Deindustrialization as Failed Postindustrial Transition

by Steven High

We are living in polarized times. Brexit, Trump, and the rise of right-wing populism has led to a resurgence of popular and scholarly interest in working class history and the ways it gets entangled with race in the wider politics of economic change. There is much at stake given the looming global transition away from fossil fuels. We can therefore learn much from our failure to affect a socially “just transition” to our deindustrialized, “post-industrial” present in huge swathes of Europe and North America. In fact, it is urgent that we do.

To that end, the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time (DéPOT) partnership project, funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, brings together nearly 100 faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and grad students as well as trade unions, labour archives, and industrial museums from across Western Europe and North America. We are also making wider connections to the Global South and China. The DéPOT project is seeking to:

  1. Understand the long-term political consequences of deindustrialization;
  2. Situate the regional and local experience of deindustrialization within a wider transnational framework;
  3. Examine the ways that race, gender, the environment, and settler colonialism structure and otherwise get bound-up in the class politics of deindustrialization; and,
  4. Facilitate connections between the leading researchers and partners in deindustrialization studies across six countries and forge a transnational community of practice as well as a space where the next generation of deindustrialization researchers is nurtured and connected across borders.

Several competing interpretative frameworks emerged during the 1970s and 1980s to explain the sweeping economic changes underway. Building on a longer history of technological enthusiasm, “post-industrialism” popularized by Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Postindustrial Society (1973) cast it as the next stage of human evolution. Just as humanity progressed from agriculture to industrialism, we were now making the transition to a post-industrial era. Words like innovation, creativity, flexibility, high tech, and transition are strongly associated with this ideological stream.

At almost the same time, deindustrialization emerged as an alternative explanatory framework that emphasized the destructive nature of these sweeping changes. Mines, mills, and factories closed in their tens of thousands, wrecking working-class communities around the world, but especially in Europe and North America. Entire regions were left behind. Deindustrialization as a concept held corporations to account for their investment decisions and how they used their control over the geography of production to crush unions and maximize profits by moving jobs to lower-wage areas. After all, the world did not deindustrialize: everything is made somewhere.

I have written elsewhere about the radical origins of the deindustrialization thesis, as its earliest articulations came out of resistance movements to industrial closures in Canada and the United States. (Canada) Inc: The Political Economy of Dependency (1973), which originated in the left-nationalism of the Waffle faction of the New Democratic Party (NDP), emphasized the distorting effects of US economic domination of Canada. The American variant of the thesis placed accent on capital flight and community abandonment. See, for example, Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison’s The Deindustrialization of America (1982). Since then, Deindustrialization Studies has emerged as a vibrant field of interdisciplinary research which brings together economic, social, political, and cultural approaches to the recent past. The field is very much grounded in the lives of those displaced and the ripple effects over deindustrialization’s “half-life.”

Yet the field has focused primarily on the classic male proletarians of the industrial revolution such as miners, steelworkers, and autoworkers. Female-dominated industries such as clothing and textiles have therefore been overshadowed as have the loss of industries outside of industrial heartland areas. Too often, working class has also been coded as white. For a good overview of the field, see the Spring 2023 issue of Labour/le Travail on Deindustrialization in Canada or the most recent issue of Our Times, Canada’s Independent Labour Magazine.

This series edited by Lauren Laframboise, whose own work is on the decline of the garment industry in New York City and Montréal, complicates this picture. The geographic focus of the contributors shifts our gaze from Canada’s industrial heartland of Southern Ontario and Southern Québec to the resource peripheries of the Maritimes and Northern Ontario as well as the Prairies. Even Laframboise’s introductory post, anchored as it is in small town Eastern Ontario where she is from, demands that we rethink popular assumptions about where deindustrialization unfolds. Its geographic reach is a long one.

This series complicates the picture in other ways. Liam Devitt, for example, invites us to queer deindustrialization studies by considering how this destructive process was experienced by LGBTQ+ people in Cape Breton. The demise of the area’s coal mines and steel mills occurred alongside the AIDS epidemic. Devitt’s post, drawn from their ongoing MA research, asks us to widen our understandings of working-class and queer life-worlds.  For his part, Peter Thompson, a professor in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University, also looks at deindustrializing Nova Scotia, but this time it is through the prism of settler colonialism. It is an important reminder that industrialism is bound-up in wider structures of power, exclusion, and dispossession. That working-class is usually coded as white in popular discourse today is no coincidence; it is itself a product of history.

Nick Fast’s contribution, drawn from his PhD research, takes us into the restructuring of Canada’s meatpacking industry after employers successfully dismantled the union master agreement, which had neutralized geography as a managerial weapon for decades. The industry took the opportunity to shut its high-waged plants in cities such as Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montréal to build new greenfield plants in lower-wage rural Alberta and elsewhere. Fast’s story ties into a much longer history of runaway plants and union struggle. That said, deindustrialization does not necessarily mean the total disappearance of industry, but rather its loss of centrality. We see this peripheralization in Eliot Perrin’s post on Sudbury, Ontario, as well. The city’s mines remain open, but due to job losses with modernization, they no longer dominate its economic life. Sudbury’s post-industrial transition could therefore be seen in the efforts to renew the downtown core as well as the re-greening of its polluted landscape.

The coming energy transition in the face of global warming is the subject of Anna Bettini’s contribution, which brings us to present-day struggles in Alberta—Canada’s oil country. Like past transitions, this too is a site of struggle and uncertainty. Oil workers could be forgiven, however, for not believing the breezy promises that this transition will be a just one. There is little evidence that the white-collar middle class, which has largely benefitted from the recent postindustrial transition, is willing to equitably share the economic pain. Canada therefore risks following in the footsteps of the United States where many working-class people (as measured by those without a college diploma) have embraced right-wing politics. The current political polarization risks getting considerably worse, endangering the very transition away from fossil fuels that will keep us alive.


Steven High is Professor of History and principal investigator of the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time (DéPOT) project. He has published extensively on the history and politics of deindustrialization in the United States and Canada.

This post is part of a series titled The Politics of Deindustrialization in Canada, edited by Lauren Laframboise. The authors in this series are affiliated to the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time (DéPOT) project. DéPOT is hosting its annual conference in June 2023 in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

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