Ian McKay’s Liberal Order Framework

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“It is telling that there are so few recent major works by Canadian historians of all persuasions on the political crisis of the past thirty years.” (617)

Ian McKay’s “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History” was published in the December 2000 issue of the Canadian Historical Review and has since been widely cited by academics in the country to the point that there have been panels and forums about it. I kept seeing it, and related articles, cited so finally read it. I was a bit reluctant because McKay is basically a Canadian Terry Eagleton lite. Like better Marxists, he’s really only fun when insulting people, but often gets very close to saying something genuinely worthwhile, then backs away because he knows it will not be in his best interests. So, it may be better to read him in a Straussian way, but then again, maybe I’m being too generous.

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McKay begins his ‘neo-Marxist’ (631) text by recognizing the unconsumable proliferation of academic work on history, work which continually fragments (through specialized language and critique) and undermines disciplinary boundaries. In part because of this, history takes on a ‘pre-millennial’ atmosphere since historians are being constantly reminded of (or insist upon), the ‘politico-ethical centrality’ of their work. (617) Fragmentation and apocalyptic sensation (both of the field and its object – Canada) results in ever-fashionable academic ‘crisis’ mode. Attempts to provide a cohesive or normative argument only produce more ‘balkanization’. As the notion of history becomes increasingly circumspect, professional historians largely ignore each other’s work and operate in alien theoretical traditions. He asks: “If Canada is more or less just a ‘vacant lot,’ one more (relatively minor) place where class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on, interact as they do everywhere else on the planet, why not go to where the action really is, to the United States, to Europe, or ‘global’ analyses?” (618) So, in one of his typically intriguing if unclear statements, Canadian historians follow the international norms of “demonizing the Other within our gates, all the better (perhaps) to keep our own more disabling fears of nihilism at bay.” (618) [It’s utterly unclear what the proverbial Other in this context refers to. The big Other of international norms? The Othering of traditional nationalist historical practice within an increasingly anti-nationalist field? The Othering of proponents of Otherness? And how does nihilism oppose to this? This is never seriously broached.]

Rather bizarrely, McKay suggests a way out of this potential brain drain is in (Gramscian) Marxist and Foucaultian forms of history writing (leaving aside that no one who has read Foucault seriously would believe he was, either intentionally or actually, writing anything like history), focusing on governmentality and the ‘colonial leviathan’ (619). However, he stresses that the work done in such directions has also been highly reluctant to generalization, to referring to sources or ideas outside of their limited bubbles and has been intensely regionalized. (620) Yet, within their capacities to re-conceptualize the nineteenth century (the only historical period he seriously approaches in his polemic), they offer a way to re-think civic humanism and new democratic culture (in the more blandly unMaoist sense of the term). McKay’s task is then to seek out a certain generality, in spite of everything, using the term reconnaissance (re-knowing of interaction in a fairly vulgar sense rather than something along the lines of the Neitzschean reconassiance of antiquity) over the more generic Marxist marker synthesis to retain the different (subaltern etc.) identities within the field and the heterogeneity of their histories as Others in the liberal order (he doesn’t heed Foucault’s insistence that the liberal order, if there indeed is one, is defined precisely by the inexistence of the Other. Besides, by his own admission, wouldn’t reconnaissance basically be a pathological defence mechanism to avoid nihilism?). McKay’s re-branding of this nostalgia for the dialectical mish-mash of the nineteenth century is cast as follows:

“The core argument is succinct: the category ‘Canada’ should henceforth denote a historically specific project of rule, rather than either an essence we must defend or an empty homogeneous space we must possess. Canada-as-project can be analyzed through the study of the implantation and expansion over a heterogeneous terrain of a certain politico-economic logic, to wit, liberalism. A strategy of ‘reconnaissance’ will study those at the core of this project who articulated its values, and those ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ who resisted and, to some extent at least, reshaped it.” (621)

Readers of Marxist theory in the audience will no doubt catch on to his use of project rather than process, the latter term severely disabling the therapeutic variety of pseudo-Marxism that came into fashion post-Althusser and to which McKay seems to be hitching his wagon (Althusserianism never really caught on in Canada but sentimental leftism has been significantly bankrolled). So Canada (he uses scare quotes for the term) becomes re-conceptualized as a grid of power relations within which a hegemonic set of social norms are constructed. It seems solid but never is, “haunted by the insubstantiality of much of its ‘sovereignty’ – a Canada non-identical.” (623) Canada is contradictory but coherent as a process of liberal rule that normalizes and subjectifies the population, enveloping or eliminating its rivals in the process and changing significantly in same process. This approach is intrinsically historicist, insisting that ‘[non-identical] Canada’ is identical with the contingencies of the establishment of the state and not something ‘outside’ this history. (643) Classical Marxism, he notes, is not much help here since class and industry developed in a highly peculiar way in Canada. Instead, reconnaissance looks at the rivalry between different conceptualizations of humanity and the liberal order, rendering “‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ and (above all) ‘the individual’ as the contestable and historically relative terms of a particular and probably transient political program.” (632) This project would then be one of defamiliarization, designed to destabilize familiar conceptions of the world and to highlight the ways in which Canada becomes what it is at any time due to its heterogeneous circumstances. (643) It was not founded simply on values but on compromises with those values as an order of entitlement became more and more established.

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He identifies liberal order with the category of the individual, whose liberty or natural right pre-exists that of society. This order is revolutionary, often violently so, destroying the various traditions that opposed it. (632) Liberalism is less an ideology than a secular religion founded on abstract principles. (626) Within this, “people became aware of their interests and struggled, politically, to fight for them.” (631) In other words, the objection to liberalism is itself a form of puritanical liberalism, though he avoids nakedly articulating this or facing what this – the shift from a system of citizens to one of entitled subjects – could mean.

Now, one could credibly argue that Canada had ceased being liberal in any classical sense even before Confederation and has long been a (more or less) totalitarian socialist state. One might also readily object to McKay’s fairly reductive conceptualization of liberalism, either philosophically, or in Canadian politics. Indeed, it is hard to take his privileging of liberalism as individualism seriously since it is rather the equally significant ‘liberal’ traditions of obligation and entitlement that have primarily held sway in the country. Likewise, though he insists on the value of aliberal values, the only ones he mentions (without real justification) are of the generically leftist humanist variety, his project taking on the taint of the paranoid fear of an ill-defined nihilism that he seems to mock in his opening statements.

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In answer to the query he raises in the epigraph, why there was little serious discussion of the previous 30 years at that point (or now) has more than a little to do with the fact that what he is outlining as the dominant tendencies in the country’s history writing (already nearly 20 years ago) is not so much a set of incoherent positions in ‘new’ history, but the basic stylings of the contemporary ideological state apparatus itself. McKay, no doubt, is perfectly cognizant of this given his approving citation of Paul Gottfried. (FN 28) In fact, Canadian cultural and historical studies are a fairly perfect functional organ of the managerial state and its therapeutic regime. As Gottfried has stated, “The reeducation [by the therapeutic regime] demanded also points toward a post-Communist social Left, which has pushed American liberal Protestant and therapeutic culture in a starkly totalitarian direction.” (Gottfried, 10) The irony of this, of course, is that the liberal individualism that McKay and others critique is just another aspect of precisely the same ideological frame that allegedly springs up against them. Both, as Gottfried ably demonstrates, are strains of puritanism, something which McKay awkwardly elides when he consistently brings up first wave feminism (suffragettes) as typical objections to the liberal project and ignores their explicitly theocratic (and avowedly eugenic) goals and their allegiance to a particular sort of WASP imperialism. What’s unclear, and certainly not clarified by him, is the extent to which the various rival new histories are themselves not only largely self-isolating by group (as the competitive elect or a dolorist aristocracy) and then indexed onto a global academic market, but are the active source of the ‘amnesia’ he panics about in other texts. One might, rather profitably suggest, that what seems to occur in the field and is groaned by McKay is less crisis than what Bourdieu would call the hysteresis effect. The liberal framework is a kind of hysterical history.

What McKay actually sets up is a conflict between projection and objection where it’s generally unclear which is which, what is object and what objection, what is project and what projection. In fact, it is necessarily so relativized that it doesn’t matter. It’s unclear what’s gained from this sloppily refashioned variant of dialectics other than that it is re-branding (for what demographic?). His final attempted provocation to wake historians from their ‘dogmatic slumbers’ and ‘narrow horizons’ (651) comes by setting them against the liberal order in its “the hegemonic ideology [that] presently lack[s] any persuasive justification for Canada in the reductionist market terms in which they seek to cast social and political questions.” (650) But what he reveals is that the left that he calls upon is (at least) as much a hegemonic ideological apparatus (of which he’s a well-rewarded member) and that its reliance on all of the basically vacant terms [‘class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on’] and positions (as opposed to vacant lots) are intrinsically bound to a global free market are also instantly more ‘liberal’ than the alleged liberal order in the first place.

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