Home / Industry / Media /  World leaders are functionally illiterate: John Ralston Saul

John Ralston Saul has long been a disenchanted prophet, a Cassandra of globalization, warning of impending doom since the mid-1990s. He sees a flicker of rebellion in the rise of people’s movements around the world, but fears it’s too late. Wearing his other hat, that of the President of PEN International, the worldwide writers’ group committed to defending freedom of expression, Saul was in Delhi to mark the recent opening of a PEN Centre in the city (there’s also one in Mumbai). For readers at the Jaipur Literature Festival, his session on Monday morning with academics Sunil Khilnani and Michael Sandel should be a highlight. Edited excerpts:

Can you describe the work PEN International has done and why it remains necessary?

PEN is the original civil society organization. We invented the idea in 1921. Nobody had really tried to do anything like this before and it was almost by accident. The idea was, “instead of us all killing each other why don’t we start talking again". It hit a chord, because within a decade it was already in about 50 countries. We have this almost century-long experience of fighting for freedom of expression. What’s interesting is that it’s taken increasingly complicated shapes. We have a Writers in Prison Committee to deal with some 850 writers in prisons around the world. And there are a lot of countries that don’t arrest or beat up writers, but just kill them—Mexico, Honduras, even Brazil.

There are more insidious ways to clamp down on freedom of expression too, aren’t there? Denying people their language, say...

This is the era of the disappearing languages. To lose your language is to a great extent to lose your culture. We have this thing called the Girona Manifesto, which is available to read online. It’s the first serious attempt at producing a document on linguistic rights that human beings, not just bureaucrats, can read. Linguistic diversity is essential to freedom of expression. With the manifesto, we now have a structure for arguing. We are writers, we argue. That’s how we turn things around. Why are there 850 writers in prison? Because language matters.

Even in countries that purport to support freedom of speech, there are pressures put on journalists. India, for instance, is ranked 120 on the press freedom index.

It’s one of the reasons why the founding of a PEN Centre in Delhi is so exciting. Democracies need centres to aggressively defend freedom of expression. In India you still have criminal libel. Every country has libel laws, but the dividing line is whether it’s a criminal or civil matter. Criminal libel is a serious problem because you can put writers in prison. Also there’s what we call “libel chill"—using money and resources to slap libel suits on people or publications with less money, fewer resources, to shut them up.

As for writers in prison, it’s not a struggle between dictators and celebrated writers. A lot of these writers are bloggers and journalists who work for small, provincial papers reporting on logging, mining, drugs. The first thing the lawyers and politicians say to you is that “you know, these people are not really writers, they’re journalists. And they’re not even journalists because they don’t have press cards". The authorities don’t get to define who a writer is; the public defines who a writer is. From PEN’s point of view, a writer is everyone from Nobel Prize winners to part-time journalists working for small papers and volunteer radio stations. You don’t have to be a member of PEN for us to defend you.

In India we have the phrase, ‘hurting the sentiments’. How should such grievances, some of them fair and genuine, be addressed?

The Delhi centre, like the one in Mumbai, will slowly figure out how to deal with these things from the inside. PEN’s charter—Galsworthy wrote the first draft—notes the need for “unhampered transmission of thought", but also that writers have an obligation to try to bring people together as opposed to driving them apart through hatred. This is not a comment on how to write a novel. You don’t write novels to fit with a bureaucratic or legal position. Novels are troublesome. They’re meant to disturb. All of us, not just writers, have an obligation to show restraint, to restrain our reactions to provocation. We need to get used to the idea of getting our way through debate not violence. And debate can be pretty agitated. The fundamental thing is that there’s no example of censorship working as a way of strengthening a society.

Moving on from PEN to your own books. You’ve been writing about the failures of globalization for decades now...

The arguments for and against have been going on for a long time, but from about 1995 I felt that globalization was over. That was its high point with the beginning of the World Trade Organization and from then on globalization has been collapsing into something else. It’s like a bus that’s been cobbled together and it goes over a rough road and the wheels come off, a window pops out—it all flies apart. But you have five generations, so about 30 years, of “leaders" running universities and business schools, running companies and governments who don’t know anything else. They don’t have any other vocabulary, any other ideas. So whatever happens, no matter how bad it is, they just keep saying the same thing.

Is that why we continue in India to be obsessed by fractional changes in projected growth rates?

We’re stuck with an elite around the world that is functionally illiterate. They’re basing their whole approach to globalization on economic theories that they haven’t read. Adam Smith in his most important book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is arguing in favour of empathy in society. He’s calling for strict regulations because you can’t trust corporations. You can’t run society on the basis of economic theory. It is a secondary or tertiary element. Economics is useful, but it’s not a driving force. You mentioned growth rates, they don’t even know what growth is. If you analyse it, they’re measuring growth on the basis of baskets, inflation and so on, which are totally irrelevant. They’re missing half of the stuff that matters, it’s self-serving.

By refusing to change the terms of the discussion, take austerity in Europe for instance, or the debate in India about the ruinous expense of major social programmes, do we continue to risk alienating large swathes of people behind, creating new and greater inequalities?

There’s a whole moral atmosphere around globalization. “We must do this. It’s what good people do, modern people do." It’s not about morality or ethics or about a social contract. It’s about a commercial contract. Globalization is profoundly anti-democratic as a theory.

Take debt forgiveness. I first started writing about this in Voltaire’s Bastards, which came out in 1993 at the height of the African debt crisis. The West martyrized Africa, broke nation-states, caused civil wars and they thought this was just fine because there was a “moral" obligation to pay your debt. Today, two generations on, these elites are applying precisely the same theory to their own countries. It’s really bad economics and really bad social theory.

Does this account for the rise of people’s movements across the political spectrum. Whether it’s the Tea Party or the ‘Occupy’ protesters. What, for instance, do you make of the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party)?

There’s an inchoate anger driving people around the world and these are the first signs of people starting to believe there’s another way. I have no idea whether AAP will succeed in Delhi or not, but they’ve caught one thing, which is that the false morality attached to utilitarianism, which is what’s driven us for 40 years, in fact led to deep immorality—it led to a rise in corruption.

This is a very dishonest period in which the dishonesty has been sanitized and not surprisingly you see an enormous rise in corruption in the financial markets and in politics. But corruption is only an expression of the more fundamental problem, which is that there has to be an idea for how society works, there have to be policies that go in a completely different direction. There have to be new, more imaginative ideas

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