Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: Imperialist Canada

[Todd Gordon. Imperialist Canada. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2010.]

Few features of the political culture in this country are more likely to set my teeth on edge than the devotion not only of the right and centre but of much of the left as well to the myth of Canadian benevolence. It has perhaps been a bit less frequently proclaimed in the last couple of years, what with us having Harper and them having Obama, but its existence in the form of nostalgia rather than contemporary condescension is perhaps even more grating and even more resistant to being countered with fact. For this reason, I find Todd Gordon's relentless dismantling of some of the central pillars of that myth to be very satisfying -- still surprisingly emotionally challenging to read in parts, mind you, precisely because it is so relentless in demonstrating the violence in which Canada and so by extension all Canadians of relative privilege are complicit, and predictably disappointing in certain respects because of its framework, but still politically on point in many important ways.

Gordon, a political scientist at York University, uses the first chapter to present the analytical approach of the book. It seems to be quite conventional political economy with a sprinkling of inputs from other traditions. The framework chapter draws heavily on folks like David McNally, David Harvey, and Ellen Meiksins Wood, with a smattering of references to Leo Panitch and Patrick Bond, and one or two each for Sherene Razack, Sunera Thobani, Nandita Sharma, David Roediger, Howard Adams, and others (though mostly his references to this last group are not to works of theirs that I've reviewed and linked here). The book continues with a chapter looking at the colonization of northern Turtle Island, including lots of attention towards how settler assaults on indigenous people have proceeded unabated in recent decades. Then it looks at the role of the Canadian state in promoting neoliberal capitalism abroad, a chapter on awful things that Canadian corporations (particularly but not only in resource extraction industries) have done around the globe, a chapter on the Canadian military's oppressive history, and a chapter with specific case studies of Canadian participation in imperialism in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Latin America. The book ends with a conclusion that talks about what must be done to challenge Canadian imperialism.

There's a lot here that's valuable. Integrating the historical and contemporary colonial realities of what we call "Canada" into any broad analysis of this part of the world has become more expected in radically critical circles than a generation ago, but it still isn't always done and certainly isn't always done wholeheartedly or well. In line with my broader concerns with the framework, I think the chapter on colonial oppression underplays dynamics not clearly attributable to the capitalist drive to accumulation. Still, that drive is important, and the book's account of the larger trajectory and of a number of high profile recent instances in which settler state relations and capital have worked to contain, erode, deny, and destroy indigenous self-determination is useful and enraging.

In the book as a whole, the sheer volume of examples does important work. It is heavily documented and patiently presented, and it makes it very hard to resort to one common evasion that appears whenever any single example of Canadian corporate or state nastiness enters many conversations -- that said example is an unfortunate exception in an overall pattern of good deeds. This is, of course, part of the larger agenda of the book to take aim at the firmly entrenched notions that Canada is a force for good in the world and that, to the extent it isn't, we can just blame the U.S. He shows clearly in the ways in which political economists measure such things that there is still distinctly Canadian capital. He shows that while U.S. pressure to do this or that can be important, it does not magically erase the decision-making capacity of Canadian capitalists and agents of the Canadian state. He shows clearly that a big part of why so much of Canadian activity on Turtle Island and around the world is in line with what the U.S. wants is because it is in the interest of Canadian elites to do those things too. However, there are other situations where the interests of Canadian capital are not quite the same as U.S. capital, and in those instances Canadian corporations and the Canadian state can at least sometimes pursue their own path. Continually pointing out active Canadian complicity in everything from the recolonization of Afghanistan to the Western project of forcing neoliberalism on the world is an essential part of any radical politics in this part of the world, and Gordon does the Canadian left a service by providing us with this resource to help us do it.

As I alluded to above, though, I have mixed feelings about the framework that organizes the book's arguments. I obviously can't disagree too much -- after all, I was able to link to reviews written by me of works by many of the people cited in the framework chapter, and I've read things by all of the others I list too. And as far as political economy goes, it isn't a bad version, what with its attention to colonization and to at least some aspects of racism. However, as important as I think capital is in organizing our current world, I think there is more than enough evidence from the work of people in other traditions (including some other flavours of marxist, some of the once-or-twice citees above, and lots of others) that however they originated, oppressive social relations along other axes have important autonomous dynamics today. Yes, they all interpenetrate and are shaped by the rest, including capital, but accumulation is not the only source of energy in this web of relations. A framework that makes it look like it is doesn't do us any favours when it comes to figuring out how we need to act (across a range of scales) to challenge Canadian complicity in empire. It's a problem that this book ignores sexuality completely, has very little to say about gender, and deals with some important aspects of social relations of white supremacy but not others.

Related to this problem is the tendency for political economy and political science to use certain categories in ways that encourage us to see them as natural, stable, and thing-like. And I know it's hard not to do this regardless of the framework you are using. That's why I think it is incumbent on authors to simultaneously use and attempt to destabilize core analytical categories, particularly in ways that keep the reader more closely focused on what is actually going on. So, for instance, talk about "the state" can be a useful shorthand, but it can also end up misguiding us because it can obscure the way the phenomena under that banner are actually socially produced -- that is, by the everyday practices and relations of particular people socially organized in particular ways. Among other things, this can contribute to misconceptions about how we should orient ourselves towards the state, and give us an inflated sense of what can be achieved if we 'seize' it in one sense or another. And when it comes to well-worn debates, like whether the changes labelled "globalization" are making the state less relevant or more relevant, or whether it makes sense to talk about a distinctly Canadian capital or not, this refusal to make strange such well-worn categories means we get stuck in unhelpful binary oppositions. If we make the space to actually explore what is going on here, to figure out what are the practices and relations underlying these complicated phenomena that we rush past in a single reifying phrase, then I think we'll find that the most important debates are different than some of these that occupy our attention now, and that there are better ways to frame our questions.

The final problem with political economy frameworks is that they tend to make it very hard to think and talk about our agency in the world. Again, the version in this book is not a bad one, what with its attention to resistance on the ground in lots of different contexts. But I think part of why I found reading this book emotionally challenging in parts went beyond the ways in which I haven't quite been able to purge deep-down sentimental attachment learned in childhood to the myth of Canadian benevolence. It was also because the political economy framework, even when it includes stories of resistance, has a tendency to make it all seem quite futile -- it obscures how our actions create the world, so it's not integral to its premise that our actions can change the world. Not that I'm arguing for sunshine and lollipops when things really are pretty bleak in our world, but I know we can find ways to present hard truths that aren't quite so paralyzing. The frequent detachment of political economy from actual organizing on the ground was made clear to me in the book's final chapter, "Conclusion: Challenging Canadian Imperialism." It makes a number of quite valid points that I agree with, but makes them in ways that offer little that can easily be appropriated and applied on the ground. It's not bad, it's just detached.

So I repeat: This is an important book engaging in an important project, and it is a supportive resource for all of us who are committed to chipping away at the stranglehold that delusions of Canada as an inherent force for good in the world hold over many people who otherwise prioritize things like social justice. However, I think we need to continue to explore ways of talking about the world that can capture the many different axes of oppression and resistance through which social relations are energized and organized, that refuse to reify the social world, and that place our agency at the centre of how the world is made and how it can be changed.

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


Elise said...

I am pleased to have stumbled upon what is not just a review of Imperialist Canada, but clearly a critical one at that. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

* This is my second attempt to post a comment here. It's quite annoying. Why can't it be made simple? *

Scott, I have to offer a wee bit of criticism. I find your style to be dense and offputting. Not morally. This can't be said politely, but I'm not trying to be rude. My mind grows numb, not critical, trying to deal with the ponderous constructions. I don't think that you have to dumb it down. But I do think you can get to your points better.

Thanks for reviewing Scott Gordon's important book. Besides the people who plug his book, on it's covers, I was beginning to think it was invisible to Canadians. I never see it mentioned. But I consider it's contents to be explosive.

You more or less agree, but find Scott's commentary to be detached. Perhaps. I don't know.

I'm impressed with your energy. It's one thing to have read widely, but something else to also review, competently, so much of what you've read. That's a lot of work.

Take care. Later...


Scott Neigh said...

Hi Arby,

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate what you have to say about the way my reviews are often written -- I don't think it is quite as true of other things I write, or at least I hope not, but part of why my reviews are often "dense and offputting" is because I usually write them more for my own benefit than for any particular audience. I don't think my journalism, my own books, and at least some of my non-review blog posts read quite the same way. But I will take that criticism (which I have heard before, don't worry) under advisement.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting!

Thanks again,

Scott 8)