Want to understand current Canada-US relations? Look at the 1930s

One of the reasons it’s hard for Canadians to understand fully the threat posed by Trump and deeper currents in US politics is that Trump has ripped up the rulebook that has governed the Canada-U.S. relationship for over seventy years. There’s just no equivalent to anything that’s happened in most of our lifespans. Certainly nobody in power has ever dealt with a U.S. that’s as belligerent and counterproductively self-interested as the US is under Trump (and, lest we forget Iraq, was under Dubya).

But as those of us who study North American politics will recall, we have been here before, back in the 1930s, a much different time in the Canada-US relationship.

A quick Google Scholar search on historical Canada-US trade wars led me back to John Herd Thompson and Stephen J. Randall’s foundational book, Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies. And, well, the parallels between the Canada-U.S. relationship then and now are … illuminating.

US xenophobia and implementation of self-harming economic policies? Check.

“As a response to the deepening Depression, the same Congress that shut the border to Canadian migrants effectively closed it to Canadian potatoes, beef, butter, and poultry exports with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, the highest duties in US history.”

Canadian (failed) efforts to remind the US how much we mean to them? Check.

“Prime Minister Mackenzie King quietly sent a series of emissaries to warn President Hoover of Smoot-Hawley’s serious economic and diplomatic effects. The Literary Digest and The Nation made the same case to the American public: Canada was the ‘best customer of the U.S.A.,’ two-way trade was the highest between any two nations in the world, and Canada bought one-third more from the United States than it sold to that country. Why jeopardize this with a tariff war?”

American attempt to strike a deal are botched by a president’s incompetence? Check.

“The president offered the prime minister an exchange: he would exempt Canada from the new tariffs in return for a Canadian promise to cooperate in one of Hoover’s pet projects, a St. Lawrence Seaway to open the Great Lakes to oceangoing ships. … But Hoover doomed the deal by leaking the offer to the press.”

Canadians get their backs up, guaranteeing a trade war? Check.

“Trading a seaway for a tariff exemption would mean yielding to U.S. pressure before a binational audience, and the prime minister understood that it was time to cater to his country’s psychic need to stand up to Uncle Sam. King rejected Hoover’s proposal to link the seaway and trade issues and retaliated for Smoot-Hawley with countervailing tariff increases and additional levies on steel and on fruits and vegetables. Canada had fired the second shot in the North American theater of the international trade ware that exacerbated the Great Depression.”

Although the past isn’t necessarily prologue, Thompson and Randall’s history lesson also holds some possible lessons for the future.

Lesson 1: There’s going to be lots of political hay to be made by appealing to anti-American sentiment.

“This counterattack did not save King’s Liberals from defeat in the Canadian election of July 1930. As in 1911, the opposition Conservatives played the card of anti-U.S. chauvanism with consummate skill. … Once in office, the new government’s first actions were to pass a five-page list of tariff increases and to slam Canada’s doors and to slam Canada’s door against immigrants.”

[Note: Would a federal Conservative government be so stridently anti-immigrant in a now-multicultural country? Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government will provide an early indication.]

Lesson 2: Politicians should tamp down the expectation that trade diversification will protect Canada. We’re stuck with the United States

“Prime Minister Bennett proposed to replace vanished trade with the United States with expanded trade within the British Empire. He had scant success, however, in his attempts to reach reciprocal tariff agreements with Britain and the other Dominions. A much-publicized Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa in 1932 aroused U.S. fears of a British Empire trading bloc, but its practical results were few. The United States never need have worried that its economic influence on Canada would diminish: even as tariff warfare and the Depression cut the total volume of Canadian-U.S. trade in half in the early 1930s, the Canadian economy intertwined with the American. …”

Lesson 3: Personalities matter, but circumstances matter more

“Hoover’s ignorance of and indifference to Canada contributed a dimension of difficulty to U.S.-Canada relations, as did Bennett’s abrasive personal manner, but long-standing circumstances, not personalities, were at the root of bilateral problems. …”

[Note: And as I’ve argued elsewhere, our current circumstances do not favour a return to the status quo.]

The first step to avoid repeating history is to recognize what history you’re in danger of repeating. In order to craft a realistic strategy for dealing with the post-NAFTA era, those charts showing how much Canada trades with all the U.S. states aren’t going to do much good. Time to dust off those old history books.

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Memo: The long-term Canadian response to the Trump presidency

I wrote this memo in November-December 2016 and circulated it to a few people in and around government. Sadly, I think it’s held up quite well. Posting it here for posterity. For me, one of the key takeaways is that it’s been clear since the beginning that Trump poses an existential threat to the liberal-international order and to Canadian security and prosperity. Or at least it’s been clear to those of us who study North American politics and the international political economy.

Almost two years’ on, it seems people are slowly starting to realize exactly how dangerous the situation is for Canada, and I’m still not sure of the extent to which the Canadian government and politicians of all stripes are facing some of the hard questions I raise below.

December 5, 2016


The election of Donald Trump potentially presents an existential crisis for Canada of a type previously unimaginable in the post-World War II period. There is a non-zero (and growing) possibility that Trump’s election will accelerate the decline of the US-underwritten liberal international order, ushering us into to a world of power politics that is unfamiliar to the current generation of Canadian policymakers. In this scenario, it is questionable whether the current public Canadian policy of reminding Trump of Canada’s economic value to the United States would be an effective way to preserve Canadian prosperity, let alone autonomy.

By taking a more self-interested, transactional approach to international relations, the United States could fundamentally alter the decades-old international system that has provided the context for all of Canada’s domestic and international economic, political and military activities. Should this come to pass, the fundamental assumptions underlying the Canadian economy – open, free-trade-based – and Canadian foreign policy – multilateral, Canada as the United States’ helpful fixer – would have to be rethought in the context of its relationship with a more-antagonistic United States. Given the extreme downsides to this possible outcome, the Canadian Government should begin preparing contingency plans that will allow the country to deal proactively with this worst-case scenario.


  1. The Government should work pre-emptively to depoliticize Canada-US relations by creating a Cabinet committee on Canada-US relations with representation from the main opposition parties.
  2. The Government should allocate resources across all departments to begin planning for the “post-US” world order. Key topics should include: the optimal structure of the Canadian economy in a world of “hard” regions; negotiating with a belligerent United States; reassessing the extent of Canadian-US military and security cooperation; the status of the North; maintaining the United Nations’ relevance in a world of region-based realpolitik.


The Canada-US relationship affects every single aspect of Canadian society. Currently, the Government’s publicly expressed approach to the incoming Trump administration seems to be based on the assumption that, while perhaps distasteful, Trump represents relative continuity with previous Republican administrations. This is a very dangerous assumption to make and is belied by almost every one of Trump’s actions in his presidential campaign and since becoming president-elect (e.g., igniting an international incident with China via a phone call with the president of Taiwan). It is also belied by the extent to which the Republican establishment has embraced him, of which the courting of former Trump critic Mitt Romney is only the most recent example. While it is possible that Republican free-trade ideology and the traditional US support (however reluctant) of international institutions will carry the day, there is a strong possibility that the US consensus on the importance of a liberal economic and political order internationally is about to be shattered.

Assuming these public pronouncements by Canadian officials represent the opinions of the Canadian Government, Canada faces the very serious possibility of being completely unprepared by the increasingly likely rewrite of the fundamental rules of the global political and economic system by the Trump administration, as well as the eventual, long-term decline of US global dominance. A lack of planning for the worst-case scenarios (which, while perhaps unlikely, seem not as impossible as they did in October 2016) could lock the Government into a reactive stance that produces long-term damage to the Canadian economy and state.


The post-World War II period in Canada-US relations has been characterized by ever-deepening political, military and particularly economic integration, the latter of which reached its apex in the formal recognition of an integrated North American economy in the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. In the 1970s, US political scientists Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye termed this relationship one of “complex interdependence,” reflective of societies that had become so intertwined that the obvious power asymmetries between the two countries were not reflected in policy outcomes. Rather, the relationship is characterized by respect for the norm of non-issue-linkage and restraint in the exercise of dominance.

Canada-US relations are embedded in a larger Western international society that emphasizes multilateralism, economic and political liberalism, and sovereignty. As noted by prominent political economist Susan Strange, among others, argue, this international society is underwritten by US hard and soft power, or “hegemony.” Hegemony is not just coercive, dependent on military and economic strength; it also depends on an element of consent – other states and peoples have to “buy in” to the dominant power’s ideas (e.g., free trade, democracy, human rights). US leadership has created what American political scientist Peter Katzenstein calls the “American imperium.” This system is characterized by “open regionalism”: increasingly integrated world regions (Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas) that remain deeply interpenetrated by each other and, particularly, by the United States.

While all this has led to a globalized world in which transnational corporations span the globe and international organizations like the World Trade Organization and the United Nations structure economic and political activity, the United States remains the ultimate guarantor of this liberal international order.

Already, before the election of Trump, US hegemony was under challenge from within and without. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis has led many to question the wisdom of US-style economic liberalism; the 2003 invasion of Iraq raised serious questions about the United States’ commitment to the principles of sovereignty and human rights. In Asia, China’s antipathy toward the current system can be seen most directly in its promotion of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which the Obama administration correctly views as an attempt to gain influence for itself against the US-dominated institutions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In this view, Canada’s and others’ decision to join the AIIB represents a weakening of US hegemony.

In other areas, analysts have observed attempts by the United States, pre-Trump, to move away from its hegemonic role, for instance, in its lack of interest in intervening directly in Syria due to a lack of a direct perceived “national interest.”

The US exercise of global hegemony has always been complicated by its fractious domestic politics. In her 1987 article, “The Persistent Myth of Lost Hegemony,” Susan Strange remarked that international-institutional instability could be traced to parochial domestic US politics. This observation is even more accurate today, as we can see in the unravelling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP was, primarily, a geostrategic attempt by the United States to balance against China in the Asia-Pacific, cementing US economic, political and military primacy in the area against a rising power. While a smart strategic move, it was undone by US domestic politics. Attempts by US firms to cement their dominance in Asia through policies like strong intellectual property protection and investor-state dispute settlement that provide overwhelmingly one-sided benefits to US corporations were opposed worldwide, and ironically contributed to Trump’s unexpected electoral victory.

The election of Donald Trump is likely to vastly accelerate this already-ongoing process of the loss of US hegemony. Trump’s contribution to this long-run change is likely to come via his disregard (shared by many in the Republican party) for the rules and institutions that undergird the international system. To use Susan Strange’s terminology, while Trump has a keen appreciation for relational power – that is, the ability to dominate others – he does not seem to understand the importance of structural power – that is, the ability to set the rules and context within which other countries operate. He does not appreciate the extent to which the United States benefits from its ability to set the global rules (including promotion of “universal” norms). Instead, his entire campaign and his time as president-elect have been characterized by attacks on this system. Nor does he (or the Republican party at large) have a plan to replace the current system with something else; instead, the instinct will be to rely on relational power – including the world’s most powerful military and its (for now) most vibrant economy – to get what they want from other countries.

These long-term trends will likely lead to an eventual fracturing of US hegemony, and with it – in the absence of the unlikely rise of another liberal hegemonic power – the current liberal-international system. Global free trade (and also transnational production networks) as the foundation of the world economy cannot be assumed to continue forever. As the United States removes its sponsorship of a global liberal economy, it is very possible that a global world will transform into a world of “hard” regions, in which dominant countries shape the policies of the region’s smaller countries, with less emphasis on liberal economic policies and more on a mercantilist approach to trade and economic policy.

As a small, open state whose only border is with the United States, Canada will keenly feel the effects of these changes. Canada’s current economic policies are based on the existence of deep economic integration with the United States, (relatively) free trade and US restraint in the exercise of power. If the United States abandons its commitment to a liberal trading regime and adopts a more transactional relationship toward its partners, Canada will almost certainly be affected dramatically. While economic inertia is a powerful force, the current economic regime cannot be assumed to continue indefinitely if one partner takes an increasingly short-run, transactional approach to economic and political matters. Deep integration did not prevent the United States from imposing economically self-harming border measures post-9/11 to protect what it perceived as its national interest.

Politically and economically, there is no “us” in North America. The “complex interdependence” that has characterized the peaceful Canada-US relations of the postwar period is underwritten by economic factors and normative values. However, while US businesses may experience discomfort as transnational supply chains are interrupted, at the end of the day they respond to the political and economic structures created by the state. For this reason, it would be unwise to place disproportionate faith in the idea that Republican administrations are good for Canada-US trade, or that deep economic integration will necessarily protect Canadian economic interests. Although economists generally agree (with caveats) that free trade is a better economic policy than mercantilism, such a consensus is unlikely to prevent politicians from deciding to go all-in on mercantilism should they choose to do so. Sound economic policy does not always carry the political day.

This brief does not argue that the United States is becoming a less consequential actor, particularly in its relations with Canada. A world of transactional, relational power is not one in which US power is necessarily diminished, at least in relational terms. It is one in which rules are seen as less important by larger states, and one in which smaller states (like Canada) are much more vulnerable to great-power aggression and dominance than they are today. Dealing with a transactional United States would also raise important questions about the extent and wisdom of Canada-US military and intelligence interpenetration, or interoperability, and the desirability of a fully independent Canadian military and intelligence services.

Economically, while successive Canadian governments have assumed that Canada has economic alternatives to the United States (even if these have never worked out), realistically, Canada is trapped in North America. Historically, our geographic location has been an enormous benefit to Canada. However, in a world of “hard regions,” it may become a burden. Pursuing independent extra-North American relations may become increasingly difficult if the United States begins to see Canadian exports, say, of oil to China as a form of aid by one of “their” countries (i.e., Canada) to one of their rivals.


In normal times, advice that Canadians not panic over the election of an unsavoury US president, which seems to be the Government’s primary public message, would be sound; the deep economic, political, military and social connections between the two countries would constrain the incoming president and mitigate the damage he could cause to the Canada-US relationship.

These are not normal times. The Trump transition is showing no signs of maturing into a normal Republican administration.

The centrality of the Canada-US relationship to Canadians’ well-being means that managing the fallout from the Trump administration – to say nothing of ensuring that Trump-style populist sentiment does not gain a foothold in Canada – will be the Government’s most challenging file for the foreseeable future. Given the extreme potential downsides to fundamental changes in the relationship and the world order, the Government should a) work to create a united front in dealing with the United States by inviting the leaders of the main opposition parties to participate in crafting a grand strategy to confront these issues; and b) begin serious whole-of-government contingency planning for how Canada will navigate a world of “hard regions.” Even if Trump had lost the election, such planning would be prudent; his election makes it imperative.

Prepared by:
Blayne Haggart
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
Brock University

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What is knowledge? Seven ground rules (and three helpful tips)

I wrote this brief note for my 4th-year Global Political Economy class as a way to bring them up to speed on the knowledge economy. Because it’s intangible, and because it can raise all sorts of questions we usually get into via drunken 3 a.m. dude, is-anything-even-real discussions, it can be difficult to understand what knowledge is in a political-economy sense. Those of you who live this stuff will note the influences of Foucault, Berger and Luckmann, and Bourdieu, among many others, such as Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism and Powers and Jablonski’s The Real Cyber War (in Rule 7).

At the end, I’ve also added three helpful tips for thinking through the political economy of knowledge that follow from these ground rules.

I’m aware that I’m using “knowledge” and “information” in slightly different ways than others, but this distinction works for me. Comments welcome, on this and the rest of the list.

The seven ground rules

Although we have supposedly been in the “information age,” or the “knowledge economy” since the mid-1990s, these terms, as well as related concepts such as “data” and “technology” tend to be used loosely to describe many different phenomena. It can all be a bit confusing. In order to make sense of our object of study, we will observe the following seven ground rules.

  1. “Knowledge” and “information” refer to two different things.

In our phrasing, information refers to phenomena that exists in the world independent of whether or not someone observes it.

Knowledge refers to whatever phenomena humans decide to observe. The act of deciding to observe something, and then observing it, transforms information into knowledge. Put another way, knowledge involves giving social meaning to phenomena.

From this perspective, forms of knowledge include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Technology (recognized ways of doing things);
  • Intellectual property (including drug compounds, music, the Golden Arches, and so on);
  • Culture (stories, giving meaning to sounds or colours applied to physical materials); and
  • Data collected by your Fitbit.
  1. Deciding that some piece of information counts as knowledge is a conscious, political act.

The world is filled with information, but we must make a conscious decision, informed by politics, culture, economics, morality, and so on, to turn this information into data, or knowledge. In other words, political debates over how to treat data that do not question whether this information should be collected in the first place, that assume this “data” was just hanging around to be collected, already has a profound bias toward collection and use.

  1. Knowledge is intangible.

Unlike material goods, which serve as the economic foundation of a manufacturing economy, commodified forms of knowledge (such as intellectual property, or personal data) do not have a material manifestation. One of the consequences of this fact, as we will see, is that knowledge-based economies function very differently than do manufacturing-based ones. For example, it is very easy, under current laws, for transnational corporations to engage in tax arbitrage by moving the “value” attributed to knowledge across borders. Similarly, the nature of knowledge production means that they produce much different types and levels of employment than traditional manufacturing companies, and have different spillover effects into the local economy. To understand their economic effects, they must be studied on their own terms. Furthermore, the characteristics of knowledge mean that currently it is easy to absorb smaller companies’ knowledge/data and export its value. However,

  1. There are always rules governing knowledge. They always benefit some groups and practices, and impede others.

People tend to assume that knowledge, absent legal protections, can be used by anybody – in other words, that it is non-rivalrous. For example, if there were no copyright laws, anyone could download as much music as they wanted, and could remix that music in any way they pleased.

This is not exactly correct. In practice, the creation and use of knowledge is always and everywhere subject to rules, both formal and informal. These rules determine what knowledge can be used, and by whom. Put most bluntly, there is no such thing as free speech, in the sense of “speech unrestrained by rules.”

At the most trivial level, these rules (such as grammar) render coherent the communication of knowledge. Social taboos against the use of profanity or the discussion of politics at Thanksgiving regulate speech, or a stand-up comic mimicking another’s act. The most formal rules are those such as intellectual-property or hate-speech laws, or governmental freedom of information acts. Speech and data use can also be governed by companies’ terms of service – for example, Twitter’s (unevenly applied) rules against hate speech. Rules and norms may be more or less permissive, but they are always there.

These rules will always benefit some groups over others. A private company that collects data on road use but is forced to turn it over to the state loses the monopolistic benefits it might gain from selling that data even as the state benefits, and vice versa.

  1. New knowledge builds on existing knowledge.

The creation of new knowledge invariably builds on existing knowledge, be it a well-footnoted textbook or a patented algorithm. This reality explains why intellectual property laws are always limited in time and scope, as we will see in Week 3. Failure to include these safety valves would provide current owners of knowledge with a de facto monopoly over the creation of new knowledge. Following from this observation, we can conclude that:

  1. Those who control the definition, creation, and use of knowledge also control the future direction and development of knowledge.

As a result, the control of knowledge shapes not only the economic development of society (e.g., by determining what new technologies get produced), but also its social, cultural and ideological development (e.g., by shaping who gets to tell what stories, and what stories get told).

  1. A society based on the exploitation of knowledge requires constant surveillance in order to function properly and efficiently.

A data-driven economy implies that the activities from which data are being extracted must first be monitored. Non-monitoring results in a loss of efficiency. In a competitive environment, for example, companies seeking maximum efficiency will be driven to maximize their surveillance of workers and production processes lest their competitors get the upper hand via more-intensive monitoring, as we will see in Week 9. Similarly, with respect to intellectual property, any unauthorized uses of IP imply a potential loss for the IP owner, which explains the enduring interest by copyright and trademark owners in coercing internet intermediaries such as Google to surveil their users for IP infringement. This is not only an economic issue; even liberal-democratic states like Canada have engaged in ever-growing surveillance of their citizens. The logic in the security and economic cases is the same: in a knowledge economy, anything less than total surveillance is seen as a potential threat or economic loss.

Three helpful tips

  1. Knowledge is always partial.
  2. Data is never unbiased.
  3. Technology is not a substitute for politics. You can’t tech your way out of politics.
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Regulating Facebook: Radical change or the status quo?

(I’m currently travelling through Brazil interviewing people for a book project on knowledge governance, hence the untimeliness of this post. (What’s the opposite of the hot take? Cool reasoning?) But since I haven’t seen this opinion anywhere else, and because writing this helps me organize my own thinking, here it is.)

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about the disappointing backlash (as noted by David Murakami Wood and others) against April Glaser’s important and courageous article on why privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation haven’t been more active in the policy debate over pervasive corporate surveillance. When activist firebrands like EFF and others, as Glaser notes, do not have “campaigns related to Facebook, or … proposals for any kind of legislation that would address the ways Facebook and other companies surveil your every mood – and which has been linked by the United Nations to genocide and by the New York Times to all degree of murderous unpleasantness around the world – something’s going on.

EFF and privacy activists play an important role in the debate over data and online regulation: they effectively set the boundaries for the limits of debate over these issues, a role that was first highlighted for me when I was interviewing people in DC for my dissertation on digital-copyright politics. So to have them warn against moving too quickly suggests to me that we should be thinking hard about what’s happening here.

To be clear, I don’t doubt that EFF and other privacy activists sincerely want to reform Facebook and the data-driven economy. And when it comes to state surveillance, you can’t really question their bonafides. It seems to me that a lot of the anger over Glaser’s (very fair and measured) article stems from the fact that in this instance – the debate over how to deal with corporate surveillance and the larger issue of the data-driven economy – EFF and other privacy activists/groups are acting like status quo actors when most people are used to thinking of them as principled (or radical, depending on where you sit) actors. They’re interested in tweaking the knowledge economy, not dealing with its underlying problems.

Here’s the political science. In a great 1993 article, Harvard political scientist Peter Hall argued that there are three types of policy changes. First-order policy changes are routinized and incremental – think adjustments to Facebook’s algorithm to fine-tune its results. Second-order changes involve a reordering of policy tools without changing the ultimate policy objectives. A good example here might be Zuckerberg’s recent announcement of changes to Facebook’s news feed to prioritize personal content. This category would also include calls for software designers and engineers to act more ethically when designing their products, or for Facebook to place a higher priority on individuals’ privacy. It’s a tweak to the system that leaves the system in place.

Third-order policy changes, finally, involve a wholesale reordering of ultimate policy objectives. This would be akin to banning targeted advertising, or forcing social networks to run as non-profits or some kind of heavily state-regulated utility. Or even nationalizing Facebook, perhaps.

An ideological debate

The nice thing about thinking in terms of second- and third-order changes is that it highlights clearly the policy debate at hand. It strongly suggests that the backlash against Glaser’s article is highly ideological and is centred on one of society’s most fundamental organizing principles: what is the appropriate relative balance between the state and the market in this area?

Glaser, I think, is arguing for third-order change, while EFF and others are calling for second-order change. Second-order change involves things such as data portability, strengthening individual consent, calling on engineers to act more ethically, and greater platform transparency.

These policy options are consistent with a suspicion of government regulation, an embrace of a minimally regulated free market, and an ideological belief that market competition will deliver the discipline necessary to sort out any privacy problems. In other words, the standard economic framework that’s been in vogue since the 1980s era of Reagan and Thatcher. You can’t get much more status quo than that.

Against this position, the argument that government does have a legitimate role to play in the regulation of the data-driven economy, and social networks, and that the market does not necessarily deliver optimal social results, is distinctly third-order. (I’d position myself here.) This position would note that there is a legitimate role for the state to act in cases of market failure, including dealing with monopoly power and negative externalities (such as contributing to genocide in the pursuit of profit.) In such cases, the market is incapable of working in a socially optimal manner.

This is the crux of the issue: which will deliver better results for society, the market or government regulation of a monopoly/imperfect competition situation?

Different societies, and different groups have different answers to this problem. As a Canadian, I’m very conscious that much of the commentary regarding how organizations like Facebook should be regulated reflect particular American notions on the appropriate state-market balance, and on what constitutes speech that do not necessarily hold in other countries or societies (or, indeed, amongst non-white, non-male US groups).

The big questions

What all this means is that there are two issues to consider. First, does this moment require second-order change, or is the situation serious enough to reconsider the fundamental nature of the data-driven economy and of social networks?

Second, the debate over how to regulate Facebook et al has no easy, technical solution. Setting the balance between the state and the market is one of the most fundamental choices a society must make. Not only does this type of debate not easily invite compromise, but such battles (think welfare state vs neoliberals) are intensely personal, vicious and – sorry, folks – political.

The debate over Facebook is inviting us to reconsider what type of society we want, not just with respect to novel hi tech data/surveillance problems, but also in more traditional terms. It’s actually kind of ironic that Silicon Valley, with its widespread belief that technology can render politics obsolete, may end up sparking a debate over the economic and social free-market consensus that has dominated US society (and the world) for the past four decades.

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The global political economy of knowledge: A reading list

…time to reactivate the blog…

For the past several years I’ve been teaching a 4th year/graduate seminar on the global political economy. In previous years I’ve taught it as a survey course, an advanced introduction to the various facets of the global economy: production, finance, knowledge/IP.

This year, however, I decided to repurpose it to focus on the global political economy of knowledge. As a political scientist/International Political Economy scholar, I’ve been very conscious that almost all of the action in this area is occurring in other disciplines: law, communication, STS and so on. As a result, not only have IPE and political science students been underexposed to what is arguably the dominant part of the global political economy, but the comparative advantages of Poli and IPE scholars have not been brought to bear fully on the knowledge economy/society/whatever. Most particularly, this includes a sensitivity to how issues like intellectual property, data governance and internet governance fit into the larger global political economy, and a particular sensitivity to the exercise of power of both state and non-state actors.

IPE scholars have an important role to play in the ongoing debate over issues such as the global role of knowledge-based companies and state surveillance. We’re trained to think about how it all fits together, on the links between politics and economics. But first we need to develop (or rediscover) theories that apply to a global political economy increasingly dominated by the control of knowledge.

Because there are so few courses on the global political economy of knowledge for students of IPE and political science, I thought it might be useful to share the syllabus, along with some thoughts on why I set it up the way I did.

Course design: Target audience

The course was an upper-year seminar course that includes 4th-year and Masters students. Only one out of 11 students (a Geography Masters student focusing on digital spaces) had any academic background in the issues covered in the course, although one student came from a prominent family of trademark lawyers, and another, a Brazilian MA student, had previously worked in branding.  That said, it’s safe to say that none of them had ever thought deeply about the control of knowledge, or even what knowledge was. To give you a better idea of where they stood at the beginning of the year, none of them could define what an algorithm was.

My goal for the course was to provide them with a theoretical framework for thinking through the economic and (especially) the political aspects of knowledge governance in its main forms. I wanted to highlight the role of human agency, contingency, and power underlying the technologies and rules they interact with every day.

The syllabus

In order to introduce them to the concept of knowledge governance, I structured the 12-week course to cover five issues: theory (weeks 1 and 2); intellectual property (weeks 3-5); internet governance and state surveillance (weeks 6-8); platform capitalism (week 9); and non-state internet governance (weeks 10-11). Week 12 was a wrap-up class in which students presented their papers in an academic-panel setting (I provided the coffee and doughnuts in order to make the simulation as real as possible).

With the exception of the theory weeks, each topic focused primarily on a key book that highlighted a specific part of what we referred to as the “knowledge structure.” While I didn’t exactly intend it, these books also exposed the students to a diverse set of ideological frameworks, from liberalism to Marxism. I’d never taught a books-only seminar before, and one of my worries had been that I wouldn’t expose students to enough conflicting approaches. I may have strong opinions on all of these topics, I’m not interested in preaching to my students, beyond the idea that these issues are really, really important and worthy of study.

Some notes on pedagogy

Pedagogically, we turned the third week of the IP and data/surveillance sections into class debates, which was helped by the small size of the classes. It was a useful way to see if they had understood the key points covered by the books. Also, even though all of the books (obviously) have very distinct points of view, the students had no trouble arguing both sides of the questions.

Our Week 9 seminar, on Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism, was originally scheduled to be a joint class with a graduate class on theory and technology taught by a political theory colleague. The idea was that we would both assign the books to our respective classes, and then merge them to see how a political theorist and an IPE scholar might approach the same material. We couldn’t make the timing work, so she made a guest appearance in my class, and I returned the favour later that day. Overall, I think the students in both classes found the change in perspective illuminating, with me highlighting the more mundane issues of power and economy, and she linking it back to how forms of economic and political organization affect the human condition. Fun stuff.

Finally, because all of the books built on each other, presented within a (more or less) unified theoretical framework, the class proved perfect for a two-question take-home exam: Describe the “knowledge structure” referring to all of the texts covered in class; and identify and discuss two policy issues raised by the readings and/or in class.


I haven’t seen the actual course evaluations yet, but based on an hour-plus discussion in Week 11, the students seemed to find the class a very useful and engaging introduction to a part of the world they’d never thought of before. So that was nice.

The books and readings

Part 1: Theory

Week 1: Newspaper articles; Handout “What is knowledge? The seven ground rules” 

Week 2: Theorizing the knowledge structure (articles)

Blayne Haggart, “Incorporating the study of knowledge into the IPE mainstream, or, when does a trade agreement stop being a trade agreement?” Journal of Information Policy 7 (2017): 176-203. (open access) 

Blayne Haggart, “New economic models, new forms of state: The emergence of the “info-imperium” state,” Kritika, forthcoming.

Christopher May, “Strange fruit: Susan Strange’s theory of structural power in the international political economy,” Global Society 10, no. 2 (1996): 167-189.

My goal in the first week was to get them used to the idea that the regulation of knowledge – be it data, intellectual property, internet governance, or even cultural production – is inherently political, and that no matter how you structure the rules, you’re going to create winners and losers. The first week we discussed the question of cultural appropriation, centred around some newspaper articles that raised the questions of who should be allowed to use Indigenous symbols in art, and who should be able to view sacred art. I’d hoped to make a strong link to our own taken-for-granted notions about copyright and plagiarism, but overall I think I left the students more confused than enlightened. That said, in our review they mentioned that subsequent class discussions made clear the points I was trying to make. Overall verdict: good idea, execution and explanation needed work.

More successful in the first week was a handout setting out seven ground rules for understanding what knowledge is. This really helped set out the politics and economics of knowledge governance. You can read it here, but in short they are:

  1. “Knowledge” and “information” refer to two different things.
  2. Deciding that some piece of information count as knowledge is a conscious, political act.
  3. Knowledge is intangible.
  4. There are always rules governing knowledge. They always benefit some groups and practices, and impede others.
  5. New knowledge builds on existing knowledge.
  6. Those who control the definition, creation, and use of knowledge also control the future direction and development of knowledge.
  7. A society based on the exploitation of knowledge requires constant surveillance in order to function properly and efficiently.

In this class, we defined knowledge as including both data and intellectual property, partial, mediated representations of reality (which we referred to as “information”). Perhaps not the terminology used by everyone, but it worked for us.

In Week 2, I presented the theoretical framework we used in the class. The framework, which I have developed over a series of conference presentations and journal articles, melds the work of Susan Strange on structural power with Robert W. Cox’s emphasis on state-society complexes and historic blocs. I complemented it with Christopher May’s critique of Strange’s “knowledge structure,” pointing out several issues which I have attempted to fix via my own work (the article also suggests that a Cox-Strange melding could produce useful results; I wholeheartedly agree).

In a nutshell, Strange provides the ontology for thinking about the relationship of knowledge to other parts of the political economy, while Cox offers a mechanism for understanding how change happens. You can read the articles (I’ll link to the Kritika one when it’s released shortly), but the key points are:

  • The underlying rules and norms governing production, finance, security, and knowledge are key power resources in the global political economy.
  • None of these “structures” is a priori more important than the others, although the logic of one structure tends to dominate the others at a given time, and will shape how they operate.
  • We’re currently witnessing the ascension of the knowledge structure.
  • Control over these areas is a contest between state and non-state actors. The state is not necessarily always the main or dominant actor, so we also have to pay attention to private regulation and norm-setting.
  • The “knowledge structure” covers the legitimation of what is considered to be useful knowledge, as well regulations over its creation, dissemination/transmission and use. This means that data, intellectual property, internet governance, and state/commercial surveillance are not separate issues, but parts of a larger, coherent whole (i.e., a “knowledge structure”).
  • The main unit of analysis in global politics is the “state-society complex,” mutually reinforcing relationships between state actors (the state in this view is not a unitary entity) and groups in civil society (e.g., industries). They will tend to pass legislation and promote norms that favour their specific interests over others.

For the purposes of this class, this framework allows for us to cast a wide net, both in terms of substantive theory (it can fit with liberal or Marxist views of the world), as well as in terms of issue focus. It highlights the importance of rule-setting as opposed to relational power. Unlike most other approaches, which tend to consider, say, IP in terms of itself, it highlights its wider effects on everything from production to state security.

Weeks 3-5: Intellectual Property

Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite. Information Feudalism. Sterling: Earthscan, 2002. Available free as a pdf download.

This is, by far, the oldest book on the list, but it is incredibly useful in setting the stage for the rest of the class. Sixteen years later, it’s amazing how current it remains. It provides a very readable introduction to students about the political nature and effects of intellectual property rights, including its effects on access to drugs and access to knowledge in the developing and developed worlds. Drahos and Braithwaite’s framing of strong IP rights as creating a new form of feudalism clearly highlights the winner-take-all dynamics of an strong-IP-based economy. There is also a strong social-justice element to the book, which fits nicely with Strange’s famous research question, cui bono (who benefits)? Their democratic framework for assessing whether a particular IP law or treaty is just is also particularly useful.

The book also traces the emergence of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) as the most consequential development in global IP law in the past half-century. We live in a TRIPS world, and this volume is an excellent introduction to it.

The book’s one drawback is that it assumes a basic knowledge of the different types of intellectual property. This can be a problem given that IP law tends to intimidate even non-IP lawyers. To compensate, I gave a brief lecture on the mechanics of the main IP types, which seemed to do the trick.

Weeks 6-8: Shawn M. Powers and Michael Jablonski, The Real Cyber War: The Political Economy of Internet Freedom. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

This is an excellent book that I cannot recommend too highly. Powers and Jablonski inventively use a Realist (in the International Relations sense) framework – here called a geopolitical approach – to analyze the US conception of “Internet freedom.” In doing so, they highlight the extent to which seemingly neutral/positive ideas around online free speech, promoted by everyone from the US State Department to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also tend to reinforce the global economic strength of US telecoms and internet companies. They further note that this is nothing new: the US has been doing this in one form or another since the invention of the radio.

Their discussion of why internet freedom-internet censorship/balkanization is a false dichotomy is particularly important. They point out that all states always, including today, have always controlled and limited communications that they perceive not to be in their interest. By bringing the state into the picture, and highlighting the tight relationship between Silicon Valley and the US state, they offer a useful corrective to analyses which are either state- or industry-focused. Their section on the influential CIA VC fund In-Q-Tel should be required reading for anyone who still thinks that corporate and state surveillance aren’t linked, and their analysis on multistakeholder governance is a convincing argument that MSG isn’t neutral, its politics and power are just more subtle.

They also develop the concept of the Information-Industrial Complex, arguing that Silicon Valley and its associated internet companies arose out of state programs related to the Cold War (the internet) and a post-9/11 security-based obsession with total surveillance.

They also have a great chapter on exactly what Google is and the life cycle of data that should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand what might otherwise be a daunting topic.

Oh, and their solution to dealing with the issue of privacy online, modelled on the international treaties governing privacy in regular mail, is genius. As the Facebook debacle continues, every day that this idea doesn’t gain traction is disappointing.

Of course, by emphasizing the state to the degree they do, they almost necessarily understate the society/business side of things. But given that pretty much everyone else is focused on that part of the equation, that’s as much a feature as a bug.

Week 9: Nick Srnicek. Platform Capitalism. New York: Polity, 2017.

When I came across this short, masterful book a couple of weeks before I had to finalize my syllabus, I knew I had to cram it in here somehow. Srnicek, better and more compactly than anyone I’ve yet read, illustrates how the ascension of the knowledge structure affects the other structures. He clearly walks the reader through the various types of platforms, showing what happens when companies rely on the production and use of data, and what the troubling consequences are, for income inequality, privacy and economic stability to name only a few issues.

In many ways, Platform Capitalism is the mirror opposite of The Real Cyber War. Where Powers and Jablonski see the state as the ultimate mover in constructing our current online world, the state is almost completely absent from Platform Capitalism. Instead, Srnicek credits the rise of platform capitalism to the inner workings of capitalism itself and the ongoing search for profit in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Each book undoubtedly contains elements of the truth, and the benefit from being read in rapid succession.

One other notable thing about Platform Capitalism is that Srnicek is very light on proposed answers to dealing with the myriad issues caused by this new form of economic organization. He canvasses the alternatives – status quo, regulation, non-profit competitors, public ownership – without sounding too enthusiastic about any of them. I have some thoughts about the issue, but in a classroom setting Srnicek’s open-endedness is a virtue, an invitation to discussion.

Weeks 10-11: Natasha Tusikov, Chokepoints: Global Private Regulation on the Internet. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

If The Real Cyber War is too state-centric, and Platform Capitalism too society-centric, Chokepoints hits the midpoint. That it deals with the very hot topic of whether and how large internet companies should regulate, or be forced to regulate, their users’ activities made it the perfect capstone for this course.

The book (disclosure: written by my partner, which meant I was able to convince her to guest lecture on the first week) highlights the tight, and often hidden, relationship between the state and what she calls “macrointermediaries” – your Googles, your PayPals, your GoDaddys, and so on – when it comes to regulating online behaviour. Her case study, regulation of online trademark infringement, highlighted the centralization that has emerged online: if you can convince the few key players controlling search, online payments, advertising, domain name registration and online marketplaces that they should regulate in your interest, then you can basically control what happens on the internet.

Most importantly, Tusikov reveals that the so-called “voluntary” agreements between rightsholders and these macrointermediaries are not at all voluntary: they are agreed to with a large degree of state coercion, in the form of threatened regulation, lawsuits under existing ambiguous laws, and the implicit threat of the withdrawal of government contracts. It names the United States as the key actor in this area, although the United Kingdom, European Union and China are also very active in the same way. She argues convincingly that these agreements have been used to subvert open policy and legislative debates (those of us who remember the very public SOPA fight will be dismayed to learn that companies have enacted much of SOPA through these informal agreements), while raising serious concerns related to due process.

Like Srnicek, Tusikov has no easy answers for dealing with this state of affairs beyond raising awareness that these agreements are actually happening. Judging from the shocked, surprised and angry reactions her book talks have received in many different settings, it’s a necessary first step.

That’s it

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! As I wrote above, I found this mix of readings offered a nice, coherent and comprehensive introduction to the topic of the global knowledge politics. I’m looking forward to running the course again.

If you have any questions or comments, including other reading suggestions, please leave them below. Be nice.

Posted in 4P21, global political economy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I won’t be attending ISA 2017

Like many others, I’ve been horrified by the Trump administration’s implementation of a de facto Muslim travel ban, as well as its caviler disregard for the rule of law, the US Constitution, and its attack on the liberal-democratic norms that underlie US society and the post-World War II order.

I’ve been doing what little I can to help – primarily through educational outreach in my own community, some writing, and teaching to these issues in the courses I teach (Political Economy of North America – the RIP is silent – and Introduction to International Relations). However, that my main conference, the International Studies Association, is holding its annual meeting in Baltimore in a few weeks raises a serious question: Is it ethical or moral to travel to the United States when others are being banned from travel (and, effectively, from leaving the country) because of their religion (we’re grown-ups here: the travel ban is an attack on Muslims, so let’s call it what it is)?

In order to work through my dilemma, I consulted with colleagues and friends, including Americans, both academics and non-academics. In surveying a cross-section of people, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t acting in a culturally imperial or self-interested manner.

Before getting to the meat of the issue, my response was not swayed by either the ISA’s first wholly inadequate and somewhat embarrassing first response, or by its much better second response. I think the second ISA response said much of what needed to be said. Still, I have to make my own choice.

This is how I laid it out on Facebook (edited slightly so it makes sense in this context):

As far as I can figure, the reasons I should attend:

1. It is a good opportunity to network and share knowledge with American scholars and those foreigners Trump lets into the country.

2. One argument on Twitter says that it’s a way to show solidarity with our American colleagues so that they don’t feel isolated. I’m not sure I buy this argument in the age of the Internets.

3. Maryland is a blue state. But then again, there are a lot of Trump supporters even in blue states…

[3.5. Something else that some have mentioned: not attending could be considered a form of academic self-censorship. As I note below, given the existence of the Internet, this argument is somewhat less compelling than it would’ve been three decades ago.]

As for the reasons I shouldn’t attend:

1. To show solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers affected by this ban. I can probably get into the country because I’m white and middle-aged and Canadian (i.e., mostly harmless). But so long as there is a blanket travel ban against this group of people, it’s unethical to take advantage of my whiteness to enter the United States.

2. Because Donald Fucking Trump does not have the right to determine who can and cannot attend our academic conferences, which is the case as long as this ban is in place. Attending a Muslim-ban conference is a form of acquiescence.

3. Because travelling to the United States at a time when its entire constitutional order is under attack normalizes the situation. Once we cross the border, we are statistics that could show that travel between the US and Canada hasn’t changed with Trump’s election. Nothing to worry about.

4. Because I don’t want to play Sun City.

The personal cost to me of not going would likely amount to several hundred dollars if I can’t claim my already-paid-for airfare and conference fees against my research accounts, and the loss of an opportunity to meet and network with others in my field (ISA being my main opportunity to do so every year). So, not nonexistent, but not life-changing either.

Right now, speaking only for myself, I’m leaning toward not going. …

That said, in March I am scheduled to attend the National Model United Nations in New York as the faculty advisor for the Brock Model UN team (It’s a student club and I can’t tell them to stay or go). I was planning on attending that, for the students. Would it be hypocritical to attend one and not the other?

A lively discussion ensued. In the end, as the title of this post notes, I’ve decided not to attend ISA. My reasoning, as shared on Facebook (again, edited slightly):

The notion that we should attend because meeting with our fellow academics in the US is a show of solidarity that can be used to plan further resistance was unconvincing to me. This same argument could be (and was) used in relation to the musicians’ boycott of Apartheid South Africa. Plus, it’s 2017. We have the interwebs. American academics aren’t isolated, and we can discuss means of resistance online.

For me, what clinched it was an article that a friend shared, by the Canadian author Linwood Barclay. He writes: “At this moment, entering Trump’s America feels akin to patronizing a golf course that excludes blacks, a health club that refuses membership to Jews.” Precisely. I wouldn’t patronize such establishments, either. And that’s what the US is, for now.

The question is, with whom do I want to stand? I believe I have to stand with the most vulnerable. In this case, this is the Muslims targeted by this obscene travel ban, and those people who will doubtlessly be targeted by Trump for harassment and worse in the days to come. An attack on them is an attack on us all. If we believe in equality, we should endeavour to be treated equally. In this case, it means self-subjecting myself to the Trump ban. A picket line’s been set up around the United States, and you don’t cross a picket line. As Australian Army Chief Lieutenant General David Morrison says, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” (a line he attributes to another Australian general, David Hurley). I do not accept the immigration standards of the United States, nor the moral legitimacy of the current administration.

In terms of personal and professional cost to me, meh. You gotta do what you gotta do. I’m not going to starve; I’m going to continue to write and teach. I’ve never had the ambition of being the biggest name in the field – I’m happy just writing and trying to understand the world to my own satisfaction. So that wasn’t a consideration.

Several people raised the point that whatever we decide, we should make it count. I agree that it’s imperative to use what (very, very, veeeeeeery) little platform I can have (tiny, tiny, tiny) to make a noise. [Note: This post is part of that action.] I’ve also written for the Globe and Mail on these issues … . I’m running local talks and panels to educate people in the community, and of course I’m teaching directly to these issues in my classes.

But I fundamentally disagree with the notion that the degree of publicity and its potential effect should determine one’s actions. An action is moral or not regardless of whether anyone sees it. We have to act according to the dictates of our conscience, and I would hope that I would try to do the right thing whether or not I knew anyone was watching, or whether or not it would move the scales.

As for the model UN question, I’ve raised the question with my students, and they have decided they still want to attend. While this might negate my above strident moralism, I have decided to attend with them (assuming I’m not turned back at the border for refusing to hand over my social media profile). Partly out of obligation to my students (a different relationship than that between colleagues), and partly because they’re going to get a real education in the world just being in New York, and taking part in a simulation that is going to reflect exactly how fucked up everything has become. I have, however, informed them that I will not be attending any future simulations in the US so long as Trump is in power.

So there you have it. No more US conferences, Wegmans runs, Buffalo Sabres hockey or New York plays (after March), likely for a very long time. It’s a small gesture. On its own, it probably won’t have any effect. But I believe it’s the right thing to do.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I want to be clear that while I believe not entering the United States (with the exception of my March Model UN trip) is the morally and ethically correct thing to do, I fully understand and respect the reasoning that have led my fellow colleagues to decide that there is more to be gained by travelling to ISA than staying away. Heck, they could even be right. In 20 years’ time it might be crystal clear what the correct position is, but in the meantime, I have to follow the dictates of my conscience.

My decision not to travel to the United States is not a condemnation of the International Studies Association. It has been placed in an untenable situation, forced to react to an insane presidential edict mere weeks before a massive conference, doubtlessly with enormous financial implications should many people choose not to attend. And after a bad first step, they have recovered well.

One last point. We are less than two weeks into the Trump presidency. Things are going to get much, much, much worse for everyone over the next four years. I believe we are going to reach a point where outright opposition to the entire Trump presidency – and not just one Executive Order – is going to become a moral imperative, if we haven’t reached that point already. Given where the Trump administration is leading the world, the International Studies Association should consider moving its annual conference outside the United States until Trump is no longer in power, as a protest against the creeping authoritarianism and globally destructive aims of his administration.

There are different ways to oppose Trump, but inaction is not an option. Whether you boycott the United States or travel to ISA, all of our actions must be targeted toward resisting, in our small way, the corrosive effects of the Trump administration.

I wish my ISA colleagues a productive and enjoyable conference. I hope to see you next year. I hear Mexico City’s quite lovely in March.

Posted in International Studies Association, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Canada, Trump and what we can do

If you’re Canadian and appalled by what’s happening in the US, there are at least two concrete things you can do:

1. Phone or email your local MP and demand that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back up his Twitter claims of support for refugees with legislative changes to make it easier for refugees to come to Canada, and to revisit the Safe Third Country agreement with the US. This agreement states that if a refugee first applies for asylum in the US but is turned down, Canada won’t consider their claim. 

2. Our political parties set the tone of our national conversation. If you want to keep Trumpism out of Canada, it starts with making sure we have responsible leaders. The Conservative leadership election is the single most important Canadian political event of the next year. If you’re a Canadian who doesn’t hold membership in another party, please consider joining the party and voting for a candidate who will stand up for basic human decency. If you’re reluctant to join because you don’t feel that you’re part of the tribe, remember that a party is the sum of its members, which can include you.

We have the power. We have the vote. But we have to use it.

Posted in Canada-US relations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments