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.

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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.

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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.

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Jonathan Kirshner: On the rise of Trump, and the irreversible damage done

Great article by Jonathan Kirshner in the LA Review of Books, as we begin the countdown to the end of the post-World War II world. On the question of, How Trump? Kirshner argues that economic inequality and a rigged system weren’t enough on their own to account for Trump’s victory. Not to put too fine a point on it, the United States has never, ever been through anything as bleak as faced by Germany in the 1920s and the 1930s, when they elected Hitler with a measly 33% of the vote: millions dead, starvation, a collapsed economy, a country stripped of its military and means of economic support by vengeful victors:

As a nation we’ve never faced a test of our national character as daunting as that, but we have faced plenty worse than what we’ve got today, and until now had never thrown in our lot with the first demagogue that came along.

Instead, you also have to look to racism (he ignores the rampant misogyny faced by Clinton, a huge oversight in an otherwise insightful article) and a changed media climate — the rise of the Internet:

The internet is exponentially more pernicious: entry is free, accountability is absent, and — here we are more stupid — the ability of people to distinguish between fact and fiction has virtually vanished.

That said,  I think people are exactly as smart (and dumb) as we’ve ever been. People have always been prone to believe anything that’s put in front of them; it’s just before news (and misinformation) came from a few sources. We didn’t have to distinguish between fact and fiction because there were only a few news sources. Now “news” comes from all over.

On the damage done: It’s irreversible, and won’t end well:

from now on, and for a very long time, countries around the world will have to calculate their interests, expectations, and behavior with the understanding that this is America, or, at the very least, that this is what the American political system can plausibly produce. And so the election of Trump will come to mark the end of the international order that was built to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the first half the twentieth century, and which did so successfully — horrors that we like to imagine we have outgrown. It will not serve us well.

With the battle, and the war, and the civilization lost, Kirshner is already looking forward to the next great (final?) American crisis:

But we will face a great moment of crisis, after the next major terrorist attack in the U.S. (something no American President could prevent), which will present something like a perfect storm: a thin-skinned, impulsive leader with authoritarian instincts, a frightened public, an environment of permissive racism, and a post-fact information environment. In such a moment basic civil liberties will be at risk: due process will be assailed as “protecting terrorists”; free speech will be challenged as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” And that will be the moment when each of us must stand up and be counted, and never forget Tolstoy’s admonition: “There are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him.” Our portion is to make sure that never comes to pass.

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Canadians! Fear Trumpism? Then join the Conservative party to keep it off the ballot

[Edited to correct the deadline for joining and being able to vote in the leadership campaign. It’s actually March 28. Apologies; I have no idea how I got the date wrong.]

Yesterday, I paid my $15 and joined the Conservative Party of Canada. At this very moment, they’re deciding whether Trump-style hate will be on the ballot in the next election in the form of Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney. If one of them, or a similar candidate, wins – and Leitch is the current favourite – then there’s a 50/50 chance that our next Prime Minister will be a Trump acolyte (the NDP, in its wisdom, having decided to get out of the business of actually contesting elections). That’s the lesson from the US election.

Canadians are fortunate that we have a say in who the next potential prime minister will be. We have a vote in the future of our country. The Conservative leadership election is open to all Canadians who have been members of the party for at least six months [EDIT: the deadline is actually March 28]. The vote is on May 27, so if you sign up in the next two weeks by then, you can have a say in who becomes the next Conservative leader, and the next potential prime minister. And there are candidates, such as Michael Chong and Chris Alexander who have directly repudiated Leitch’s particular brand of hatemongering. (Full disclosure: I also gave $25 to Chong’s campaign.)

If you’re shocked by the low voter turnout in the US election, here’s your chance to put your money ($15) where your mouth is. If you support the Conservatives, there’s no reason for you not to become a paid member and stand up for Canadian values. If you haven’t previously supported the Conservatives, when you join and check out the profiles of the candidates, you might find that some of their policies aren’t quite as evil as our tribal approach to politics would lead you to think. And you can always influence these policies, because we’re all Canadians here and we have a say in what happens next.

One of the only silver linings in this entire election season was seeing some Republicans repudiate their party — a fundamental part of their identity — to focus on what united them with others Americans, rather than on the seemingly intractable partisan divide. Over the past few decades — in Canada as in the United States — we’ve lost touch with the fact that there are some fundamental Canadian ideals that transcend party affiliation. Respect and support for the weak and the marginalized is one of them. Punching down is never cool. We have to make sure that everyone is able to do the best they can in this country.

Now, how we make that happen is fair game for political disagreement. But before we get to that fun debate, we have to decide what type of Canada we want. That’s what’s on the ballot in May. If you fear what happened in the United States on Tuesday, here’s your chance to finally make a difference.

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Canada: The functional country (and not just by default)

At a time in which it seems the world has gone completely mad, the Canada Day holiday stands as a chance to take the day off and catch our breath amid the insanity.

Our two main international cultural reference points (apologies to France) seem completely unmoored. To the south, an orange-skinned, short-fingered grifter is the Republican candidate for president, a spectre who doesn’t so much fan the embers of hate, fear and resentment of non-whites, Muslims and women, as douse them with kerosene and break out the flamethrower.

Across the ocean, David Cameron has single-handedly brought the United Kingdom and the European Union to the brink of destruction. Future barroom fights won’t start over who the greatest British Prime Minister was (experts are divided between Lord Palmerston and Pitt the Elder), but over whether Cameron is the worst British PM or the worst democratic leader in world history.

Given this chaos, it’s weird to realize that Canada – the country without an identity, home of the perpetual constitutional crisis – is currently one of the most functional, well-run and cohesive countries in the world. And it’s not just because everyone else is busy scoring own goals. We have much to be thankful for.

It feels unCanadian to say, but our leaders have, from time to time, shown a bit of wisdom. It’s hard to overstate how lucky Canadians, Mexicans and Americans are that back in the heady, post-Cold War days of the 1990s, our governments explicitly rejected EU-style institutions in favour of the more limited North American Free Trade Agreement. They intuitively understood that nationalism and a desire for democratic politics would make such an arrangement untenable in North America. Now, tragically, it looks like Europe is facing this same reality.

Our democracy is also in pretty good shape. Prudent banking regulation helped us avoid the worst of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and thanks in part to opposition pressure on a minority Conservative government to open the fiscal taps, we avoided the crippling austerity that has plagued Europe.

As xenophobia engulfs Europe and much of the United States, we’re also fortunate that we set up our political system to skew pro-immigration. It’s not by chance that the Conservative party had to reject the Reform wing’s more xenophobic elements to gain power; that voters smacked down the Conservatives’ blatantly racist anti-Muslim “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line in the last election; and that this anti-Muslim attitude was attacked so passionately at the Conservatives’ own recent convention. Though our relative isolation makes it very hard for Canada to be swamped by huge numbers of refugees, this shouldn’t detract from multiculturalism’s policy success.

Confederation itself, with its equalization and transfer payments, ensures that Canadians roughly share the fruits and burdens of our labours. Even Quebec separatism is off the front burner, thanks partly to successive governments’ conscious attention Quebecers’ demands.

Not to get too rose-colored, but all this is democracy in action. These things don’t just happen; we built this system. And it’s working.

Finally, there’s the much-maligned Canadian identity. For all of the talk that we’re merely hockey-mad non-Americans, Canadian identity is both deep and durable. Waking up to the Brexit results brought me back to the failed 1995 Quebec referendum. Like the Remain campaign, the Canadian No forces emphasized the scary economic consequences of Quebec separation. As with the Remain campaign, this campaign of fear wasn’t enough.

However, unlike the Remain campaign, the No forces were able – at the very end – to shift into another gear and appeal to Quebecers’ sense of Canadian nationalism. In Britain, there is relatively little European nationalism to which Remain could appeal.

Experts disagree on why No triumphed in 1995, but the fact that the No side could appeal to Canadian nationalism revealed a base level of Canadianness in all provinces and territories that glues us together. Debates about what it means to be Canadian are healthy and normal, but we shouldn’t doubt for an instant that Canadianness is real and mighty.

Of course, Canada is far from being a paradise. Our treatment of Canada’s indigenous population is a disgrace and ongoing humanitarian disaster. We’re not doing enough on climate change. Economic prosperity isn’t shared as widely as it should be. There remains much to do to build a better, more just Canada. But we’ve been doing it for 149 years, and we’ll continue to do so. As they used to say south of the border, the state of the union is strong.

Happy Canada Day.

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Stephen Clarkson, 1937-2016

Terribly sad news. Stephen Clarkson was the external reviewer on my dissertation and a real inspiration. His signing off on my dissertation was a career and life highlight; his work the starting point for everything I’ve written and taught about North American regionalism. The brilliance of his work in this and other areas doesn’t come across at all in the Globe and Mail’s perfunctory obituary; much, much better is Louis Pauly’s on the University of Toronto’s website.

It was Prof. Clarkson (it still doesn’t feel right to call him Stephen) who suggested to me, an MA student who approached him out of the blue at a conference in Ottawa in the early 2000s, that if I was going to study Canada-US politics, I should include Mexico in my research. Only my friend Keith Serry’s suggestion that I also study copyright has been more important for my academic career.

One quick story. In 2007, I was at an Association for Canadian Studies in the United States conference in Toronto(!) as a third-year PhD student. I had not had a good conference. My (undercooked) paper elicited exactly zero interest, and I didn’t do well in the networking department. Last panel of the conference, late Saturday afternoon (aka, the dead zone), I was listening to a presentation promoting a North American student model parliament whose underlying assumption was that if you just got rid of all the power politics that come from the United States being the world’s biggest superpower, and Canada and Mexico’s reluctance to surrender their sovereignty (i.e., if you just pretended the world was other than what it was), then everything would be fine. Stephen Clarkson was in attendance (not on the panel).

During the Q&A, I asked the panelists: if a model parliament’s underlying assumptions are fantastical, then isn’t the whole exercise pretty much useless? That went over about as well as you’d expect. Great way to end a dismal conference.

Except Prof. Clarkson — who I’m pretty sure had no idea who I was — came up to me after the panel was over and said, “Now, that’s the question, isn’t it?” This brief remark not only redeemed what had been a miserable conference, but confirmed to me that I might have something worth saying.

You don’t have to get everyone’s approval, just the right people. Prof. Clarkson was definitely the right people. RIP.

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