Posted on February 25, 2022

Reality Honks Back

N.S. Lyons, City Journal, February 23, 2022

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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.


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.


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.” {snip}

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. {snip}