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Manitoba History: Review: James Silver and Jeremy Hull, eds., The Political Economy of Manitoba

by Allen Mills
University of Winnipeg

Number 23, Spring 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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James Silver and Jeremy Hull, eds., The Political Economy of Manitoba, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1990, xxiv + 340 pp., ISBN 0-88977-059-X.

This very useful book contains fifteen essays by fourteen Manitobans. They are almost all university professors and they are not shy about identifying themselves as socialists of various stripes, influenced in various ways by Marxism, writing for magazines like Canadian Dimension and having an ambiguous connection with the New Democratic Party.

The essays are on a variety of topics. Seven might be loosely characterized as having to do with the economic history of the province; three deal with aboriginal history; two are about the limits and failures of the planning process instituted by New Democratic governments in Manitoba. And there are individual essays of some interest: Reg Skene on C. P. Walker and the early years of commercial theatre in Winnipeg; Ustan Reinart on the women’s movement; and an essay by John Hofley on the evolution of the Canadian family. All of the contributors offer workmanlike performances; they are thorough, intelligible, heavily dependent on empirical data and charts and tables; and while there are some plodding pieces that meander to no clear conclusion and while some Shavian wit and brio might have perked up the articles, the vast majority of them are sensible, coherent and well-written. They provide a fundamental under-standing of crucial areas of Manitoba’s historical and contemporary experience.

I cannot estimate how far the editors insisted on a common theoretical framework for all these essays. It is not easy to take fourteen individuals and get them to see the world the same way, particularly if they are academics. Yet there are some continuities that they all share. As conveyed by the very title of the collection, they believe that economic matters cannot be discussed in a vacuum but must be integrated with political structures and processes, and vice versa. They mostly adhere to a vague sense that the shape of the world is the result of something called “capital,” though this is not so much a detailed, precise theory of capitalism, as it is a general disposition to believe that the economy is the foundation of everything. Where there is, I think, a more precise account of what capitalism is and does, it lies in their common view that the effects of capitalism in Manitoba have been to produce “uneven development;” so that many groups and classes have been impoverished and, to use a word that runs throughout these essays, “marginalized.” Thus the contributors are especially sensitive to the plights of aboriginals (the essays of Don Bailey, Nicole St-Onge and Pat Falconer), garment workers and farmers (Parvin Ghorayshi) and women (Ustun Reinart and John Hofley).

This emphasis—proper from a moral perspective—upon those at the margins of society does, nonetheless, lead to some analytic oversights. As academics, the authors seek a plausible, objective and complete account of the world they live in; however, as socialists, they are committed to change and greater justice. Sometimes the twin concerns exist in contradiction with each other. The moral part draws them to be concerned with those on the margins so that other integral parts of the political economy of the province are overlooked. Thus in this account of Manitoba we find nothing about the middle class or suburbia, or sports or culture, or the courts or the media, or schools or universities.

The other major theme of the collection is a consideration of the politics of the Left in Manitoba. This is taken up almost completely with the NDP. The authors, it is fair to say, have a love-hate relationship with the party. Perhaps this tension is the result of the general, analytic split-mindedness that runs like a thread throughout: that the NDP is a social democratic party and cannot be anything other, but that it should be a socialist party and must become one, though really it cannot be one, and so on. According to these authors the NDP is at best a party of realists and moderates. This is bad enough but there is more. It functions like a dead hand upon more radical, creative alternatives. Thus it “demobilizes” the trade union movement and other extra-party groups and pursues an elitist, exclusively parliamentary politics that invariably fails to deliver what it had promised to undertake. The authors thus see room for “manoeuvre,” political space within which the NDP can be more radical and transformative.

Marxism is, after all, a union of moral passion with economic determinism. The authors of this book, quite properly, call for a better world. Yet their economic theory leads them to appreciate the difficulties of making a better world. Their economic theory generates a profound sense of the restraints under which any political party, radical or otherwise, must operate. The essays of Gonick, Phillips, Ghorayshi, Tudiver and Silver emphasise a series of determinisms; we are a small province, economically speaking, whose status has declined continuously relative to the rest of Canada since the First World War; globalization has led to gargantuan, unstoppable pressures to mechanize the work place and to create larger units of production; the Free Trade Agreement places additional pressures upon our manufacturing and entrepot sectors; altogether the maintenance of provincial public spending is deeply dependent upon transfers from the federal government; the world-wide subsidy wars in agricultural produce push our farmers ever closer to the edge of the precipice. As Cy Gonick says in his essay, there is an underlying ‘fragility’ to the Manitoban economy. Reading these essays I am tempted to go further and conclude that there is an impending disaster awaiting Manitoba’s economy.

This being so, the authors’ analytic implications fly in the face of their moral and political aspirations. For what their analysis would seem to prescribe is not a radical socialism but a course of moderation with an emphasis not upon adversarial methods but collaborative and cooperative strategies between the provincial state, business and the work force. These are well-crafted essays that point out the dangers inherent in our economic predicament. But they do not prove that a consensus-seeking, reform-oriented social democracy is inappropriate in the present crisis.

Page revised: 24 April 2016

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