Remembering Harold Innis

Historian of the Margins

In a 1980 review essay, the Tory philosopher George Grant praised the scholarship of his fellow Canadian Harold Adams Innis because it “continually lights up whole areas of human history. And we need this light.” 

Despite this high praise, the political right has paid little attention to the light that Innis’s numerous studies shine upon diverse areas such as economic history, mass media, and the relation between capitalism and the state. Yet Innis’s wide-ranging writings remain valuable, given their common emphasis on the nature of power. He consistently pointed to the recurrent historical pattern in which imperial centers control and exploit those who live on the margins of a political order. Innis warned that this center-margin dynamic did not disappear with the rise of mass democracy in the mid-20th century.

Innis was familiar with life on the margins. He was born in 1894 on his family’s farm near Otterville in southwestern Ontario. The farm produced cash crops such as wheat and rye. In the words of his biographer Paul Heyer (Harold Innis, 2003), “Young Harold helped with the chores, of course, but he was also an astute observer of the relationship between various levels of agricultural production and the market constraints that affected them.” This formative experience explains his eventual interest in how powerful forces dominate those living on the outer reaches of empires.

Although his Baptist family hoped Innis would join the ministry, he decided to study history and political economy at McMaster University. Graduating in 1916, he enlisted in the Canadian infantry and was immediately sent to the front lines in France. The impact of World War I on Innis was both physical and mental. Shrapnel tore into his right thigh during the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge, ending his tour of duty, and the horrific experience of war deepened Innis’s suspicion of imperial authority. Like many of his comrades, Innis was embittered over the callous indifference and disrespect some British officers displayed towards the “colonials,” an attitude evident in their willingness to needlessly sacrifice Canadian soldiers in unwinnable battles.

Upon his return home, Innis pursued his interest in economics by enrolling at the University of Chicago in 1918. The “Chicago School” that he encountered at this time bore little resemblance to the bastion of free market ideology from which Milton Friedman emerged in subsequent decades. Innis’s supervisor was Chester W. Wright, who published in 1941 the classic book Economic History of the United States. Wright encouraged Innis to write about the economic history of Canada. The result was Innis’s doctoral dissertation, A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway, published in 1923. From this point on, Innis insisted that economics must include the study of economic history.

The theories of Thorstein Veblen had the most enduring impact on Innis while he was at Chicago, an influence that stretched into his eventual career as Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto. Veblen impressed Innis so much that he once eulogized Veblen as the Adam Smith of industrial capitalism. 

Although Veblen is most famous for originating the term “conspicuous consumption” as a descriptor for the tendency of the rich to flaunt their wealth, Innis was primarily interested in Veblen’s analyses of the growth and decay evident within the history of capitalism. Veblen developed this focus in The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation and Other Essays (1919) and other works. Innis’s essay “The Work of Thorstein Veblen” (1929) reveals his deep agreement with Veblen that the premises of classical economic theory were fundamentally flawed, particularly the assumption that there is an unchanging rational human nature that contributes to the static equilibrium of the market economy. As Innis argued in “The Penetrative Powers of the Price System” (1938), classical economics ignored the power dynamics that characterize the destabilizing impact of capitalism on Western civilization.

In his history of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), Innis warned that his own country fatefully illustrated the instability inherent within the center-margin dynamic. Eastern Canada always viewed the western provinces as colonies providing natural resources, especially wheat and grain. The discriminatory freight rates CPR imposed on western farmers were a lasting source of resentment. 

The tight control of loans and credit that eastern Canadian banks wielded further placed the prairie West in a subordinate state, one analogous to the way Northern capitalists controlled the agrarian economy of the South after the Civil War. As Innis put it, “Western Canada has paid for the development of Canadian nationality, and it would appear that it must continue to pay. The acquisitiveness of eastern Canada shows little sign of abatement.”

Innis was more prophetic than he knew. The current Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has imposed severe restrictions on the oil and gas industry in the West, all in the name of fighting climate change. The resurgence of populism in western Canada today is as predictable as it was to Innis writing in the 1920s.

Innis showed that the center-margin dynamic has characterized not only the history of East-West relations in Canada, but also Canada’s relation to the empires beyond its borders. “The economic history of Canada has been dominated by the discrepancy between the centre and the margin of western civilization,” Innis wrote in The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (1930). In both this work and The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (1940), he set out to demonstrate how Canada has always been a provider of staple commodities for the sole purpose of enriching more powerful nations. Canadians were not only hewers of wood and drawers of water, but also exporters of fur, cod, wheat, and pulp and paper to the empires of the day. Canada’s preoccupation with producing these staples often discouraged the development of a solid manufacturing base that could have been the foundation of a sovereign nation. 

Given this subservient status, it was difficult for Innis to imagine how any attempt to conserve Canadian tradition or autonomy could survive the hegemony of capitalist nations hungry for Canada’s natural resources. While Canada’s origins were counter-revolutionary, this reality was not the basis for long-term stability. As he explained in Political Economy in the Modern State (1946), although both the French and English settlers of Canada were opposed to revolution, each people had distinctive understandings of tradition. “In Canada the revolutionary tradition missed the French in the church, and in turn the English in the state, with the migration of Loyalists after the Revolution, and provided the basis for mutual misunderstanding.” In short, it was hard for the margins to maintain a united front against imperial centers when French and English Canadians were divided over religion, language, and culture. 

To make matters worse, Canadian Protestants who had a vested interest in preserving tradition were ignorantly turning away from it. In his 1947 essay “The Church in Canada,” he lamented that his Protestant brethren had lost their “curiosity for ideas,” as well as any appreciation for the ancient Greek focus on the “training of character.” Instead, the church preferred to focus on the fashionable social issues of the day. This indifference to intellectual tradition was hardly confined to his native country. “The problem of the Church is the problem of Western civilization,” he concluded. Creeping bureaucratization at the University of Toronto in the postwar period further convinced Innis that the survival of venerable traditions in academe was far from guaranteed. 

The absence of a strong conservative tradition that could withstand modern economic imperialism was far from unique to Canada. Although Ernst Troeltsch’s idea of a “conservative democracy” based on Calvinist morality, individualism, and respect for law and authority resonated with Innis’s Protestant temperament, he doubted that this admirable set of traditions could survive the rise of industrial capitalism and mass democracy. In Political Economy in the Modern State, he wrote:

It [Calvinism] can no longer offer effective resistance to the centralizing trends of secularization. The weakening of economic liberty has been a part of the weakening of religious liberty and political liberty. The bureaucracy of the state and private enterprise rule by division into irreconcilable minorities. … The development of advertising and mass propaganda masquerading as education compel the consent of the governed.

One mystery that haunted Innis while he composed his historical studies of Canada’s dependency status was the absence of any popular opposition from “the governed” to the most corrosive effects of modernity. He became more
interested in how rulers throughout history have solved “the fundamental problem of … government,” which is that “of keeping people quiet.” As his interests turned to the study of media and technology, he found his answer.

In both Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), Innis composed a sweeping theory of history focusing on how the media used by a specific civilization revealed its priorities. He interpreted media in terms of their “biases” or inherent potentialities. Although “time-biased” media, such as parchment and stone, could not be transported across vast territories, their durable nature enabled them to preserve history and tradition. “Space-biased” media, including lighter and less durable materials such as papyrus and paper, were easily transportable, accomplishing the conquest of great distances. Innis’s analysis of the media greatly impressed his colleague Marshall McLuhan, who described his famous work The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) as a mere “footnote” to Innis’s historical studies.

“The development of advertising and mass propaganda masquerading as education compel the consent of the governed.”

Innis did not romanticize one type of media at the expense of the other. The most stable civilizations were able to achieve a balance between the two types. In The Bias of Communication, Innis praised the ancient Greeks for striking such a balance between the oral tradition, which is time-oriented, and the written word, which is space-oriented. This achievement “supported a brief period of cultural activity such as has never been equalled.” 

Despite his scholarly love of reading and writing, In​nis did not glorify the print age that began with Gutenberg’s printing press. The fact that the “freedom of the press” became possible in this age should not obscure the fact that newspaper monopolies also resulted from this innovation. Innis believed the usage of both types of media led to bureaucratic “monopolies of knowledge” unless a powerful interest countered this effect. “The totalitarian state or the welfare state with rigid constitutions is compelled to resort to endless administrative activity,” he stated.

Innis doubted that the voting masses could be counted upon to restrain these powerful forces. Although the print age made liberal individualism possible, it also enabled the rise of egalitarian despotism. “Universal suffrage heralded the end of parliamentary government. The more successful a democracy in levelling population the less the resistance to despotism.” In the 20th century, the triumph of space-oriented media over time-oriented ones struck Innis as a dangerous phenomenon threatening the survival of Western civilization. FDR owed much of his political success to the spatially biased medium of radio, which “appealed to vast areas, overcame the division between classes in its escape from literacy, and favoured centralization and bureaucracy.”

In his essay “A Plea for Time” (1951), Innis left no doubt that the mass democratic state has a vested interest in privileging the expansion of space over the preservation of time:

The state has been interested in the enlargement of territories and the imposition of cultural uniformity on its peoples, and, losing touch with the problems of time, has been willing to engage in wars to carry out immediate objectives. 

In his last work, Changing Concepts of Time (1952), Innis sounded the alarm over the rise of a militarized regime in postwar America, which coincided with the triumph of the space-oriented bias. Almost a decade before President Dwight Eisenhower warned of “the military-industrial complex,” Innis feared that the expansion of the military’s influence over politics encouraged a dangerous historical amnesia towards America’s traditions that resisted an omnipotent state. “The limitations of American foreign policy,” he argued, “are largely a result of its lack of tradition and continuity and its consequent emphasis on displays of military strength.” Innis’s American colleagues were apparently not offended by his critique of the new American regime. Near the end of his life, he was elected President of the American Economic Association, the first non-U.S. resident to receive this honor. 

Innis succumbed to cancer in 1952, when the new media of television and computers were starting to make their mark. Although Innis wrote little about these developments, it would not surprise him that the current alliance of digital media with the big state is the latest example of centers controlling margins. Western civilization still struggles to find the right balance between space and time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.