Innis on the state of the world in 2021 (PEMS 3)

A description of the world in 2021 could hardly be done better than Harold Innis was able to provide in 1945. With new technology Innis could not have dreamed of, the world has careened, faster and faster, along a path he could see before it — 75 years ago!

Here he is in a May 1945 convocation address at McMaster, ‘The University In The Modern Crisis’1, an address that begins and ends with the same declaration:

  • western civilization has collapsed
  • [we live] in a century which has witnessed a major collapse of civilization

The address is a description of this “major collapse of civilization” in relation to the university in particular and to society in general:

  • [We] have seen the disappearance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to say nothing of academic freedom.
  • The technological advantages in communication shown in the newspaper, the cinema and the radio [and on to TV and the internet] demand the thinning out of knowledge to the point where it interests the lowest intellectual levels and brings them under the control of totalitarian propaganda.
  • We need a study of the professor as sandwich man.2
  • the universities will be (…) one of the kept institutions of capitalism. The attempt (…) to dictate appointments, type of research, conditions under which the results of research shall be made available, and course[s] of instruction (…) is an attempt to twist the use of public funds in particular directions and to destroy the confidence in, and the prestige of, universities. For all universities it is a crime against the traditions of western civilization for which men have been asked to lay down, and have laid down, their lives.
  • The impression that universities can be bought and sold, held by business men and fostered by university administrators trained in playing for the highest bid, is a reflection of the deterioration of western civilization.
  • The descent of the university into the marketplace reflects the lie in the soul of modern society.
  • We can agree with [John Stuart] Mill that (…) “Where power extends in advance of education, the art of organizing delusion threatens to keep pace with the agencies which aim at diffusing enlightenment.”
  • language is deliberately [manipulated]3 as a framework for hocus pocus and unintelligibility (…) with no possibility of a common approach through rationality. Irrationality assumes fresh importance as a means of capitalizing the necessity of unintelligibility and deliberately avoiding rational contacts.
  • The blight of Oriental despotism which has ever threatened the western world becomes evident in bureaucracy and in turn in militarism. The interest in peace of an intelligent commercial (…) society is displaced by the control of the state in bureaucracy, militarism and war.
  • If we agree with Professor Whitehead that “The safest generalization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato,”4 we are forced to conclude that its power succumbed in the face of the Industrial Revolution and machine industry and the rise of romanticism. We have seen the effects of the disappearance of the Platonic tradition in the necessity of appealing to force as the unifying and dominating factor. In the words of the late Justice Holmes, “Truth is the majority vote of the nation that can lick all the others.”5


  1. Included in Innis’ 1946 Political Economy in the Modern State. All citations in this post — given as bullet points — are from this same address.
  2. Sandwich man advertising:
  3. Innis: “built up”.
  4. Innis slightly misquotes Whitehead here from Process and Reality: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
  5. Innis may have seen this citation from Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes: His Speeches, Essays, Letters, and Judicial Opinions, edited by Max Lerner, 1943. Holmes has “that nation” rather than Innis’ “the nation”.