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“Voltaire’s Bastards” by John Ralston Saul, Review May 29th

Sunday May 29th, I will be publishing a review of Saul’s book. Voltaire’s Bastards is about how reason has slain purpose, sense and effective democracy. It was first published in the early 90s, but the trends he was observing have only become worse–far worse–since then.

It’s an infuriating book in many ways, despite being well-written, precisely because the idiocy and corruption he documents continues apace, but it’s a book worth reading.

If you want to read it before the review comes out, you have till the 29th.

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  1. Some Guy

    ” It was first published in the early 90s, but the trends he was observing have only become worse, far worse, since then.”

    This is an outrageous claim. To take just one example, I distinctly recall Saul specifically warning about excessive leverage at Lehman Bros. firm as an example of financial deregulation run amuck – and now nobody can deny that there is no longer any issue with too much leverage at Lehman Bros. – so that is one trend he clearly missed.

    But in all seriousness, a good starting point, looking forward to your review.

  2. Ghostwheel

    I have a copy already, and actually read about, maybe, a fourth to a third of it last year. Or was that the year before last? I seem to recall an interesting beginning before it got a bit dry.

    Well, whatever. I guess now I’ve got an excuse to finally finish.

    Anyway, Ian, are you still compiling an e-book of your greatest hits?

  3. Ian Welsh

    No, Ghostwheel. Working on reviews and “Construction of Reality” booklet.

  4. Sub-Boreal

    I will be interested in this review. I did own a copy of VB at one time, but never managed to get very far into it. After encounters with his later works, I realized that Saul was simply unreadable, and it wasn’t just me ( ). To be fair, the printed version of his Massey Lectures was pretty good – perhaps because the format imposed a discipline and focus lacking in his open-ended longer books.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Yes, Voltaire’s Bastards is not an easy read, and not because the material is innately complicated.

    I did force myself to read the entire thing, I did find it worthwhile, but it’s not a book I’d push on others. Some of the other books I’m reviewing are easy reads, like Sandel’s Justice, or the books by Jane Jacobs and Randall Collins and those I’d suggest people do read.

    He wrote a book on the history of Canada (second most recent I think) which was immensely useful to me and much better written, mind you, so I think he’s improved.

    What made it useful was that it really properly explained both welfare/order in the Canadian context and the deep reasons for the Metis rebellion, which history courses never did.

  6. Some Guy

    Small doses are the way to go with VB. A few pages, at most one chapter at a time. As Ian says, it’s not a page turner, it is dense, but worth it, IMO.

    Sub-Boreal – Joseph Heath and Saul are two of the great Canadian non-fic writers, but not surprising that they might seem out-of-phase to each other, Heath is the ultimate rational thinker (in a good way, not in the standard, neolib/con bs way) while Saul started off with 500 pages of criticism of relying too much on rationalism, and his writing reflects that disdain for a rational approach to setting thoughts on paper.

  7. Rob Bush

    Ian – Have you read / reviewed Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Harvard ethnographer Matthew Desmond?

    If it isn’t already on your radar, you should check it out. It’s as important, and enraging, and depressing as everything you write about daily – a grueling look at a very, very broken segment of the American Dream.

  8. LC

    If I recall, his book of Massey lectures – The Unconscious Civilization – was roughly the same thesis as Voltaire\’s Bastards but an easier read.

    I do remember reading VB when it came out and liking it a lot once I managed to grasp what he was trying to get at. But it is pretty dry and somewhat repetitive.

  9. Ian Welsh


    I have not. I have spent half my life in poverty, so I tend not to read case studies about it. Infuriating and, usually, too familiar, though at least in Canada we do have health care (but the drugs aren’t free, or even cheap…)

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