Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Notes on Panitch and Swartz From Consent to Coercion

From Consent to Coercion: The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms originally published in 1985 and with this third edition published in 2003 is essentially reading in the study of labour in Canada. The book traces the history of free collective bargaining in Canada, from its origins in 1944 (Privy Council Order ___ ), through the era of the Fordist accord, and through the period of neoliberalism and monetarism. ‘Free collective bargaining’ is the ability for a group of workers to as a group negotiate the terms of their work with their employer without fear of repression or coercion (e.g. being jailed, beaten-up, fired, etc.). The authors caution on the use of the word ‘free’:

The use of the word free does have a crucial double meaning. It suggests that a balance of power exists between capital and labour, that they face each other as equals, otherwise any bargain struck could scarcely be viewed as one which was freely achieved. It also suggests that the state’s role is akin to that of an umpire who works to be involved in applying, interpreting, and adjusting impartial rules. In the case of the first meaning, the structural inequality between capital and labour is obscured; in the second, the use of the state’s coercive powers on behalf of capital falls from view. (13) (more…)

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…)

on ‘diversity of tactics’

After what happened in Toronto last weekend with the G20 meeting, I’ve been trying to figure out what I think of black bloc tactics. At a general level I suppose a good place to start is to consider the place of anarchism within the (global) movement for social justice. Anarchists1, very generally, believe that capitalism must be overcome in order to rid the world of great social injustices, like racism, poverty, homophobia, colonialism, and inequality in general. Also fundamental, is opposition to all forms of heirarchy and external control; this means opposition to all supra-local government, and support for local autonomous communities. As David McNally says in this interesting interview on the CBC last week, many anarchists are prominent and active community activists, starting and leading local activities that contribute to vibrant and strong communities. There are some anarchist that embrace ‘black bloc tactics’ which seek to radicalize people by provoking displays of violent force by the state, violence which is perpetrated in different less visible forms all the time (e.g. cutting support for the poor and unemployed, racial profiling (e.g. Maher Arar), breaking unions (e.g. USW in Sudbury)). Their tactic for provoking this display of violence by the state is often to the destroy property of the state and complicit corporations.

Leading up to the G20 protests, I had a sense that the organizers of the large protests that were to take place had managed to create a broad coalition of labour, socialist, and anarchist groups that respected each other’s ‘diversity of tactics’.2 At the big ‘Shout Out For Global Justice’ event on Friday night organized by the Council of Canadians, there was a, I thought, a noticeable tension between the labour speakers and the anti-poverty, indigenous rights, social justice speakers (e.g. difference b/w Leo Gerard, United Steel Workers president,and Naomi Klein). But I was hopeful that these differences were being broached by a shared commitment to justice and ending capitalism.

Regardless of the amount of destruction committed by police agents provocateurs, some anarchists embrace black block tactics, and it is worth thinking about whether their actions are helpful and strategically useful, or if they are individualistic and strategically poor.

I was going to write/think about this more, but this article called “In the Aftermath of the G20: Reflections on Strategy, Tactics and Militancy” does a better job.

  1. here’s an interesting article on anarchism by Noam Chomsky; qt: “The problem of ‘freeing man from the curse of economic exploitation and political and social enslavement’ remains the problem of our time. As long as this is so, the doctrines and the revolutionary practice of libertarian socialism [aka anarchism] will serve as an inspiration and guide.” []
  2. Toronto chief of police Bill Blair (shame!) at a press conference recently said “They embraced a euphemism they call the diversity of tactics. That is their diversity of tactics,” and pointed to a display of captured implements of destruction. []

Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism” by Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore

This article (in Antipode 2002 34:3) is another one that theorizes about the development of neoliberalism in the last 3o years. The authors are both from geography backgrounds and so they inject a ’spatial’ focus into their analysis. The article, I think, presents at least three interesting concepts: the path-dependency of neoliberalism; the creative destruction of neoliberalism; and neoliberalism’s spatial focus on cities.

The first idea, of path-dependency, I think ties in with the the phrase “actually existing neoliberalism” that is in the title of the article. Descriptions of actually-existing neoliberalism are meant to contrast with the theoretical (or even utopian) descriptions of how neoliberalism is meant to work. The idea of actually-existing neoliberalism is also meant to counter two common pitfalls in thinking about neoliberalism:

First, neoliberal doctrine represents states and markets as if they were diametrically opposed principles of social organization, rather than recognizing the politically constructed character of all economic relations. Second, neoliberal doctrine is premised upon a “one size fits all” model of policy implementation that assumes that identical results will follow the imposition of market-oriented reforms, rather than recognizing the extraordinary variations that arise as neoliberal reform initiatives are imposed within contextually specific institutional landscapes and policy environments. (353)

Countering both of these pitfalls, the authors argue:

In contrast to neoliberal
ideology, in which market forces are assumed to operate according to immutable laws
no matter where they are “unleashed,” we emphasize the contextual embeddednessof
neoliberal restructuring projects insofar as they have been produced within national,
regional, and local contexts defined by the legacies of inherited institutional frame-
works, policy regimes, regulatory practices, and political struggles.

In contrast to neoliberal ideology, in which market forces are assumed to operate according to immutable laws no matter where they are “unleashed,” we emphasize the contextual embeddedness of neoliberal restructuring projects insofar as they have been produced within national, regional, and local contexts defined by the legacies of inherited institutional frame-works, policy regimes, regulatory practices, and political struggles. (349)

The ‘contextual embeddedness’ (i.e. the particular institutional context/history) of neoliberal projects inevitably influence the way that these projects are created, strategized, and implemented. And these contexts are always spatially-dependent, i.e. different places (usually states) have different “institutional frame-works, policy regimes,” etc. Thus, neoliberal projects are ‘path-dependent’:

As indicated, neoliberal programs of capitalist restructuring are rarely, if ever, imposed in a pure form, for they are always introduced within politico-institutional contexts that have been molded significantly by earlier regulatory arrangements, institutionalized practices, and political compromises. In this sense, the evolution of any politico-institutional configuration following the imposition of neoliberal policy reforms is likely to demonstrate strong properties of path-dependency, in which established institutional arrangements significantly constrain the scope and trajectory of reform. (361, italics mine)

This idea of path-dependency is one that is close to Harvey’s highlighting of the contradictions between neoliberalism in theory (a utopian project) and neoliberalism in theory, and I think also to Polanyi’s double movement because the neoliberal project wants to go in one direction but is constrained by the socio-political institutions of the particular spatial context it is working in. I don’t know if this really works though, because I see three movements or forces happening: the neoliberal move away from the Keynesian or Fordist values; the Keynesian resistance to it (a form of conservativism); and thirdly a resistance to neoliberalism’s social destructiveness that takes various forms ranging from anarchist to fascist backlashes. It is the first and third of these that would be a double movement, just like how in the 1930s it was the socialists and fascist surges reacting to increased capitalist power.  Anyhow, on to the next.

Brenner and Theodore’s second focus is the idea of neoliberalism as ‘creative destruction’. They acknowledge that their “emphasis on the tendentially creative capacities of neoliberalism is at odds with earlier studies that underscored its overridingly destructive character.” (362) But, they nonetheless present the idea that neoliberalism is creative in its destruction. My understanding of this, and it may be incorrect, is that in order to circumvent and elude path-dependencies, social resistance, and internal contradictions, neoliberal project are forced to be creative. Of course though, neoliberalism, like all theories of capitalist accumulation, are inherently destructive of all of the more meaningful aspects of human beings’ creations and potentials. Or as they say, “The point of this emphasis [on neoliberal creativity], however, is not to suggest that neoliberalism could somehow provide a basis for stabilized, reproducible capitalist growth, but rather to explore its wide-ranging, transformative impacts upon the inherited politico-institutional and geographical infrastructures of advanced capitalist states and economies.” (363) Indeed, neoliberal policies (like all capitalist strategies) generate their own crises, and thus must be constantly creative in order to continually generate capitalist accumulation while at the same time managing the backlash and crises that capitalist accumulation generates. And so, interestingly,

the neoliberal project of institutional creation is no longer oriented simply towards the promotion of market-driven capitalist growth; it is also oriented towards the establishment of new flanking mechanisms and modes of crisis displacement through which to insulate powerful economic actors from the manifold failures of the market, the state, and governance that are persistently generated within a neoliberal political framework. (374)

The third, and I think main, though for some reason less interesting to me, focus of the article is on cities as the location for neoliberal policies. Brenner and Theodor say that “cities have become strategically crucial arenas in which neoliberal forms of creative destruction have been unfolding during the last three decades,” (367) and that they have become

institutional laboratories for a variety of neoliberal policy experiments, from place-marketing, enterprise and empowerment zones, local tax abatements, urban development corporations, public–private partnerships, and new forms of local boosterism to workfare policies, property-redevelopment schemes, business-incubator projects, new strategies of social control, policing, and surveillance, and a host of other institutional modifications within the local and regional state apparatus. (368)

The authors provide two tables in the article that list examples of the ways in which neoliberalism has been destructive and creative. I think I’ll copy them here and that will be all.


table 1.2

Table 2.1table 2.2

table 2.3table 2.4

Stephen Gill’s “Globalisation, Market Civilisation, and Disciplinary Neoliberalism”

Despite the annoying use of American spellings (the epic z vs s struggle), Stephen Gill’s article “Globalisation, Market Civilisation, and Disciplinary Neoliberalism” is a remarkable essay on neoliberalism, especially given that it was written in 1995, a time when, I believe, not very many people on the left had yet been able to grasp the context, magnitude, and implications of the neoliberal shift that was well underway. Gill combines a Marxist historical materialist approach with Foucault’s ideas of discipline and panopticism. The place that these two approaches intersect is in Gill’s argument that the neoliberal system is an example not of hegemony (or, ideally, justice) in a Gramscian sense, but rather of supremacy. A situation of hegemony would seek to absorb, undermine, and corrupt opposition movements, while supremacy just dominates and seeks no compromise, because there is not a cohesive opposition:

“When we introduce the issues of power and justice into our examination of neoliberal forms of globalization, what is emerging is a politics of supremacy, rather than a politics of justice or hegemony. For example, a situation of bourgeois hegemony implies the construction of a historical bloc that transcends social classes and channels their direction into an active and largely legitimate system of rule. This implies a fusion of economic, political, and cultural elements of society (the state and civil society) into a political alliance or coalition that combines coercion and consent. That is, the creation of such a bloc presupposes opposition and a means for incorporating or defeating it in a process of struggle. Whilst there is no compromise by the leading class fraction on the fundamentals of the mode of production [i.e. capitalism], there is nevertheless an inclusion, politically, of a significant range of interests. Subordinate classes thus carry weight within the formulation of state policy. By a situation of supremacy, I mean rule by a non-hegemonic bloc of forces that exercises dominance for a period over apparently fragmented populations, until a coherent form of opposition emerges.” (400)

Another main argument of his, I think, is that the neoliberal dominance is temporary because it of its relying upon a politics of supremacy rather than on a longer term hegemonic strategy. I think that it is in this context that Gill brings up Polanyi’s idea of the ‘double movement’, which involves seeing capitalism as a ’stark utopia’: “as Polanyi pointed out, a pure market system is a utopian abstraction and any attempt to construct it fully would require an immensely authoritarian of political power through the state.”(420) Polanyi’s theory of the double movement is about, I think,  the idea that when social structures are threatened, (for example as they are by the imposition of market values upon things and concepts that they don’t fit (e.g. water), or in Polanyi’s terms when the market becomes disembedded in society and society becomes embedded in the market), there will be a backlash by social force against these dehumanizing changes. This backlash takes different forms, from the recent rise in the political success of fascist and authoritarian governments to the election of populist socialist governments across Latin America.

On the ‘market civilization’:

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…

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.



From A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey (2007).

After the implementatino of neoliberal policities in the late 1970s, the share of national [USA] income of the top 1 percent of income earners in the US soared, to reach 15 per cent (very close to its pre-Second World War share) by the end of the century. THe top 0.1 per cent of income earners in the US increased their share of the national income from 2 per cent in 1978 to over 6 per cent by 1999, while the ratio of the median compensation of workers to the salaries of CEOS increased from jus over 30 to 1 in 1970 to nearly 500 to 1 by 2000. Almost certainly, with the Bush administration’s tax reforms now taking effect, the concentration of income and wealth in te upper echelons of society is continuing apace because the estate tax (a tax on wealth) is being phased out and taxation on income from investments and capital gains is being diminished, while taxation on wages and salaries is maintained.” (16-17)

hey, I figured out what I am doing…

In my thesis I plan to study low-skill temporary foreign worker programs (TFWPs) in Canada. There are two generally well-known TFWPs in Canada, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). A third major program, introduced in 2002, is much less studied and understood. It is called the Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (PPORLLFT). To put these three programs in context, in 2008 there were approximately 10,000 and 35,000 participants in the SAWP and LCP respectively. In 2005 there were less than 5,500 temporary foreign workers working under the PPORLLFT, and just three years later in 2008 this number had risen to over 66,000, an increase of over %1200. Approximately 66% of all the PORLLFT visas are in Alberta, 20% in B.C. and 5% in Ontario, reflecting a concentration in Tar Sands and Olympics related projects. My main research questions will be:

  • How is the PPORLLFT, as a very broad and large scale expansion of temporary foreign workers in Canada, undermining labour standards for both permanent and temporary workers?
  • What is the political narrative behind expanding TFWPs in Canada (i.e. in parliamentary and committee debates), and how does the temporarity of these programs, especially the PPORLLFT program, relate to the general trend of neoliberalization of the state and citizenship in Canada and golbally?

As of 2008, there were more than 370,000 temporary foreign workers (TFWs) living and working in Canada. This is much more than the 106,000 economic-class Permanent Residents (PRs) in Canada in 2008. Thus, while there are still many refugee and family-class PRs,  in terms of the composition of the group of people who are allowed into Canada based on their ability to work, there are far more temporary foreign workers than there are foreign workers with PR status. Though higher skilled TFWs and participants in the LCP in some cases do have a route to (PR) and Citizenship, this is very unlikely for PPORLLFT participants, and all but impossible for SAWP participants. Thus, the population of people who are working in Canada but who have no route to PR or Citizenship is increasing significantly.

There is already some scholarship on how temporary foreign worker programs in Canada fit into a larger trend of the neoliberalization of the welfare state. For example, Choudry, Hanley, Jordan, Shragge, and Stiegman (2009) combine an analysis of the development of neoliberal immigration policy in Canada with workers’ stories that they have gathered from their work as activists in the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal. The most comprehensive analysis of Canada’s low-skill TFWPs comes from a very recent article by Fudge and MacPhail (2009) who trace the history of these programs and their recent impacts from the perspective of organized labour and labour law. They argue that the lack of enforcement of federal and provincial policies intended to eliminate exploitation of foreign temporary workers creates a pool of unfree labour which has negative consequences for both those workers themselves and for labourers in general in Canada. Fudge and MacPhail appear to draw upon the analysis of Canadian immigration policy presented by Sharma (2006) who discusses the narrative behind the creation of an  ‘unfree’ group of so-called ‘migrant workers.’ Relatedly, on the concept of alternative or non-state created ideas of citizenship, Isin (2008) writes about the idea of social citizenship and how citizenship may be more realized through acts of contestation (e.g. demanding rights), rather than by being granted by a state.

Besides these more analytical and theoretical works, I anticipate that the majority of reading and analysis that I will undertake will be of government documents, including statistics, committee minutes, and pieces of legislation. Deconstructing and synthesizing these materials will lead me to an understanding of the forces and processes involved in the actions and policy making of the government.

Initially I wanted to base any research for my MA project on the “lived experiences” of people being affected by government policies, in order to ensure that my work would not be out of touch with the needs of non-academic communities. However, after discussions with different people, and for a number of reasons which I will not go into here, I am moving away from basing my research and project on community-based interviews. That being said, I still wish to make a contribution to struggles by labour and community organizers for equity and prosperity for both foreign and domestic workers and their families. The PPORLLFT is very understudied at this point, and in conversations that I have had with a few community organizers there appears to be a need to understand the forces behind the program as well as a profile of those being affected by it. A major objective of this project will be to discover who the workers are that are participating in the PPORLLFT (i.e. is there a cohesive profile of this group?) and what employers are driving the increase of low-skill temporary foreign worker permits? Since all employers wishing to participate in the PPORLLFT must apply for a Labour Market Opinion (LMO) from Human Resources And Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), I am hoping that it is possible to acquire information on LMOs in order to create a profile of this labour market.

Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada

I have removed what was posted here, the initial work that that I was doing on a paper, and replaced it with a link to the PDF of the final/full version of the paper, called:

“Low-Skill Temporary Foreign Worker Programs in Canada: Challenges to Citizenship”