Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: Liberalism and Hegemony

[Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme, editors. Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.]

About ten years ago, Canadian left historian Ian McKay published a proposal for reorienting the study of Canadian history. He called this proposal the "liberal order framework." In the years following, it generated significant interest among Canadian academic historians. This book republishes the original article by McKay and responses to it by about a dozen historians in different sub-disciplines and with diverse politics, as well as a lengthy response by McKay to some of the ways that his proposal has been criticized and taken up over the years.

The liberal order framework proposes examining the history of northern Turtle Island, particularly between about 1840 and about 1950, as a project of growing liberal rule. Much Canadian history written up until a few decades ago was grand nationalist narratives that erased much of what actually happened and the realities of many people who actually lived here. Much Canadian history written since that time has done important work of excavating erased stories and exploring the realities of oppressed peoples and neglected regions in northern Turtle Island, but has become increasingly fragmented. What McKay wants to do is encourage the specificities and insights of the latter period while regaining a limited version of the capacity to tell larger stories that dominated in the former. To do this, he does not propose some sort of new synthesis of Canadian history, but rather a set of tools that can allow for grounded, critical-realist explorations that create some limited and contingent but still real opportunities for drawing links among specificities. A key insight at the heart of this project is that everyone in this part of the world, especially after about 1840, had to deal with the growing project of rule (of hegemony) by settler elites and institutions, which had a distinctly liberal character.

I'm simplifying, but the essays responding to the liberal order framework take one or more of the following three stances. 1) Its treatment of liberalism is too simplistic and mechanical. 2) Hegemony is a problematic concept that simplifies how power and agency actually happen in the real world. 3) Here are some important ways of examining how power worked historically that aren't explicitly included in the liberal order framework, and here's how they do/don't/kind of/might fit with it. Overall, I think essays from all three categories make important points and need to be taken seriously, but I don't think any of the criticisms are sufficient to undermine the basic usefulness of the framework.

For instance, when it comes to liberalism, I think it is probably a fair criticism that the formulation of the framework presented in the original paper did not adequately reflect the complex and nuanced character of that particular strand of political thought. However, taking that complexity and nuance into account does not require fundamental change to the framework. Moreover, at least some of the criticisms in this camp seem to be quite idealist in character, and lose sight of the fact that McKay is making an argument not about the sum total of liberal discourse in 19th century Canada but about a particular project of rule that was integrated into and partially organized by particular, evolving strands of liberal ideology. There certainly remains room for debate about the key liberal features of the ruling project that became "Canada" and about their relationship to various liberalisms more generally, but it seems to me that fatal damage to the framework could only come from proving that there was no project of rule in northern Turtle Island in the 19th and early 20th centuries (highly unlikely) or that it was not liberal in character (moderately more possible). And I think that, along the latter line, it would be hard to get much further than shifting "liberal order" to "order with some significant liberal character, along with other things."

The criticisms of the framework's dependence on the Gramscian notion of hegemony are potentially much more serious, because -- and I suspect McKay wouldn't necessarily agree with this, but it feels this way to me -- hegemony is integral to its project in ways that particular understandings of liberalism are not. McKay's response to the responses takes an entire section to explore hegemony in some detail, an important theoretical section that I suspect I will return to in the future. He argues that most of the criticisms of hegemony in the volume are criticisms not responding to the latest and most sophisticated understandings of how Gramsci used the term, and certainly not to how he uses the term, but rather to particular, narrow ways the concept got taken up by orthodox marxists and cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s. My own initial reaction to this strand of criticisms is not nearly as well informed as McKay's in terms of the latest Gramscian scholarship, but it has a similar shape -- that what I took to be the original understanding of hegemony (which is probably really the English-language orthodox marxist verison of the term) had limitations, but it offers a basis for a more grounded and complex version of how power-over happens that can easily draw from lots of other traditions. I would need to do a lot more thinking and a lot more reading to know if I agree with every detail of how McKay mobilizes the idea of hegemony to talk about relations of domination and subordination -- I suspect it does not do as much as I would like to foreground, or at least thoroughly integrate, relations that are organized differently than the ones that are of primary interest to him -- but it is, I think, basically useful.

The "what about this?" category of responses is a lot more internally varied than the others. For instance, a few of the essays look at power in ways informed by the work of Michel Foucault, and make some really important points about how ruling happened during the period of interest. I have the sense that there have been moments when at least some people have felt a great deal of polarization between Gramscian and Foucauldian ways of understanding power, and between marxism and post-whateverism more generally, but I've never understood why -- perhaps that is an indication of ignorance on my part, though it has always seemed to me that there is lots of scope for drawing on both families of traditions, even if it isn't always clear how. Perhaps my biggest concern emerging from McKay's response to the responses is its apparent dismissiveness of some of the "what about this?" suggestions. I can see the point of keeping the liberal order framework simple so it can be adapted to different uses more easily, but I think a greater attention to the ways it can hook into, say, examination of the changing forms of patriarchy during the same period would be important work for him to do.

Anyway. This is a fairly ponderous book, and I don't know how many people will want to read it from cover to cover. However, its essays provide a useful survey of different approaches, focuses, and politics within Canadian history. And, provided it is embraced in the grounded and provisional way that its originator recommends, I think the liberal order framework has a lot to offer.

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

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