George Grant on the “primacy of the political”

I dipped into the George Grant Reader yesterday and read Grant’s essay “Free Trade”, written towards the end of his life in 1988.

Like much of Grant’s work, it is highly specific to his Canadian context, but contains a great deal of wider relevance. The essay is a review of a book written by “forty-seven thoughtful Canadians” in opposition to the 1988 Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement. As Grant puts it, slightly waspishly:

Most of the contributors are people who believe that free beings ought to be able to decide rationally what will happen in the world. That is, the good-mannered and liberal left predominates.

There are two main aspects of Grant’s essay that speak with particular force to the current situation in which we find ourselves. The first is in Grant’s assertion of the need to maintain the “primacy of the political over the economic”. He draws this point from Denis Stairs, who:

…understands that community responsibility, and indeed the continuing basis of Canada, has lain in the primacy of the political in our national life.

As “technocratic” governments are formed across Europe in order precisely to assert the primacy of the economic over the political, Grant’s protest against this is one we need to listen to.

The second, and even more striking, message from Grant’s article is his scathing assessment of “capitalist imperialism”, as represented, in his view, by the United States of America. Grant bases this on Farley Mowat’s article, in which Mowat:

recognizes the arrival of cosy totalitarianism at the centre of the American empire. […] the friendly tyranny of corporation capitalism and the consequent Bodenlösigkeit. (The English word rootlessness catches less well what is happening than does the German.)

Grant even objects to Canadians referring to the United States and Canada as “our two countries”, which he describes as:

the ‘liberal’ rhetoric by which American journalists legitimate themselves to themselves. They proclaim themselves a country and eschew the word empire, while their battleships try to impose their will in the Persian Gulf.

I don’t think what Grant is saying here should be read as an attack on Americans per se – and certainly my quoting of Grant should not be read as that. What Grant wants is for Canadians and Americans alike to acknowledge America’s status as an empire, and to understand the implications of this:

I would have wished, in this book, for a sharper understanding of what imperialism means, and particularly the workings of capitalist imperialism.

Grant continues with a prophetic description of the fading of America’s capitalist imperialism in the face of the rise of China (now a commonplace, but rather less so, I think, in 1988). As he continues, understanding the workings of capitalist imperialism:

…is necessary even if we are perhaps faced by a fading Western empire. I think there should have been more understanding in the book of how the central stage of world history now moves from Europe to Far Asia, as China is developed with Japan.

The only way in which that statement is now showing its age is in its reference to Japan, which had embarked upon its two-decade (and counting) stagnation within three years of Grant’s death.

The need to assert the primacy of the political over the economic in the face of a capitalist imperialism that is in turn facing a mounting challenge from China? Welcome to 2011…


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