Canada at 150: Point to the Dead Bodies (and Keep Pointing)

In a little over two months since Donald Trump took office, the world’s political landscape has changed irrevocably: oligarchic rule, buffeted by nativist fantasies of restoration, is undoubtedly upon us. In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Times summarized with brutal efficiency the first two months of Trump’s reign:

In a matter of weeks, President Trump has taken dozens of real-life steps that, if they are not reversed, will rip families apart, foul rivers and pollute the air, intensify the calamitous effects of climate change and profoundly weaken the system of American public education for all. His attempt to de-insure millions of people who had finally received healthcare coverage and, along the way, enact a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich has been put on hold for the moment. But he is proceeding with his efforts to defang the government’s regulatory agencies and bloat the Pentagon’s budget even as he supposedly retreats from the global stage.

While the media (quite rightly) continues to focus on the potentially treasonous relationship between the Trump campaign and a Russian government gleefully intent on “disruption” (a tactic it learned from the American CIA, of course), the run of the mill corruption that infests government continues unabated. The oligarch class out and out buys political candidates, no longer even trying to hide their desire for government policy to work solely for corporations to maximize profits. To this end, the Trump administration has rolled back environmental regulations, workplace protections, and labor rights, ensuring corporations have as little responsibility as possible for taking care of the laborers that are necessary for their businesses to function, or to manage the environmental impacts of their continued operations. If Trump’s upcoming “tax reforms” pass, corporations will have to pay even less into the public system, which will only intensify the hollowing out of a welfare-state that was already bare to begin with.

It is this vision of capitalist zenith- in which corporations maximize their profits while shirking all social responsibility- that animates Trump’s White House. Instead of “draining the swamp” Trump has descended into it with alacrity, with any liberal instincts he once had drowned out by the anti-government agenda of his cabinet: Bannon, Mnuchin, DeVos, Ross, Sessions, etc.

While pundits across America like to critique the leaders of authoritarian regimes abroad for their inhumanity, is there any force in the world more destabilizing, more purely radical in their rejection of the basic tents of social democracy, then the Republican Party of the United States? The greatest mystery in American politics remains why people in the poorest parts of that country continue to support a party whose basic aim is to undermine their quality of life in the pursuit of corporate profit.

Here in Canada we have been galvanized by the January and February marches against Trump, as people from all walks of life went out to the streets to protest misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Yet we have also been shocked by the shooting of six muslim men in their place of worship in Quebec City by a millennial white supremacist, a brutal testament to the racist sentiment that flows just beneath the surface of our seemingly peaceful mosaic. Indeed, at the same time that Canadian governments at all levels are putting on an endless parade of celebratory events regarding Canada’s 150th birthday, the nation is beset by a series of external and internal challenges: refugees continue to walk across the northern border seeking shelter, home prices continue to spiral out of control in Canada’s major cities, and the economy grows at a snail’s pace, buoyed not by innovation but cheap credit, a depressed dollar, and massive government deficits.

As other pundits have pointed out, Trudeau has used the refugee crisis as cheap fuel to boost his own personal brand. He has invited the world’s displaced to come to Canada when he knows full well that there are hard caps on both our refugee and immigration systems, with Canada being one of the most difficult nation-states to gain residential access to in the world. Besides good PR, what does #WelcomeToCanada really mean?

While it is popular in Canada today for people to shake their heads and wonder “how did America ever get so crazy,” such smug pride is unwarranted. For Canada too is a powder-keg. As material disparities widen there is no doubt that economic anxieties will be translated into bitter ethnic resentments. An unctuous sense of hostility is already in the air. It finds expressions in dirty looks and resigned sighs, in the rolling of eyes across inclusive campuses, in hushed late night discussions in Toronto’s most progressive bars. Despite strides made in some spaces, ethnic and linguistic segregation still dominates the social landscape.

The most important task of the social critic in Canada is not to triumphantly critique the United States for its nativist backwardness (there are plenty in the United States doing that for us). What progressives in Canada must do in the upcoming year is to serve as an anecdote for the white-washed palaver that has emerged from so much of the Canada 150 content. We must remind the system of what it itself wants to forget.

This is a strategy of critique that has been outlined by Marxist historian Gavin Walker, a professor at McGill who has recently finished his first book: The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan. Walker’s work examines, on theoretical and historical levels, the complicity between the nation-form and the capitalist mode of production. Walker argues that we must constantly remind capitalism of its one point of weakness: that it relies on the commodification of labor power in order to complete its production process, even though it cannot on its own devices produce labor power as a commodity. For labor power resides in our bodies- it is not a commodity that can be placed on a shelf, like a machine or a tin of oil, ready “at hand” when capital needs to start producing products. Capital must convince us to sell our labor power for a given period of time, and without this sale the production process cannot complete itself. This, for Walker (and Marx) is capital’s weakspot, the one point where the laborer can say: no, I will not give you my labor power. I resist this circuit. I don’t have to commodify my own body. Thus an intervention is made possible, which would in practical terms be some kind of general strike and the formation of an alternative economy in which labor power itself is not turned into a commodity.

Winnipeg General Strike, 1919

As Walker convincingly argues, capital is always trying to disavow how insecure the labor power commodity truly is, broadcasting a vision of itself as a smooth, unbroken circle when it is really a process defined by this constantly uncertain “what if” (will labor power be found or not?). For Walker, then, the responsible critic must call capital to the carpet on its own delusions of smooth operation. Walker understands the labor power commodity as analogous to the Derridean concept of the supplement:

The supplement is not merely an addition, nor is it a substitution of something that would stand in for something else, nor is it something complementary or added, but it is an exterior addition, something whose presence is necessary but whose presence must be retroactively erased as having been necessary (Sublime Perversion of Capital, 183).

Following Walker’s work, I believe that we must remind Canada of the exterior supplements that were essential to its formation and yet were retroactively erased in the telling of its own history. Simply put, we must continually remind Canada of the social processes that the society itself was founded on, the violent history that lies just beneath the smooth multi-cultural fantasy the country operates within day after day. This includes a relentless reminder that Canada was:

1) A settler colony established for the enrichment of Northern Atlantic peoples of Christian descent. The will to find new lands was inseparable from the will to convert the world’s peoples to God’s dominion.

2) Canada’s founding was accomplished through a process of enclosure: seizing land through wars against First Nations communities and then codifying that seizure as “legal” through the language of “treaties.”

3) Canada’s commercial and industrial expansion was made possible by the commodification of the labor power of a working population. Yet this was a population that was not encouraged to see itself in class terms, but instead was encouraged (through policies of originary identification) to see themselves as bearers of irreducible ethnic identities (i.e. Chinese-Canadian, Portuguese-Canadian, Afro-Canadian, etc.). Such ethnic self-identifications ultimately aided the white Anglo-Saxon power structure, in so much as the working class could never conceptualize themselves as a class, but only as circles of self-same identity, the organic “folk” of older lands, unable or unwilling to reach out to build communities that transcended ethnic and national identity itself.

It is these three basic supplements (necessary but disavowed) of the Canadian past and present that need to be emphasized by critics over the next year. For only by doing so can the space for a politics that works against both the exploitations of capital and the divisions of the nation-state be generated. The only way to avoid the nativist surge that is roiling the world around us is to constantly remind ourselves that ethnic difference is itself a strategy by which capital operates to accumulate value from our labor, and to insist that the answer to inequality is not to retreat into ethnic silos but to understand the political economy that actively divides us.

Instead of celebrating the birth of a national entity that was never our own, an entity steeped in a violence that it itself continues to disavow, we need to be the constant fly in the ointment, the protean element reminding Canada of where the dead bodies are buried and how much force had to be brought to bear to build universities, hospitals, and suburban sub-divisions over them.

We must remind “Canada” of all of its repressed supplements, turning the national community inside out to see the garish lining within. Fantasies of ethnic-national purity are insufficient, nor are dreams of the smooth functioning of capital as an economic system. Both must be critiqued as the complicit duo they are.

Only then can a new world be imagined.


Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

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One thought on “Canada at 150: Point to the Dead Bodies (and Keep Pointing)

  1. I wonder if being represented as repressed supplementarity (thus obscene difference) is in itself a process of supplement (i.e difference-in-identity to the power of N) ? If so, we are going into infinity, badly.
    I really like this piece. I think I will read Walker’s book, too.

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