Staples and Beyond – Selected Writings by Mel Watkins

New from McGill- Queen’s Press, this collection of Mel’s writings – edited by Hugh Grant and David Wolfe with an introduction by Wally Clement- is Canadian political economy at its very best.

Not only is Mel the leading post Harold Innis exponent of Canadian political economy, he was a key architect of the important synthesis between this intellectual tradition and Canadian progressive politics. Moreover, if more was needed, Mel’s understanding of the staples dynamic of Canadian economic development is more relevant than ever before.

Pasted in below are a short publisher blurb on the book followed, much more importantly, by some remark’s by Mel to a recent book launch party in Toronto.

“Mel Watkins is an iconic figure in the development of the “new” political economy in Canada. Since the 1960s he has combined scholarly writing with political activism for a range of issues, from Canada’s economic dependency on the US to the role of social democratic parties to aboriginal rights.

This collection brings together Watkins’ most important scholarly articles. In Staples and Beyond Watkins addresses the “staple thesis” of Canadian economic and political development and, in particular, the effort to extend Harold Innis’ work by giving more explicit consideration to class relations and the role of the state. He considers the historical nature of Canada’s economic dependency in relation to tariff barriers, foreign investment, the multi-national corporation, and wide-ranging free trade and investment agreements. He also examines the evolution of economics and political economy as academic disciplines and reflects on the relationship between intellectual scholarship and political activism.

Taken together, the papers in this volume provide an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the nature of the Canadian economy and the political options for forging a more independent and equitable country.”

Mel’s remarks…

This book reflects my concerns over the years – resource economics, foreign ownership, the state of economics, aboriginal rights, the writings of Harold Innis, free trade, intellectual history. I’ll say something, briefly, about the first and the last.

The first essay in the book “The Staple Theory of Economic Growth” was written 45 years ago. It was an attempt to describe the Canadian economy and the nature of Canadian economic growth and to argue that its specificity was its being a resource-based or staples-biased economy. It built on the writings of Harold Innis – and of W.A. Mackintosh of Queen’s – of whom Hugh is presently doing a much deserved biography.

At the time I wrote that first paper, everyone agreed that what was now called Canada originated as a staples-based economy around fish and fur. Some said that was no longer true after 1821, or after the boom of the 1850s, or after the great Wheat Boom prior to World War I, or after the industrialization of World War II, or after the great postwar boom.

The 1963 paper argued that it was still true as of that time that the Canadian economy was a staples-led economy, that there was no convincing evidence that the Canadian economy could grow at a satisfactory rate in the absence of a strong lead from resource exports – and, in effect, as a number of us tried to demonstrate in the 1960s, that the manufacturing sector was immature, a branch plant economy riddled with foreign ownership, and incapable of itself leading growth.

I was much influenced by a distinction made by W.T.(Tom) Easterbrook between what he, from his study of North American economic history, called “patterns of transformation” and “patterns of persistence.” I agreed with his view that the Canadian economy was characterized throughout by persistence rather than transformation, that, its prosperity notwithstanding, it was caught in a staple trap.

This issue has continued to preoccupy me over the years – so let me simply say that things seem to me to remain the same so far as the Canadian economy is concerned– that even the wrenching change of free trade has failed to alter this structural deficiency – in a 1988 paper in this book I argue that this is likely to be the case.

If trade statistics are sometimes cited to prove the contrary it is because the data on trade in manufactures is exaggerated by double-counting, even triple-counting, as parts whiz back and force across the border – that when the data is redone based on value added within Canada, as has been done by Erin Weir, a young economist with the Canadian Labour Congress, resources dominate our exports as much as ever.

Indeed, free trade may actually have tightened the staple trap – today oil and gas and the tar sands are imposing their stamp on the Canadian economy as much as the fur trade did on the economy of New France.

In the immortal words of Dwight David Eisenhower, “Things are more the way they were than they have ever been before.” This applies not only to Canada but to myself; I have just written another paper on Staples which is not in this book but will appear shortly in Studies in Political Economy.

But I must also admit to a great failure in my writings on staples. I paid slight attention to the impact of resource exploitation on the environment – no small matter given the presumed consequences of the development of the oil sands for global warming and global disaster.

The last essay in the book is titled “The Intellectual and the Public” and its sub-title says it is “a neo-Innisian perspective.” This issue has become, since my retirement 10 years ago, my chief concern, in some part because, persuaded by Metta Spencer, I became President of Science for Peace. This drove me to ponder the question of why some scientists became dissenters who refused to work for the military while most chose to serve power.

It happens that, as an undergraduate in 1951-52, I took a course from Harold Innis in which we were encouraged to read a just published book by the classical scholar E.A. Havelock titled The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man. In the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Havelock wrote of the terrible consorting of intellectuals with power and the joint reversion to barbarism.

The intellectual had been subjucated, even crucified, and had demonstrated his willingness to contemplate acts that branded him crazed and insane and, in general, to sleep walk through the horrors of history.

Scientists had, on their own volition, seen that terrible weapons could be built and had then lobbied the politicians and the generals to build them.

The persistent memory of Havelock has led me to spend most of my time presently studying the physicists who built the Bomb or refused to build it or came to wish they had never involved with it.

While this issue of the Bomb is of great importance in its own right, it is only the most extreme example of why intellectuals must decide either to consort with power or to dissent from it, an issue that intellectuals ignore at our peril.

In my own case, I became a dissenter from mainstream economics and mainstream politics. What I’ve been doing throughout and am still doing is trying to understand why I have done with my life whatever it is that I have done.

Thank you.

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