercialisation of the arms business and was again central to creating the financial structure which led to the current Third World debt crisis.
No doubt he is also a decent man, but that personal detail is irrelevant; or rather, what is astonishing about our systems is that of the personal decency, or lack of it, of our leaders should have so little effect upon the impact of their actions. The way in which McNamara approached the Vietnam War was identical to the way in which he attacked the problems of the Third World while at the World Bank. The pure logic which on paper would win the war was the same logic which he applied to the massive recycling of the money deposited in the West by oil-producing companies, which in turn led to the Third World debt problem.
Throughout all these disasters he acted as the quintessential man of reason while remaining true to the abstract nature of the technocrat…. As a decent men, he is no doubt baffled….
This same phenomenon of technocrats and Heroes versus practical humanists plays itself out in every sector of our society. The conflict is endlessly repeated with the same in balance in the same results. It is this true among the military and the businessmen as it is among writers and architects.
The more these conflicts are examined, the clearer it becomes that certain of our most important instincts – the democratic, the practical, the imaginative – our profound enemies of the dominant rational approach. This war between the reasonable and rational is one which our civilisation, as we have constituted it, is congenitally unable to resolve. If anything, the rise of more and more parodically Heroic leaders indicates that the system in place is desperately driving itself forward according to its own logic. And endemic to that logic is the denial of all internal contradictions, to say nothing of internal wars.
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