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Mel Watkins



Articles by Mel Watkins

Canadian Political Economy on Staple Thesis

October 9, 2019

In an impressive overview of the state of Canadian Political Economy, a new book Change and Continuity ed. by Mark P. Thomas et.al. includes two important articles on the continuing relevance of the staple thesis. On the one hand, Jim Stanford’s “Staples Dependence Renewed and Betrayed: Canada’s Twenty-First Century Boom and Best” does just as its title tells because of the reversion to dependence on petroleum as a staple export since 2000 and the deindustrializing effect on the national economy. On the other hand, Suzanne Mills and Steven Tufts in “Innis’s Ghost: Canada’s Changing Resource Economy” focus on the regional and local impacts, including those on indigenous people. The two articles neatly complement each other. The staple thesis is alive and well.
Enjoy and

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Populism in the Time of Neoliberalism

March 24, 2019

The way of the world in recent and present time is the preach and the practice of neoliberalism, of pushing markets to their extremes. The Turkish writer and political analyst Ece Temelkuran in her new book How to Lose a Country: the Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, draws on her Turkish experience and applies its lesson elsewhere, notably to Trump’s America.
What is the relationship between neoliberalism and populism? Temelkuran sees a link and makes a most insightful point: neoliberalism itself lacks a moral centre is without meaning. A vacuum is created which calls forth right-wing populism which provides the necessary narrative of authoritarianism.
Temelkuran believes that people crave a narrative which gives point and purpose to their lives. In the time of liberalism the

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Help please!

March 19, 2019

Can anyone out there help me? Just saw a headline on CNN saying that, in spite of Brexit chaos, unemployment was at an historic low. Likewise in US where in spite of Trump — could it really be because of? — unemployment is also at an historic low. Reminds me that back in the late 1970s there was a G-7 summit in London England. There were pictures in the press of the leaders, beginning with Thatcher. For Italy the joke was that politics was so volatile that no one could remember who was its leader. But guess which country had the best performing economy? Answer: Italy.
All of which raises the question: does it really not matter to the economy what is the state of the polity?
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Technology and Democracy (continued)

February 2, 2019

Post the Second World War, the US became dominant in the world economy and a shift from coal to oil was deliberately taken by the state to weaken the power of coal-centred industrialization and tie the Middle East into American and European control. Transport of oil by pipeline and tanker created a fluidity that tended to eliminate nodal points where workers could exercise power.
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The Stamp of Oil

February 1, 2019

The opening sentence of the 2011 book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil by the historian Timothy Mitchell, reads “Fossil fuels helped create both the possibility of modern democracy and its limits.” Carbon democracy is “a certain kind of democratic politics.” He observes: “Countries that depend upon petroleum resources for a large part of their earnings from exports tend to be less democratic.” Mitchell wants to moor that democracy in the materiality of coal and oil, which Innis called “dirt economics.” He wants to keep his eye not simply on oil revenues, as most scholars have, but on oil itself.

Coal was the first fossil fuel. Economically, it enabled the Industrial Revolution of sustained exponential economic growth, and politically, mass politics and liberal

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Wilbur Schramm and Noam Chomsky Meet Harold Innis

January 17, 2019

That’s the actual title of a recent book (2015) by Robert E. Babe, who has a doctorate in economics and is professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. The sub-title is Media, Power, and Democracy.

Harold Innis you know. If you don’t, get with the required reading. Noam Chomsky everybody knows. So who is Wilbur Schramm?

He’s the founder of Communication Studies in the U.S., which is your ordinary flourishing discipline, behavioral, quantitative, instant conventional wisdom, wholly helpful to power. In contrast is Innis as founder, with Marshall McLuhan, in Canada, of media studies,  with tell-all titles like Empire and Communications, Bias of Communication, Changing Concepts of Time, and during his transition from studies of Canadian staples

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The Anthropocene and the New World

December 2, 2018

In recent decades all but the wilfully ignorant have had to face two facts: that climate change is taking place and that it is the result of what we humans are doing. The term Anthropocene was coined in 2000 in recognition of that latter hugely important fact. When had this new era began – and with it the end of the Holocene epoch that had been around for some 11,000 years of climate stability, a transition out of the Ice Ages, that then facilitated the spread of farming and permanent settlements. Some said it was the Industrial Revolution beginning ca 1750 and the enormous increase in the burning of coal and of carbon emissions. Then at a global gathering in 2016, geologists who decide this matter by examination of the earth’s strata ruled by majority vote that this new epoch of the

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Possessive Individualism

November 24, 2018

That’s what the political theorist C.B. Macpherson (1911-1987) saw emerging historically with the rise of capitalism. Frank Cunningham in his just published intellectual biography of Macpherson, The Political Thought of C.B. Macpherson: Contemporary Applications describes possessive individualism as “The individual is proprietor of his own person, for which he owes nothing to society”. That sounds like an apt description of what is true today in the time of neoliberalism. In Cunningham’s words: “possessive individualism now stares one in the face at every turn.” Pervasive marketization has turned amenities and social services into commodities: “university students become clients; homes become real estate investments; cities become global competitors; ideas become marketable possessions.”

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Abraham Rotstein and the Radical Decade from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies

October 19, 2018

Remarks at a posthumous book launch of his Myth, Mind and Religion at Massey College, University of Toronto, October 2018
For more than 50 years, going back to the days of the old Department of Political Economy, Abe was my colleague in teaching and researching economic history and political economy, my intellectual soulmate, and my closest friend. I have many fond memories.
Let me go back to that wondrous decade of the sixties. This incredible book which Abe has left us begins with what he calls the Radical Decade from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, and takes us back to that at the end.
The drabness of he boring 50s, when the conventional wisdom took up all the available intellectual space, morphed into the exciting 60s when suddenly anything seemed possible, from the powerful

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Is there life after NAFTA?

October 7, 2018

Like all sensible folk I was myself opposed to the NAFTA at the outset, convinced that it did more for the corporations than for the rest of us. I’m still of that view.
Is it possible that the biggest change that is now taking place is in the name itself, from NAFTA to USMCA- perhaps done so that Trump can boast that he delivered on his promise to get rid of NAFTA? A number of commentators on both sides of the CanAm border have written, in the words of John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail, that the USMCA is “essentially the old NAFTA tilted more in America’s favour.” Is that all there is?
Firstly it’s quite a tilt – like the US keeping a special tariff on aluminum and steel from Canada, on the grounds, believe it or not, of national security. Talk about absurdly fake facts.
Let’s go back

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The New Language of Resource Exploitation: From Staples Dependency to Extraction Empire

September 25, 2018

“Staples dependency” we know from Innis onwards.  It can mean reliant upon, dependent on, the export of staples, and permits of a staple theory of linkages as economic theory. It can also mean a resource margin of a more developed imperium. Economic theory is infused by the power relations inherent in “dependency” and is transformed into political economy. In the shifting fashions of scholarship, over time “dependency” came not to be permitted as appropriate political economy. This in turn meant the purging of “nationalism” as a tolerable response at the risk of losing a political edge.  But the idea of a “staples trap” implicit in Innis could not be wished away.
Take the phrase “extraction empire.” “Empire” takes on a new meaning. On the one hand, it is the terrible colonization within

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Rotstein’s Monumental Epitaph

August 28, 2018

The late Abraham/Abe Rotstein (1929-2015) was an economist of a leftist persuasion, literally a Left Liberal. He left behind an almost completed manuscript which he had been working on for more than three decades. It has now been published.  Its title Myth, Mind and Religion: The Apocalyptic Narrative is indicative of its extraordinary breadth.
Problems, possibilities, catastrophes, which compel resolution present themselves in an apocalyptic manner: oppressor/victim, inversion of victims into masters, and a salvation regime as the outcome.  There are chapters on Jesus, Luther, Hegel, Marx, Hitler, etc.  For example, Marx, in a manner familiar to economists: capital oppresses labour, the proletariat as victim overthrows the capitalists, there is heaven a.k.a. communism on earth.
Rotstein

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Was Innis Wrong?

August 1, 2018

The question is taken from the title of an article by Nancy Olewiler of Simon Fraser University in the Canadian Journal of Economics (November 2017), which, as it happens, was delivered as the Innis Lecture at the meetings of the Canadian Economics Association in 2017: “Canada’s dependence on natural capital wealth: Was Innis wrong?”  Her answer: she writes “Literature and recent debate reject his prediction that Canada would suffer lower levels of economic growth and well-being due to its dependence on exporting its natural resources,” and then, after some testing of her own, reaffirms this position. Her research is of interest in its own right but quite misleading as to Innis.
It is not even clear that Innis can be read as holding to such a pessimistic view. The economic historian Peter

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The Contemporary Relevance of Karl Polanyi

April 13, 2018

The political economist Karl Polanyi, author of the 1944 volume The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, is arguably better known today than during his lifetime. The time has come for a major biography of Polanyi, Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left by Gareth Dale. It is thoroughly excellent and provides the occasion to ponder the relevance of Polanyi today.
His book was a response to more than a century of globalization that fell apart in the 1920’s and 30’s, culminating in the Great Depression, Hitler’s fascism and World War II – all of which came to be seen, in the boom times of the 50s and 60s, as  merely bad old history. Meanwhile in recent times the renewed wave of globalization following that War went seriously awry in the financial crisis of 2007-8

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A Tale of Two Books

March 28, 2018

Just published is Volume I of an exhaustive – occasionally exhausting – biography of Paul Samuelson. It’s titled Founder of Modern Economics: Paul A Samuelson Vol I: Becoming Samuelson, 1915-1948 and authored by Roger E Backhouse.
The two books of my blog title are Foundations of Economic Analysis, published in 1947, a revision of Samuelson’s Harvard doctoral dissertation, in which he unearthed the mathematical scaffolding of economic theory, and Economics: An Introductory Analysis, the first edition of his textbook which was published in 1948 and became an  instant bestseller which was to go through many editions. It’s a remarkable achievement, to simultaneously write a brilliant but quite inaccessible book on the foundations of economics and, at the same time, write a highly accessible

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Toward a Better World

February 9, 2018

That is the well chosen title of a marvelous new book by Gerry Helleiner,  sub-titled Memoirs of a Life in International and Development Economics. Helleiner, from his home base at the University of Toronto, tells us in this most readable book, in his own modest way, the stories, notably from Africa, of how he devoted his life as an economist to that end. His rewards include his membership in the Order of Canada.
Helleiner describes himself as a progressive economist and is so judged by scholars. He has a strong commitment to social justice, to aiding the cause of poor countries, particularly the smaller of them, and the poorest within those poor countries.
His advise has been frequently sought by those involved in economic development in what we now call the Global South.  His students

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A Critical Take on Staples

January 28, 2017

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