Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Review: Restructuring and Resistance

[Mike Burke, Colin Mooers, and John Shields, editors. Restructuring and Resistance: Canadian Public Policy in an age of Global Capitalism. Halifax: Fernwood Books, 2000.]

I've had a strangely conflicted reaction to this book.

It's a collection of essays talking about neoliberal restructuring in Canada in the late 1990s. Whenever I'm reading a collection, I begin from the assumption that I will like some pieces and not others. And, indeed, there were a handful of the essays in this book that I thought were really interesting and useful. I liked Alan Sears' piece on education reform under the Harris Tories in Ontario. I appreciated the pieces on different aspects of resistance to neoliberalism by David McNally, Susan Ferguson, Anver Saloojee, and David Camfield. McNally's piece against left nationalism and in favour of both anti-racism and internationalism in the labour movement resonated with my feelings about the current strike in Sudbury. I have some questions about her use of the category of "social citizenship," but Ferguson's discussion of how left feminists should relate to the attack on the welfare state raised a lot of important issues. Saloojee's nuanced but critical look at employment equity from a left anti-racist perspective is also useful because it challenges both uncritical embrace of certain kinds of reforms that can derail broader change while also challenging the kneejerk after-the-revolution response sometimes found on the (white) radical left. And having come of political age in the era of the fightback against the Harris Tories, I have my own take on the how that struggle unfolded which overlaps with but isn't the same as Camfield's, but his is certainly worth reading.

More than that, I think the collection as a whole is a useful survey of the neoliberal shift in Canada, and that's an important thing. I might take issue with some of the ways that it does so, but it covers a lot of relevant ground and provides plenty of material that is important in its own right and that could easily be reworked in ways more to my taste. And, really, I should be totally used to reading books that I have mixed feelings about -- I do it all the time, and I think it should actually be a signal to us that we need to pay closer attention when we don't have some positive elements and some negative elements in how we react to a given text.

But for some reason, much of this book irritated me. I think a lot of that had to do with the particular kinds of academic discourse that fill its pages. It is a mix, certainly, but it is pretty heavy on the political science and political economy. In general, I think there is lots to be learned from those approaches, but lots of problems with them too. Often I think that the good stuff they have to offer would be even better if presented in a different way, a different context. And for some reason I just had a low tolerance in this book for being drawn back to particular academic disputes that I know are not pointless (because elite discourse can be an important if ever-partial arena to engage in struggle) but that sometimes feel pretty pointless to me.

For instance, I'm sure it's useful for Stephen McBride to lay out the flaws with human capital theory as a way to understand labour markets -- we need tools to take apart the arguments of our opponents. But I already know that I have serious political objections to human capital theory and I have no immediate need of technical arguments about its errrors. Or take Gregory Inwood's essay on the social union that was negotiated among the federal and provincial governments in the '90s and what it means for the evolution of Canadian federalism. I certainly learned from that -- I learned some about the history of Canadian federalism, and I learned about the social union, which I have been shockingly vague on despite being around and supposedly paying attention when it was happening. But that essay's way of talking about Canadian federalism, which I think is based in political science, is all bound up in discourse that makes it harder to see how state relations actually function and how they integrate with social relations more broadly, and that give a sort of "state's eye view" of things. Or take the collaborative essay examining competing analyses of globalization. While that essay, and the larger literature of which it is a part and of which I have only read very tiny bits and pieces, is useful in that it talks about the actual nuts and bolts of what has happened under the label "globalization," I don't actually find either of the main contenders in the debate to be very satisfying. That is, "weak globalization theory" and "strong globalization theory" argue about what states have become and why in the current era, but (echoing a point I first read in a book by Nandita Sharma) both of them buy into the same set of myths about how state relations under capitalism have functioned historically. And that makes an essay organized around the debate between the two feel less than satisfying.

Another possibility is that my grumpiness around this book has more to do with my own process than it has to do with the book itself. In almost every chapter I've written for my own book, my initial wave of reading for said chapter has reached a point where I've felt I really should be done the reading and on to writing of a more focused sort but I still have some reading to go, and that always sets me on edge. I am at that point now. So it's possible this review might have been more glowing if this book had been at the top of the pile instead of near the bottom.

In any case, if you are looking to learn about the neoliberal shift in Canada, particularly the key moment of the mid- to late-1990s, this is a useful book.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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