orange you glad about the NDP’s implosion? not really

So after updating the part about the NDP in my forthcoming column in The Scope 3 times, I find out this morning (after it’s gone to print) that the situation has deteriorated further and MHAs Dale Kirby and Chris Mitchelmore have split from caucus and will be sitting as Independents going into the opening of the House of Assembly this coming Monday. Can’t win ’em all, I guess. But I thought I would put some of my additional thoughts here, just to make peace with all the different things I’ve wanted to say about this situation as it has been evolving over the past 8 days.

Has it really only been 8 days? Christ.

I won’t preempt my own column too much. And it’s probably safe to presume that if you’re reading this blog, you’re relatively familiar with the general coordinates of Newfoundland’s political scene at any given time. But here it goes:

This whole situation is a mess. The fact that caucus – obviously lead by Kirby – blindsided Lorraine Michael with an email, just after she was returning from vacation, instead of seeking to meet with her directly about this, was pretty foolish. More foolish is the fact that they proceeded in this endeavour without securing the cooperation of, at least, enough of the executive to garner the support to pull it off. Yes, obviously Kirby and the anti-Lorraine faction had some presence and power within the party executive – that is, the actual power behind the partisan throne – but it was clearly not enough to keep the situation under control and effectively get Michael to submit to a leadership convention (or a review, if you adopt a more sanguine reading of the letter).

(As an aside, I personally don’t fully buy George Murphy’s claim that he didn’t understand the letter his caucus sent, or that he was pressured into signing it by Kirby, or whatever. I think he knew perfectly well what that letter intended [it’s pretty clear], but he lost his nerve to go through with it once it blew up in public. Ditto Gerry Rogers too, I guess, but she [very wisely] has been much more silent about the matter than Murphy.)

The backing of the executive on this matter, and its delicate handling, would have been key. Say what you will about Lorraine Michael’s leadership (and there are so, so, so many things to say right now), but she toed a pretty lonely line during the height of Danny Williams’ power, and led the NDP to their greatest victory in provincial history. Hell, the only reason she isn’t the leader of the Official Opposition right now is because our electoral system is a regressive joke. And she polled among the most popular – if she wasn’t in fact the most popular – party leaders in Canada. She did deserve at least some modicum of respect and tact from caucus (when this started, anyways); certainly better than getting dumped via email.

Not that I don’t appreciate what they were trying to do. There is a very compelling, Machiavellian case for changing up the leadership and growing the party. And, since all of this broke in the media, I think the narrative has shifted a lot. Michael initially cut a pretty sympathetic figure – it wasn’t hard to believe she was getting a figurative knife in the back from her caucus. This image became a little bit less tenable as the week unfolded; former candidates (and at least one ex-party member) appeared in the media, alongside Kirby and Mitchelmore, to insist that Michael might resemble a hardline Stalinist more than a lovable old nun in matters of how she handled her leadership, internal criticisms, etc. Obviously, I think, we can see that there is a glimmer of truth in this assessment; she was quite willing to take a bloody feud that should have stayed in the backroom directly out into the spotlight in order to outmaneuver Kirby et al.

It certainly worked – but this is a Pyrrhic victory in the truest sense of the term. Lorraine Michael won the battle, but now with the defections, the NDP are certainly going to lose the war. And, frankly, they should; this whole situation has been embarrassing for everybody. This is apparently not a group of people who are prepared to commandeer the ship of state. The last straw, I think, were her comments the other day just after news of the caucus détante was reached (after two days of meetings, in secret, with the help of a mediator). When asked if she regretted anything, she rather flatly insisted, ‘nope’. Really? No regrets about creating the media firestorm that engulfed the party? None at all? Okay then.

It takes two to tango. If she was really interested in working with caucus, she would have taken a more conciliatory approach. Even if she just wanted to help stuff all this drama back behind the curtain until convention so the party could pretend to be a credible force when the House opened again, she could have at least shown some remorse for the media gongshow she helped bring about last week. That would have been a legitimate display of leadership. Instead, it’s now really hard not to start sympathizing with Kirby and the dissidents. Comparisons to Julius Caesar have been invoked, off and on, since this drama started; if at first we focused on the shock of Brutus’ betrayal, we now start wondering if he did in fact do it to slay a budding tyrant.

But what odds, now? The real losers here are the party faithful, who for the first time maybe ever were faced with the prospect of a formidable NDP in Newfoundland and Labrador, and are instead left with a patient on life support. But there are many on the outside also lose out; those of us who were hoping a strong NDP would mean new and original policy ideas (Mitchelmore’s wood pellet schtick is not as ridiculous as you think), a credible leftist voice in local affairs, and at the very least, more interesting political dynamics at the provincial level. The implosion of the NDP has more or less dashed those hopes. And yes, I say implosion – the caucus is split and everyone involved revealed themselves to be largely unaware of even the basic contours of the political game they’re embroiled in. I don’t think they’re walking away from this one anytime soon.

And if Ryan Cleary thinks he can ride into this mess and save the NDP and then hoist the Republican flag above Confederation Building, or whatever it is the man has planned? That might be the only thing that could make the situation worse.

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meanwhile, in my other field of study

Doing some reading for my Theory Comp (I was advised to start thinking about, in the broadest terms, “what is political theory?”), and I came across a pretty marvelous excerpt about the relationship between capitalism and the discipline of political theory from Wendy Brown (2002). I’m reposting it here because it’s one of those wonderful moments where you read something and go “okay, so someone else is thinking the exact same thoughts I’ve been having.”

[T]here is another matter concerning power that is significant for political theory today, namely, the status of capitalism in our thinking. For a number of reasons, capitalism is not much on political theory’s agenda today. First and most important, it appears unchallengeable. Second, it is difficult to make the case for viable alternatives, either for their viability or for the possibility of achieving them. Third, over the past century and a half, in many ways capitalism has become steadily less odious and more pleasurable for the majority populations of the First World; gone are the scenes of the masses laboring at starvation wages for the wealth of the few, except in the Third World. Capitalist commodity production is also ever more oriented to the pleasures of the middle-class consumer, and the middle class is ever more oriented by its own pleasures. Thus, writes Agamben, “while the state in decline lets its empty shell survive everywhere as a pure structure of sovereignty and domination, society as a whole is . . . irrevocably delivered to the form of consumer society, that is, a society in which the sole goal of production is comfortable living.” Capitalism charms rather than alienates us with its constant modifications of our needs and with its production for our mere entertainment, and we are remarkably acclimated to its production of algorithmic increases in the rates of redundancy and replacement of technologies. Fourth, however cynically or superficially, First World capitalism has developed an ethical face: it recycles, conserves, and labels; it divests itself of genetically modified organisms and monosodium glutamate, and caters to kosher, vegetarian, and heart-healthy diets; it refrains from testing on animals and develops dolphin-safe tuna nets; it donates fractions of its profits to cancer research and reforestation and sponsors Special Olympics, Gay Pride, summer Bach festivals, and educational supplements for the underprivileged. Save for occasional revelations about heinous sweatshop practices or dire devastations of pristine nature, it has largely lost its brutish reputation as a ruthless exploiter and polluter. With the aid of the media that it also sponsors, it has effectively transferred this reputation to images of power mongering, desperate, ignorant, or fundamentalist sites in the Third World—the Taliban, Castro, the People’s Republic of China, the rubber tappers of the Brazilian rainforest. Fifth, these changes in capitalism itself are complemented by recent left intellectual tendencies that deflect from capitalism as a crucible of unfreedom and inegalitarianism. When the seeming perdurability of capitalism, the absence of compelling alternatives, its devotion to consumer pleasures, and its ostenibly improved conscience are combined with increased theoretical attention to other orders of injustice – those targeted by multiculturalist politics—capitalism slips into the background as an object of critique or political concern. Sixth, the rise of professionalism in political theory and the apolitical nature of much theory and theoretical exchange means that this backgrounding goes largely uncontested even by those who consider themselves to be on the cultural left. Finally, the repair of most Marxists to their own journals and conferences (this, too, a symptom of professionalism), and the extent to which many Anglo-American Marxists have substituted “postmodernism” and “identity politics” for capitalism as the chief target of their wrath and analytical attention, means that the Marxist project of illuminating the place of capitalism in political and social life has pretty much vanished from the orbit of political theory.

 

Yet if capitalism has all but disappeared as a subject and object of political theory (notwithstanding routine drive-by references to “globalization”), capitalism is and remains our life form. Understood not just as a mode of production, distribution, or exchange, but as an unparalleled maker of history, capital arguably remains the dominant force in the organization of collective human existence, conditioning every element of social, political, cultural, intellectual, emotional, and kin life. Indeed, what for Marx constituted the basis for a critique of capital deeper than its exploitation and denigration of labor, deeper than the disparities between wealth and poverty it organized, is that capital is a larger, more creative, and more nearly total form of power than anything else in human history yet fundamentally escapes human control. It was this, in Marx’s view, and not its inegalitarian distribution of wealth, that rendered capital such a profoundly antidemocratic historical force: too little is ours to craft or control as long as this force organizes and produces our world; too little can be ordered according to democratic deliberation about human need, gratification, or enhancement—not our work, our values, our fortunes, our enmities, our modes of education, our styles of love, the content of our suffering. This is not to say that capital is the only significant social power afoot in the contemporary world. We have learned otherwise from Nietzsche, Freud, Weber, du Bois, de Beauvoir, Fanon, Foucault, and their respective contemporary legatees. While importantly supplemented by these teachings, however, Marx’s insight into capital’s awesome power to drive human history and contour agentic possibility is not diminished by them.

 

No one could have predicted how the force of this insight would multiply between Marx’s time and the present. Our problem today, however, is less with its intensification than with what to do with it when both the science of history and the revolutionary impulse that Marx counted on have collapsed, when the validity of the critique persists but there is nothing to be done about it. For Marx, the depth of the critique was matched by the depth and reach of the redemptive promise. Today this promise is almost fully extinguished. That the most powerful undemocratic force in human history appears here to stay—this is the fundamental left and liberal predicament today, a predicament that haunts our theoretical and political practices concerned with freedom, equality, justice, and more.

 

This haunt is not the only consequence of failing to engage the powers of capitalism in our work. Rather, our averted glance here also prevents us from grasping the extent to which the dramatic alterations in the configuration of the political discussed under the rubric of “world history” are themselves effects of capitalism and not simply of secularization, disenchantment, or contingent human invention. To paraphrase from the Communist Manifesto, capitalism is a world-class boundary smasher: there is nothing it cannot penetrate, infiltrate, rearrange, hybridize, commodify, invent, or dissolve. The movement of capital is largely responsible for the extent to which boundaries have been erased, in late modernity, between activities or spheres historically bearing at least a modest distinction from one another in terms of space, style, organization, or function, for example, the university and the corporation, sex and technology, or the political and the cultural. Thus, to theorize the politics of recognition, the sexual order of things, the nature of citizenship, or the reconfiguration of privacy, without taking the measure of their historically specific production by capitalism, is literally not to know the constitutive conditions of one’s object of analysis. It is not to be able to grasp the powers organizing life in our time and hence to risk ontologizing this organization and reifying its effects. Finally, to the degree that potential transformations are figured in abstraction from the powers delimiting possibility, it is to make political theory into fantasy play.

Yes b’y.

—-

Wendy Brown. “At The Edge” in Political Theory 30(4). 2002.

the big shift is real

 

So I’m in the process of gearing up for my comprehensive exams in Canadian Politics, and my thoughts are drawn towards questions of Canadian nationalism and national identity. I’ve always been interested in questions of nationalism in Canada, and while I’ve read/thought fairly extensively about Newfoundland nationalism, there is a lot of ground elsewhere that remains to be covered. I spent the better part of June and July reading and writing about Aboriginal politics and nationalism in Canada, and on a recent trip to Montreal I made a point of picking up a few books on Québecois nationalism in order to start getting a grip on these other ‘sub-Canadian’ identities (‘national minorities’ and ‘stateless nations’ within Canada, as Will Kymlicka would put it). The Revolutionary Communist Party of Canada also runs a great little bookstore in Montreal, if that’s what you’re into. The Anarchist bookstore was closed.

 

Anyways. I’ve been thinking a lot about Canadian identity lately, and between Eva Mackey’s The House of Difference (1999) and George Grant’s Lament For A Nation (1965), I’ve been thinking a lot about the very neurotic obsession of the Canadian state (and its elite stakeholders) with constructing a functional pan-Canadian identity. Grant is worried his decidedly Red Tory image of Canada is a lost cause because Americanization is doomed to devour all of Anglo North America, while Mackey is worried that this grand, liberal multiculturalist project really boils down to ‘white supremacy with a human face.’ These are both very different arguments, made in very different historical contexts, but both I think lend support to the fundamental argument I’m going to make in my Canadian comp: that the Canadian political science literature reflects this neurotic preoccupation with the lack or weakness of unified Canadian identity.

 

I’m not going to get into too much detail right now, but that’s where my head is at generally. The next 8 months of research and writing (and my oral defense!) will determine whether or not I’m actually on to something here.

 

So it’s here, in the context of these thoughts, that I encountered Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s The Big Shift (2013) this past week. I have a few thoughts about this book, and I will try to sketch out a few here.

 

The premise is pretty straightforward: the centre of economic and political power in Canada has shifted from the Centre (Quebec/Montreal/Ottawa/Toronto – that is, the ‘Laurentian’ area) to the West. Thanks to decades of liberal multiculturalism, a large contingent of Pacific immigrants have settled in Canada (largely in the suburbs), and both of these factors ensure that the basic structures of Canadian political reality have forever shifted post-2011. The Conservatives are the 21st century’s Natural Governing Party. While the ‘Laurentian Elite’ still retains cultural hegemony (through their control of the media, academia, and other cultural institutions), their effective political power has been terminally undercut by Western insurgency.

 

The rest of the book is devoted to unpacking this idea. Among other things, it includes a postmortem of Quebec sovereignty (in it’s contemporary iteration, it is fundamentally backwards and driven by fear), a charge that Official Bilingualism is at best a legal fiction and at worst a giant waste of taxpayer money, and some sharp words about the “universal” Atlantic Canadian mentality of laziness and entitlement. It bears repeating at length here:

 

[Atlantic Canada] is a place where facts go to die, where the laws of economics are miraculously suspended, and where a universal belief system is founded on the universal denial of reality. Only in Atlantic Canada (…) would anybody suggest that it’s perfectly reasonable to work in a ‘seasonal industry’ with the expectation that you get to work part of the year, and then the government takes over from the employer for the rest of the year while you do nothing (…). Only in Atlantic Canada would it be universally accepted that this should never change. (pgs. 73-74)

 

For a book determined to blast apart all the ‘Laurentian’ myths about the country, it uncritically regurgitates the same ‘Newfie Joke’ that has had currency among “Laurentian elites” since Confederation in 1949. There are many valid criticisms you can make about the uses and abuses of EI in Atlantic economies but this is a pretty brutal oversimplification. Maybe they made this passage artificially inflammatory in order to boost book sales! Or maybe the authors assumed we were collectively too lazy to actually read the book.

 

Either way, this attitude towards the East Coast is symptomatic of the book’s militantly neoliberal perspective. Right-to-Work states in the US are hailed as an engine of economic competition, private Charter Schools are presented as a panacea to the education system’s shortcomings (and a good way to circumvent those pesky teachers unions!), and concern about the severity of climate change is openly questioned in a few different parts of the book. All this is well and good, but Ibbitson and Bricker present their arguments not as ideologically motivated and engaged but as extra-ideological ‘common sense.’ Problems with all this aside, it at least suggests that they really and sincerely believe what they’re saying – which is always really refreshing to encounter after so much academic reading.

 

Overall, this is a pretty interesting read and worth looking into for any observers of Canadian politics. If you can stomach the thought of reading what amounts to a 300 page Globe and Mail editorial, it’s worth the couple of hours it takes to breeze through the book.

 

I intuitively agree with a lot of the arguments they make in the book, although rumours of Québec’s death here are greatly exaggerated. One of the major reasons I wanted to do my PhD in Edmonton is because I really do think power – broadly defined! – in Canada has shifted West, which would make this province the best place to study Canadian politics. And, quite frankly, I do think that Stephen Harper has been pretty effective at not only getting the West In, but in actively advancing the cultural hegemony of conservative ideology in Canada – maybe to the point of having it institutionally consolidated. There is always room for contingency and political agency, but I remain a cynic and I think most of these trends will be borne out again in 2015.

 

But what really stood out to me – and is pretty relevant to what I want to explore for my comprehensive exam – is the argument it makes about Canadian nationalism. This mainly boils down to ‘the issue of national pride is settled’ (citing the enthusiasm for the 2010 Olympic Games, etc) and a cool enthusiasm for Harper’s drive to celebrate the British monarchy and the great military victories of Canadian history (1812 and Not-Dieppe). It’s thrown directly in the face of all those ‘Laurentian’ elites who spent the better part of the 20th century worrying about the viability of Canadian identity (Grant! Atwood!), and I think it works as a nice post-script to a lot of Eva Mackey’s arguments about the precariousness of Canadian identity and the ways in which most constructions of Canada hinge on the deployment of this idea of ‘Britishness’.

 

Since reading Mackey’s book I have been thinking a lot about the reassertion of British symbolism under Harper, and the place of this argument in The Big Shift really spoke to me. I think Ibbitson and Bricker are on to something here, but I’m not nearly as excited about its implications as they are. Fleshing out why is one of the projects I’m going to work out this year.

The Premiership of Unrequited Dreams

can't spell joey without JOY

In his sprawling memoir I Chose Canada, Joey Smallwood has a chapter devoted to listing his 23 most upsetting failures. Reading this is a great way to celebrate 64 years of success and great times as Canada’s 10th province. Just think, we could have been so much more:

1. Build a replica German town (and fill it with German people) somewhere out in the bay as a tourist destination

I had a plan to duplicate in Newfoundland the little town of Rothenburg in Germany. This is a very ancient town, quaint beyond words, where large quantities of attractive toys are made.  My thought was that the existence of a replica of this, or some other German town, peopled by Germans who operated hotels, restaurants, taverns, shops, and the like, would attract to Newfoundland each year thousands, or possibly even scores of thousands, of German tourists from the United States and Canada. (…) It would have cost a good many millions, but I’m still not sure that it wouldn’t have been a profitable venture for Newfoundland. (359)

2. Line the first 20 miles of the TCH coming off Port-aux-Basques with flowering plants to make the world’s longest Lover’s Lane.

3. Send an outport back in time to the 16th century

I intended to find some deserted cove in one of our bays and recreate in it as perfect a replica as possible of a sixteenth or seventeenth-century Newfoundland fishing settlement – the fishermen using the same techniques, dressing much the same, and living as their forefathers had done 200 or 300 years before. Their families would live there only through the summer and early autumn fishing season. (359-60)

4. Set up better conservation policies in Labrador

I deeply regret my failure to institute a really powerful policy of conservation (…) We did something, but not one-quarter enough. One day our descendants may condemn us harshly for my failure and the failure of others in this field. (360)

5. Build a giant statue park around Confederation Building filled with characters from Newfoundland history

I all but completely failed in my program to set up a substantial number of statues and monuments in front of Confederation Building. My plan envisaged a statue of the American Indian Squantum or Squanta, who had lived in Newfoundland and later, when the Pilgrim Fathers landed on the American continent, had become a Heaven-sent friend to the impractical settlers. It was my intention to ask the United States Government to donate such a statue, and to ask the Italian Government to donate a statue of John Cabot, and the British, French, and Spanish governments to give statues of great nationals of theirs who had played a part in the early history of Newfoundland. (…) Only three statues are there, but I had hoped to have twenty or more. (360)

6. Establish a great Newfoundland Polytechnique up on Ridge Road in St. John’s

The polytechnique would absorb the College of Fisheries, Navigation, and Marine Engineering and Electronics, as well as the College of Technology. (360)

7. Put the Supreme Court in the middle of MUN’s main campus and build a law school

8. Have the Ford Foundation go around the world recruiting students for the Fisheries’ College

They never did go for it, but I still think that it is a solid plan. (361)

9. Build a diesel engine plant

10. Build a Leica camera plant

My mouth watered as I went through the great camera plant of Ernst Leitz, manufacturer of the Leica camera, at Wetzlar, Germany, when I saw the army of men and women assembling the cameras. I did succeed in getting them interested in establishing a branch plant in Canada – they went to Toronto! (361)

11. Expand salt and oil exploration

12. Build an iron ore processing plant in Wabush

13. Sell the Bell Island coal mine to a German steel mill

We offered them virtually outrageous inducements to take it over and to own and operate it. We worked all through the night, until two o’clock the next morning, with the three  [German] representatives (…). I had with me several of my Cabinet colleagues and a group of lawyers from the Department of Justice. We came to an agreement at last and we all went home to bed (…) [but] it was some time afterward that I learned why the company (…) turned it down. The iron ore they’d be getting from Bell Island would replace much of what they were getting from France, and (…) if they did this, they would not be allowed to sell any of their finished products in France, which was a very important market to them. (361-2)

14. Build a heavy water plant

15. Build an aluminium plant

16. Build a graphite electrode plant

17. Build a Volkswagen plant in Newfoundland

Hitler, as the world knows, promoted “the people’s car” (…). He collected money from virtually every family in Germany to finance the development and production of the car. The German State that had done all this was now gone, and there was a strongly held theory that the plant and car were no longer “owned” by anyone – in short, that they were just there for the taking! It will be no news to you that I failed. (362-3)

18. Build an unnamed Japanese car plant

19. A special government boat that could ship Newfoundland-made cars to the Mainland

I had the idea that, to give very necessary practical help to certain industries that were were establishing (…), we should have a specially designed ship, to be owned by the Government but operated by efficient ship’s-husbands. This ship would have made a vast difference to the economics of an automobile assembly plant in Newfoundland, for by it the cars could be transported up the St. Lawrence to the very heart of the continent. (363)

20. Build jets for the Soviets

I failed to make a deal with the Government of the Soviet Union for the partial manufacture, and the assembly, of their Yak jet aircraft in Newfoundland, for sale throughout North America and possibly Central and South America. (363)

21. Establish Canada’s biggest shipyard at Marystown to build Israeli supertankers (except Frank Moores screwed it up)

[Ya’acov Meridor and Mila Brener] wanted to create (…) a shipyard that would build supertankers up to 225,000 tons. We were negotiating this project when I left office in January 1972. I hadn’t been out of office many weeks before my successors announced that the Israeli firm was out of Marystown, and my dream of setting up Canada’s largest shipyard at Marystown died. I will always regret the failure of that great concept. (363)

22. Expand the Come-by-Chance refinery, except that he admits from the outset that he actually did this so I have no idea why he put it here

“haha jesus christ, joey” (all 600 pages)

23. Fill up inbound oil tankers with cheap orange juice to save money on shipping

The incredibly rich Captain Ludwig of California spent close to $15 million to establish great orange groves in Chiriqui Province in the Republic of Panama. (…) Once a fortnight, throughout the year, the Golden Eagle oil tanker departs from the Panama seaport of Colón for Holyrood. My thought was the essence of simplicity: the large steel drums of frozen orange-juice concentrate would be put into refrigerated compartments on the tankers, [and] delivered to Holyrood (…). It would have made orange juice inconceivably more plentiful, and very much cheaper, than milk in Newfoundland. It was a good idea, and it would have succeeded except for the fact that Ludwig’s whole vast scheme collapsed in utter failure and all those millions of dollars were lost. (366)

At least he was self-aware. This is literally the chapter’s concluding paragraph:

Failures: twenty-three in twenty-three years. It wouldn’t be too bad if that were the whole story. But these twenty-three aren’t even 10 per cent of the total; they are only the most serious ones. There are those in Newfoundland who would paint a far more damaging – and sinister – picture. There’s no room for doubt: I must be placed at the head of the list. I am guilty of more failures and mistakes than Alderdice, Monroe, Squires, Morris, and Bond, the other elected prime ministers before me in this century, all put together. (366)

Don’t be so hard on yourself b’y. They might still build that law school at MUN yet.

—–

I Chose Canada: The Memoirs of the Honourable Joseph R. ‘Joey’ Smallwood. Macmillan, 1973.

we won’t get fooled again

(or, “talkin’ ’bout Confederation” and other joke titles made out of The Who lyrics)

I love Greg Malone. Here I am, in far away snowy Edmonton trying to put together a paper on the politics of Newfoundland nationalism, and he drops a book about Confederation that gets everyone really mad over Newfoundland history.  It’s like Christmas.

I have not read Greg Malone’s book yet (it’s on my list). But conveniently, I have already been reading and thinking a lot about Confederation and its place in our collective political consciousness, so the timing is excellent. His book may or may not lay bare “the truth” about what happened in 1948, but the old arguments it raises have been a good rallying point for my own thoughts.

There is nothing new under the sun, especially so when it comes to rehashing the history of Newfoundland’s entry into Canada. Most famously (as in “I could actually find a copy of it in the U of A library”), Bren Walsh in More Than A Poor Majority: The Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada lays out the contention that (on the basis of ‘newly discovered’ documents out of British and Canadian archives) there was a “deliberate, calculated design, fermenting over a decade or more, between Britain’s Dominions Office and Canada’s Department of External Affairs [to bring Newfoundland] under the Canadian umbrella this time with no repetition of the costly miscalculations and errors which had frustrated [earlier attempts at Confederation]” (Walsh, ‘Introduction’; 1985). But before you get too excited, Secret Nation is not quite a documentary:

Although I admit I could not uncover the sort of proof a reporter should demand for such an accusation as I am making, I also have to say that I do not believe that all of the gaps were innocent; in fact, I am convinced that some of the records for the period I was researching were deliberately removed from the files and either hidden in some inaccessible hiding place or destroyed so that someone like me couldn’t peruse them and come to the sort of conclusions I have reached. (ibid)

So much for that. Since “Smallwood hid the facts” and/or “Attlee did 4/1” aren’t the most compelling historical arguments, we can probably bracket them out and tackle the legitimate questions Walsh does raise: did our parents (or grandparents) really choose Confederation, or did the British Empire load the dice?

On the order of a historical study, this is an old question, and has been treated at length elsewhere over the last 20 years. Jeff Webb does a magnificent job of taking apart Confederation conspiracy theories, and Jim Hiller’s short essay Confederation: Deciding Newfoundland’s Future 1934 to 1949 is an indispensable survey of the relevant facts. His assessment at the end is the authoritative word on the subject and worth quoting here at length:

It is important to remember that the crucial, early decisions about procedure were made at a time when the British government assumed that Confederation, though desirable from its point of view, was extremely unlikely. It was Clement Attlee and the members of the “goodwill” mission who laid out the ground rules. Newfoundland’s future as an independent country would be precarious. Thus Newfoundlanders should think hard before they reclaimed independence, and should prepare themselves for a difficult future. (…)

The idea of attempting confederation came later, once the reconstruction plan had collapsed, and Canadian officials had shown their interest. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Canadians had a more accurate sense of Newfoundland than the British, and thought that confederation might be pulled off. But neither side could be certain, since the decision had to be left to the Newfoundland electorate, and as yet no confederate leaders had emerged.

The plan worked because of Joseph Smallwood. He understood that the grim days of the Depression and the prosperity of the war years had changed Newfoundland society significantly, and political attitudes as well. (…) Smallwood and [F. Gordon] Bradley were certainly helped in significant ways by the Canadian and British governments, but it was their achievement that by the time the Convention ended early in 1948, confederation was a live issue and a real constitutional alternative.

At this point, the British would have been well-advised to change tactics. Their decision to place confederation on the ballot against the recommendation of the Convention was widely criticized. It made the Convention seem like a waste of time, and convinced many that the British were more interested in manipulating events than in listening to Newfoundlanders. The quite plausible alternative would have been a return to responsible government, trusting that confederates could win control and then negotiate union. Done that way, confederation would have been more palatable and probably less divisive than was the case.

But the British felt they could not take the risk, and could not tolerate further delay. Confederation had to be on the ballot, referendums had to be fought. The results showed that Smallwood’s political sense had been accurate, in that most Newfoundlanders off the Avalon Peninsula were prepared to join Canada. If the second referendum had been a general election, the confederates would have been swept into office. (…)

There is no convincing evidence that the votes were tampered with or the results manipulated. That such allegations were sometimes made shows how divisive the issue became, and that many Newfoundlanders ceased to trust the good faith of the British government. The process of confederation, certainly after January 1948, became an exercise in blunt realpolitik which caused widespread, lingering and justifiable offense.

As Dominions Secretary in 1942, Attlee had started the process of constitutional discussion in Newfoundland on principles derived from his Fabian Society background – an insistence on political education, gradualness, and informed decision-making. His Labour government ended the process seven years later by refusing to accept the results which those principles had produced. Instead, Newfoundlanders were rushed into confederation – not against the wishes of most of them, but in a way that was undignified, and which prevented a full discussion of how Newfoundland and Labrador, a distinct society, might best have been fitted into the Canadian confederation. (…) Few would want to undo that decision taken in 1948; many wish that it had been done differently. (Hiller, 1999: 61-63)

This latter criticism – that confederation was the result of a rushed procedure – is valid, and I think its also valid that this remains a legitimate grievance today. This isn’t Hiller’s position, but the notion of a confederate responsible government does raise the spectre of a getting a ‘better deal’ in the federation than the negotiated Terms of Union (an argument popular in some nationalist circles); on this question, Webb more or less exorcises that ghost when he writes that “the division of federal and provincial powers had been set out in 1867 and there were limits to Newfoundland’s ability to use ‘special circumstances’ to wring additional concessions out of the federal government. (…) Anyone who thinks Newfoundland could have been given a better deal than that enjoyed by the other provinces knows nothing of Canadian politics” (Webb, 1998; 178-9). As to the ‘dignity’ point, I am admittedly less sympathetic to this criticism; the decision to put Confederation on the ballot contra the Convention’s wish was definitely the British playing fast and loose, but I’m also not ready to completely write off the 50,000 Newfoundlanders who petitioned for them to do so.

As far as the question of “what really (empirically) happened” goes, I think it’s fair to say that the issue is largely settled. The questions that remain are of its symbolic dimensions: what does it mean, and what is at stake in how we interpret it?

I have a few ideas.

In trying to think through questions of national consciousness in Newfoundland post-Confederation, I found myself ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’ and into thinking about the larger implications of modernity; specifically, the ‘modernization’ of Newfoundland brought about by Confederation. Making sense of what happened requires looking at the way notions of modernity played into Newfoundland politics, not only post-Confederation (which is obvious in Smallwood’s ill-fated “Great Leap Forward”) but also in the context of pre-Confederation politics.

I think it’s a fair assessment to say that outside of St. John’s and the corporate fiefdoms of Grand Falls and Corner Brook, pre-Confederation Newfoundland was not ‘modern’ in the sociological sense of the word; many historians and commentators have described the economic and social structures of the outports (where most Newfoundlanders lived) as “quasi-feudal”, and I am inclined to agree with them. Characterizing the merchant credit system as a form of indentured servitude isn’t a far cry from the truth, but despite the exploitative (and certainly oppressive) nature of this system it was also a structurally necessary outgrowth of the outport economy; starved for capital in a pre-modern economy, credit and truck are the only ways to get anything done.

The problems of this system for economic and political emancipation had been recognized at least as far back as William Coaker (who famously declared that “if [Newfoundlanders] are to be free, [they] must break the chains of credit that bind [them]”), and I think this problem also preoccupied the young socialist Smallwood. Where Coaker’s emancipatory project had failed, I think Smallwood saw the Canadian welfare state not only as a means to address the symptoms of outport poverty but also as a tool to break up and re-organize the economic structures that produced that poverty and underdevelopment. Confederation inaugurated a process of modernization and Resettlement – the geographical and socio-economic restructuring of the province – was its ‘master device’ (I have explored this argument elsewhere).

What does this have to do with Newfoundland nationalism? Consider the timing of the ‘Newfoundland Renaissance’ (of which Greg Malone was an important figure) in the 1970s and 1980s; the initial trauma of the modernization process had run its course, and a new generation (and more importantly, a new social class) of Newfoundlanders emerged with a new capacity to reflect on itself and its identity. Newfoundland nationalism, I would argue, is a reaction to modernity; in fact, I don’t think it could have existed before this modernization process. The romantic vision of the ‘Republic of Newfoundland’ is something that could only exist in the imagination of a confederate Newfoundland; its existence (as a construct, as an ‘object’ of nationalist politics) is a reaction to the ‘imposition’ of modernity on us, of which Confederation is a constitutive moment.

Slavoj Žižek might be useful in clearing this up (there’s a first time for everything):

…There is no national identity before its (colonialist, etc.) oppression; the fight for nationalist revival is therefore a defence of something which comes to be only through being experienced as lost or endangered. The nationalist ideology endeavours to elude this vicious cycle by constructing a myth of Origins – of an epoch preceding oppression and exploitation [in NL nationalist ideology, certainly, this is how the Confederation experience is understood] when the nation was ‘already there’ (…) – the past is trans-coded as a Nation that already existed and to which we are supposed to return. (Žižek, 2008; 213-4)

My thinking, at this point at least, is that this Nation is a construct that could not exist outside of its production (as a negativity, a loss) through modernization and modernity itself; there was no Newfoundland nation in most of the outports because the social and economic conditions made it impossible to exist as a political subjectivity in the modern nationalist sense.

By way of example: Wayne Johnston has a line in his novel Baltimore Mansion about how if only more outport homes had copies of D. W. Prowse’s History of Newfoundland, they never would have voted for confederation. This simplifies things and misses the point. The point is that it wouldn’t have mattered, because most people wouldn’t have cared to read it (if they were even literate), and that this idea of the forsaken nation is a projection of the modern (I would add here the qualifier ‘bourgeois’) imagination. This is a subjective position that couldn’t exist for most Newfoundlanders off the Avalon until modernization, through Confederation, had occurred. There could be no proud independence in the grueling poverty of the outports; Webb is close to the mark when he suggests that the “often-dreamt ‘Republic of Newfoundland’ might have been a lot like the Republic of Haiti” (Webb, 181).

This is more than just an abstract point. Not only is it important for thinking about our own self-understanding, it spells out precisely what is at stake in rehashing all these old arguments about Confederation. If we accept the narrative that the Newfoundland nation was forsaken by the Anglo-Canadian manipulation of “ignorant [or] avaricious” outporters, we are accepting a narrative that casts Newfoundlanders as perpetual victims: before, during, and since Confederation, victims of outside forces and our own weakness. We are negating an alternative – in my opinion, a much more radical and emancipatory alternative that’s also more consistent with the historical evidence – that instead sees Confederation as one of the only instances in Newfoundland history where through a direct expression of democratic power, the poor and the downtrodden wrenched control of their political destiny from the St. John’s oligarchy and turned the wheel of history in their own direction.

The process of Confederation was not perfect, and neither were its outcomes; modernity begets its own malaises, and our place in the Canadian federal system – like all other partners in the union – is fraught with tension*. But whether we reconcile it as an imperfect but genuine popular victory or as just another instance where the lash cracks across our back has profound implications for how we confront our political questions and our sense of ourselves today. Webb’s piece dissects the anti-democratic implications of popular strains of nationalism thoroughly; I would like to go a step further and suggest that those who read Confederation as a failed democratic moment not only misread history but misread themselves. This form of nationalism is a neurosis, a pathological blend of melancholy and obsession that sees us forever trapped in a pattern of powerlessness. It occludes the ways in which we are the architects of our own fate, and the potential we still retain to alter the contemporary social and political predicaments in which we find ourselves.

So “don’t tell the Newfoundlanders” that the moment of their greatest democratic triumph was really just a backroom sham. If we are to move the democratic project forward – if we really are to be ‘masters of our own house’ – we have to own the fact that we lay the foundation. If we are going to solve the problems we face today, we need to recognize that our agency was not foreclosed. We have taken control of our political destiny before; we can and will do it again.

* – F. L. Jackson’s Surviving Confederation lays out a brilliant analysis of the way Smallwood failed to harness the emancipatory dimension of Confederation and instead perpetuated a new regime of dependency. You’d better believe this is something I’m going to write about when I get the chance.

Works Cited

Hiller, James K. Confederation: Deciding Newfoundland’s Future 1934 to 1949. Newfoundland Historical Society, 1999.

Walsh, Bren. More Than A Poor Majority: The Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada. Breakwater Books, 1985.

Webb, Jeff A. “Confederation, Conspiracy and Choice: A Discussion” in Newfoundland Studies 14 (2). 1998.

Žižek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. Verso, 2008.

boy moores & the culture club

Nothing goes better with good scotch than cultural theory (and bad jokes). I was reading Ronald Rompkey’s history of cultural policy in Newfoundland (1998) when a particularly interesting statement caught my eye:

We are a very special race of people but in danger of losing this culture and so the first concept was that we [the planners in charge of Confederation’s 25th anniversary] should try and get our people to practice being what they naturally are, Newfoundlanders. (Nutbeam, 1974)

This jumped out at me for a couple of reasons. Besides being a pretty good statement of the idea that our identities are performative (ie. we become what we naturally are by acting out a social/cultural script.. or at least, that’s what I got out of reading Judith Butler), it also arises at an interesting moment in provincial history. It’s almost a trope at this point to call the post-Smallwood cultural scene the “Newfoundland Renaissance” but I think there is definitely merit to this idea, especially if we consider the way that Moores (and, to a much greater extent, Peckford) mobilized this re-creation of Newfoundland identity for political purposes.

Of course, it also raises a couple of interesting implications: if you’ve got to practice being what you naturally are, how ‘natural’ is this being, exactly? And what happens when the state is charged with regulating and articulating the contours of your natural being? These are the sorts of questions that are bothering me as I put together my paper on the political identity (or more accurately, identities) of Newfoundland.

Rompkey’s article also raises other points. In tracing the evolution of the government’s policy towards cultural production and the arts since Confederation, he identifies a shift that occurs between the Peckford era and the Wells/Tobin administrations of the 1990s. It was at that moment that the government’s approach shifted away from developing and mobilizing a Newfoundland identity primarily for political purposes, towards one of turning it into a commodity to be marketed and consumed; a cultural industry, as it were. This idea opens up an interesting question in its own right: what does it mean for us, what does it do to us, to turn our cultural identity into an object for consumption by tourists? Questions like this were likely less pressing in the wake of needing to find something – anything – to fill the (economic and ontological) void left in the wake of the Cod Collapse, but as far as reflection goes, better late than never.

Rompkey’s account ends in 1998, while Tobin was still in power. I have no idea what he or others have written about the state of cultural policy (and cultural identity itself) in the last 15 years, but presumably that is a task for research. I have a few thoughts of my own, of course. Obviously the commodification of culture hasn’t slowed down or reversed over the past decade; if anything, it has intensified (which is certainly on par with the other literature about the place of culture and the market in ~*postindustrial capitalism*~). But there has also been a stark return to its mobilization for political purposes. Danny Williams’ name is synonymous with popular ideas of contemporary Newfoundland nationalism, and we’ve seen it employed by the Dunderdale administration as well (consider, for instance, appealing to anti-Quebec Revancheism in order to sell Muskrat Falls). It’d be interesting to take a look at the records since 2003 to see the way these two axes have played out in government cultural policy. The questions I teased out of Rompkey here, I think, are especially pertinent in the present situation.

Anyways, I have no idea if/when I’ll get the opportunity to follow up on these questions. But I think, in terms of the way I’m feeling my way through this paper, that it at least reveals the tight link between the state, capitalism, and the production (and perfomance!) of Newfoundland cultural identity, at least post-Smallwood. This broadly lines up with some of the thoughts I’d been having about nationalism (generally) as ideology; that is, Newfoundland nationalism didn’t (and couldn’t) start to take it’s contemporary, properly ideological form until the 1970s, when the province’s class structure had been sufficiently ‘modernized’ by developments post-Confederation.

These thoughts are all preliminary, of course – I haven’t yet been able to sit down and clarify them formally, or really get to dive into the meat of my research material. But they’ve definitely given me something to think about, and I hope they’ve given you something to think about as well.

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Nutbeam, Robert W. “Confederation Celebrations” in Newfoundland Quarterly, 70 (4). 1974.

Rompkey, Ronald. “The Idea of Newfoundland and Arts Policy since Confederation” in Newfoundland Studies 14. 1998.

a spectre is haunting western canada..

Okay, maybe just my Edmonton apartment. But still.

I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a place to put the ‘serious’ thoughts I have from time to time as I work my way through the academic machinery. And there’s nothing wrong with disciplining your writing habits a little bit.

So: why the title? As a rural Newfoundlander steeped in history and committed to egalitarian politics, William Coaker’s ghost has been on my mind since I first read about him in my studies at Memorial. Coaker is, I think, the most important figure in modern Newfoundland history (outside of Joey Smallwood, obviously.. who by his own admission owes a tremendous intellectual and political debt to Coaker) and definitely the most authentic voice for social emancipation the island ever saw. I’m partial to Ian Macdonald’s reading of him (1987) as a tragic hero, and it is still palpably heartbreaking to read about the FPU’s doomed project in the early 20th century. Insofar as his dream of an egalitarian, radically democratic society (before his disillusionment and fascist turn, of course) remains a repressed (but not defeated) force both in Newfoundland and the world at large, we are all haunted by Coaker’s Ghost.

This is a brief and opaque note, but hopefully it gives some impression of where this blog will likely be coming from. It won’t be as lightning-quick as a lot of more current-events oriented blogs, but will keep the pace with the slow grinding of my intellectual gears as I work through papers and other topics of interest. I’ve got a few major papers left on my plate this semester so expect some schizophrenic material, oscillating between “High Theory” (I’m pitching a paper this week on comparing John Rawls & Michel Foucault on the question of Reason, or something similarly masturbatory) and Newfoundland politics/history, and everything in between; I’m writing a short piece on Newfoundland nationalism qua ideology, so I hope you’re excited to hear all my boring thoughts on Confederation, Resettlement, and our neurotic obsession with Quebec. My thoughts are all over the place, so expect this space to reflect that.

So, there you go. I’m actually blogging. It’s a dark day for us all.