Harold Innis: An Intellectual at the Edge of Empire

By Watkins, Mel | Canadian Dimension, July-August 2006 | Go to article overview

Harold Innis: An Intellectual at the Edge of Empire


Watkins, Mel, Canadian Dimension


Harold Innis died in 1952, more than a half century ago. He was never a man of the Left; in the 1930s he labeled the CCFers "hot gospellers." Do we really have anything to learn from him now?

Actually, we've already learned a lot. Innis, as economic historian, wrote about Canada in the 1920s and 1930s in two great books on the fur trade and the cod fisheries (grubby rather than grabby topics, I grant) in which he laid out the political economy of Canada, providing the material base for understanding the emergence of Canadian capitalism. His conclusion to the fur-trade volume is arguably still the best essay there is in Canadian studies in English, helping us to understand why Canada exists separate from the United States, why its economy is immature compared to that of the United States and why Canada has a distinctive political culture. Innis created what came to be called the "staple approach," about an economy that specialized in exporting natural resources, or staples, to the imperial metropolis.

A Distinctive School of Political Economy

These writings of Innis became the core of a distinctive school of Canadian Political Economy. In the years after the Second World War, economic history turned quantitative; orthodox economics, the better to purify the paradigm, expelled political economy, and Innis was there for the taking when the New Left emerged in the 1960s to transform the old political-economy paradigm into the New Canadian Political Economy. When dependency theory became the rage, Cy Gonick made the telling point that Canada alr eady had its own variant of dependency theory in the staples approach. The New Canadian Political Economy, in its turn, was the intellectual basis for left nationalist politics in Canada, particularly of the Waffle Movement within the New Democratic Party.

The New Canadian Political Economy has itself become a bit long in the tooth and to read the scholarly journal Studies in Political Economy is to see how it has flourished and greatly widened its range beyond its origins. Still, it is striking the extent to which the Canadian economy remains driven by commodity exports, with the Canadian dollar classified as a petrocurrency, while the petro-politics of Alberta pushed us into free trade with the U.S., with its gluttonous appetite for resources, and continue to transform national politics. CAW economist Jim Stanford, one of the best of Canada's younger economists, has recently rediscovered Innis and the staple approach.

In the 1940s and until his death, Innis turned his attention to the study of civilizations, and of empires--of how they were molded by the prevailing media of communication--with Innis becoming, along with Marshall McLuhan, one of the founding gurus of the new field of communications studies. In a life cut short, he published one great book, Empire and Communications, and wrote numerous essays with telling titles like "The Bias of Communication" and "A Plea for Time," some of them characterized by trenchant, stinging critiques of American militarism and of the American empire in Canada. The new post-Innis generation of political economists read this later work of Innis and enjoyed his powerful insights into American imperialism, and loved to quote him. There were occasional forays into Innis's terrain, notably by University of Toronto political scientist Ron Diebert in his Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia: Communication of World Order Transformation (1997), but there was no sustained building on his work by scholars in Canada--or elsewhere for that matter.

One can only urge today's generation to read Innis on the media in the original. He was, in his time, as Noam Chomsky is now, sui generis. We cannot escape the stultifying embrace of the media, which threaten to drown us all; we can only attempt to resist them through understanding their pervasive bias upon how we live and think, their persistent capacity to warp and spin. …

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