Power and Agency in Newfoundland and Labrador's History

Sean Cadigan, Gerald Sider, Jerry Bannister
2004 Labour (Halifax)  
IT IS DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE a more important historical question than who or what actually makes history. English-Canadian historiography, like Anglo-American historiography generally, long cherished the notion that powerful elites did most of the making. The flourishing of social history since the late 1960s has meant that those old, treasured notions must take into account the importance of a popular agency in history. In the case of the writing of Newfoundland and Labrador's history, it is
more » ... s history, it is surprising to see that the older ideas are still alive, in the work of Jerry Bannister. Equally astonishing, Bannister's work draws on Gerald Sider's anthropological reordering of Newfoundland history. Sider's Between History and Tomorrow is ostensibly interested in the concepts of culture and class which dominated social history. However, his imposition of what Marx called a "supra-historical" theory of merchant capital bears little similarity to history. Although a much better researched work than Sider's, Bannister's The Rule of the Admirals argues that only the propertied classes, and their state functionary allies, are important in understanding the history of 18th-century Newfoundland. According to its title page, Sider's book is the "significantly expanded and updated" second edition of Culture and Class in Anthropology and History: A Newfoundland Illustration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986). The author promises that he has expanded on his original analysis of merchant capital in Newfoundland fishing communities to show its relevance in understanding the subse-Sean Cadigan, "Power and Agency in Newfoundland and Labrador's History," Labour/Le Travail, 54 (Fall 2004), 223-43. POWER AND AGENCY 225 According to Sider, the reason so many Newfoundlanders have had to leave their communities to seek work abroad was that, as petty commodity producers in tile fishery, they "are characteristically forced [emphasis is mine] into situations where they must sell their commodities at exchange rates that are somewhat below the full social costs of producing these commodities." (313-14) The passive voice he uses is typical of the way he sidesteps the whole issue of what precisely led to the Mexican-Newfoundlander. Sider argues that the contradictions of petty commodity production, over time, impoverished fishing communities. They also led to an unspecified social and economic shift from the production of fish by equally unidentified social or economic groups to the "production of humans for export" (309-15) Sider is reluctant to discuss rigorously evidence of an actual historical process that led to the change he sees. His emphasis on the importance of petty commodity production suggests that the work of his first edition is key, which leads us back to the original importance of merchant capital in determining the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Sandwiched between the second edition's prologue and epilogue is a reproduction of the first edition, without any new commentary or amendment. In the new prologue, Sider reiterates that the "purpose of the first edition was to use the village fishery as a doorway into the logic of merchant capital. In its general features, merchant capital was... the fundamental form of economic, political, and social organization in Newfoundland..." (2) Merchant capital determined that petty commodity production would dominate Newfoundland through a number of processes. First, merchant capital dispersed the rural population in small villages around the coastline to constrain "village-level capital formation." Second, merchant capital prevented import substitution and local economic diversification by impeding local agricultural development; merchants blocked the development of roads that would have opened up interior resources. Third, merchant capital used truck credit practices to prevent the accumulation of capital among fishers. Fourth, merchants refused to invest in the fishing industry. Finally, merchant capital's accentuation of locale and its impoverishment of rural people, produced "deeply local" cultures, which "shielded" them from the worst abuses of merchant capital, yet ill-equipped them to deal with the wider transformations of the fishing industry. (23-9) Although Sider claims that he attempts to address "the more thoughtful" critiques of the first edition, I found no such attempt in the reprinting of the first edition material. The first edition of Sider's book prompted a great deal of criticism, none of which Sider has chosen to address in the second edition. Perhaps the most important criticism was of the manner in which Sider treated Newfoundland as an illustration of an a priori theoretical construction of the logic of merchant capital in
doi:10.2307/25149511 fatcat:et5wnljyjbffjg7rhef3sv3u2i