- Misrecognized Materialists: Social Movements in Canadian Constitutional Politics
Matt James offers readers a truly innovative idea in Misrecognized Materialists. We habitually dismiss constitutional debates of the past generation as failed endeavours; and yet, James reveals how these debates have provided a crucial forum for social movements. The book will encourage scholars and students to reconsider the relationship between social movement organizations and the state.
Most of the literature on social movements distinguished between materialist and postmaterialist movements. Fuelled by an increasingly wealthy middle class armed with university and college degrees, a host of new social movements have emerged since the 1960s that are grounded in quality of life issues (postmaterialist values). In contrast, "old" social movements (working class movements, for example) focused on material gain and challenging the economic system. Misrecognized Materialists questions this dichotomy. The book is first and foremost a history of several key constitutional debates in Canadian history. Each chapter is organized around a government committee or commission dealing with constitutional issues: the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations; postwar reconstruction committees; the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism; Parliamentary committees on human rights in 1950 and 1960; the Special Joint Committees on the Constitution of 1971 and 1980-1; and the Meech Lake and Charlottetown imbroglios. The author uses each incident to examine the claims forwarded by working class organizations, women's associations, and advocacy groups for ethnic, religious and racial [End Page 157] minorities. According to James, there was no shift from materialist to postmaterialist objectives; since the 1930s, social movements in Canada have pursued economic objectives as well as a politics of self-esteem and respect. Moreover, social movements have exploited constitutional recognition (a "postmaterialist" value) to protect their material interests. Feminists, for instance, mobilized around the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution in 1980-1 to successfully lobby for a section on women's rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Feminists earned an enormous amount of social and political capital through the recognition of women's rights in the constitution, and this made it virtually impossible to ignore feminists' opposition to the Meech Lake Accord (unlike women's previous engagements with the state), and the women's movement played a key role in defeating proposed constitutional amendments in the wake of the Charter.
The study of social movements has, for too long, been monopolized by sociologists. Students in Law, History and Political Science, in particular, will appreciate how the author explains the role of non-state actors in the evolution of legal and political innovations. It is essentially for those who study the Charter to realize that constitutional change is rarely monopolized by political elites and lawyers. The Charter should be appreciated for being as much a social and political document as it is a legal document.
One issue which is problematic is the author's use of the term "social movement." This is not a study of social movements; it is a study of social movement organizations. A social movement organization is a more limited, institutional manifestation of a social movement. Organizations such as the National Association of Women and the Canadian Jewish Congress are, in many ways, highly elitist, and have not always had a strong connection to their own constituency. As a result, James' analysis does not really demonstrate that the people who constitute social movements have had an influential voice in constitutional politics. Instead, his work proves that the leaders of these organizations (primarily middle class white men and women with a university education) have deeply influenced constitutional debates.
Another shortcoming is the limited amount of empirical research. The book can be distilled into a collection of briefs presented by social movement organizations to various committees and commissions. As a result, the author sometimes overlooks the historical context. The best example of this is the author's explanation for the failure of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to participate in the hearings of the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution in 1980-1. According to James, in order to placate the demands of the Quebec Federation...