Originally, I had planned to be finished with my reflections on Newfoundland and its political culture on Monday. I even started a new series of posts talking about the importance of science-fictional thinking and composition to understand utopias.
|Overlooking a beach at Cape Bonavista, I also read a
tourism info stand describing the history of the cod fishery
in Newfoundland, an industry controlled by outside
But my friend from the old country, The Good W, wrote me a comment on a Facebook link to the post that made me rethink whether I wanted to end my thoughts where I did. On Monday’s post, I was happy to describe the history of Newfoundland’s intense politics of resentment at the height of the Danny Williams era, and how uncomfortable that omnipresent political culture made me.
But The Good W went beyond the frame of my own experience, to frame Newfoundland’s cultural resentfulness in more sympathetic terms. In essence, Newfoundland (especially rural Newfoundland) has always been an exploited economy.
A ruling class controls and accumulates most of the profits from an economy that revolves practically entirely around natural resource extraction. That ruling class is usually separate, geographically and culturally, from the people who eke out a living from the extraction work.
In the colonial and independent days, that ruling class was in Britain and St. John’s. In the Canadian era, that ruling class is in Ottawa controlling the federal government, or are other interests who fall under the catch-all term, “mainlanders.” The need for charismatic national leaders arises naturally from the exploited position: such a leader refuses the politics of colonial-style conciliation of the exploited with their exploiters.
Resentment is a natural reaction to this kind of economy. Although Newfoundland is a white, European-descended population* that currently exists as part of a federalized democratic state, much of the population remains economically colonized. They’re dependent on a resource industry that they don’t control, and is usually managed without their interests in mind.
* Whose own settlement has its history of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the indigenous population with the destruction of the Beothuk. Newfoundland and Hispaniola share the distinction of being the only settlements in the European colonization waves of whom none of the indigenous population or culture survived.
|Danny Williams, Newfoundland's roaring lion. But
was he growling at the real enemy?
I understand where the politics of resentment come from, but they’re a model of politics that’s only successful when they’re overcome, not embraced. But overcoming resentment politics isn’t about reconciling with economic exploiters while maintaining the exploitive regime. Turnabout, when the exploited can lord his power over his former exploiter, is no end in itself.
Frantz Fanon’s words come back to me when I think about this problem of political culture. He’s most famous for being an inaugural theorist of what’s now called post-colonial philosophy. And his most famous argument was for the legitimacy of violent – sometimes horrifyingly violent – resistance to colonial occupation. He was a leader in Algeria’s independence movement, after all, which innovated many of the techniques of modern terrorism today, and used them against France and French people.
But what most caught my eye in The Wretched of the Earth was a critique of violent revolution as an end in itself. Put simply, once the immediate exploiter class was defeated, the cultural attitude that galvanized the population against the colonizers had to be overcome.
It was a reactive mode, constantly fostering resentment at those who attacked and cut away your political and economic independence. If the battle is won, but the resentment remains a dominant force in the culture, people’s collective anger continues searching for more enemies. People turn on possible allies and each other. It’s a social-psychological account of why so many revolutionary societies turn to civil war.
The way out is a cultural overcoming in thought. Recognizing when the material political and economic conditions of your own world have changed so that violent overthrow of an oppressor class is no longer necessary.
That unifying, one-dimensional cultural drive is replaced with a creative spirit. In freedom, you start again, building a culture more diverse than the forced unity of a battle against exploitation fuelled by resentment.
|Fanon's greatest lesson was in the danger of letting the
spirit of revolution take a people just a touch too far.
There’s a nationalist song in the old country with a repeated line, “We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true Newfoundlanders!” Nietzsche also developed a metaphor of the roar. It was the lion in Zarathustra whose anger and rage shattered his chains and threw off his burdens.
Yet even though the lion was free of his burdens, he wasn’t really free. Because he had yet to free himself from his anger at the forces that burdened him. He was consumed by a need for revenge, to go beyond simply freeing himself, and make his former exploiters suffer in return. Punishment feels great when you’re carrying it out, especially when you do so in a spirit of retribution. But it’s still violence, and an unnecessary violence because you’re already free.
Many people in Newfoundland and Labrador aren’t economically free. They’re still dominated by corporate interests in natural resource extraction, dependent for their own prosperity on the mere salaries many receive from natural resources. Williams simply made sure that the oil companies were now firmly in charge of the economy, and used the rhetoric of emancipation from mainland Canadian domination to hide a new yoke.
The politics of resentment in Newfoundland are a distraction, a spirit that fights an exploiter class that’s already been usurped, instead of seeking the people’s control over corporate foreign interests. The lion roars at the ones who’ve already let go of the chains.