You Can’t Have One Without the Other

For the core seminar in the PhD program in Canadian Studies, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month.  This is part two of three my November 2010 paper on our topics of emphasis in this area study.  It gets slightly disjointed in parts because I put some new snide asides and all of my footnotes into the text [in brackets].

Political Economy & Class

I always spend so much time on the covers:

“In a world of film-actor Presidents, erotically alluring commodities, political spectaculars and a multi-billion-dollar culture industry, culture, economic production, political dominance and ideological propaganda seemed to have merged into a single featureless whole.”

– Terry Eagleton, After Theory, 2003

Doc Brown: Tell me, Future Boy, who’s President of the United States in 1985?
Marty: Ronald Reagan.
Doc Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who’s vice-president, Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady? And Jack Benny is Secretary of the Treasury!?

– Back to the Future, 1985

Uncle Scrooge in Tralla La by Carl Banks, June 1954, is mentioned in Jim O’Brien’s discussion of “The Europeans.”

[In the hilarious happenstance of history (which was not so funny for the beaver), O’Brien tells us that beavers were classified as fish so that they could be eaten on Fridays.  However, as Eagleton warns: “If we raise questions about the foundations of our way of life, in the sense of thinking too much about the barbarism on which our civilization is founded, we might fail to do the things that all good citizens should spontaneously do.”  Should we avoid looking too closely at the past?]

Equal parts humorous and tragic, Jim O’Brien’s account of the beaver in North America elaborates on Harold Innis’s project from The Fur Trade in Canada by reworking Innis’s political economy approach from the standpoint of the beaver.  Heeding Handler’s warnings about respecting unique worldviews, O’Brien recognizes that “anthropomorphism and ethno-centrism” are part of an explicitly European perspective.

In response to this type of hegemonic discourse, O’Brien calls for greater interdisciplinarity in academic pursuits that fight to understand the past for future survival: “Unless history is augmented with enlightened anthropology, and poetry too, there is no way to understand [the world in which the beaver had a spirit].”  Would this type of interdisciplinary solution cure Daniel Drache’s complaint that “[p]roblems have been examined independently of each other?”

O’Brien cites “the urgent need to find our way out of the cultural logic of capitalism.”  Gail D. MacLeitch notes that capitalism’s development was “far from a benign process,” involving as it did conquest, coercion, violence, theft, economic inequality, and class stratification.  She points to the world-systems theory of a dependency relationship between the center and periphery as a way of understanding the subtle interplay and negotiation of benefits and losses between Iroquois community members and European colonizers in the Atlantic economy.

In her discussion of gender parity and the gradual adoption of wage labor, MacLeitch looks to sources like account books, receipts, and other apparently marginal items to recreate a particular narrative of history (see, for example, her footnotes ).  MacLeitch’s project seems to apply “vibrant interdisciplinarity” (Sangster) to reflect an interest in class, race, ethnicity, labor, patriarchy, oppression, and gender.  Her comprehensive social history works to reclaim a particular, formerly silenced, identity (cf. Handler), apparently furthering Joan Sangster’s goal of “work[ing] to create a feminist working-class history.”

Do you think MacLeitch successfully presents an alternative to a meta-narrative about capitalism, answering Nadine Changfoot’s call to raise awareness and maintain momentum for gradual change, albeit within an academic setting?

Terry Eagleton agrees with MacLeitch’s evaluation of capitalism, calling it a “dynamically destructive system of production.” [Per Eagleton: “Capitalism has always pitched diverse forms of life promiscuously together—a fact which should give pause to those unwary postmodernists for whom diversity, astonishingly, is somehow a virtue in itself.”]

In a whirlwind of theory and metaphors that touches on—among other topics—infant and aardvark consciousness, Marxism, anti-colonialism, feminism, fundamentalism, anti-theory, an unusually literate zebra, God and Nature, barbarism, modernism, anti-realism, and spiritual extremism, Eagleton issues following mandate: “[C]ultural theory must start thinking ambitiously once again… so that it can seek to make sense of the grand narratives in which it is now embroiled.” However, if O’Brien is American, Eagleton is European, and MacLeitch was trained in England, are we ignoring Drache’s claim that the “Canadian political economy tradition is rich in insight and theoretical innovation?”

Eagleton argues that the inclusion of Joyce and Kafka on university syllabi is a sign of their decline as disturbing forces.  Could this inclusivity instead be read as a sign that the university was disrupted in the 1960s?  It seems feasible to argue that academic pursuits after that era were re-centered, no the least by self-reflection as a “feminist way of writing” (Eagleton) and “writing from within” (Sangster).


Daniel Drache, “Rediscovering Canadian Political Economy,” Journal of Canadian Studies, August 1976.

Jim O’Brien, “The History of North America from the Standpoint of the Beaver,” in Paul Buhle, Jayne Cortez, Philip Lamantia, Nancy Joyce Peters, eds., Free Spirits: Annals of the Insurgent Imagination, San Francisco: City Lights, 1982.

Gail D. MacLeitch, “‘Red’ Labor: Iroquois Participation in the Atlantic Economy,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Winter 2004.

Joan Sangster, “Feminism and the Making of Canadian Working-Class History: Exploring the Past, Present and Future,” Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2000.

Nadine Changfoot, “Local Activism and Neoliberalism: Performing Neoliberal Citizenship as Resistance” Studies in Political Economy, Autumn 2007.

Terry Eagleton, After Theory, New York: Basic Books, 2003.

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