McLuhan was very taken with John Lindberg’s 1953 Foundations of Social Survival. He reviewed it at length early in 1954 and discussed it in two important lectures that same year.1
In considering Lindberg’s book, it is helpful to look at essays he wrote 10 years before and 10 years after it. In 1944 he published ‘The Long Sleep: An Essay on Swedish Nationalism‘.2 and in 1964 ‘The Secret Life of Dag Hammarskjöld’.3
The central thesis of the 1944 ‘Long Sleep’ essay was carried forward to Lindberg’s book a decade in the future and even to his 1964 Hammarskjöld article :
- if we wish to understand the dilemma on the horns of which [Swedes] were tossed, we must examine Sweden’s relationships to the nineteenth-century world. This is a deep problem which has a bearing in the last analysis on the international conflicts which plague us today. Persons sensitive to the signs of the times, who lived at the end of the nineteenth century, were often haunted by unformulated fears. They were aware of certain distress signals, but they could not see the relation between their own acts and philosophy and the threatening misfortunes.
- the dominant philosophy of the nineteenth century was essentially a belief in benevolent automatisms conceived as world-wide in scope. As a matter of fact, the great achievement of that century was the striving for something which could truly be called a universal economic order. While this world order affected the cultural and social fields as well as the political
, its hard core remained economic.
- the gradual growth of the system led to a break-
down of old institutions and habits of life and the gradual emergence of similar, if not common, institutions and patterns of life all over the world. For our present purpose we need only to recall that the operation of this system required the international movement of merchandise, capital, and men, as well as of ideas. Its balance wheel, its unifying force so to speak, was what is loosely known as the “profit motive.” The movement of merchandise, capital, and men was considered as determined (…) by the general system of prices. Merchandise and/or the factors of production would flow to places or occupations with higher remuneration until an “equilibrium” was reached, an equilibrium which also was alleged to achieve the maximum world income. National and international measures interfering with the intricate flow and counter-flow within this system were regarded as evil, in as much as they decreased income and hampered world integration.
- The technical improvements of the new world system in production and transportation raised population and wealth to levels never previously approached. In the meanwhile, the classical economists watched from their Olympian heights the rise and fall of the well-being of individuals or groups. This was looked upon as part and parcel of the beneficial operation of “economic law”; “in the long run” the world would become a richer and fairer place in which to live. The enduring success of such a system ultimately rested upon the the explicit or implicit assumption of a common world economy, the interests of which overrode those of any individual interest or country.
- Historically speaking, the underlying idea of [such a] universalism was as old as or older than Christianity itself. The Western heritage contained, however, another element no less potent than that of [economic] universalism— its name is brotherhood. From this root, many stems in the plant of social ideas had grown. To a true liberal economist, however, nobody could be said to be his brother’s keeper. On the contrary, hardened still further by arguments drawn from Darwinism he would argue that no good purpose would be served by protecting the weak whose lawful lot it was to be eliminated in the struggle for life by the normal processes of competition, starvation, and illness. Malthusianism was not without guilt in this growth of moral callousness. It had assisted at the birth of Darwinism and had supplied the rationalizations needed by Western man to adopt a meager-hearted philosophy alien to his tradition. This suppression of an organic part of the Western tradition [namely, brotherhood] was more than ignoble; it was unwise and, in the end, tragic.
- Almost from its birth the liberal world-economy had to contend with Western conscience as an enemy. This conscience whispered: if society makes us our brothers’ executioners, let us then change society and build anew. The movements of revolt against the liberal order drew their strength from this reaction, and civilization became increasingly a house divided against itself. The artificial separation of the two fundamental ideals contained in a common tradition, created tensions which (…) threatened both with frustration and psychopathic conflicts.
- From the beginning, the Western heritage had been characterized by a double allegiance of the individual symbolized by the Prince and the Church. Although history is filled with examples of the struggle between temporal and spiritual powers, the principle of dual allegiance was rarely, if ever, disputed. The Western world from the very beginning accepted the idea of a dual citizenship…
- Nineteenth-century internationalism was a development in the right direction. The mistake was not in applying internationalism in the economic sphere but in limiting it to this sphere, for a true balance could have been achieved only by extending internationalism to social and other fields as well.
McLuhan certainly did not know of this 1944 essay. Nonetheless, it is important to make note of it and not only for the light it throws on Lindberg’s 1953 book which McLuhan did know and closely studied. It is also important as an early illustration of the sort of structural thinking to which McLuhan’s work itself would increasingly tend.
Lindberg posited a plurality of “basic” or “fundamental” “ideals” and was interested in their “balance” — or lack thereof. Balance fails when one side of the “double allegiance of the individual” to such “ideals” is subject to “suppression” or “separation” relative to the other (“suppression” and “separation” both describing difference in relative value between related terms). In turn, according to Lindberg, it was just such imbalance that led to social conflicts within nations and to the two world wars of the twentieth century between nations: “The artificial separation of the two fundamental ideals contained in a common tradition, created tensions which (…) threatened both” and have eventuated in “the international conflicts which plague us today” (in 1944).
The silent idea was that the ratio of economics and “brotherhood” extended over an axis stretching between extreme “separation” between them at the two ends of the axis to their “balance” in its middle. At one end of the axis, “brotherhood” would be suppressed relative to economics; at the other end, economics would be suppressed relative to “brotherhood”. Lindberg’s claim was that social and international conflicts would be found to correlate with the extreme ratio positions near the end of the axis where “brotherhood” was relatively suppressed. Presumably poverty and stagnation would correlate with the contrasting extreme positions near the other end where economics were relatively suppressed.
Writing in the middle of WW2, Lindberg could see only a single solution: “extending internationalism [beyond that of a “common world economy”] to social and other fields as well”. This, he proposed, would achieve “a true balance” between our economic and technological developments, on the one hand, and our spiritual needs, on the other. McLuhan agreed. Where McLuhan parted company with Lindberg, however, was in McLuhan’s insistence that such “true balance” could not be achieved through the sort of broad social programs imagined by Lindberg. Instead, McLuhan thought, the structural balances and imbalances which mediate human psychology and sociology must be subjected to detailed investigation so that exactly this scientific study of their working might supply that spiritual “internationalism” (aka, an “external sensus communis”) needed to balance the economic one.4
McLuhan described this idea in direct reference to Lindberg in his 1954 lecture on ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’:
in the modern world we have through the very perfection and instantaneity of our means of communication made it impossible to resolve the conflicting claims of the numerous societies and cultures which are now in close association. Neither can we hope to impose any one culture on all the others and reduce them to a single form. But (…) we now have the key to the creative process which brings all cultures into existence (namely the extension5 into social institutions of the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process).6
The notion had been set out for Harold Innis in a letter from McLuhan early in 1951:
One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences… (Letters, 221)
In fact nearly all of McLuhan’s writings between 1949 and 1954 were focused on the problem of defining “the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process” as reflected in the arts, especially literature. Like Lindberg, McLuhan found that ratios were key: between experience and world, eye and ear, innovation and tradition. But central problems remained. How to specify such “ideals” and their balances and imbalances to enable their objective identification? On this basis, how to probe their interaction with one another and their “extension” into society and the environment? And how to communicate these ideas to bring their study into collective investigation? Questions like these would dominate the remaining quarter century of McLuhan’s life.
Lindberg’s 1964 article7 on Dag Hammarskjöld applies these same ideas to his countryman and erstwhile friend who became the General Secretary of the UN. Here it is not the world or the tradition that has become unbalanced between an international system and the demands of conscience, but Dag Hammarskjöld as a person (and, by extension, the UN itself):
We all carry masks, but in Dag the cleavage of personality went deeper (…) to understand his need for a mask is to move close to the core of his personality.
Both in conversations with Lindberg8 and in his published writings, Hammarskjöld is said to have argued that
the civil servant had the obligation to cut the lifeline between private conviction and public action (…) Private convictions could not stand in the way of expediency (…) [since] Hammarskjöld was convinced of the [overriding] need of an integrated world community as a condition of survival.
Hammarskjöld, says Lindberg, “never reconciled his beautiful sayings of humility and love with his exercise of power.” This pushed him, in Lindberg’s view, to an extreme imbalance between the “ideals” of power and brotherhood:
The man who believed in the “meaninglessness of killing” became nevertheless a prototype of the savior with the sword. He became a man who led the peace organization to armed intervention and to deeds of lawless violence, well knowing that that world integration because of nuclear progress is no longer possible by means of arms, but only by moral leadership.
The danger was that Hammarskjöld’s “extreme” solution might set a precedent:
In Hammarskjöld’s case, we had the savior[with the sword] hidden behind the mask of the peace-loving, level-headed and clever diplomat, dying in pursuit of peace; although next time it may well be a madman or worse masquerading as savior.
Samantha Power and Nikki Haley have meanwhile demonstrated how prescient were Lindberg’s fears concerning “a madman or worse”. As personified by them, the UN has become the very archetype of “expediency” pursuing “armed intervention and (…) deeds of lawless violence” through the “suppression” of “moral leadership”.
ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται;
but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?
- For details, see John Lindberg. ↩
- ‘The Long Sleep: An Essay on Swedish Nationalism‘, American Swedish Historical Museum Yearbook for 1944. ↩
- ‘The Secret Life of Dag Hammarskjöld’, Look Magazine, 28:13, 30 June 1964. ↩
- For discussion, see McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”. ↩
- “Extension into social institutions” is what McLuhan, following Innis, characterized as “the power of the new media of communication to penetrate and transform all existing institutions and patterns of thought” (‘The Later Innis’, The Queen’s Quarterly, 1953). ↩
- In his lecture McLuhan attributed this idea regarding “the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process” to Lindberg. But it is instead the notion at the heart of all of McLuhan’s writings between (roughly) 1949 and 1954. ↩
- ‘The Secret Life of Dag Hammarskjöld’, Look Magazine, 28:13, 30 June 1964. The citations which follow are selections from this article. It is possible that McLuhan knew of this article. Compare Lindberg, 1964, “The problem (for Hammarskjöld) became, fundamentally, one of how to create success out of failure, and of making failure a criterion of success” with McLuhan, 1972, “Failure Through Success and Success Through Failure” (Take Today, 279). ↩
- “Dag and I had (…) bitter discussions about the relations between state and individual, and, more particularly, the primacy of human conscience.” ↩