McKay’s Liberal Order Framework: Promise and Pitfalls

14 07 2010

My review of Liberalism and Hegemony : Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution. Edited by Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2009 has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review. see here.

I was asked to write a short review by the CHR and the CHR’s quite legitimate space constraints prevented me from developing all of my ideas about this book and about McKay’s Liberal Order Framework, which is the intellectual paradigm that underpins both the essays in the book and a vast body of literature. This is why I am posting this short essay here.

The book I have reviewed in a collection of papers that were presented at a 2006 workshop at McGill University. The workshop was inspired by an article by Ian McKay that appeared in the Canadian Historical Review in 2000.  In that article, McKay argued that Canadian history in the period from c. 1840 to c. 1940 must be understood with reference to the rise and hegemony of liberalism. Although McKay did not define liberalism precisely, it is clear that he was denoting a pro-capitalism ideology similar to what C.B. Macpherson called “possessive individualism” or what others might call classica liberalism. McKay argued that the Canadian state should be understood as a project of liberal rule in North America. Canada was a more of a “liberal Empire” and the expression of a particular ideology than a traditional ethnic nation. McKay’s basic argument was that liberalism drove the creation of Canada as a nation state. He says that Macdonald and his National Policy embodied economic liberalism. McKay alludes to the Soviet Union several times in his works on the Liberal Order Framework. One can see why, for the Soviet Union was an ideological project of rule, a Marxist empire, not a traditional nation state: some people in Russia applied the ideas of German and other thinkers and the created a vast Empire devoted to putting these ideas into practice. In McKay’s telling of Canadian history, the Dominion of Canada created in 1867 served a similar purpose– it was an empire allowed a clique of liberal-minded to implement the ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and other liberal thinkers on the peoples of a vast territory. McKay, how is a former Marxist and is old enough to have known the Soviet Union, is making a very interesting comparison here. It’s interesting, but I don’t actually buy it.


It is hard to understate the importance of the article by McKay. Today, many young Canadian historians situate their work within the Liberal Order Framework. Whereas in the past, a scholar might declare that they were going to provide, say, a Marxist or a feminist interpretation of X, Y, or Z, many emerging historians of Canada say that their research was informed by McKay’s Liberal Order Framework. If you pick a half dozen current Canadian history PhD theses at random, I bet you will find the McKay’s Liberal Order Framework has influenced at least three of them.In some cases, PhD students pay intellectual tribute to McKay’s 2000 article in the title of their thesis– e.g.,  “Mohawk Land Practices and the Liberal Order: An environmental history of Kahnawake”.

Ian McKay is an important and prolific scholar who has said many interesting things in the past. His ideas deserve to be taken seriously. That being said, I am unconvinced by his Liberal Order Framework. In fact, I am uncomfortable with the fact that the “thesis” or “theory” that McKay advanced in 2000 is already being described as a “framework”, which suggests that the accuracy/explanatory power of the thesis has already been established through rigorous empirical testing. 150 years after Darwin published his theory of evolution, we still refer to it as a “theory”. It is a good theory that has held up well in the face of masses of research done by scientists on different continents. Why then have Canadian historians been so quick to elevate this theory into a framework before it has been tried with the acid test of empirical investigation by historians working in different sub-disciplines of history. Few of the adherents of the Liberal Order Framework appear to have given much thought to falsifiability. Falsifiability means that a theory could possibly be refuted by through new empirical research. That something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then this can be shown by observation. In the physical sciences, theories are tested in the lab. In history, theories are tested through the process of primary source research. I would ask those who support the Liberal Order Framework to imagine what sort of evidence could potentially undermine or disprove their thesis.

In the review, I say that the papers in this book exemplify both what is good and what is deeply frustrating about McKay’s Liberal Order Framework.  I argue that McKay and his followers are dealing with some really important issues– liberty, property, individualism, collectivism. Their historical research deserves to be communicated to a broader audience– to undergraduates and to history buffs who peruse the shelves of the big box bookstores such as Chapters. McKay’s research also ought to be considered by scholars working in the United States, Britain, and other countries. I think that the debate currently raging in the American historical profession about the weak American state could be informed by looking at events north of the border.  Canada was an important part of the British Empire and it would be a good thing if historians of the Empire-Commonwealth based outside of Canada paid at least some attention the Liberal Order Framework Thesis debate in Canada.

Unfortunately, this book’s readership is likely to remain confined to professional historians of Canada based in Canada. This is true of much of the secondary literature that has emerged in response to McKay’s Liberal Order Framework. Specialized jargon and unexplained references to Habermas and Foucault make the book inappropriate for both undergraduates and members of the public interested in history.  Moreover, some of the essays are highly introspective–one finds very junior historians talking about their personal reactions to McKay, their first encounters with McKay, the process of being hired by Canadian university history departments. This might be interesting to a handful of academic historians, but it is likely to be boring, indeed, repellant to most other readers. Don’t get me wrong. There are some historians who have led very interesting lives and whose autobiographies would be worth reading. Consider Basil Davidson (1914-2010), the historian of Africa who was also involved in the effort to overthrow white minority rule in Angola and South Africa. Alas, few historians working in Canada today are terribly interesting. We are essentially civil servants who have grown up in boringly normal suburban families, have suburban families of their own, and who now write books with three readers.  Lengthy autobiographical/introspective digressions by such folk are ridiculous. Students are very interested in what we have to say about the past, but they aren’t that interested in us as people. I would be much more interested in reading the about the thoughts and lives of, say, an immigrant entrepreneur who runs a restaurant than about another history professor.

This book is also unlikely to be read by historians outside of Canada, which is a big shame because the historians of the United States and of the British Empire/Commonwealth need to pay more attention to Canada and its place in the North Atlantic Triangle and the relations between Europe and North America. Canadian issues were of tremendous diplomatic importance in the 19th century and it seems to me that if McKay’s Liberal Order Thesis is truly a suitable metanarrative/paradigm for understanding Canadian history in this period, it should have something to say about the diplomatic history of the period.

Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario

Another major problem with this volume is that there is basically nothing about military and naval history in it. This is a shocking omission for several reasons. First, the military, specifically the British military, played a crucial role in the development of Canada in the 19th century. Consider, the city of Kingston, where Professor McKay teaches, a British garrison town that is today physically dominated by the looming hulk of Fort Henry, which was built to protect the settlement from the United States. Kingston is connected by the Rideau Canal to Ottawa, which was planned by the Duke of Wellington. It is not for nothing that the main street of Ottawa is named for the Iron Duke. Second, the military, a branch of the state fully funded by taxpayers and based on a hierarchical chain of command system, is a deeply illiberal institution, which is why 19th century classical liberals were so keen on cutting army budgets. Third, there is a large community of military historians in Canada. Any paradigm that seeks to explain 19th century Canadian history needs to be able to integrate military and naval history if it is going to be taken seriously.

The other problem with this book is the lack of a serious comparative element. In fact, this is a problem that bedevils the entire Liberal Order Framework literature in Canada. First of all, the Liberal Order Framework authors do very little in the way of Canadian-American comparisons. I suspect that if they did more research along these lines, they would find out that the United States was more liberal than Canada in many ways in this period. Government played a somewhat less important role in the American economy, American judges took the idea of freedom of contract much more seriously than Canadian judges, it was much easier to incorporate a business in the United States than in Canada, it was easier to get a divorce. Just as importantly, neither McKay nor his followers engaged in other hemispheric comparisons. Canadian historians of the 19th century should be looking to both the United States and Latin America to make comparisons. McKay and his followers fail to engage in either sort of comparative analysis or indeed any type of comparative analysis at all.

Perhaps the greatest single problem with this collection of essays and most of the scholars who work within the Liberal Order Framework is that  is that none of these scholars really grapple with the fundamental weakness of McKay’s framework, namely, that the hegemony of liberalism in Canada does not really explain why Canada developed as a separate state rather than being absorbed by its superpower neighbour. The United States embodied liberal individualism as least as much as the Dominion of Canada, if not more so. Indeed, there is a vast literature on the ways in which American life has been informed by Lockean and other liberal ideas from the eighteenth century onwards.

That’s why I liked Jerry Bannister’s paper on the “loyalist order framework”, which is part of this collection. Bannister’s Loyalist Order Framework provides a far better explanation for why most of northern North America did not become part of the Republic and instead coalesced into a separate country. He reminds us that the leaders of the scattered British colonies were united by a desire to remain British subjects and that Britishness was central to the Canadian identity until the mid-twentieth century. Bannister is correct to suggest that it is the loyalist order and its legacies, not liberalism, that make Canada distinctive from the United States.

I like Bannister’s paper because I believe that 19th century Canada was the scene of a counter-revolutionary project. The British had lost most of their North American colonies in 1783 and they were determined to hold on to the rest. For their part, the United Empire Loyalists, the conservative clergy of Lower Canada, and other pro-British people in British North America were equally determined to remain British subjects and to escape absorption into the great republic. It is impossible to understand such pivotal events as the War of 1812, Confederation, or even the 1911 election without recognizing that the Canadian nation-state was the product of a big counter-revolutionary project that was, in terms of scale, almost as dramatic as the Counter-Reformation or the Holy Alliance, the league of reactionary European monarchs formed in the 19th century to suppress liberal and nationalist movements.

There were, of course, classical liberal movements in British North America/Canada in the 1783-1914 period. There were some republicans, some people who wanted to join the United States, and some ardent Free Traders who loved the ideas of Adam Smith. Some of these liberals wanted Canada to join the United States. Goldwin Smith is one such example. Others wanted to implement the liberal agenda within the context of the inherited political framework, that is, a semi-autonomous colony within the British Empire.  But these people were sailing against the current. For the dominant ideology, the hegemonic political project, was the counter-revolutionary loyalist one, which wanted to create a rival federation that would keep in the United States in check. The strength of this ideology helps to explain why creole nationalism (i.e., the desire to distance Canada from the Old World) was so weak in Canada when it was fairly strong in the rest of the hemsiphere– by the mid-1820s, most American countries had achieved independence from their respective European mother countries. Canada was the anomaly in the 19th century and leaders such as John A. Macdonald were acutely aware of this.

I would argue that the situation in 19th century Canada, where the contest between loyalist sentiment and the nationalist desire for independence from Europe became wrapped up the struggles between economic liberalism and conservativism, was fundamentally the same as the conflicts then raging in other American societies. If McKay and the brigade of scholars he leads would engage in some comparative analysis, they would begin to realize the problems with the view that John A. Macdonald, who was an ardent anglophile, was also the champion of classical liberalism.

Consider this comparison. Most Latin American republics in the nineteenth century were divided between the liberals, who typically admired the United States, and conservatives, who pined for the old days when viceroys had ruled in the name of distant monarchs and the Church had enforced doctrinal orthodoxy and censorship. The liberals saw themselves as the heirs of the revolutionaries who had overthrown Spanish rule and then established republics modelled on the United States. Their hero was Simon Bolivar, the brilliant commander who had led the rebellion against Spain and who had carried a copy of the Wealth of Nations while on campaign At the other end of the spectrum were the conservatives, who had opposed independence and now accepted it grudgingly. Although the specific issues fought over and party labels differed in each Latin American republic, the conservatives were generally Catholics landlords who wanted to preserve as much as possible of the monarchical ancien regime, whereas the liberals were usually anticlerical city dwellers who were inspired by the American and French Revolutions.  One historian has summarized the agenda of the Latin American liberals thus: “constitutional government, the basic human freedoms, economic laissez-faire, opposition to military and ecclesiastical privilege.“ Throughout the Catholic New World, political and economic liberalism and creole nationalism were linked, although not all Latin American liberals were creole nationalists and not all creole nationalists were liberals. The situation was thus similar to Canada, where French Canadian bishops, the Family Compact, and arch-Tory Church of England ministers worked to strengthen the country’s ties to the Old World, with the classical liberals were more receptive to the idea of colonial independence and/or joining the United States, an entity they associated with free thought, science, technology, emancipation from religious doctrine, and individual liberty..

I have based by statements on Latin American political history on John Lynch, Simon Bolivar: A Life (Yale University Press, 2007);  Hubert Herring, History of Latin America (Random House Inc (T), 1968), 585-7, 595, 306-10; John Chasteen, Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence, First Edition. (Oxford University Press, USA, 2008), 172-3; Frank Safford, “Politics, Ideology and Society in post-Independence Spanish America” in The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 3, From Independence to c. 1870, edited by Leslie Bethell (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2008, vol. 3.