- On Gabrielle Slowey’s Navigating Neoliberalism
In Navigating Neoliberalism (2008), political scientist Gabrielle Slowey proposes a new model of First Nation self-determination with the case study of Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN). Her abandonment of essentialism and paternalism prevalent in political science (Howard 1992:88) is refreshing and reflective a general trend in new thinking in development and identity politics. MCFN, under her pen, is a community with a well-documented history, a dynamic present substantiated by strong statistics, and a promising future encouraging to marginalized populations everywhere. However, her limitation as a political scientist in her field investigation is obvious from an anthropological point of view. The history of the MCFN is presented as consequences of mere rational thinking. Participant observations are non-existent. Individual interviews are few and far between. The community is monovocal with discourses dominated by local elites. Despite her commendable efforts at linking the local with the global, her discussion of globalization remains sketchy and her macro-history is outdated in view of rapid recent changes in world economic order. New development in Canadian political economy is also missing from the book.
A breath of fresh air, neoliberalism is not portrayed by Slowey as the arch-villain of contemporary world as some anthropologists would like us to believe (Gregory 2006; Ho 2009). Slowey convincingly explains the mechanism of positive effects of neoliberalism with regard to aboriginal communities’ self-determination in a chapter brazenly titled Neoliberalism Now (Slowey 2008:11-24). She begins the chapter with a precise definition of self-determination: “ … self-determination does not simply refer to … normalize First Nations government … instead, it represents a First Nation’s ability to govern in accordance with its own goals, values, and aspirations, which may or may not be neoliberal in orientation.” (Slowey 2008:11). The last part of the sentence is crucial:
the value of neoliberalism is not its philosophy but its practice which allows First Nations to position themselves, articulate their identities and achieve their goals on their own terms. Slowey utilizes the concept of strategic positioning which has appeared previously in the works of Stuart Hall and Tania Li. For Hall, strategic positioning is a rebuttal of essentialism and rejection of “the stable core of the self” (Hall 1996:3). For Li, it is more explicitly a response to political change (Li 2007:24). For Slowey, besides a reaction to political change, strategic positioning is also a conscious procedure to control material resources which in turn form the foundation of identity articulation. Neoliberal policy of the state gives First Nations capital and economic base (Slowey 2008:12). The control over resources bestows First Nations the chance to transcend mere self-governing the agenda of which is often dictated by “external compulsions” (Slowey 2008:13). Identity and culture, long considered to be the essence of aboriginal peoples from time immemorial (Preis 1996:301), actually begins here. The recognition of material base of culture is refreshing. It stands in sharp contrast to many Western nations’ jaded and paternalistic view of not only aboriginal peoples within their own boarders but also the Third World in general, particularly in the case of Africa. As Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo points out in Dead Aid, what is needed is not hand-out, a pseudo independent government following the exploitation model of the previous colonial masters, or condescending moralizing; what is the need, is real capital allowing people to exert their free will (Moyo 2009:97).
Indeed, the problems First Nations face are not totally unlike or irrelevant to Africa. The comparison of Moyo’s and Slowey’s works, however, reveals the latter’s weak grasp of globalization.
Despite her frequent use of the phrase “neoliberal globalization”, Slowey gives little attention to the details or scope of the phenomenon, unlike her excellent documentation of the past and present of MCFN (Slowey 2008:24-73). The entire book barely ventures outside northeastern Alberta. Surprisingly for a political scientist, the Canadian government, central to the narrative of the book, is presented as an integral and coherent entity throughout. Globalization is also treated as a thin abstract concept without further articulation, which probably explains why Slowey’s book is out-of-date at least on two aspects. First, globalization has moved beyond neoliberalism even before Slowey’s book was published. Nicolas Rose, whose Powers of Freedom (1997) is quoted by Tania Li in her The Will to Improve (2007), already proposed a post-neoliberal articulation of identity in that book (Rose 1997:167-168). In fact, the “occupy” movements across the globe indicate that we have further moved beyond the post-neoliberalism (Zhang 2011:14-15). Secondly, Slowey seems oblivious to the fact that United States is not the sole dominant player in the stage of world economy when she says “the explicit transformation of state functions to meet the demands of a global market dominated by the United States” (Slowey 2008:14). In fact, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is at this very movement on a mission to China with tar sand oil on his mind (Mackinnon 2012). If Slowey had read Dambisa Moyo’s book – published a year after – in which an entire chapter is devoted to China, she would have seen this coming.
Articulation is a powerful concept first used by Stuart Hall and Tania Li to describe a more or less conscious but also highly spontaneous process of identity-forming of the self in historical contexts. Slowey doesn’t actually use the word “articulation” in her book. If she did, I wonder if she would have misused it and treated the process of articulation as a purely rational one, as opposed to either Rose (Rose 1997:196) or Li (Li 2007:147-149) who see the process more as an impetus and not always rational one.
This corresponds to Slowey’s relative detachment from the field. Dominated by archival materials, throughout the book there is no sense that the author has been physically there. The few interviews appear in the book are either with MCFN community leaders or “successful” businessman (Slowey 2008:67). Laypersons’ voices are unheard. On the positive side, this detachment allows the author a firm belief in her own theorization of the field and a clear style. She manages to avoid the messiness of ideas and descriptions typical of contemporary ethnographies (Marcus 2007:1125-1145). On the negative side, Slowey misses dynamic local development which has a stronger relationship with the world than her presentation in the book. She also misses the world which easily bypasses cities – the intellectual’s home base – and goes directly to the remotest corner of the country.
In conclusion, a refreshing view of the neoliberal globalization with regard to First Nations’ self-determination, Slowey’s Navigating Neoliberalism is nevertheless unsatisfactory and outdated. She is after all a political scientist. An anthropologist can do better.
2006. Devil behind the Mirror: Globalization and Politics in the Dominican Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press.
1996. Questions of Cultural Identity. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, ed. Longe: Sage.
2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham: Duke University Press.
Howard, Rhoda E.
1992 Dignity, Community, and Human Rights. In Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, editor. Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati College of Law, Pp. 82-102.
Li, Tania Murray
2007. The Will to Improve. Durham: Duke University Press.
2012. Harper’s New China Gambit. In the Globe and Mail: 2012/02/04, A4.
2007. Ethnography Two Decades after Writing Culture: From the Experimental to the Baroque. In Anthropological Quarterly 80(4): pp.1125-1145.
2009. Dead Aid: why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.
Preis, Ann-Belinda S.
1996 Human Rights as Cultural Practice: An Anthropological Critique. Human Rights Quarterly 18-2:286-315.
1999. Powers of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2008. Navigating Neoliberalism: Self-Determination and the Mikisew Cree First Nation. Vancouver: UBC Press.
2011. Third Way in the Post Third-Way Age: Community Building of ASA and Beyond. Available from Professor Tania Li’s office and her website in the coming months.