True Patriot Love: George Grant’s Lament

October 22, 2016 Book Reviews Comments (0) 1471

[This is the first of three essays in which I review Canadian author and thinker George Grant’s work Lament for a Nation, and consider its relevance for reactionary thought in Canada and the West today.]

Conventional wisdom is as follows:

America is a conservative country. It has evangelicals, Republicans of both the Bush and Trump varieties, and promotes interventionism and die-hard capitalism. Canada is a liberal country. It has universal health care, multiculturalism, and Trudeau is presently leading a Liberal Restoration to recover from the dark old days of Stephen Harper.

Yet, this contradicts the facts of history. While the American mythos exalts the free and sovereign individual, the historic Canadian tradition sees people as born into distinct cultures and stations. It is in Canada, rather than America, where the dominant ethnocultural heritage is explicitly recognized as British. It is the Canadian constitution, and not the American, which references the “supremacy of God”. And where in America could you find a mainstream media personality discussing the ethnogenesis of a nation in political life?

Lament for a Nation is best known today as a repudiation of the common paradigm. For George Grant, the conventional wisdom depends on an ignorance of history. Specifically, it disguises America’s revolutionary founding as an embodiment of Whig Liberalism and Canada’s slow and purposeful development as a confrontation of nations eventually united under a single royal power.

However, it was the Republic and not the Crown which would become the overwhelming power on the North American continent. This is where the application of power analysis becomes relevant. George Grant tells the story of a Canada which has become increasingly absorbed by its neighbor in the economic, cultural, and political spheres. The chief actors in this process were the Canadian economic and political elite themselves. For Grant, who stands proudly in the Tory tradition and in opposition to the Liberal Republican one, this is a tragedy – hence, his lamentation. His work was inspired as a furious reaction in the 1960s against what Grant saw as the stab in the back of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker–a defender of Canadian nationalism against American influence–by Canada’s business and political elite.

In truth, this is only scratching the surface of Grant’s depth and prophetic insight. While his influence on both Red Tories and the anti-American New Left is appreciated to this day, Canadian intellectual life has always had trouble reconciling itself to Grant. Even the Red Tories have historically found it hard to escape the liberal ethos which surrounds them. In the modern day, it is common to mistake them for being merely social democrats with a nostalgia for monarchy. The very label “Red Tory” conveys the image of a rebellious Bloomsbury-esque aristocratic dilettante of the kind one used to find flirting with communism. Lament for a Nation cannot be classified as such. It finds its application in 20th century Canada, but its roots lie in the Classical-Christian tradition which formed European intellectual life for millennia before the emergence of liberalism.

To understand Grant’s seemingly un-conservative suspicion of the capitalist class, it is important to realize that support for Canadian integration into the American sphere has always been strongest in sections of the business elite. Anglophone businessmen in Montreal produced the Montreal Annexation Manifesto in 1849, with 325 signatories. Writes Grant:

[Canadian Prime Minister] Diefenbaker spoke with telling historical sense when he mentioned the Annexation Manifesto in his last speech to Parliament before the defeat of his government in 1963. He pointed out the similarity between the views of the Montreal merchants in 1849 and the wealthy of Toronto and Montreal in 1963. In neither case did they care about Canada. No small country can depend for its existence on the loyalty of its capitalists. International interests may require the sacrifice of the lesser loyalty of patriotism. Only in dominant nations is the loyalty of capitalists ensured. In such situations, their interests are tied to the strength and vigour of their empire.

For the American spectrum, this talk sounds more appropriate from the most hardcore of the Bernie Sanders left than a man of the right. In fact, this only holds true when one forgets that America exiled its own Tories during its rebellion against the Crown. Furthermore, this rebellion was organized to a large extent by the counterpart elites of the colonies. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson came from the tobacco-planting Virginia gentry; Benjamin Franklin was born poor, but integrated himself into the world of Masonic lodges and coffee-houses. The Sons of Liberty were active in New York and Boston. These were the men referred to by former colonial governor and Loyalist Thomas Hutchinson:

…there were men in each of the principal Colonies, who had independence in view, before any of those Taxes were laid, or proposed, which have since been the ostensible cause of resisting the execution of Acts of Parliament. Those men have conducted the Rebellion in the several stages of it, until they have removed the constitutional powers of Government in each Colony, and have assumed to themselves, with others, a supreme authority over the whole.

In other words, the American lens sees Grant’s words about capitalists as un-conservative only because its conservatism stems from a rebellion, in which Lockean Whigs were actively purging Tories. Grant sees the rise of the anti-nationalist liberal regime as driven by the interests of business, in a process going on during and after WWII:

From 1940 to 1957, the ruling class of this country was radically reshaped. In 1939, the United Kingdom still seemed a powerful force, and the men who ruled Canada were a part of the old Atlantic triangle. They turned almost as much to Great Britain as to the United States, economically, culturally, and politically. After 1940, the ruling class found its centre of gravity in the United States. During the long years of Liberal rule, the strength of the Conservative party was maintained by those who were still to some extent oriented toward Great Britain. The new rulers…inevitably backed the Liberal party; economic and political power were mutually dependent.

In order to achieve their goal of economic integration into the American sphere, it became necessary to win over the civil service. It should be remembered that Diefenbaker was one of only two brief interruptions in a half century of Liberal governments between 1935 and 1984. The moniker that the Liberals are Canada’s “natural governing party” is certainly shared by much of the civil service to this day. By way of contrast, Stephen Harper–a man of the prairies like Diefenbaker–was viewed with suspicion and sometimes open contempt. Given the power which such interests exercised over the governing structures of the Canadian state, Grant all but channels Moldbug when he refers to the great corporations as “private governments”. His words regarding the civil service may be quoted at length:

Too many civil servants had too closely identified themselves with Liberal men and Liberal measures before 1957, and some of these did not show the proper loyalty to the elected government after 1957. Some of the senior civil servants were certain they knew what was best for Canada, both internally and externally, and they were not willing to accept the fact that elected leaders could sensibly advocate alternative policies. In the summer of 1963, the photograph of Pearson being welcomed back to office by the deputy ministers showed how far the British conception of the civil service had disappeared.

Nevertheless, that Diefenbaker failed to win the respect of the civil service was a disaster. No modern state can be run without great authority in the hands of its non-elected officials. In such an uncertain nation as Canada, the civil service is perhaps the essential instrument by which nationhood is preserved. The power of Ottawa has to be skilfully used by politicians to balance the enormous anti-national forces concentrated in the economic capitals of Toronto and Montreal. If Diefenbaker was to foster nationalism, he needed to win the respect of the civil service.

Howe [Liberal Cabinet Minister, 1935-1957] made perfectly plain what post-war reconstruction would be like. The continental corporations were going to rule. Such Liberal politicians as Brooke Claxton and Paul Martin knew where the real power lay – in St. James and Bay Streets. They did not risk using the government as a nationalist instrument. The politicians, the businessmen, and the civil servants worked harmoniously together. The enormous majorities for the Liberals in 1945, 1948, and 1953 showed that the Canadian people were attuned to the system produced by this co-operation.

Any desire for nationalism among the civil service could not be effective.

Some of them who directly served Howe, like Mitchell Sharp and William Bennett, obviously welcomed the union between government and international business. When they were forced out of the government by the Conservatives in 1958, they quickly found high places in international companies. But what of the traditional civil servants in the Departments of Finance and External Affairs? They had given their lives to government service and presumably wanted to serve a sovereign Canada. For over a generation, choruses of praise have been offered to these civil servants. How wonderful for Canada that it should be represented by such permanent officials as Norman Robertson and Robert Bryce. They have been spoken of as a kind of secular priesthood. Yet the country they represented is now a fragmented nation, a satellite.

It would be a travesty to deny that most of them wanted to preserve their country. But they were not of the diamond stuff of which nationalists must be made in these circumstances.

Despite not being made of “the diamond stuff”, the elite classes still played their role in Diefenbaker’s original victory. Although a nationalist, Diefenbaker was a believer in free enterprise and this placed him in the better graces of the business community. Another point in his favour was the inclusion of the pro-business Donald Fleming (also a future IMF official and World Bank governor) in his government. But despite this, Diefenbaker’s determined approach to refuse what he viewed as compromises with the US–in addition to several economic bungles–would lead to their withdrawal of support when his government fell in 1963. These included the collapse of the Avro Arrow aircraft project, tension on nuclear weapons, and delayed cooperation on the Cuban Missile Crisis due to strained relations with President Kennedy.

For the business community, suffering American diplomacy led to growing concern. The economic opportunities which lay in integration with the U.S. contributed to the transformation of Canada to a “branch-plant economy”, where U.S. conglomerates would open up branches or franchises in Canada. Thus, many provinces are more dependent on the states across their southern borders than other provinces. Classic examples are the Ontario automobile market with its Michigan connections, and the Keystone pipelines which link Alberta’s oil sands to several states. In reading this, it is vital to remember that the integrationist project was not merely undermining an abstract idea. Rather they were subverting the sovereign power of the Crown on the North American continent and increasing that of the American Republic.

During and after Confederation, the interests of Canada’s “Laurentian Elite” (the elite classes in the great cities along the St. Lawrence) and that of the Crown had been aligned: the Dominion must expand its territory and influence. This is most evident in Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald. Macdonald enthusiastically pursued expansion westward immediately after Confederation. Cooperation on the part of the Hudson’s Bay Company was vital for this project to succeed – the HBC sold to Canada its tremendous holdings of both Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territories. His Conservative government also pursued tariffs and subsidies to build Canada’s economy and finance the Canada Pacific Railroad, which would ensure British Columbia’s membership in Confederation rather than its annexation (which the US had desired) and the opening up of western ports and territory. Thus, the business interests and political agendas of the Canadian elite were more or less aligned with the interests of sovereignty (more specifically, those of the Sovereign). The post-WWII era saw these interests divided.

The resulting high-low dynamic saw large sections of Canada’s elite pit their interests against the sovereignty of the Crown above and the inclinations of those ordinary Canadians below who supported Diefenbaker and the nationalist agenda. Both the modern post-Reform Conservative and New Democratic parties were born out of populist movements whose aim was mostly focused on undermining “elites”. Therefore, they have historically focused resentment upward. The Liberal Party’s root lies in Laurentian soil. Accordingly, it simultaneously preaches identity politics while holding upstart Western populists in suspicion. Justin Trudeau embodies this perfectly: the wealthy white son of a former Prime Minister who nonetheless manages to throw himself into identity politics.

Liberal governments have long attempted to shape the symbolic and cultural life of Canada. It was this party which did away with Royal and colonial symbolism in the flag and military (the latter reversed under the Harper government), as well as instituting the policy of multiculturalism. Theirs was the project of the world’s first “post-national state”. The consistent agenda of the Laurentian elite may be described as such: guarding and expanding their position as the arbiters of what Canada is and should be. This has allowed them to relegate the Crown and Canada’s authentic heritage to an ever more negligible status in Canadian life. In its place, they have promoted a national identity dependent on themselves. They have not yet dared to suggest abolishing the Monarchy altogether, but it will not be surprising if this occurs when the question of succession arises.

One should not conclude that the other parties have been faithful defenders against the American influence. The strong economic libertarian elements in the Conservative party are individualist on the grounds of “small government”. Stephen Harper himself united the Canadian right on grounds of economic policy. Per Grant’s prophecy, it should not be surprising if the Americanization of the Canadian right manifests in opposition to the Monarchy itself. Meanwhile, the NDP has been criticized for becoming more economically centrist, but its social liberalism will not abate and there is no reason to believe that its anti-imperialist elements will oppose this trend. Thus the Americanization of the political as well as the economic distinctions of Canadian life have occurred as Grant predicted.

Will this remain stable? Canada is opening up to influences from the Pacific, particularly China, through trade and immigration. China is even more immense than the US in terms of population, but its separation by the Pacific create a very different dynamic. By the end of Lament, Grant was convinced that political union with America was staved off as much by elite apathy as by popular resistance. The growing Asian relationship as well as both civil and ethnic nationalisms in the United States itself will be key factors to watch. Also important is whether the role of the Liberal worldview in these shifts and crises is understood. They will be deciding factors in whether Canada splinters, enters new political unions, or restores a sovereign Dominion. If the latter is achieved, it will not be without an elite intensely aware of the failings of the Liberal tradition, willing to seek out an answer in the intellectual currents of the North – the frontiers and wildernesses of the Canadian mind.

[The next part of this review will take a closer look at the Canadian and American traditions regarding the individual and the social order. Click here for Part II.]


[Editor’s note: cross-posted from Social Matter]

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