Posts Tagged ‘books’

Jim Stanford’s Economics for Everyone

This book is a great, comprehensive, and accessible overview of the economics of capitalism.

Two things I learned from this book:

The purpose of a corporation is to protect the individual wealth of the corporation’s investors and owners.

The fundamental conflict between employers and workers. Employers pay the workers to do a task; they are buying task completion. But workers aren’t selling task completion, they are selling their time.

Capitalist Realism

I recently read a captivating book by Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism, which seeks, I think, to synthesize ideas thoughts culture and technology in the “late-capitalist” era with a political economy understanding of the current state of capitalism. Essentially this means that Fisher looks closely at various cultural productions (films, advertising, TV, etc.) and uses them to help to analyze the broader state of the world today. The outcome of this synthesis/analysis is an elaboration of the concept of “capitalist realism”. “Realism” is a term that has many uses (e.g. socialist realism; realism in paining; philosophers use it in a unique way; etc.) but I think that the basic underpinning of the terms is that it realism is concerned with ‘how the world actually is’, as opposed to how the world could be in the future or might be in the present in less perceptible ways. So, ‘capitalist realism’ is an ideological or political position that sees capitalism as the the way the world is and cares not about understanding its historical development or its potential demise. (more…)

Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual

Representations of the Intellectual contains 6 essays, originally delivered  as the BBC’s Reith Lectures, on the role of the intellectual in society. Below are some thematic quotes, and a few of my thoughts.

Universals: “Freedom of expression can not be sought indiviously in one territory and ignored in another.” (89)

There need to be universals otherwise everyone would do what they think is right. [“In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (90) This sounds very unappealing and distopian to me.] Chomsky’s writing is a great example of this, because he holds all sides to account, where other so-called intellectuals decry the trampling of freedoms in other countries, but defend the USA’s own imperialist actions (e.g. Michael Ignatieff). (more…)

David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism

I just finished David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Penguin, 2007). I highlighted a lot of passages (incidentally, it was the first whole ebook I’ve read–which was fine except for the need for an internet connection), which I want to go back over and write about here, but the main argument that he makes, much like the Canadian authors I’ve been reading (see category->neoliberalism in Canada), is that neoliberalism is not fundamentally about monetarist economic policies: it is really about the restoration of elite class power. In Harvey’s words, neoliberalism can be interpreted “either as a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism or as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (19). So, on the one hand neoliberalism could be about rejuvenating (international) capitalism in response to the crises that occurred in the 1970s, (which is how it is described in the mainstream, and sold to the masses), or on the other hand it could be seen as opportunism designed to counter the general progress that had been made between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s towards a more equitable distribution of wealth and power within a capitalist system (i.e. Keynesianism, or what Harvey calls ’embedded liberalism’).

Harvey backs up his belief in neoliberalism as a project to restore class power mostly by analyzing the track record of neoliberalism during the last 30 years: has human well-being increased in general? has society become more equitable? has the distribution of wealth become more even? has the world become more democratic? A number of indicators show that by these standards the record of neoliberalism is abysmal, which does not necessarily mean that neoliberalism is an elite class project–it could just mean that neoliberals have failed in their utopian project (the goal of which is to bring freedom and prosperity to all via the free-market and extreme individualism). However, given the rapid transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy, and given the large gap between neoliberalism in theory and neoliberalism in practice, it seems that freedom and prosperity for all may not be the true goal of those who influence policy. This is, I think, where Harvey’s theory of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ comes in. Here is a long passage about it:

The main substantive achievement of neoliberalization, however, has been to redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income. I have elsewhere provided an account of the main mechanisms whereby this was achieved under the rubric of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. 9 By this I mean the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices which Marx had treated of as ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ during the rise of capitalism. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations (compare the cases, described above, of Mexico and of China, where 70 million peasants are thought to have been displaced in recent times); conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights (most spectacularly represented by China); suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes.
Harvey, David. Brief History of Neoliberalism.
Oxford, , GBR: Oxford University Press, UK, 2007. p 159.
Copyright © 2007. Oxford University Press, UK. All rights reserved.

“The main substantive achievement of neoliberalization, however, has been to redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income. I have elsewhere provided an account of the main mechanisms whereby this was achieved under the rubric of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. By this I mean the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices which Marx had treated of as ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ during the rise of capitalism. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations (compare the cases, described above, of Mexico and of China, where 70 million peasants are thought to have been displaced in recent times); conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights (most spectacularly represented by China); suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes” (159)

One of the earlier examples of accumulation by dispossession is the Mexican debt crisis in the early 1980s when Mexico declared that it could no longer pay off the massive debt that it had acquired to foreign banks:

“What the Mexico case demonstrated, however, was a key difference between liberal and neoliberal practice: under the former, lenders take the losses that arise from bad investment decisions, while under the latter the borrowers are forced by state and international powers to take on board the cost of debt repayment no matter what the consequences for the livelihood and well-being of the local population. If this required the surrender of assets to foreign companies at fire-sale prices, then so be it. This, it turns out, is not consistent with neoliberal theory.” (29)

Just who are the elite who are actively securing their own class power? Taking ‘accumulation by dispossession’ as a premise, the economic recovery during the neoliberal era is not based on the generation of (much) new wealth through the expansion of industry. Rather, new ‘wealth’ and accumulation are the result of finanzcialization (numbers games), enclosure of commons (e.g. the commodification and privatization of water), and the diminishment of the power of organized labour (e.g. the decline of wage rates in real terms). Thus, “one substantial core of rising class power under neoliberalism lies…with the CEOs, the key operators on corporate boards, and the leaders in the financial, legal, and technical apparatuses that surround this inner sanctum of capitalist activity” (33). Another group of highly influential elites are the owners of the massive corporations that have come to dominate the world economy, for example Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim in Mexico, perhaps Conrad Black in Canada, and the Walton family. “the incredible ability not only to amass large personal fortunes but to exercise a controlling power over large segments of the economy confers on these few individuals immense economic power to influence political processes. Small wonder that the net worth of the 358 richest people in 1996 was ‘equal to the combined income of the poorest 45 per cent of the world’s population––2.3 billion people’. Worse still, ‘the world’s 200 richest people more than doubled their net worth in the four years to 1998, to more than $1 trillion. The assets of the top three billionaires [were by then] more than the combined GNP of all least developed countries and their 600 million people’”(43).

“While this disparate group of individuals embedded in the corporate, financial, trading, and developer worlds do not necessarily conspire as a class, and while there may be frequent tensions between them, they nevertheless possess a certain accordance of interests that generally recognizes the advantages (and now some of the dangers) to be derived from neoliberalization. They also possess, through organizations like the World Economic Forum at Davos, means of exchanging ideas and of consorting and consulting with political leaders. They exercise immense influence over global affairs and possess a freedom of action that no ordinary citizen possesses” (45).

There are a lot of other interesting parts in this book, including the influence of neoliberalism on ethics and rights (e.g. the connections between negative rights, privatization, and individualism); on postmodernism as a symptom of neoliberalism (the idea that “postmodern intellectual currents…accord, without knowing it, with the White House line that truth is both socially constructed and a mere effect of discourse,”(198) or in other words that there are no absolute moral truths so we can/should do whatever we want or whatever best suits our interests or acquisition of power); on democratic processes (e.g. the rise of NGOs, which are essentially private sector (i.e. not democratically accountable) groups); on the current tendency towards neoconservativism, which has less interest than neoliberalism in disguising its embrace of authoritarianism; the contradictions caused by neoliberal policy (e.g. the tendency toward large monopolistic companies like walmart and google, rather than increased innovation through competition); on Polanyi and the value of alternative, collective rights (e.g.”the the right to life chances, to political association and ‘good’ governance, for control over production by the direct producers, to the inviolability and integrity of the human body, to engage in critique without fear of retaliation, to a decent and healthy living environment, to collective control of common property resources”(213)); and more.

I haven’t offered any critical comments on Harvey’s book here, possibly because I think that it is pretty much right on. I thought that the chapter on China was very dry and economistic, and I tend to twinge whenever I read sweeping condemnations of China, entirely as a result of the influence of SLE. This is a very unpopular stance though these days. It is interesting though that Harvey’s criticism of China and its ‘human rights record’ is not coming from the usual place of (hypocritical) outrage about how draconian China is compared to the free and liberal west. Harvey is critical of Deng’s neoliberal turn, and the whole idea of ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ which has involved the destruction of the iron rice bowl, the creation of an elite class, increased privatization of services, implementation of user fees, the dislocation of millions of peasants, and the destruction of the power and influence of organized labourers. Hmmm, it seems that I ended up being uncritical of Harvey again…

Lady Chatterly’s Lover by DH Lawrence

I recently listened to a recording of Lady Chatterly’s lover. Very enjoyable. Besides having many hot and spicy moments, with various people quivering in various places, there are subtle critiques of modernism’s effects on human sexuality and labour. Have we gone too far in elevating pleasures of the mind above pleasures of the body? Is this downplaying and degrading of the quality of the physical paralleled in the degraded quality of work of the modern industrial and post-industrial eras? Are we doomed to be unsatisfied in everything physical, engulfed in a fog of ideas, technology, efficiency, and stress?  I think Lawrence’s answer is clear; the toiling miners, the efficiency- and technology-obsessed mine owner, the bitter spouses are all victims of the drudgery and narrowness of the modern era.

Review of Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe

Rudy Wiebe. Big Bear. Extraordinary Canadians Series. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008. pp. 208.

Rudy Wiebe’s Big Bear is the author’s contribution to John Ralston Saul’s “Extraordinary Canadians” series. Out of the fifteen biographies in the series, Big Bear is the only First Nation’s person to be profiled. This is particularly notable given that Saul’s recent book A Fair Country specifically argues for the importance of Indigenous knowledge in shaping Canada’s unique historical consciousness.

In the 200 pages of Big Bear, Wiebe tells the story of Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa), from the carefree days of his childhood until his death in 1888 following imprisonment. The first chapter opens with the striking sentence, “This story happened more than a century ago, but it is still going on” (1). With this, Wiebe immediately signals to the reader that he is challenging individualistic interpretations of history, interpretations which are colonizing insofar as they undermine indigenous interpretations of history in which the individual cannot be removed from the collective. Wiebe is thus asserting that the story of Big Bear is the story both of one man and of a whole people, of an individual and of a collective.

The majority of the book covers the time when Big Bear was the chief of his band, including the development of his political and spiritual leadership, his thoughtfulness in resisting making a treaty too rashly, his various interactions with colonial authorities, and the gross misunderstandings and misinterpretations of him by the white media. Wiebe constructs a complicated and profound character, a man with great physical and spiritual strength, derived on the one hand from having overcome smallpox as a child, and on the other from having been visited by the Great Parent of Bear during his adolescent spiritual quest.

What is most immediately striking about Wiebe’s telling of Big Bear’s life is his blending of two types of history. On the one hand, Wiebe clearly draws upon typical Western facts-and-dates history. But on the other, in his writing style and in his approach to what counts as important and what counts as valid, he is clearly drawing upon an Indigenous storytelling tradition. The latter of these two, I think, is what makes the book more interesting, and what raises the more interesting questions.

Wiebe, throughout the book, attaches great significance to Chief’s Son’s Hand, which is the main spiritual object in Big Bear’s life. It is a bundle of sacred objects, including a large bear paw, which was revealed to him by the Great Parent of Bear during his vision quest. The significance that Wiebe describes Chief’s Son’s Hand as having is spiritual in nature, but is also historical—Wiebe makes it clear that Chief’s Son’s Hand is an object of great historical importance not just because it belonged to Big Bear, who is an important historical figure, but because of its great spiritual significance in its own right. Wiebe does not trivialize or denigrate this importance. Nor does he qualify his description of the importance of Chief’s Son’s Hand:

[Great Parent of Bear] instructed [Big Bear] how to make the core of his sacred bundle. All his life, this sacred object was to be his sign that his prayer had been answered, that, under the Creator, the most powerful Spirit known to his People had come, and would come again, to help him whenever he prayed for guidance and strength, especially in war. (13)

Though Wiebe is a writer of historical fiction, his description of the powers of the sacred object is meant to be an accurate description, not fiction.

Any person writing about Indigenous peoples in Canada, and elsewhere, must be scrutinized with reference to the relationship of their work to the struggle for decolonization. Dawn Martin-Hill (2008) reminds us that, “a lot of past research has reduced Indigenous people to objects and dehumanized them to the point that they cannot recognize themselves. Today, part of Indigenous resistance is to speak and represent self, with no ‘expert’ Eurocentric analysis and authority”.1 With this in mind, it is important to ask ‘Who is Rudy Wiebe?’ And, ‘Who benefits from his writing?’

Weibe, born in 1934, is a white male Canadian of Mennonite descent who grew up in Saskatchewan, not far from the area where Big Bear was born. He has completed formal training in theology and has been a successful fiction writer, winning a Governor General’s prize for his 1973 book The Temptations of Big Bear. Wiebe is also the co-author of Stolen Life: The Journey of Cree Woman, which traces the life of the book’s co-author, Yvonne Johnson, who is Big Bear’s granddaughter, and who served 17 years in prison for murder. In short, Wiebe is a non-Indigenous writer who is sympathetic to the anti-colonial struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada. He is also a writer with wide appeal, and who is in a position of being able to represent Indigenous peoples to a broad, mostly non-Indigenous, audience. As well, in his previous books he has worked closely with Indigenous communities, and seems to have made more than a token effort to understand historical narratives based on Indigenous knowledge.

That Wiebe is a non-Indigenous person writing in a style that attempts to make Indigenous versions of history more acceptable to a mainstream audience puts him in a delicate position. He treads the line between cultural appropriation and cultural solidarity. But, to suggest that no non-Indigenous person can or should write about indigenous subjects also seems problematic—it suggests that there is a line in the sand that cannot or should not be crossed. Wiebe’s work plays a role in encouraging contact with and understanding of Indigenous understandings of history. He embraces the complexity of the characters but also the complexity of history itself, including the complexity of combining Indigenous and Western historical methods. Wiebe is attempting to transcend the modernist dichotomy of fact versus fiction; he rejects this dichotomy because he knows that it does not exist in the intellectual tradition of the Cree, and thus it is not relevant to a telling of Big Bear’s story.

  1. Dawn Martin-Hill. The Lubicon Lake Nation: Indigenous Knowledge and Power, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 47. []

Gerald Friesen – Citizen and Nation

Citizens and Nation by Gerald Friesen is an attempt to conceptualize the Canadian nation at the end of the twentieth century in such a way as to weave together the different strands of our collective past into a unifying national story. Friesen sees a place, Canada, whose present situation as a modern, industrialized, urban nation seems so far from the experiences of indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans, and from the experiences of early settlers. And he worries about the later twentieth century intellectual trends of post-modernism, post-structuralism, which threaten to “de-mean” (eliminate the value of) or dilute any common historical myths that we have of Canada (as a northern nation, as a British-French-Aboriginal nation, as a multicultural nation, etc.). In order to overcome this quagmire Friesen attempts to meld together the idea of modes of communication and economic production as determinants of identity with enquiries into the relationships between cultural history and perceptions of time and space. I argue that in undertaking such a broad and nationalistic project, Friesen glosses over many of the schisms that have existed and do exist within Canadian society. More troubling though for Friesen’s project than this political critique is the argument that it is precisely these internal conflicts and complexities that make Canada interesting and which make a unique Canadian identity possible.

Friesen differentiates four “epochs of time-space dimensions” (224) which correlate to four dominant communications systems, which in turn, in the spirit of Innis, relate to different economic modes of production. Each of these epochs is meant to create its own type of culture, and each epoch corresponds roughly to a broad time period in the history of northern North America. What then are these four epochs? They are the oral-traditional, the textual-settler, the print-capitalist, and the screen-capitalist. Friesen believes that it is possible to synthesize these historical epochs in order to gain a better understanding of current day “Canadian public consciousness” (224). The key to this project for him is to look at the lives and experiences of ‘common people’ living during these periods. To this end, he chooses several individuals and families to serve as archetypes for different periods. For the oral-traditional society Friesen uses the documentary film Summer of the Loucheux: Portrait of a Northern Indian Family to explore the lives of the Andre family, a Gwich’in family living along the Mackenzie River in the 1980s. For the textual-settler society he relies upon the memoirs of Elizabeth Goudie, who along with her husband, a trapper, spends most of her life in the remote areas of Labrador in the early to mid 1900s, before eventually relocating into town. The print-capitalist society is shown through the memoires of Phyllis Knight, a German-Canadian immigrant who came to Canada in the late 1920s, and along with her husband struggled along in numerous low-paying wage-earning jobs. Finally, Friesen introduces Frank and Roseanne, two mid- to late-twentieth century middle-class workers, Rosie as a teacher and Frank as a mid-level employee of Imperial Oil.

In attempting to save the “citizen’s historical reflection” from the “utter instability, even unknowability, of individuals and communities,” (218) proposed by post-modernists and post-structuralists, Friesen ignores important aspects of the history of Canada and of the people who have and do live here. Specifically, I want to challenge Friesen’s portrayals of Indigenous peoples, ‘common people’ and citizens, and the State.

Friesen’s project in the first two chapters, on oral-traditional societies, is to explain how “there remains today an element in Canadian life that is Aboriginal in character” (13), despite the textual and capitalist nature of today’s society. Friesen wonders how the continuity of Indigenous culture has been maintained, and his answer is that it has been maintained through a “political determination to survive,” (47) rather than through some inherently durable quality to Indigenous cultures or worldviews. More specifically the survival of Indigenous cultures is due to their determination to communicate their political struggle to each new generation. Friesen attributes this determination to a “ sheer stubborn immovability” (47) on the part of Indigenous peoples. It seems slightly offensive to say that ‘stubbornness’ is the reason that Indigenous cultures and languages have survived through centuries of aggressive colonialist and assimilationist tactics by the French, British, and Canadian governments.

Any writing on Indigenous people in Canada should be a part of a decolonizing project. Though Friesen is clearly sympathetic to and even supportive of the Indigenous struggles for, as Haudenoshaunee scholar Taiaiake Alfred would say, peace, power, and righteousness, his approach to Indigenous history undermines what, I assume, are his good intentions. Friesen’s approach to history is not an Indigenous approach, but rather is the approach of a Western-trained academic. This becomes problematic when he tries to slot the history of Indigenous peoples in northern North America into his four-epoch theory. Though he may accurately describe an Indigenous approach to history as one that “associate[s] empirical fact with myths as inseparable parts of a single sphere and discuss[es] human and animal or plant life as elements that exist on the same plane as the dream world,” (220) Friesen nonetheless does not himself feel obliged to approach Indigenous history through this sort of Indigenous view. Thus he risks being another White outsider writing about Indigenous people from a distance, a position which places him distinctly in line with the colonial historiography of Natives in Canada.

Friesen is aware of his position when he says that his account of the survival and influence on Canadian identity of Indigenous culture is a “European-Canadian explanation.” (54) Instead of engaging with Indigenous communities and ways of being, he writes that “it is not easy to penetrate the actual workings of the aboriginal political community” (47). It is certainly easier to take his approach, which is that watching a “short, quiet film offers enough to construct a history of Aboriginal people in northern North America” (17). Winona Wheeler describes this problem well:

Conventional oral history interview methods do not meet [for example] Cree standards. Clearly there is a direct correlation between the depth and quality of knowledge a student acquires and the level of reciprocal trust and respect cultivated between the teacher and student. This is why the practice of racing into Indian country with tape recorder in hand and taking data meets with little success. This is also why historians who read interview summaries in distant offices are deaf to significant events from Indigenous perspectives. (Wheeler 201)

To get, or rather to be given, the kind of information required to tell a history that is meant to be part of a decolonizing project requires investing significant time into fostering a relationship between student and teacher (and for a university academic it also requires having the humility to become a student). And even worse for Friesen, “because Indian oral tradition blends the material, spiritual, and philosophical together into one historical entity, it would be a clear violation of the culture from which it is derived if well-meaning scholars were to try to demythologize it, in order to give it greater validity in the Western sense of historiography” (Harvey Knight qtd. in Winona Wheeler 202). Friesen acknowledges this blending, and yet in his own historiographical work does not partake of it.

Friesen frequently writes of both ‘common people’ and citizens in ways that I believe are problematic. He says that ‘common people’ are those who “feel that they are responding to events around them rather than initiating the changes” (6). This, I think, makes Friesen’s ‘common people’ different from the type of people portrayed, for example, by Zinn in A People’s History of America, or by Morton in A People’s History of England. The subjects of these ‘people’s histories’ are people who work to make changes around them but whose changes the elites of society actively try to prevent, and whose historical significance elites try to suppress.

Friesen does portray ‘common people’ as contributing to political actions, like the “thunder gusts” in the 1800s when many people struggled hard for democratic representation and responsible government, and like the political protests that Phyllis Knight participated in in the 1930s. But he portrays political actions like these, when he writes about them at all, as “comforting” (219) or even worse he construes them as intentionally contributing the building of the nation when in fact they were meant to challenge the nation as an entity controlled by elites. Put another way, political protests, like the 1838 rebellions, like the On-To-Ottawa trek, like the FTAA protests, were not shows of solidarity with the elite in the mutual project of constructing the nation. They were demands that the state, as the medium of class power, be given over by the elite in order to better serve the collective good—and not that ‘the nation’, as the locus of Canadian identity, be given over. This leads me to wonder then what, or who, Friesen means by ‘citizens’, for it is certainly true that Indigenous peoples in political struggle, radicals, labour organizers, interned Japanese, and others did not always identify with the Canadian State.

Citizenship is increasingly used as an implement of power by the Canadian state in order to differentiate those it deems (economically and politically) desirable from those it deems undesirable. Recent works by Himani Bannerji, Nandita Sharma, and others have exploded the myth of Canadian multiculturalism and have explained how citizenship policy in Canada has been used to widen class, gender, and racial divides. On a different angle, work by Engin Isin and Greg Neilsen and others has challenged the notion of citizenship as something that is bestowed by states. Rather, Isin puts forth the notion of ‘acts of citizenship’ through which “regardless of status or substance, subjects constitute themselves as citizens or, better still, as those to whom the right to have rights is due” (Isin 2). In this way citizenship becomes something that is enacted, and that is taken, and that works in defiance of the ability of the State to privilege certain people over others. Friesen’s book, though admittedly written before the major works by these authors, does not conceive of citizenship in this way, despite claiming to “assert the creativity of every citizen, not just the powerful few” (228).

Friesen’s telling of Canadian history also glosses over the, often negative, role that the Canadian state has played, thereby supporting the status quo image of the Canadian state as benign. He makes little or no mention of the residential school system, the interning of Japanese, the exploitation of Chinese labourers to build railways, the deaths of hundreds of workers in unsafe worksites, the deportation of (often racially targeted) radicals and progressives, the unnecessary imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970, etc. If we want to be able to be proud of Canada as a nation, or as a collective then we must be able to come to terms with these events in our history in order that we might become justifiably proud. But in order to do this we must first halt the destructive actions that the Canadian state continues to support. Why is our military still killing people in Afghanistan under a mission that is not run by the UN? Why is Canada allowed to be the home base for the majority of global mining companies that wreak havoc around the world? Why does our government support the government of Israeli and punish those who do not? Why does the state hold out against signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? And what of recent immigrants, who despite having higher levels of education find themselves working lower paying and more precarious jobs than those who were born here. Friesen claims that his book is “about today’s world. It is a history of the present” (4). He claims in his conclusion that the book is “political because it contributes to a community discussion about politics and the responsibilities of citizenship” (217). I ask, if Friesen claims that his book is a political one, and is about the day-today lives of common people, why does the book not issue a call to action for political action against the supporters of neoliberal policies that make the lives of ‘common people’, in Canada and in the rest of the world, so much worse?

Friesen positions himself as a champion of importance and impact of common people in shaping Canadian history. I do not disagree with this. But if by ‘common people’ we mean those who are passive with respect to historical forces and who make their contribution by populating the mainstream, these are hardly the people I look to as monumental figures. Those who struggle for change in anonymity, those who demand their rights rather than waiting for them to conferred, those who demand that the government be accountable to the people and not to corporations and the wealthy, these are the people who have held Canada together as a nation by refusing to let it be mediocre and repressive. Friesen “contends that a crucial strength of Canada lies in its common people” (228). I contend that a crucial strength of Canada lies in the politically aware and progressive people who work hard to convince others that they can be more than just common people.


Friesen, Gerald. Citizens and Nation: An Essay on History, Communication, and Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Isin, Engin, and Greg Nielsen. Acts of Citizenship. London: Zed Books, 2008.

Wheeler, Winona. “Reflections on the Social Relations of Indigenous Oral Histories,” in Walking a Tightrope: Indigenous Peoples and Their Representations. David McNabb, Ute Lischke editors. Wilfred Laurier Press, 2005.

Nino Ricci biography of Pierre Elliot Trudeau

I recently finished Ricci`s bio of Trudeau, which is a part of JR Saul`s Extraordinary Canadians series, which is itself, i think, an offshoot of Saul`s most recent book/thesis that Canada is a “Metis nation.”

While I found this an interesting read, I found it odd and a little annoying how Ricci purported to be breaking down the mythology surrounding Trudeau, when in actuality seemed to do more to enhance and glorify the image (as opposed to the reality) of Trudeau. Ricci successfuly presents the fascinating narratuve of Trudeau’s gifted and previledged youth. This youth included things both strange (Trudeau’s admission in his journal’s that he was not writing his true thoughts, but rather the thoughts that he wanted the future archivists of his famous life to read), to the frightening (his denial of Nazi attrocities, his anti-semitism, and his membership in an anti-democratic, pro- quebec nationalism cell).

But, Ricci throughout the book seems to be in awe of Trudeau, from the introduction where he claims that as an immigrant kid in grade two he remembers his first sense of being Canadian coming after hearing Trudeau, to somewhere in the middle of the book where he compares Trudeau to Jesus, all the way to the final page of the book where Ricci walks longingly past the Montreal home of the recently deceased Trudeau. This mood of adoration to me undercuts the seriousness of Ricci’s attempt to discover what Trudeau means to us as an iconic Canadian.

Overall the book is a psychological biography, and not a political one, which is perhaps disappointing to me as it doesn’t spend much time describing and evaluating Trudeau’s policies.

The Road to Wiggan Pier by Orwell

I read this several months ago, and the strongest memory I have now is Orwell’s description of visiting a coal mine and the physical agony involved in the kilometer (or more) long walk from the bottom of the shaft to the coal face. the passage would be 4 feet high, or less where the braceing came down and likely scraped your spine as you passed under it.

Also what I remember is Orwell’s description of the conditions of the boarding house that he stayed in; filthy eating conditions, bad food, rooms packed with beds, shared beds (either at the same time, or in shifts i.e. I sleep there while you work at night and you while i work at day), bedbugs, etc. What strikes me now that I think of it is the frightening similarity to the boarding house for ex-psychiatric patients in Toronto described by Pat Caponni in her book Upstairs in the Crazy House (which I comment on here)

Upstairs in the Crazy House by Pat Caponni

1366_Upstairs at the Crazy HousePat Caponni’s book on her experiences living in a boarding house for discharged psychiatric patients is a painful, uplifting, and ultimately very important book. Caponni displays with both subtlety and honesty the feelings and opinions that she held, and which changed so incredibly, during her time in the ‘crazy house.’ The feelings of fear, disgust, revulsion, etc., towards the other denizens that she admits to having felt upon her arrival, becuase of its honesty, makes her ultimate transition to the caring warden of these same people all the more striking and inspiring.

This book shows how easy it is to accept poverty when we don`t see it, when we succeed in hiding it away, but also how hard it is to not become a compasionate activist when we are forced to see it in an intimate way.