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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Splendid unoriginal amateurism

Over 30,000 books have been written about the First World War, with a new flood now arriving to mark the War's centenary. A shortlist of the most acclaimed ones would still number in the hundreds. Niall Ferguson launched his popular reputation with The Pity of War (1999). John Keegan reinforced his more modest fame less adventurously with The First World War (1998). Many of these books have been reworked doctoral theses, hence requiring demonstrations of 'originality', and academic publishers have often demanded this even from established scholars. In the 1960s, the German historian Friz Fischer caused some agonizing in his own country by documenting a case that the War had been above all the deliberate creation of elite groups in Hohenzollern Germany, their hegemonic ambitions being even larger than those of Hitler. Later scholarship punched some holes in his thesis. Ferguson, who had learned from A. J. P. Taylor how much impact can be gained from a highly provocative thesis, applied 'counterfactual' speculation, arguing that Britain might not have entered the War in August 1914, leading to a relatively quick German victory, and a world left much better off in consequence. David Stevenson got admiring reviews for his 1914-1918 in 2005; other still newer histories have come from Christopher Clark and the prolific military historian Max Hastings. The most common substantial change in almost all of the more recent accounts has been greater attention to the experience of ordinary soldiers and homefront civilians. But from the 1960s to the present, the larger anglosphere reading public has preferred one historian of the War above all others, the American Barbara Tuchman, and now seems to have found a similar successor in the Canadian, Margaret MacMillan. Tuchman's The Guns of August (1962) is probably the largest single combined critical and popular success of… Read More

Two Theories of Plutocracy

A century ago, F. H. Bradley, then a much-admired Oxford philosopher, introduced a book on his idealist metaphysics, with the disarming assertion that 'metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct'. Philosophers often used to display such becoming modesty. However, their sometimes unworldly but historically literate ruminations have now been largely replaced by the more unequivocal declarations of the later arriving legions of social scientists, equally unworldly, but fortifying their claims with statistical data. The first half of the 20th century saw the rise of psychologists and sociologists, but louder noises in recent decades have come from economists. A great stir has lately been created by one of these, the French Grand Theorist, Thomas Piketty. It is instructive to contrast his portrait of advancing plutocracy with the mid-20th century prognosis of the eccentric English sociologist, Michael Young.Piketty, in his bestselling Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, claims to have charted, with massive statistical detail, the historical development of international capitalism over the last two centuries, and the changing levels of inequality that have gone with it. Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy was very different: a satirical essay, written in the form of an imagined memoir from England in 2033, by a senior member of the future 'Meritocracy', explaining the historical steps which were culminating in a social and political disaster.Piketty extrapolates an increasingly inegalitarian future, unless modified by a worldwide 80% income tax on annual incomes above $500,000, and a further 15% tax on inherited wealth. He bases the need for this unlikely development on his conviction that he has definitively shown that the rate of return on capital, save in exceptional circumstances, always outstrips the rate of economic growth. Hence inherited wealth will, on average, always exceed wealth achieved by a life of labour,… Read More

Hegel, Hobbes, and the dialectical wisdom of Billy the Kid

The 1965-75 salad days of the baby boomers brought much political excitement on university campuses, but seldom of a very learned kind. Liberal and radical professors tried to breathe new life into the thought of Karl Marx, or of Marx's own mentor, Hegel, but radical students mostly preferred simpler stuff, finding the Hegelian dialectic a secret well-kept. But various Canadian scholars continued to expound its mysteries. Charles Taylor, having first terrified undergraduates with a 600-page 1975 book on Hegel, took pity on them four years later with a less painful 150-page compression called Hegel and Modern Society. Starting earlier, George Grant managed a rather overpowering synthesis of Christianity, conservative traditionalism, Hegelian Marxism, existentialism, anti-American nationalism, and Spenglerian gloom, and achieved all this in little monographs of very modest size. Perhaps he noted that large books of political philosophy by professors are mostly read by other professors. His little 1965 bombshell, Lament for a Nation, covered a huge waterfront in only 97 pages, encapsulating all of Canadian history from the 18th century to what he saw as the failures of both the Diefenbaker Conservatives and Pearson Liberals. Despite his bleak pessimism, he had a large public influence for the next couple of decades, affecting all three federal political parties. The other Canadian quasi-Marxist scholar who had some impact in the same era was the U. of T. philosopher C. B. Macpherson, mentor of NDP Leader Ed Broadbent, and many other eternally hopeful Platonists. His favourite theme was the meaning of 'democracy', and his magnum opus was The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, which stretched Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on a Procrustean bed of Marxian analysis, with Hobbes emerging less bruised. Unlike Locke, Hobbes may not have had much influence on ordinary politics in his own time or since, but his… Read More

The thwack of the beaver’s tail

Pauline Marois, in the thick of an election fight, has been unable to resist her fondness for talking complete nonsense. I especially liked her declaration that an election was no time to be talking about the future of Quebec, almost coincident with an assurance that it would soon be 'sovereign, but without borders, exchanging tourists with British Columbia, and looking for a seat at the Bank of Canada. An enraged Bob Rae has commented that anyone claiming a Quebec departure from Canada would not cause 'extraordinary pain' was 'simply lying'. Both the Marois fog and Rae's attempt to penetrate it reminded me of the days when I was a Quebec MNA in 1989-1994, the years of uproar that unfolded after the 1990 failure of the Meech Lake Accord, culminating in the 1994 election of the Jacques-Parizeau-led, with the second Referendum' following a year later. The most instructive part of this experience came to me as a voting member of the committee formed to hear evidence from various learned authorities on 'the implications of Quebec sovereignty', from January 1991 to January 1992.. I read depositions from, and debated with, a long series of jurists, geographers, economists, and bond traders. I also wrote a lengthy minority report, called Imagining Sovereignty/Souveraineté d'Esprit, which I sent to all Members of the Quebec Legislature and all federal Members of Parliament. We deliberated in a time in which Ontario was still dominant in the overall Canadian economy, and when Quebec was accustomed to many years of heavy Liberal or Progressive Conservative representation in the federal House of Commons. These conditions no longer apply, but even so, almost everything discussed has scarcely changed in twenty years. Since the PQ has found itself another colourful egomaniac in Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the Canadian mass media have been full of the… Read More

Professor Hare & Madame Tortoise

When Maurice Duplessis died in 1959, Pauline Marois was ten years old, living in a working-class and devoutly Catholic family. Jacques Parizeau, who came from one of the wealthiest families in Canada, already had his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and had been teaching at HEC for four years. He was then a federalist, remaining one for another decade, and spent most of that decade as an influential economic adviser in the Quiet Revolution. He would teach continuously at HEC from 1955 right up to 1976; Marois herself took a couple of courses from him in the early 1970s, on her way to an MBA. Throughout his adult life, Parizeau has been above all an advocate of statist centralization, complacently immovable. Although Harold Laski, who had actually taught Pierre Trudeau at LSE in the 1940s, was dead by the time Parizeau got there, he seems to have formed his ideas in Laski's long quasi-Marxist shadow. He often compared himself with Trudeau, whom he liked personally, once saying that the only difference between them was that Trudeau wanted 'only one national capital', while Parizeau thought there should be two. Even his own often-described 1969 conversion from federalism was one he imagined as being a consequence of his purely logical reasoning. He observed that Quebec was 'never going to give back' the governmental powers it had acquired in the 1960s, almost sounding as if he regretted the frustration this would cause all future would-be centralizing federalists. He would later often use this argument in trying to appeal to English-speaking Canadians, declaring that 'Quebec had become a problem for Canada, as Canada had for Quebec'. Quitting his Finance Ministry post in the PQ government of the early 1980s as an opponent of the equivocal policies of René Lévesque and Pierre-Marc Johnson,… Read More
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