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George Grant and the Primacy of Economics

Some 25 years ago, I discovered the writings of the late George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), who during his lifetime came to be regarded as Canada's foremost philosopher. Although he is probably best known for Lament for a Nation, a passionate book written in 1965 in the wake of the defeat of John Diefenbaker's Conservative government two years earlier, Grant wrote a number of essays, most dealing in some fashion with the ongoing interaction of tradition, society, politics, and technology.

Some 25 years ago, I discovered the writings of the late George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), who during his lifetime came to be regarded as Canada's foremost philosopher. Although he is probably best known for Lament for a Nation, a passionate book written in 1965 in the wake of the defeat of John Diefenbaker's Conservative government two years earlier, Grant wrote a number of essays, most dealing in some fashion with the ongoing interaction of tradition, society, politics, and technology. Although on the surface he appears to be simply anti-American, opposing the acceptance of ideas and techniques from south of the 49th parallel, a deeper exploration of his thought reveals much more.

Grant was quietly converted to Christianity during his graduate studies at Oxford in the 1940s. He remained a member of the Anglican Church throughout his life, and his Christian commitment was evident, if in somewhat idiosyncratic fashion, throughout his writings. He styled himself a conservative and a Tory, although his ideas were picked up by various Canadian radicals and progressives who sought to claim his legacy as their own. These gravitated to his nationalism rather than to his conservatism or Christianity.

During my own student days in Toronto, I was privileged to hear Grant preach, of all things, from the pulpit of a stereotypical liberal protestant church near the university campus. It was a not-to-be-forgotten experience, as the congregation's members and leaders were evidently pleased to have such a legendary person addressing them.

Had Grant preached on the evils of American capitalism, a topic on which he had certainly written often enough, he would likely have received an eager ovation. But it was typical of Grant that he would choose this occasion and setting to fulminate against the evils of abortion, something he must have known would rankle the sensibilities of his audience. As a budding Christian academic, I took no small pleasure in watching the ensuing sparks fly in the boxed-lunch discussion after the worship service had ended.

Above all, Grant is a localist. He dislikes homogeneity of virtually any type, whether cultural or political. He is a champion of local traditions against efforts of either government bureaucrats or giant corporations to subject them to forced standardization. Uniformity is something to be resisted. The stakes in all this are high because of the risks posed to all stable, longstanding communities with their own distinctive mores and ways of life. Only in a small community can that virtue necessary for the good life be nurtured and sustained. Such communities in turn flourish on the basis of particular traditions, many of which are unique to them.

This is why Grant grieves over what he perceives as the loss of the old Canada. In the 1960s, Canada, like much of the Western world, was caught up in a cultural revolution, as protestant Ontario and Catholic Québec were giving way to more secular societies. Local allegiances and religious faith were being supplanted by a liberal emphasis on self-seeking. But because self-seeking is such a poor basis for community, it must be counteracted with what the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojöve calls the universal and homogeneous state. Such a state must of necessity undertake to efface any more proximate loyalties standing between itself and the constituent individuals.

Echoing the reflections of Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), Grant believes that technology is the driving force behind this homogenization. Because North America has been formed and so thoroughly driven by technology's imperatives—because it is imbued with an activist spirit opposed to the ancient contemplative traditions inherited from both biblical religion and Greek philosophy—it has become a levelling force, inexorably diluting, if not altogether eliminating, the legitimately different ways in which human communities live out their common lives.

Canada has been caught up in this, but the primary source of this levelling is the United States, with its dynamic technological culture. When we see the "golden arches" in Moscow and Beijing, we are seeing precisely the Americanization of Russia and China. The proliferation of American discount retail chains in Canada is another manifestation of this phenomenon.

This explains Grant's anti-Americanism. It is not simply that he prefers Canadian to American traditions. Rather, he distrusts a country whose very identity appears to be anchored in the repudiation of tradition.

Yet there is a central difficulty in Grant's thought, and this revolves around his tacit belief that economics drives politics. Canada, he repeatedly emphasizes, has become little more than a branch plant economy dependent on American capitalism. Our political leaders are doing little more than to receive instruction from our economic elites, who are in turn taking their cues from their counterparts in New York and Chicago.

Clearly, there is something to this argument. When the Federal Reserve Board raises interest rates, how often has the Bank of Canada been forced to follow suit? Our two economies are inextricably linked, with that of the United States obviously the more dominant. It was for good reason that Pierre Trudeau came up with his clever simile to describe Canadian-American relations: Canada is like a mouse in bed with an elephant; no matter how even-tempered the elephant, the smaller and more vulnerable mouse is wary of its every move.

Janet Ajzenstat has recently argued (in The Once and Future Canadian Democracy) that Grant's dislike for liberalism translates into a contempt for liberal or constitutional democracy. Although she unduly conflates liberalism (an animating ideological spirit based on a metaphysical individualism) with constitutional democracy (a concrete set of institutions influenced by several ideologies and providing a structural context for competition among them), there is an element of truth in her analysis.

Grant too quickly assumes that economic integration of the two countries must of necessity lead to political integration. Four decades ago, he observed with sadness that Canada had already ceased to exist with respect to control of its own economic life; it was only a matter of time before the nation itself disappeared.

In this Grant evidently reflects a common belief seen elsewhere as well. In its more radical form, Karl Marx and his followers believe that politics is little more than ideological window dressing thrown off by an underlying economic class struggle. For them, politics is something to be transcended in the coming classless society, because it is intrinsically oppressive and serves the interests of the dominant class.

Ellul takes a similarly deterministic approach, although he sees the development of the technological society as a dark one eventually ushering in the totalitarian state. Even the original architects of the European Union half a century ago were animated by the assumption that economic integration of the continent would almost naturally and benignly lead to political integration.

Yet could it be that Canada's political institutions are more resilient than Grant believed? There is no reason to think Grant disliked Canada's political constitution, which is, after all, among those distinctive elements making this country unique, particularly in comparison to our neighbour to the south.

At the same time, he clearly believed that Canada's political constitution lacked the strength to withstand the ostensibly superior force of technology and the liberalism animating it. If economics really drove politics pure and simple, one would have difficulty explaining the many secessionist movements, including Scottish, Corsican, and Basque, affecting Europe at the very moment of its economic integration. It makes no economic sense for the Swiss to stay out of the EU altogether, for Québec to leave Canada, or for Canada itself to continue to exist at all. Yet in the real world of politics, many things happen that defy what some would describe as economic necessity.

There is finally a certain irony in Grant's ruminations. On the one hand, he is a defender of the diversity of human communities with their peculiar local manners and mores. He is plainly a patriot—a lover of his own country and, more broadly, of the contemplative side of the Western civilization that formed it.

On the other hand, he has neglected to discern the distinctiveness of politics as a unique endeavour whereby state power is directed to the doing of public justice. Politics is politics. It has its own task within God's world which cannot simply be reduced to economic factors. This Grant fails to pick up on.

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David T. Koyzis David T. Koyzis
David T. Koyzis is Professor of Political Science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, and author of We Answer to Another. ... read more »

Posted in Philosophy, Politics.

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