The world is watching what’s happening in Canada with a mixture of fascination and horror. The weeks-long saga of the “Freedom Convoy” protest against pandemic restrictions, spearheaded by Canadian truckers, has taken an authoritarian turn. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers to crush the peaceful protest, suspending civil liberties protections, arresting hundreds, and taking the unprecedented step of ordering dissident citizens entirely frozen out of the financial system. What brought Canada’s normally placid politics to this point?
Many have slotted this drama into a familiar framework of right-wing populists versus left-wing elites. But a different way of looking at it may be more helpful in explaining not only what has happened in Canada but also why the political divide now looks so strikingly similar across the developed world, from Ottawa to Wellington.
While much has been made of the “working class” and its alienation from “the elite,” this phrasing comes with associations about material wealth and economic class that aren’t necessarily helpful. Many of those who support “populist” politics in opposition to the elite tend to be relatively solidly middle class, while many a starving artist supports the establishment Left. The character of one’s work and lifestyle seems to shape the common values of each side of the class divide more than income does.
Consider instead two main classes of people in society, who tend to navigate and interact with the world in fundamentally different ways. The first are those people who work primarily in the real, physical world. Maybe they work directly with their hands, like a carpenter, or a mechanic, or a farmer. Or maybe they are only a step away: they own or manage a business where they organize and direct employees who work with their hands and buy or sell or move things around in the real world, like a transport logistics company. This class necessarily works in a physical location or owns or operates physical assets central to its trade.
The second class of people is different. They are, relatively speaking, a civilizational innovation. They don’t interact much with the physical world directly; they are handlers of knowledge. They work with information, which might be digital or analog, numerical or narrative. But in all cases, the information exists at a level of abstraction from the real world. Manipulation and distribution of this information can influence the real world, but only through informational chains that pass directives to agents who can themselves act in the physical world—a bit like a software program that sends commands to a robot arm on an assembly line. To facilitate this process, these people build and manage abstract institutions and systems of organizational communication as a means of control. Individuals in this class usually occupy middle links in these informational chains, in which neither the inputs nor outputs of their role have any direct relationship with or effect on the physical world. They are informational middlemen. This class can therefore often do their job almost entirely from a laptop, by email or a virtual Zoom meeting, and its members have recently realized that they don’t even need to be sitting in an office cubicle while they do it.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s call these two classes the Physicals and the Virtuals, respectively. This division maps closely onto another much-discussed political wedge: the geographic split between cities, where most of the Virtuals are concentrated, and the outlying exurbs and rural hinterlands, where the Physicals remain predominant. No coincidence that partisan differences between urban metropolitan cores and provinces have become one of the defining features of politics across the Western democratic world.
But the most relevant distinction between Virtuals and Physicals today is that the Virtuals are now everywhere unambiguously the ruling class. In a world in which knowledge is the primary component of value-added production (or so we are told), and economic activity is increasingly defined by the digital and the abstract, they have been the overwhelming winners, accumulating financial, political, and cultural status and influence.
In part this is because the ruling class is also a global class, and thus has access to global capital. It is global because the world’s city-brains are directly connected with each other across virtual space, and in constant communication. Indeed, their residents have far more in common with one another, including across national borders, than they do with the local people of their own hinterlands, who, in comparison, seem practically from another planet.
But the Virtual ruling class has a vulnerability that it hasn’t yet solved. The cities in which their bodies live require a whole lot of physical infrastructure and manpower to function: electricity, sewage, food, the vital Sumatra-to-latte supply chain. Ultimately, the great brain hubs of the Virtuals still float suspended in expanses of the Physicals. So when the Physicals of the Canadian host-body revolted against their control, the Virtual class suddenly faced a huge problem.
When the truckers rolled their big rigs, which weigh about 35,000 pounds, up to the political elite’s doorstep, engaged their air brakes, and refused to leave until their concerns were addressed, it was like dropping a very solid boulder of reality in the Virtuals’ front lawn and daring them to remove it without assistance. And because the Virtuals cannot actually move objects with their minds, the truckers effectively called their bluff on who ultimately controls the world.
The Virtual elite’s reaction has been completely characteristic. Once they grasped the situation, their response was to turn immediately to their default means of dealing with any problem: narrative and informational control. Having at first entirely dismissed what he called a “small fringe minority with unacceptable views,” Trudeau soon fled his city for “security reasons.” He then unleashed a shotgun blast of smears on the truckers, saying they were guilty of “antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, homophobia, and transphobia,” not to mention “misogyny” and being “anti-science.” He falsely accused them of regularly flying “racist flags” and “waving swastikas,” and announced that he would refuse to meet with them because he could not go “anywhere near protests that have expressed hateful rhetoric and violence.” He declared Canadians to be “shocked and frankly, disgusted” with the protesters.
His class allies followed his lead, labeling the protest “an occupation” and a “siege.” Ottawa’s police chief declared the demonstrators “dangerous” and “hateful.” City officials ranted about a “nationwide insurrection” and “a threat to our democracy.” Canadian media ham-fistedly attempted to shove the whole phenomenon into an American political frame, calling the convoy a “pseudo-Trumpian grift” that was “organized and led by documented racists and QAnon-style nutters.” Anchors gravely compared footage of smiling, Canadian-flag-waving grandmas, diverse crowds of dancing Sikhs, and children playing in bouncy castles to “January 6” and “white supremacy.” American outlets such as Politico and the New York Times warned of the “far right” having been “galvanized” worldwide. Allegations of the protests being organized and funded by none other than the Russians were seriously aired. Facebook and Twitter, citing “misinformation,” quickly shut down accounts organizing the protest. GoFundMe complied with a government order and shut down $10 million in funds raised there for the truckers. A replacement fundraiser on GiveSendGo was frozen by a Canadian court.
If all this seemed awfully synchronized, that was the point. Systematic information control—what the Chinese Communist Party refers to as “public opinion management”—is now the entire strategic response of the Virtual class to every political problem. They do this not just because it is cynically convenient (though it is), but because it is literally the only way they know how to navigate and influence the world. They swim in a narrative sea. Their first instinct is always to manage problems through the power of “storytelling” (what the CCP calls “discourse power”) because they truly believe in the postmodern idea that reality is socially constructed. And if there is no fixed, objective truth, then the will of the mind rules the world. Facts can be reframed as needed to fashion the story that best produces the desired reality.
For the Virtual elite, the most unforgivable thing about the Physicals and their grimy world is that they stubbornly refuse to yield to full, frictionless control. Virtuals are increasingly most comfortable in a purely virtual environment—one where they can have direct, instantaneous control over (virtual) matter. Real matter is stubbornly resistant, a reminder that the self doesn’t control the universe, and that they are vulnerable, even mortal.
One problem remained: no amount of narrative control could move the trucks. The Virtuals needed to convince the Physicals to do that, but the towing companies in Ottawa refused to cooperate. In the end, a cornered Trudeau went nuclear and invoked Canada’s Emergencies Act for the first time in its history, seizing powers that allowed him to compel the tow companies into moving the trucks after he bussed police from around the country into Ottawa.
But the most striking new coercive measure Trudeau chose to wield was not the police crackdown. It was a government order for banks, credit card, insurers, companies and other financial infrastructure to stop “providing any financial or related services” to anyone designated as associated with the protests (including donors), effectively freezing them out of the modern economy without due process or means of appeal.
This was the natural next step for a regime based on informational power and seeking to compel compliance by revolting Physicals. Control over digital financial assets is essentially the ultimate leverage now available to the Virtuals. And here they have a significant advantage because they are free to use the maximum level of coercive force available in their natural domain, while the Physicals cannot (because, in the physical world, that would mean violence, something the protesters have rightly forsworn). We should expect more use of this tool around the world as the Physicals continue to revolt against their masters.
Even if the protests in Canada are crushed, this is unlikely to be the end of the matter. The revolt of the truckers, in the middle of a supply-chain crisis, has demonstrated that the Physicals still possess great power as long as they act with unity and solidarity.
Naturally, Virtuals everywhere have greeted this development with horror. The truckers symbolize the total reliance of the ruling elite on the very people that it finds most alien and abhorrent. To many Virtuals, this is truly terrifying. Holed up in their cities, they sense that should the Physicals—whom they once felt safe to ignore—engage in not just scattered protests but a full-scale revolt, or even simply a general strike that suspended all movement of goods, their bastions of enlightened civilization would be starving, shivering, and buried in trash within a week.
So, of course, they hate and fear the truckers. No wonder Trudeau is panicking and behaving like an autocrat facing an existential challenge to his rule; in a sense, he is. Expect the Virtuals of the world to move with all haste to develop new and innovative methods of information management and coercion to try to eliminate every human vulnerability from the system. But in the near term, Physicals are the ones with real leverage. Now they know it.
Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images