Tuesday, May 07, 2013

What Does This Article Tell Us About "Canada"?

Today, I want to do an experiment. Back in January, I wrote a post beginning the work of thinking through what it means to write (about) "Canada" in some of the ways I'm interested in doing so. The idea was for that to be one little piece feeding into a larger project -- one with a more specific and not-yet-made-public focus. Since then, I've done some other (non-public) writing to lay more of the groundwork for that project. Based on that, it now looks like I have a lot, lot, lot of research and reading to do before I can really do too much more writing for the project proper. I don't really like that, because I don't want the thinking and scribbling I've done so far to just fade away from my consciousness and practice, in part because it is still so fragile and tentatively developed but also because it would risk leaving the research to flounder along ungrounded. However, plunging forward directly with the writing just wouldn't make sense at this point. So what I want to do is find ways to do related work that is short and immediate and related, even if it doesn't contribute directly to the larger project.

So. What I want to do today -- and this may be a one-of, or it may lead to more or other things -- is to take a recent news article and ask the question in this post's title: What does this tell us about "Canada" (where that quotation-marked word is used not to point towards some underlying essence or simple unity, but rather to an uneven, arbitrary cluster of relations, practices, images, and ideas whose interconnection under the sign "Canada" must be explored and explained)?

I'm looking for questions it may prompt me to ask, new-to-me elements linked somehow to "Canada," and connections it may make between such elements. Obviously, this way of approaching it may allow me to inch beyond my already-existing understanding of things, but it still depends a lot on what I already understand about "Canada," so there are likely to be loads of things I miss. But I hope that by paying close attention to a piece of writing that would be legible to a wide audience and what it says (or don't say, or presumes) about "Canada," I can continue to the work of clarifying for myself some of the important elements clustered under "Canada" and developing ways to write about it all. Which, as with most things I write on this blog, may or may not be of interest to anybody else, but will be useful to me.

The article I've chosen is a CBC investigative report called "Shipbuilding contract holds $250M mystery: Cost of arctic patrol ships' design sparks warning of another procurement 'fiasco'". The focus of the article is that the federal government is paying Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax $288 million just to design new arctic patrol ships, something that multiple experts quoted in the article say should cost somewhere around a tenth of that or even less, and an amount that is in excess of what other countries have paid recently to both design and build similar ships. The government and the shipyards have both issued material intended as clarification and rebuttal since the story first appeared, which has been incorporated into the revised version of the story currently linked above, but none of the new material actually explains the mystery identified in the title of the article.

A good place to start, given what I'm trying to achieve, is to look at how "Canada" is most directly present in the article. And it seems to be present as one of the central agents in the story that piece is trying to tell -- it is about "Canada's ambitious shipbuilding program," about "the Canadian project," and about the question of "why Canada would pay so much more" (emphasis added). Now, the post I've linked above already makes clear that I really don't buy the myth of a single, unitary thing called "Canada," particularly one that can be easily treated as having agency. If you look a little more closely at this article with that in mind, it seems like there is a complicated but largely assumed and unnoted slippage going on among a few different things connected with "Canada." Sometimes "Canada" seems to be pointing towards the whole, vast conglomeration that can be seen to cluster under that word, or at least is being allowed to blend into that broadest of meanings. At other times in the piece it seems to be indicating that particular cluster of people and organizations and practices and ways of organizing lives that we might summarize by calling "the Canadian state." At other times, specific people are mentioned as being able to speak for "Canada" -- in places, that is unnamed "officials," and in others it is named politicians, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose and Defence Minister Peter MacKay. Again, there appears to be slippage happening among different things, as civil servants, the government as a whole, and ministers of government are all participants in state relations, but they are not the whole of what gets reified as "the state" yet they are presented as speaking for that whole...which, as I said, in how the article is written, is allowed to blend into or even rhetorically substitute for the conglomeration that is "Canada" as a whole. I have a feeling this gets at something central about the social work that "Canada" -- the nation, the state, the imagined community -- performs, though I'm not sure there's raw material to explore it more here.

This agent "Canada" is, of course, doing something in the article: buying "a fleet of new Arctic offshore patrol ships" whose role is, at least in part, "to assert Canadian sovereignty in the North." This points to a number of key features of what nations and state relations are (or are supposed to be) both in general and specifically in the Canadian case. When the article says "sovereignty", for instance, it invokes a particular version of sovereignty, in which the world is divided into nation-states that have exclusive control over clearly defined units of territory. The very need for this kind of ship points towards clear boundaries that Canadian state relations claim the right to surveil and enforce. This is very different from, for example, the medieval European understanding of sovereignty, or the pre-contact indigenous Turtle Island understanding(s) of sovereignty. Which leads to questions of why this understanding of sovereignty is the one that is treated as natural and inevitable, why this social form is treated as belonging to and having power over particular territories, and how all of that came to be. It also points towards questions about why this particular cluster of people, practices, and relations -- Canadian settler state relations -- gets to claim this kind of sovereignty over this specific territory, which in turn points towards histories of colonization and conquest.

The action being taken to obtain ships also has a form that presumes various important things. For one thing, not only do these various elements of the overall conglomeration of "Canada" get to speak for the whole, at least in certain ways and at certain times, but they also seem to have the ability to amass and allocate resources (in the form of money) in its name. It doesn't say much about how these resources are amassed or how decisions about expenditure are made, but it is treated as unremarkable for their allocation to integrate state relations into a particular way of socially organizing making and doing, which it doesn't name but which we can call capitalism. That, of course, connects "Canada" to a whole vast literature and series of debates, but my own position would be that the social relations that fit that description depend on and reproduce exploitation, violence, oppression, and other sorts of nastiness. The unremarkable character of the intimate connection between "Canada" and these ways of organizing making and doing is significant, if hardly surprising.

Though it is a bit farther removed from the specifics of the article, a few hints can be gleaned about some of the features of this way of organizing making and doing that are relevant to larger discussions. For instance, the name of the firm in question, "Irving Shipbuilding," points towards details of class relations in Canada if you know what to look for -- "Irving" is the name of one of the richest families in the territory over which Canadian state relations preside. The mention that "Canada's shipyards have been in decline for 30 years" and the possibility of "recreating a world-class shipbuilding capacity" point towards (a) the fact that capitalist relations of production are more expansive than just one state (and, it is easy enough to learn elsewhere, are global); (b) the specific wave of changes that global capitalist social relations have undergone in the last 30 years, including shifts in where many types of manufacturing occur; and (c) competing ways of framing and responding to these things -- in particular, the left-nationalist framing, which this piece seems interested in invoking at least in a small way, which talks about "Canada" as having and then losing; but also (by implication through absence) at least one other approach which recognizes that the social organization of capitalist production has always been globally unequal in complicated ways that almost invariably are connected to racialized/colonized/formerly colonized workers being subject to much greater violence than white/colonial workers, though this inequality is used to both privilege and attack the latter group in different ways and at different times.

What is explicitly questioned in the article is not the fact of this way of organizing things, but the details. How much money? Allocated how? Spent on what, exactly? That these kinds of questions are asked implies that there are "right" and "wrong" ways -- or practices widely accepted as such, at least -- to engage in this sort of making and doing. We don't learn much about that distinction beyond the idea that paying too much is suspicious. But, interestingly, the fact that this is a legitimate area of questioning may be a hint that the supposedly agentless, absolute rules of the so-called "free market" that we are taught to respect and not question are really not as agentless and absolute as all that, but rather are created, policed, and enforced by human activity -- that is, human choices and actions, and active policing, define what is supposedly "right" and makes sure they happen, which means other choices, other actions, could create more just ways of organizing making and doing. In this case, someone seems to have violated those rules, and the article is seeking an explanation and perhaps someone to blame.

The article provides relatively little indication that this purchase might be part of a larger series of interrelated changes, though I would argue that it is. Partly, these are changes in the military (and militarized, and militarist) aspects of the state and social relations connected with "Canada" -- see here for discussion of a book that talks about some of this. (The mention of the F-35 fighters is perhaps a hint that the purchase of these ships is part of something bigger, but even so it isn't really enough to go on unless you know the context.) Beyond that, I would argue that these changes related to militarism cannot be properly understood without seeing them as integral to even broader changes in social and state relations in that time, though at present I don't think I would be able to make a completely convincing and concrete case to that effect.

It is, by the way, through the largely unmade connection between the focus of this story and larger social shifts that one way to connect the story to gender can be found, and the article itself hints at this -- the mention of criticism of Harper's choice of these particular ships as "slush-breakers" has a whiff of the ways in which competing posturings about masculinity can be so central to party-political competition. As well, one way to talk about the larger shifts in state and social relations of which this purchase is a part frames it all in terms of state and social relations returning to a more traditional reflection of masculinity-associated elements (e.g. an increasing emphasis on militarism) and a devaluing of elements typically associated with femininity (e.g. aspects of collective caring through welfare state measures).

A final element presumed by the article is, of course, that someone is reading it and cares about it. That someone is, presumably, in some way connected with the overall cluster that is "Canada." As well, something about who the author presumes his audience to be can be understood from the article's focus -- though the word "taxpayer" occurs only once in the article, in a quote from one of the experts on the shipbuilding industry, the questions that are treated as important in the piece are whether the resources allocated through Canadian settler state relations correspond to the goods and services being thus acquired -- that is, are we getting value for our money. None of the other possible questions, whether to-the-root radical or (more realistically) more immediate questions less about value-for-money and more about what values are reflected in what the money is spent upon, are treated as important -- which is to say, acknowledged to exist as questions at all. This, I think, means that the piece is written such that it regards its intended audience as "taxpayers" rather than, say, "citizens" (itself full of problems and limitations) or any of the many other ways that audience might be understood.

So. I'm sure there's more in there, though that's about as much as I care to wring out at the moment. It may be of marginal interest to readers, but writing it has been useful to me, I think more useful than I had expected -- not so much because it has told me much of anything new but because it feels like a step in thinking through some of the ways I want to be able to talk about connections and relationships in the context of "Canada."

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