Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review: Military Workfare

[Deborah Cowen. Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.]

After what I had already read, I didn't really expect to find work like this, especially in the Canadian context. It is history -- well, social and historical geography, really -- tracing intertwined changes in the Canadian military and broader Canadian society from the Second World War to the first decade of the 21st century.

The book begins by laying out how most scholarship from most disciplines has treated the military as distinct, almost as if in an entirely separate realm, from the rest of the social world, and why not doing that might be a good idea. For my own poorly defined but gradually clarifying purposes, this chapter alone would be worth the price of admission. It then goes on to examine the centrality of the Second World War in the emergence of social citizenship in Canada (and elsewhere in the West), not just in the temporal ordering indicated by the phrasing of "post-war welfare state" but mechanistically, in how it reconfigured belonging, produced "a people" (26) in a novel sense, and forced the development of state practices that would otherwise not have existed and that made it all possible. It then moves to the immediate post-war years, which were both highly militaristic and highly supportive of the welfare state; then into the '60s and the social shifts caused by and reacting against the limits of the welfare state, including a burgeoning opposition to militarism and the beginnings of a chronic recruitment crisis; an examination of how the military responded to that crisis, including by creating one of the most exhaustive and sophisticated social research programs in the country in that era, efforts to recruit previously excluded groups, and reorganization of military labour. The book closes by looking at changes in the military and in Canada during the neoliberal era.

The argument begins, as I said, from the assertion that the war itself was much more central in creating the conditions of possibility for the welfare state than commonly recognized. Part of this, Cowen argues, is that how this happened was in part through the extension of welfare measures already developed in and for the military to the population as a whole. One implication of this is that, right from the very beginning, the premise was that this was support from the nation in return for service to the nation. Rather than the more comprehensive universality dreamed of in more radical corners, from the beginning the welfare state in Canada was built on presumptions of reward in exchange for labour, and on a deserving/undeserving divide. Still, attitudes about universality in those years were much more robust (for that section of the population within narrow and rigid gender, racial, and sexual norms, at least) and it was the very workings of these state practices and national imaginings that were adapted from the military that reorganized Canadian society, and the identities and desires of many Canadians, to make the military much more marginal as an institution after the early 1960s, and created the practical challenges it continues to face to this day as an employer.

The research program developed in response to the military's recruitment challenges is both creepy -- so much knowledge developed to manipulate larger numbers of people into active participation in institutions devoted to mass violence -- and also intriguing. For all that it has very different ends and envisages a top-down sort of intervention in society to achieve its ends, its relentless searching and its willingness to apply and adapt the cutting edge of scholarship in grounded ways for focused practical ends also made me think of what movement research needs, in its own from-below sort of way, to be doing. And the military's efforts to integrate women, to recruit people of colour, and to reorganize work and life in the ranks, in the face of stark limits to the kinds of changes that a hierarchical, patriarchal, institution of mass white supremacist imperial violence can actually change without ceasing to be what it is, is illustrative of other, less stark contexts in which efforts at "inclusion" are limited because they are happening in fundamentally oppression-producing and oppression-dependent relations.

The final chapter on the neoliberal era shows further shifts in how it is all bound together. The welfare state has largely shifted from tightly bounded pseudo-universality towards more and more means-testing, sharper explicit divisions into deserving and not, and more and more demands for labour in exchange for benefits. The logic of workfare is deepened in individualized ways for civilians even as measures to enhance the appeal of the military as employer look more and more like classic welfare models, but that too is consistent with the most deserving of the poor (as understood in a nationalist, capitalist, and imperial way) getting the best treatment. The lousier employment of the neoliberal era means that the military becomes, in comparison, a more appealing employer, even with all that comes with being a soldier. And the book argues that in the era of the War on Terror, the aspect of the military experience that is being generalized to the rest of the population is no longer welfare state practices, but rather the restrictions on basic liberal-democratic rights that have always been inherent to being a soldier.

Despite being a fairly standard scholarly monograph in most respects and in its writing, the topic and ideas kept me avidly turning the pages -- though as always in such work, the detailed consideration of evidence plodded a bit, at times. I was surprised that there was no engagement with Sunera Thobani's writing about race and the welfare state in Exalted Subjects. And I would've liked the chapter on the contemporary period to be developed more. But overall, this book will be very useful to me.

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