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Joining Empire

JANUARY 8, 2017 – For more than a generation, we have been witness to an increasingly interventionist and militarist foreign policy stance in Canada. Explaining this transformation is the first object of Jerome Klassen in his very useful contribution, Joining Empire: The Political Economy of the New Canadian Foreign Policy.[1] In the penultimate chapter, he directly engages with two of these new moments of Canadian militarism – Afghanistan and Haiti – and clearly documents Canada’s role as a middle imperialist power, using its military to project economic and geopolitical interests abroad.[2]

The second – and closely related object of the book – is to fill what Klassen sees as a lacuna in the literature. Few scholars studying Canadian foreign policy, do so from an explicitly historical materialist (Marxist) political economy perspective. Klassen sets out “to address this gap in the literature and to link a theory of Canadian capitalism to a theory of Canadian foreign policy”.[3]

Klassen critiques to effect the hegemonic paradigms which structure contemporary understandings of foreign policy. He reminds us of the framework of Kim Nossal who “sees the ‘contemporary global order’ as one ‘marked by a state of war between Islamic extremists and those whom they believe to be their enemies and thus deserve death’”.[4] Shortly thereafter, Klassen offers us the perspective of Michael Hart, who argues that: “‘[t]he time has come to bring Canadian foreign policy into the twenty-first century by grounding it in a conception of the national interest that accepts the primacy of the United States and guarantees both our national security and our prosperity’”.[5] With Donald Trump in the White House on an openly anti-Muslim agenda, and with a deeply protectionist “America First” approach, the dangerous implications of both of these analyses require little elucidation.

As an alternative, Klassen develops an historical materialist approach, deeply rooted in an analysis of the changing dynamics of Canadian and global political economy. “During the period of neoliberalism, the internationalization of the Canadian political economy has occurred. This process entails the cross-border interlacing of Canada’s primary economic operations, so that Canadian firms now perceive the world market as the stage upon which capital accumulation is organized. Leading corporations in all sectors hold trade and investment stakes across the world economy, and thus conceive the production of goods and profits in fundamentally global terms”.[6] It is a short step from seeing a capitalist class, more assertive economically on the world stage, to seeing a capitalist state more assertive politically (and militarily) on the world stage. As to how such a framework might structure our understanding of Afghanistan and Haiti, Klassen argues that “realist and liberal theories tend to view these interventions through the optics of the “global war on terror” or the “responsibility to protect.”” By contrast he argues that “these missions were … means of testing the new grand strategy of the state and power bloc, a strategy of neoliberal market enforcement, stratified multilateralism, cooperative specialization with US global primacy, and disciplinary militarism towards the Third World.”[7]

Klassen suggests that what has emerged is not so much a more independent Canadian capitalist class but what he calls “a transnational capitalist class … formed in and around the newly globalized circuits of capital in Canada”. This transnational capitalist class might very well have an assertive role “in the neoliberal transformation of the world economy as a whole” but it does this from the standpoint of “a vested interest … in the deep integration of the North American bloc”,[8] a deep integration which has “reconstituted the social relations of capitalism in Canada and across North America.”[9] It is, however, possible and plausible to cover similar economic ground and draw a different conclusion – identifying the capacity of the Canadian state to increasingly act relatively independently in the context of declining U.S. hegemony.[10]

Two other issues are worth highlighting. First, Klassen takes as given the concepts of globalization and empire. Since the publication of Klassen’s book, we have seen the rise of right-populism and a new assertion of narrow nationalism. Both BREXIT and the Trump presidency are difficult, on their face, to incorporate into either the concepts of globalization or empire. An engagement with the work of Radhika Desai would be helpful – a leading Canadian political economist who challenges us to rethink assumptions about globalization, empire and the related question of U.S. hegemony.[11]

Second, how should those of us working in an historical materialist framework engage with critical race and postcolonial theories? Klassen does give a very sympathetic treatment to Sherene Razack who sees “the national security agenda” as “a discursive tool for constructing new forms of racialized and male-based power”.[12] However, his list of theories to which historical materialism must respond is limited to “realism, liberalism, postmodernism and dependency”.[13] In a long end note he says that he does “not include postcolonial theory as a major social science because it tends to lack a positive research program”.[14] This would be a surprise to the many theorists working within a critical race, postcolonial perspective. Klassen justifies his exclusion by quoting Robert Young who says that “postcolonialism offers a politics rather than a coherent theoretical methodology: Indeed you could go so far as to argue that strictly speaking there is no such thing as postcolonial theory as such”.[15] Can Young’s argument really be used in the manner chosen by Klassen? Young’s piece was written as the lead editorial in the first issue of a new journal, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, a journal whose many issues since have gone quite a long way towards establishing postcolonial studies as the “major social science” Klassen says it is not. In 2001, the same Robert Young suggested that “the most challenging postcolonial theory … often functions productively through an unresolved tension between colonialism as an institutional performative discourse of power-knowledge and colonialism understood according to the dialectical formations elaborated in tri-continental Marxism. Indeed, as a result of their work, such a disjunctive articulation could be said to operate as the theoretical kernel of postcolonial theory itself”.[16] An engagement with the intersections between historical materialism and postcolonial approaches would be more helpful than a simple dismissal.

Those are issues for future discussion. Klassen’s book makes an important and worthwhile contribution to contemporary political science. In the best traditions of Canadian political economy, he links his analysis to social movement activism. Because “the new imperial state is an expression of key transformations in the political economy and class structure of Canada … it is unlikely to be changed or transformed in the absence of mass social movements against transnational neoliberalism. … To address this reality, the task of mapping the social content of Canadian state power will be of critical importance”.[17]

© 2017 Paul Kellogg. This article is a pre-print of Paul Kellogg, “Review – Joining Empire: The Political Economy of the New Canadian Foreign Policy Jerome Klassen Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014, Pp. 344.,” Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue Canadienne de Science Politique 51, no. 2 (2018): 472–74. Please cite the published version.


[1] Jerome Klassen, Joining Empire: The Political Economy of the New Canadian Foreign Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).

[2] Ibid., 220–48.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Ibid., 19.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid., 29–30.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 112.

[10] Paul Kellogg, “From the Avro Arrow to Afghanistan: The Political Economy of Canada’s New Militarism,” in Empire’s Ally: Canadian Foreign Policy and the War in Afghanistan, ed. Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 181–210; Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left Nationalism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).

[11] Radhika Desai, Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire (London: Pluto Press, 2013); Theoretical Engagements in Geopolitical Economy, vol. 30A, Research in Political Economy (Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2015); Analytical Gains of Geopolitical Economy, vol. 30B, Research in Political Economy (Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2016).

[12] Klassen, Joining Empire, 21.

[13] Ibid., 26.

[14] Ibid., note 8, 268.

[15] “Ideologies of the Postcolonial,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 1, no. 1 (1998): 5.

[16] Robert J.C. Young, “Foucault in Tunisia,” in Theorizing Anti-Racism: Linkages in Marxism and Critical Race Theories, ed. Abigail Bakan and Enakshi Dua (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 60.

[17] Klassen, Joining Empire, 219.

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