Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Changing Modes of Canadian Complicity

With the turn towards a more naked version of imperialism by our southern neighbour over the last four or five years, the current Canadian model of international behaviour has received much attention -- disparagement from radical right extremists and often uncritical fawning from liberals on both sides of the borders, and increasing frustration from a few Canadians with more radical analyses who are trying to puncture the myth of Canadian liberalism and show how oppressively hypocritical the foreign policy approach of the Canadian state almost always actually is.

For example, along with the links I posted the other day, there is also this article by Derrick O'Keefe on General Hillier and the renewed Canadian enthusiasm to shed blood in the occupation of Afghanistan; this article from Matthew Behrens of Homes Not Bombs outlining just a smidgen of the ways in which corporate Canada profits from war and destruction; all the writing that Yves Engler and Anthony Fenton have done on Canadian complicity in Haiti over the last year or two; and that's just a sampling of stuff that occurred to me without putting any effort into looking.

A few of the pieces to which I've linked make mention of General Hillier's bloodthirsty and racist comments, and in the liberal and left Canadian blogosphere many more expressions of surprise, dismay, and disapproval have been written. Some that I've seen choose to emphasize the ways in which what he says is symbollic of a discontinuity with a supposed Canadian tradition of peace, while a few point out that they are only relevant because they are more honest than most Canadian elites usually are about what has always been true of Canadian foreign policy. Frankly, I think some of the dismay at his comments has more to do with the ways in which they make it harder to harbour illusions about Canada's role in the world, or perhaps because they are just "not tasteful things to say" whether they are true or not. And of course, regardless of how they relate to past Canadian conduct, their racism and embrace of empire should be deplored and the ideals they represent should be actively opposed.

I would argue that though they are completely consistent with Canadian behaviour around the world, it is important to recognize that there is political significance to their discontinuity with the official and widely believed Canadian narrative of our role in the world since at least World War II. Though they break with the tradition of Canadian hypocrisy, they also symbolize the current dangerous historical moment -- a moment in which the dominance of the radical right in Washington has helped empower a minority of Canadian elites (most visibly clustered around Stephen Harper). Both of those groups want to create a discontinuity, a very particular sort of change in how Canada deals with war and empire. The change being sought is quite modest in terms of how it would affect our actual participation in such sordid business, but is more about a seismic shift in the official narratives that tend to accompany our complicity, in the service of broader goals.

Canada, of course, is a product of war and empire. The state which regulates life in northern North America today is instituitonally descended from other institutions of various kinds projected by imperial states in Europe, via violence and deception, onto territory that formerly supported Aboriginal political economies.

In the era before Canadian statehood, there were definitely differences between the elites in the colonies and the central imperial authorities in London about how to wage war and how aggressively to expand the reach of empire in this part of the world. One of the themes of the fascinating book American Empire and the Fourth World by Anthony Hall is to demonstrate (notwithstanding a knee-jerk reaction on the part of much of today's left that favours local over central on principle, without much analysis) Aboriginal peoples often got a better deal from the central imperial authorities than from the locals. Nonetheless, there was an underlying unity in support of the rightness and righteousness of European settler states displacing preexisting Aboriginal political economies, whatever pace and method resulted from the imperial/colonial squabbling in any given period.

The separation of the Canadian state's authority to orient itself deliberately with respect to war and empire on a formal level was much more gradual than many of us realize. Even in 1939, Canada was technically at war when Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, and it was only a gesture towards English Canadian nationalism by the Mackenzie King government that kept Canada officially neutral for another week to allow debate in Parliament before falling dutifully in line. But though the legalities were slow to adapt, the political reality of genuine and substantive division within Canada on questions of war and empire have a longer history. The forcible incorporation by the British Empire of a Catholic francophone nation into a state dominated by Protestant anglophones lead to serious divisions on the appropriate response to the Riel rebellions, for example, as well as the Boer War and at least some elements of both World Wars. Strands of liberal and left politics in English Canada have also opposed war and empire, but they have never been dominant, and in the face of a specific war in the service of empire, this opposition (particularly its more liberal wing) has always had a tendency to shrivel up to near nonexistence.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this tendency in Canada was World War I. A few radicals aside, almost all faith-based and first wave feminist reformers, who had spoken strongly against war before the guns of August roared in 1914, drastically shifted their position once the flag started waving. Though names like Alice Chown, J.S. Woodsworth, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom deserve to be remembered for their consistent stand against the imperial stupidity of the First World War, it is more important to remember the churches, the former "pacifists," the feminists who plunged into hearty and active support for Canada's part in the idiotic slaughter. It was the farmers that protested the most vigorously outside of Quebec, mostly because conscription would deprive them of essential labour rather than any widespread opposition to war and empire that extended beyond a few of their political journals. And after the early part of the war, organized labour was not able to do much other than grumble occasionally that wealth should also be conscripted, not just men.

Though the contribution to war and empire that resulted was pretty much what those in charge wanted, the approach of the Canadian state in World War I was not particularly sophisticated. This approach of doing what the King demands and worry about the consequences later had some down sides, as far as elites were concerned. It resulted in the temporary destruction of the Liberal Party and riots in Quebec, for example. It also, through lack of attention to the impact of modern total war even on nations that participate at a distance, contributed to the post-war social unrest that rocked Canada.

In contrast, Canada participated just as fully in World War II as it had in World War I but Canadian elites recognized the need for a more sophisticated approach to social regulation. This was shown during the war most clearly on the issue of conscription. The Mackenzie King government used obfustication, delay, and half-measures to defuse dissent, and undermine any possibility of functional alliance between anglophone pacifists and anti-imperial nationalists in Quebec -- first he promised conscription wouldn't be introduced, then it was introduced for domestic duty only, then there was a national referendum (huge YES outside Quebec, huge NO inside) to allow conscription for overseas service, and even then he kept from introducing it until the war was almost over. This was both a sign that states and politicians respond to resistance (King depended on seats in Quebec) and also a sign of willingness to use more sophisticated approaches to social control to make sure that the basic agenda (in this instance, the war effort) moves forward.

This tendency towards a more sophisticated version of social regulation was solidified in the post-war period, and it included steps towards the construction of a welfare state and a foreign policy sold to the populace as liberal, humanitarian, and internationalist. After a scare to the traditional parties in 1944 showing the socialist CCF ahead in the polls on the federal level, Canadian elites co-opted the more palatable elements of the CCF agenda. Instead of the "screw you" that labour and the poor received from the federal government in the '30s, the Canadian state was drawn at least part way down the path of broad legislation regulating industrial disputes that gave at least some recognition and power to unions, and of social welfare -- victories for us and new tools of regulation for them, both at once. And the triumphant rhetoric of liberal internationalism became the basic rhetorical frame for Canadian foreign policy, which meant that some of the more embarassing excesses of the United States would be quietly frowned at while overall support for and institutional integration into an oppressive international order would be maintained.

The framework for social regulation by the Canadian state that evolved during and after World War II is still basically what we have. As the left has faded and neoliberalism has grown in strength, starting in the '70s but most significantly in Canada since the mid-'90s, governments have decided that they don't need to be as generous with the domestic entitlements for them to continue to be useful in pacifying the public. But if anything, the rhetorical use of the supposed enlightened nature of the Canadian state in international affairs has increased in intensity even as the material benefits of the actually semi-enlightened things that were enacted have been slashed.

From the atomic bomb to the invasion of Iraq, Canadian hands are dirtier than our official stories admit.

Though conventional Canadian history tends to bleat loudly about our contribution to World War II, our role in the nuclear slaughter that ended it is less often emphasized. Yet Canadian uranium blew up hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Canadian scientists in Canadian labs were a part of the effort to develop the technology to do it. Our supposedly enlightened institutions, integrated as they were into the global fight against fascism, were therefore also intimately involved in the most horrific use of weapons of mass destruction in the history of the world.

(As Rahul Mahajan discusses, even if Japanese surrender was less sure in some ways than some leftist historians have argued, a detailed examination of the archival records by a Japanese historian has concluded that "Hiroshima and Nagasaki played almost no role in the Japanese surrender decision, which was dictated virtually entirely by the Soviet declaration of war on August 8. This seems very plausible. After all, the Japanese ruling class might have expected that the Americans would hang a few of them, subjugate the class to U.S. strategic interests, and for the most part prop the rest of them up in power so as to rule Japan with relative ease -- after making sure they had been properly brought to heel, of course [which is essentially what happened -- GSN]. On the other hand, they could expect the Soviets to liquidate them entirely.")

Vietnam? Sure, it was important that we sheltered draft resisters from the U.S., but we also made huge pots of money from selling the necessary materials to them what was doing the killing. Sure, it was corporations. But the workers at those corporations benefited from it. And our social and health services benefited from the taxes they paid. And our local economies benefited from the supplies that the companies bought and the consumer goods and services that the workers bought. And since the whole point of wealth in our current kind of economy is that it generates more wealth, some uncalculable, small-but-significant percentage of our affluence today stil bears the taint of the blood of two to three million people from Southeast Asia. We didn't send troops but we were in it up to the gills.

Same with the most recent Iraq war. It was a victory when Chretien decided not to send troops to participate directly, but we are still making tons of money from U.S. military contracts, and there were still some Canadian troops connected to U.S. and "international" entities that participated in the Iraq invasion, and every Canadian soldier in Afghanistan is one more Yankee freed up to be in Baghdad. Not to mention that the occupation of Afghanistan is bloody, failed, and imperial as well, if in a marginally different way. And as things like Canada's participation in events in Haiti show, when there is no need to manage dissent then our government is perfectly happy to participate in the crimes of the day and put a liberal humanitarian gloss on them.

So back to Hillier's comments. They represent that subset of Canadian elites and the currently-governing clique of radical right extremists in the United States for whom quiet complicity with oppression and atrocity is no longer sufficient; active cheerleading is required. They want to transform the way that Canada relates to war and empire, to make it an active embrace rather than an exercise in hypocrisy. They're sick of keeping Canadian support for war and empire in the closet, and they want to be out and proud.

This, of course, is not a very progressive way to address Canadian hypocrisy, and the goal for the left should be finding ways to end our complicity by transforming the structures which bind us to it. I think even among activists who recognize the depth of Canadian complicity there has yet to be a full accounting of what will be necessary to respond to it, both ethically and strategically; I know I'm having trouble wrapping my head around it. But in choosing a path forward to do so, it is important to recognize that Hillier's posturing, Stephen Harper's semi-coherent ranting, and the behind-the-scenes pressure from Washington are not unidimensional. Foreign policy, both rhetoric and reality, are very much tied to domestic social regulation. Our current version of social regulation includes a few features that represent genuine victories for progressive movements, many features that are just as oppressive as the United States, and lots of blether that inflates the former in the popular imagination so we never have to talk about the latter. The deliberate use of fear and nationalism to bring our role in war and empire out of the closet is intimately tied to efforts to dispense with the actual victories that are used as a basis for the cloying rhetoric of Canadian domestic progressiveness. While there may be short term truth to the belief of Liberals and New Democrats that pandering to comments made by Hillier is a good move, that a more hawkish foreign policy frees up political space to take more progressive domestic positions, the Democrats in the United States (or that subset that have genuinely progressive intent on any issue) have shown that this is a disaster -- it may buy breathing room for a time, but the ways in which it deforms the political culture shifts the space available for domestic political action away from what we want and towards atomization, neoliberalism, private power.

It is important for those of us who see and criticize Canadian hypocrisy to point out that Hillier's comments and other similar things are perfectly consistent with Canada's actual history. But we also do ourselves a disservice if we fail to recognize the ways in which strategic deployment of such rhetoric is part of a project that aims to undo the paltry progressive victories that are still standing.


angela said...

this is a fucking sweet ass blog, i must say.

Scott said...

[*blush*] Thanks!