Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Foucault, Trudeau and the Complexity of Canadian Biopolitics

"Old Doug Johnson" has some interesting thoughts about religious wars, the inherent racism of the modern nation state and everyone's favourite Ayatollah-loving S&M post-modernist.

Foucault is often remembered as one of a wave of fashionable Parisian maitre-penseurs,* but as Old Doug reminds me, he had some smart cookie moments. In particular, his discussion of "biopolitics" in History of Sexuality, vol. 1 (I never read the other piece Old Doug refers to) is well worth the time of anyone who wants to come to grips with our contemporary Canadian dilemma.

Basically, Foucault's story is that the modern territorial nation-state is inevitably "racial" in that it must define and protect the health and unity of its "people" against external and internal threats (what Carl Schmitt would call the "foe"). In this light, fascism, eugenics and all the other horrors of twentieth century illiberalism are just an extreme version of what every immigration and public health official is always up to.

A full-blooded "biopolitics" is what American paleoconservatives admire about Europe. To be French, or English, is not to have a particular ideology, but to be a particular type of person, bred as such over centuries by the institutions that do that sort of thing.

Against this, I suspect somebody like Old Doug is going to rely on St. Paul's supersession of biological categories (Jew and Greek; male and female) in favour of a militant ideology (Christianity, Islam, Communism, maybe neo-conservatism). Of course, there are problems with this solution too: it doesn't divide Jews from Greeks, but it sure divides sheep from goats, and sometimes pretty bloodily. Lineage and particularist culture no longer matter, but propositions sure do.

Old Doug specifically included Canada among the inherently racist secular states, and someone in the comments thread rises to its defence. The defence is a bit simple minded ("we're not racist, we're multicultural"), but appreciated.

But what is the Canadian state's relationship to biopolitics? As Chief Justice Lamer asked, "Are Canadians a people?"

The original concept was an unequal accommodation between two races/peoples. The other peoples inhabiting the territorial space were to be subject to a short period of wardship, and then assimilated both biologically and culturally (for whatever reason, northern Europeans never had the fear of miscegenation with Indians that they did with blacks). Each people would control its own matters of private and local interest, and have its own private law, but it would be under the British Crown.

So the two levels of government were both biopolitical, but in the case of Quebec, there was to be a (subordinate) state that could favour the (subordinate, but still accommodated) race. The other states would play their role within the larger British empire of promoting Britishness as a global master race, no longer confined to a rainy island.

Imperial institutions would make sure that the British Canadians didn't abuse the French Canadians, just as Dominion institutions were supposed to make sure that settlers didn't treat the natives too egregiously. The Judicial Committe played this role pretty well, forging a genuinely federal multi-ethnic state in the process.

Of course, non-British ethnic elements came into the country, particularly in the West. Some of them -- Protestant Northern Europeans -- were expected to assimilate biologically and culturally into the predominately British population. Others were not, but as long as the British Empire was around, there could easily be a multi-racial order that nonetheless had a clear hierarchy.

Canada's biopolitical problem -- still not solved -- emerged when the British Empire left the picture. The sentimental tie became more and more annoying to the canadiens, especially when they were expected to die for it, and after World War II, it no longer had much purchase with English-speakers either. And then the Empire collapsed. So we are left with modern state institutions without their original biopolitical mission.

Except for Quebec, of course, the biopolitical mission was more obvious than ever. The path to creating a "normal state" which would protect the now Quebecois people from internal and external threats, understood in classically epidemiological terms, was open. Simultaneously, Catholicism lost its purchase. Language and nation were all that was left.

So what about Trudeau? Did he really come up with a post-biopolitical strategy for giving the nation state a mission? I would say "no", but the biopolitics are a bit more complicated.

Trudeau offered British Canada (including those lineages that had more or less assimilated into it) a deal. Part of it was a propositional, rather than ethnic identity (hence the Charter), but this propositional identity was pretty weak tea by St. Paul or Lenin's standards. The liberal propositionalism would cohere loosely with ethnic brokerage, mediated by the Liberal Party of Canada. In return, Trudeau would be firm in suppressing the straightforward biopolitics of Quebec.

Not that this model means leaving biopolitics altogether. The state still decides what minorities to cultivate, and tries to choose what Amy Chua calls "market-dominant minorities." There are lots of them around the world, and Trudeau-era immigration policy was designed to seek them out.

At this point, it is hard not to get normative. If biopolitics is the kind of thing whose ultimate expression is fascist, then propositionalism would seem to be the better bet. But the ultimate expression of propositionalism is the Inquisition or maybe the Khmer Rouge, so it might just be more important to keep our heads and our sense of moral limits wherever we go.

We remember Parizeau's drunken Kinsley-style gaffe about "money and the ethnic vote." But we forget Trudeau's "Where's Biafra?" quip, his willingness to sacrifice an entire ethnic group to the need of a multi-ethnic state to stay together. There is something about Trudeau's militant cosmopolitanism that grates, even a generation later.

But if we accept that Canada is necessarily multi-racial (in all senses of the word), then are we stuck? Not necessarily propositionalism, but propositionalism if necessary?

Diagram of Panopticon in public domain. Picture of Trudeau at the 1968 Liberal convention copyright National Archives of Canada

*I can't get HTML to do the French accent things.

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