Canadian Political Economy
John W. Warnock is a Canadian academic, author, columnist and political activist who is based in Saskatchewan. He writes on Canadian political economy, Canadian politics, Canada-US relations, agriculture and food, natural resources, Green politics, social democracy, and Saskatchewan politics and political economy.
Canadian political economy is an interdisciplinary social science approach to addressing all the important issues of the day. There is a strong history to this discipline in Canada, which was modelled on the classic British tradition. Thus prior to the 1960s all Canadian universities had departments of political economy, many of which included specific courses on economics, politics, sociology, anthropology and even history. With the growing and dominating influence of the United States, Canadian universities and academics shifted to the American system of separating the social sciences into individual disciplines with their own departments. Today in Canada courses in political economy are most likely to be found in sociology departments.
Political economy in Canada has always been historical in its orientation. It examined the development of Canada as a white settler society within the broad British empire. Economic development followed the trade routes, first through the St. Lawrence River and to Great Britain and Europe followed by a major shift towards continental integration with the much more powerful United States. In Saskatchewan, where I have been based, the dominant focus was on the removal of the indigenous population and the seizure of their land, the European settler invasion and the creation of the agricultural economy, and the concentration of power in Central Canada.
John W. Warnock and Canadian Political Economy
Those who glance through this web site will see that over the years my own focus within political economy has shifted around, reflecting the major issues of the day and my involvement in political life. I have never been an ivory tower academic. I have always been involved in practical political and social justice movements. They have influenced my own views as they have evolved over the years.
My interest in international affairs, which began while an undergraduate, took me to graduate school in Washington, D.C. first at Georgetown University and then American University. I was able to continue my academic work in interdisciplinary social science. This was the time when my research and writing centred on the Cold War, U. S. political and military alliances, and the relationship between the advanced capitalist states and the less developed “Third World.”
My move to Saskatchewan coincided with the expansion of the U. S. war in Vietnam, from 1961-1975. As the war came to an end, the world experienced the first Great Recession since the end of World War II. This contributed to the rise of the New Right, the neoliberal politics and economics of the governments of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. The political economy of neoliberalism was pushed by the organizations representing big business.
For the large corporations who operated on a world wide basis, the free market and free trade were most important objectives. This arrived with the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and then the North American Free Trade Agreement. Canada would become deeply integrated in the U. S. Economy and an economic partner with Mexico.
I was always interest in agriculture and the food industry. Key members of our department at the University of Saskatchewan had studied the wheat economy and the impact of agriculture on our economic development. A key factor was the power of agribusiness, which in a market economy put the squeeze on farmers and was crucial to the accumulation of capital. With the free trade agreements, agribusiness moved into the world economy developing industrial food chains from less developed to industrialized countries.
Once the First Nations were removed from their land, the wheat economy could develop. Across North America the farmer-labour revolt soon arrived and with it more radical political movements. Saskatchewan is known as the North American birthplace of social democracy. After World War II the social democrats became the dominant political force in the province and the focus of much academic research. I was drawn to this movement both as a political activist and a political economist.
For a hinterland province like Saskatchewan, there were few chances for industrialization. The other major economic activity was in the extraction and export of non-renewable natural resources. How to develop these resources has always involved a major political struggle over who should do the development and who should reap the resource rents, the people of the province or the large transnational private corporations. I became one of the few in Saskatchewan to seriously look at this development.
In the 1990s the environmental movement expanded along with concerns about climate change. Saskatchewan has the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and this issue led to the development of Green politics. The general shift to neoliberalism came to Saskatchewan politics in the 1980s and with it cuts to social programs and the rise of poverty. in the 1990s Saskatchewan's social democracy adopted the neoliberal model and proved unable to deal with even the basic issue of providing food and housing for the poor.
The Origins of Political Economy
The term “economics” has a Greek origin, where it was defined as “household management.” In more modern times, James Steuart wrote in 1761 that economics was the act of “providing all the wants of the family.” He went on to add that “what economy is in a family, political economy is in a state.” Adam Smith argued that “political economy is a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator.” It was the study of “the nature and causes of the wealth of nations.”
The British tradition of political economy followed Adam Smith. David Ricardo published On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in 1817. John Stuart Mill published The Principles of Political Economy in 1848.
Then came Marxism, very much in the tradition of political economy. There was a reaction within the discipline. William Stanley Jevon, Karl Menger, Leon Walras and others led a shift away from political economy to a focus on the individual and the corporation. Alfred Marshall, at Cambridge University, fought for a discipline to be known as “economics,” which would be separate from political economy, history and sociology. The new discipline of economics would put aside the issues of social class, gender, race, imperialism, ideology, history, and the role of state power. These issues would be left to political economy.
Canadian Political Economy Today
The Canadian approach to political economy staged a major recovery in the 1960s and 1970s. The focus was first on the effects of Canadian integration into the sphere of influence of U. S. political and economic power. Ownership and control of the economy had clearly shifted from Great Britain to the United States. Was it possible for Canada to move beyond this structure and become a modern industrial economy? An independent country? The new Canadian political economy addresses the structure of Canadian society and which social groups hold political and economic power.