Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review: Lament for a Nation

[George Grant. Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. 40th Anniversary Edition. Carleton Library Series 205. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2007. (Original edition published in 1965.)]

I was not particularly looking forward to reading this classic English-Canadian nationalist text, originally published almost half a century ago. Partly this is because I was quite sick when I picked it up and nothing felt very appealing to me at that moment. But partly it is because I was more generally reluctant to expend the amount of emotional effort it often takes to thoroughly engage with a book so fundamentally different in outlook from my own.

Grant was a deeply conservative man and a very committed Christian. However, his conservatism looked very different from what is commonly understood by that term in North America today. For a period in the '60s he co-hosted a weekly political talk show with lefty Gad Horowitz, who originally coined the term "Red Tory" to get at the phenomenon by which a certain strand of Canadian conservative actually had more in common with socialists than with liberals, and it is likely that Grant was one of the people he had in mind when he came up with that term. Unlike the most ardent torch-bearers of conservatism in the early 21st century, who are largely committed to what amounts to 19th century Lockean liberalism, he looked to the British conservative tradition of Richard Hooker and others for inspiration and wisdom.

Yet after this book was published, Grant became a darling of the New Left in Canada. And, after reading the book, it is easy to see why. He was critical of liberalism in some ways that echo left criticisms of liberalism, particularly the form that such left criticisms took in that era. He was staunchly anti-imperialist, with a scathing opposition to the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. He named empire, he named capitalism, he named the ruling class. He was also pretty up-front that the only thing that could have preserved an independent Canadian nation, which in his analysis was already gone by the mid '60s, was a sharp turn towards some flavour of socialism in the '40s. Yet it is also clear that he and the more nationalist elements of the Canadian New Left were never more than situational collaborators as the youth that fed into the Waffle and other left-nationalist spaces seem to have been content to misread or downplay certain crucial and highly troubling elements of Grant's thought.

The version of the book that I read is about twice the length of Grant's original, brief publication. It includes a quite lengthy (65 page) Introduction written for this edition, a Foreword to an earlier edition written in 1994, an Introduction by the author written in 1970, and an afterword written by Grant's widow in 1997. These supplements are quite useful for understanding the context and the broader trajectory of Grant's thought. The body of the text is quite simple -- it really does only two things. The early portion is focused on electoral politics, and particularly on how John Diefenbaker was the last true nationalist in Canadian politics and he was betrayed by the Canadian ruling class and their masters in Washington. It segues into a more philosophical reflection on the inevitable defeat of Grant's flavour of conservatism because of the relentless and unavoidable changes flowing from a technology-driven modernity. It is, as the title says, a lament; he is not calling for action, not recommending ways to resuscitate the nation he sees as lost, and in fact it is not clear that he thinks that anyone could really have changed this trajectory at any point.

There are lots of things about what Grant has to say that I disaree with or would even identify as being flat-out wrong. I am not a conservative and I am not a nationalist, even a left-nationalist.

For instance, he places a lot of emphasis on the fact that Canada was founded as a conservative nation, in contrast with the liberal republic to the south. While I don't completely dismiss this analysis, I do think that it needs to be read in light of historian Ian McKay's more recent paradigm-shifting work of understanding Canadian history between 1840 and 1950 as a project of growing liberal rule. As well, I have some concern that Grant's approach does little more than give a certain kind of intellectual respectability to the knee-jerk Canadian tendency to define ourselves in reference to (and as "better than" in one sense or another) the United States, rather than reflecting on the character of our "we" more expansively and critically.

I'm also not sure I agree with how he uses the term "sovereign," and various other words that amount to the same thing. Partly that is because Canada's unique history means that the Canadian state was almost never sovereign in the sense that word is usually applied, if you accept Grant's argument that the Liberal Party gave the game away to the U.S. in the '40s. And this is because Ottawa had only received full legislative independence from Westminster in 1931, and even then I think the British Privy Council remained the highest court of appeal for a little while longer. But my concerns go beyond this to a broader concern that language of "sovereignty" as it is usually deployed in both lay contexts and in disciplines like political science is a kind of ideological screen that obscures the ways in which social relations and power have always (or at least in the last two or three centuries) been interconnected such that reifying talk of discrete national units generally obscures more than it reveals about how the world works.

I think Grant is just wrong in his assertion that capitalist modernity requires and can only exist as a drive towards the "universal and homogeneous." It was likely not as evident in the '60s, but certainly there is plenty of more recent evidence that capital and modernity are quite happy to take advantage of the particular and the specific as well, as the occasion demands. Recognizing this would require a different and more nuanced analysis than Grant provides of how the universal and the specific (or particular) do relate and can relate.

I think it is fascinating that as vigorously as Grant decries the American empire, and in exactly that language to boot, what he describes as "nationalism" really amounts to a certain kind of nostalgia for Britishness -- that is, for a different form of empire. He certainly acknowledges that the British Empire was an empire, but he has little that is critical to say about it and certainly does not see British imperialism as ever having been inconsistent with Canadian nationalism (in contrast with prominent strands of Liberal thought from, say, the '20s onwards) or, it seems, as ever having being a problem in any other way either.

I think that the way he talks about technology is a serious concern. I'm all for having a critical analysis of technology, but his is very deterministic, monolithic, and fetishizing. (Interestingly, the most recent Intro to the book notes that this side of his analysis was one factor that appealed to New Left youth, in that it resonated at least to a certain extent with more left-inflected analyses of technology that were current in that moment, such as those emanating from the Frankfurt School.) Grant does not talk about technology as being in dynamic relation with social organization and with other factors, but as a near-autonomous force of its own that shapes the social, shapes humanity, and cannot be resisted. He deploys this such that an analysis of the social, starting from some of the concerns he prioritizes, could lead to anti-capitalist politics, yet because he substitutes an undifferentiated "oh, well, it's technology's fault" for such analysis, the socially organized and therefore challengeable and changeable aspects are erased.

I was also fascinated by the ways in which Grant's thought made me think of some ideas I encountered in recently re-reading Himani Bannerji's Demography and Democracy (which I may review on this site at some point). In particular, it was her discussion of cultural nationalism in South Asia, and her polemical but still very thorough analysis of how the self-understood radical scholars of the Subaltern Studies school actually provide an intellectual basis for right-wing cultural nationalism in India: "By separating culture from economy and society and constructing and entrenching a unifying cultural essence, and postulating a national community upon that, it erases existing social relations and ideologies of difference, most importantly those of class-caste and patriarchy" (171). This connects to Grant's thought in a number of ways, though of course what he has to say is world's apart from the Subaltern Studies folk. For one thing, much of his thought is ideological in the sense that Bannerji uses the word, in that he for the most part does not explore the material realities of the social world but rather builds his analysis on thought-objects that do not correspond to material phenomena. Moreover, Grant, too, is very fixated on culture, on tradition, and on preserving a certain kind of essence in the face of capitalist modernity. While I, too, am critical of liberal-democratic capitalism's tendency to homogenize (or to capture and transform the particularized) and destroy, what exactly he wants to preserve becomes more clear towards the end of the book where he talks glowingly about the traditional religious values, the virtue-based ways of assessing how to act in the world, which for him are not necessarily as unrelentingly organized around capital as in liberalism but are certainly about preserving existing hierarchies of power in other respects. He is very much pro-patriarchy and would doubtlessly be anti-queer. He does not acknowledge or seem to see any problem with Canada as a settler entity, and as one that was quite explicitly constructed through deliberate policy up to the point of his writing as being by, for, and about mostly white people. That is the nation he laments losing to American empire.

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