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Imperialist Canada: An Interview with Todd Gordon

I recently finished reading a book that I consider to be essential reading for every Canadian.  It is entitled, Imperialist Canada and in it the author, Todd Gordon, explores the various ways in which Canadian capital and the Canadian political system engage in an imperialist program of stealing the land, resources, well-being, families, and lives of others (generally poor or indigenous populations both in Canada and abroad) in order to gain profits and power.  A lot of this material will be familiar to those already engaged in the struggle against imperialism and capitalism but it is very good to have a comprehensive study of a number of issues all collected in a single text.  For those who are unaware of the issues presented here — from the practices of Canadian oil, gas, mining, and hydroelectric companies in our own and other countries, to the Canadian-backed coup that occurred in Haiti, to the ways in which RBC has been getting rich off of the war in Iraq, to many other things — this book should be paradigm shattering.
Because I’m so keen on this book, and because I want to encourage others to read it, I contacted the author and asked if he would be willing to do an interview for this blog.  Despite time constraints, he kindly complied to my request, and this is the exchange that we were able to have.  My questions are bolded and Todd’s responses are in plain text.
I am always interested in the ways in which an author’s life intersects with the texts that author produces, and am convinced that the contexts in which we live can be highly influential upon the views we end up holding.  What people or events in your own life brought you to study Canada as an imperialist power?
Well, I guess I’ve never been satisfied with the thesis that Canada is some progressive country which is simply oppressed by the United States, as some on the left would have us believe. And the evidence of the terrible things the Canadian state and Canadian capital are doing is accumulating – is impossible to ignore, really. As a social justice activist, and writer, I felt the Canadian left was in desperate need for more systematic analysis of Canadian capitalism abroad.
Why have you never been satisfied with the standard widely-accepted theses about Canada?  Is this a perspective that came into your studies due to your activism?
They never struck me as accurate. Canada is a wealthy first world country. Those theses don’t stand up to close scrutiny – whether serious empirical study of ownership or of what Canada does abroad. Canada has largely been let off the hook, and that was apparent to me in both my studies and activism.
It seems that you have spent a fair bit of time engaging themes of power, oppression, and resistance from within the domain of the Academy.  Yet the Academy itself seems to have a very close relationship to imperialist powers.  I wonder if you could spend a bit of time explaining how you view the nature of your relationship to this context.
The university system plays an important role in reproducing capitalistic and imperialistic domination, whether via scientific research contributing to militarization or ideological justifications for inequality, among other things.  That shouldn’t surprise us, given that we’re in a capitalist and imperialist country. Most of the social sciences were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries to facilitate the extension of colonialism abroad and inequality – in terms of race, class, gender, ability and so on – at home. I think though that it’s possible to carve out spaces to challenge this, and to develop alternative ideas and analyses. Historically, where successful, this has been done through mass struggle, of students and of unions. Like in other areas of society, we don’t want to concede this space to the powerful and privileged. We need to challenge them. But in doing so we need to be cognizant of the limits of the university institution – that it can potentially be a space to challenge power and inequality, but in the end it’s not a space for liberation. It can – or progressive spaces within the university can – potentially contribute to those movements of liberation, but the intellectual work I and others do can’t be a substitute for those movements, which exist within and, importantly, beyond universities in workplaces and communities.
Can you speak about disconnect that can occur between “intellectuals” (who are often more theory-oriented) and “activists” (who are often more praxis-oriented?  How do you try to straddle that divide?  Do you have any advice to others who believe that both roles are necessary but who have trouble understanding how they might work together, or even be performed by the same person?
There has been in my experience an unfortunate, and artificial in my view, separation of theory and practice amongst both academics and activists. Many of the former focus solely on theory, disconnected from real world struggles. While many of the latter eschew theory as “academic” and unnecessary to their political work. I think proper theory has to be rooted in struggles while our activist work is strengthened by theoretical grounding – how the world works (is there something systemtic to capitalist exploitation or is it just a few bad apples; is imperialism reducible to an individual politician?) and how best to change it. Historically, radical activists, including workers who’d never been to a university, whether Marxist or anarchist, were grounded in such theory. Having said all that, I know academics who’re wonderful activists, and many non-academic activists who’re very theoretically engaged.
It is not too difficult to discover authors that expose the imperial nature of other death-dealing nation states – one thinks immediately of Zinn and Chomsky writing about the United States and Israel, or of Hardt and Negri’s work on the Empire of global capitalism more generally – but Canada seems to have escaped close scrutiny in the public eye for quite some time and has, instead, been able to perpetuate different myths about itself (myths that you explore in this book – Canada as Peacekeeper, and so on).  Why do you think this has been the case?
That’s a complicated issue, which I can’t fully address here, and I think in fact deserves far more study than it’s been given. It goes back to the Communist Party and Stalinism before World War 2. But it becomes an important part of the Canadian New Left in the 1960s and 70s (and I think that there were both explicit and implicit influences of the CP and Stalinism in some of the New Left). I think the fact that a generation of people politicized at a time when the U.S. was waging a brutal imperialist war in Vietnam – and indeed many people were politicized because of the Vietnam War – while Canada ostensibly wasn’t engaging in imperialism influenced a lot of the New Left thinking. I think also that Canada’s more advanced welfare state than the U.S.’s led some to believe, incorrectly, that there’s something inherently more progressive about Canada. Of course, Canada has always engaged in imperial practices abroad, which I discuss in Imperialist Canada and Yves Engler writes about in his Black Book, not to mention at home! And the welfare state isn’t the product of some abstract thing called “Canada” that transcends class or racial or gendered or national divisions. It was the product of struggle from below against the powerful and privileged, just as there were struggles, though less successful, in the U.S. for a better welfare state. It’s perhaps also true that the expansion of Canadian corporations into the Third World, while always a part of Canadian capitalism, has become much more advanced in the last 20 years. The result is that left nationalism became ideologically dominant in the New Left, though there were always people, often associated with Trotskyism, who sought to challenge this position.
Speaking of Vietnam, I was thinking about the ways in which the American public was responding to the various guises of imperialism at that time.  At that time, there was significant mass mobilization and various parties engaging in aggressive forms of direct action (from parties within the American Indian Movement, to the Black Panthers, to the Minutemen and so on).  I was comparing this to the ways in which the Canadian public has responded to more recent actions taken by the Canadian military – from the invasion of Haiti to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.  As you clearly explain, these are violent imperialist actions taken in the interests of capital.  Yet, the Canadian public does not appear to care very much at all about these things – even as Stephen Harper has continually broken his word and extended the duration of the stay of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.  How do you explain our contemporary Canadian apathy and inactivity?
I don’t know if it’s apathy, or that Canadians don’t care. Clearly polls – which should always be taken with a grain of salt – show that a majority of Canadians don’t support the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, many people I’ve met a talks I’ve given aren’t even aware of Canada’s involvement in the Haitian coup of 2004. I think the reason there isn’t a mass movement is complicated. But I do think it’s at least in part a reflection of the state of the left in Canada in general. There’s no mass movement of any kind at present, and there hasn’t been since the fleeting days of the global justice movement (I’m not convinced the mass demonstrations against the war in Iraq constituted a “movement” per se). There hasn’t been a successful sustained mass movement of Canada since perhaps the 1980s. I don’t think the left has yet to recover fully from the defeats of the 1980s and 90s that led to the consolidation of neoliberalism.
While reading your book, I was struck by the ways in which all of the standard, legal, and non-violent means of resistance seemed to fail to produce positive change.  However, in multiple examples, aggressive direct action – blockades, threats of physical violence, property destruction, and so on – did produce positive results for indigenous communities both in Canada and elsewhere.  I wonder if you could comment further on this, and share more of your thoughts on the possible avenues to change that communities of resistance might take within Canada today.
Real social change historically hasn’t come from lobbying or convincing capitalists or the state of their wrongheaded decisions. Such strategies are easy to ignore by those in power, and in the worst case scenario are used to absorb the energy, creativity and resources of movements – to contain movements. Here in Canada, the broad welfare state, workers’ rights (two things being rolled back today), choice, or indigenous land reclamations – these have been won by communities collectively taking action in order to force positive change. Blockades, pickets, occupations – these things, which can grind the system, or specific nodal points of it, to a halt, can’t be ignored by capital and the state. When your company is shut down by a strike or blockade, that has a real material impact on you. The same is true in the Third World, as I demonstrate. History shows that Canadian (or any) capitalists, who we should recall are engaged in a competitive system that drives them to aggressively search out profits, will not take seriously the interests, needs or rights of workers or indigenous people or their environment unless forced to. There’s too much at stake for them (their profitability). But shutting them down, hitting them where it hurts, is what has netted victories for communities in resistance.
Pressing one particular part of this point, I was wondering if you could comment further on your assertions that violence is necessary for resistance.  What precisely do you mean by “violence” and what forms of “violence” do you see as appropriate?
I don’t say that violence is “necessary” for successful resistance. In the conclusion I note that “force” will be necessary. But I don’t mean by that that violence is necessary. The examples of successful resistance, in the context of international solidarity, that immediately follow my assertion about “force” are the anti-Vietnam War and anti-South African apartheid movements – movements that were mass and that didn’t rely on lobbying or trying to convince politicians and capital to have a change of heart. Again, if we look at the kinds of movements that have won lasting change – whether for workers’ rights, against the militarization of campuses, against colonial occupation, against a mining investment etc. – they’ve typically been mass movements, democratic and solidaristic in principles, and relied on direct action, whether strikes, occupations, blockades etc. That doesn’t mean I’m a pacifist – I’m not. Violence for me is a political, not a moral question, that depends on the context. But I think you’ll find that most progressive movements that historically engaged in violence (like armed struggle or simply violence to defend a picket line against police) didn’t start with violence. It was a political decision based on the failure of other tactics in the face of recalcitrant, and often repressive, power.
In the Literary Review of Canada (Jan/Feb 2011), Madelaine Drohan describes your book as a “missed opportunity” because you do not follow up on your criticisms of capitalism by proposing some sort of systematic alternative (see here).  I think she may have misunderstood your reasons for writing Imperialist Canada (and she seemed to want to take a shot at you because of her different view on capitalism).  I suspect that there are anarchist trajectories running through your work, but am interested in hearing more on what you might say in response to Drohan and what you do see as the alternative to capitalism.
I read Drohan’s review. She makes the criticism that I missed an opportunity to suggest how to improve capitalism – that in fact I’m too black and white about capitalism – only by ignoring in her review an entire chapter where I analyse the logic of capitalism and the imperialist impulse within it! Where I demonstrate the exploitativeness and violence (to people and the environment) that are systemic to it. She doesn’t respond to that at all. She has nothing to say there. I’d add too that the rest of the book, and the accumulated weight of analysis of what Canadian companies and the state are doing in the Third World, should suggest also that there’s something systemic to capitalism that leads to violence and destruction, rather than these things being anomalous or representative of a few bad corporate apples. Relying on the notion that it’s a matter of a few bad apples is impoverished analysis.
I’m not opposed to fighting for reforms. I think reforms – to curb the power of multinationals, to improve workers’ rights and so on – are very important, as I note in Imperialist Canada. But I’m not a reformist: I don’t believe that reforms are, in the end, enough, because of how capitalism works. Ultimately, to address these violent and imperialistic tendencies, we need to do more than merely contain them, as capitalists and the state will always look for ways to circumvent such efforts in the drive for profit that’s built into the system, whether Drohan likes it or not. We need therefore to build an international movement that can develop the capacity and power, and has the social weight, to defeat capitalist and state power and recreate a world based on social justice, human need and ecological sensibility. I’m a Marxist, whose thinking about the world, and activist practice, is shaped by Marxist (not just Marx’s, but radical activists and thinkers that have come since Marx’s day) theory and practice. I guess I could add that I’m influenced by anti-statist Marxism – that is, I see the state as a capitalist state, and while it can be a space for reform it ultimately isn’t a space or vehicle for liberation, which comes instead from below. In that sense I perhaps have some politics in common with social anarchism or anarcho-communism.
Thank you, Todd, for taking the time to answer these questions.  I look forward to reading more of what you publish and hope that this exchange will prompt others to do likewise.

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  1. Thank-you. Thank-you. Thank-you. I was just beginning to do some preliminary searches for works on Canadian economy. As my own nod to local resistance I am slowly trying to translate some of Louis Riel’s more theological writings into English. We’ll see where that goes.

  2. In regard to the “divide” between theoretical intellectuals and praxis-oriented activists it is probably worthwhile to add that the way the academy organizes knowledge, compartmentalizes it in a certain way, contributes to this divide. And, as you point out, there are plenty who successfully straddle this divide.