Reality Honks Back
About those truckers…
Like many, I have spent the last couple of weeks a bit entranced by the trucker protests happening in Canada (and now around the world, from Paris to Wellington). I initially tried to document here every twist and turn of the Freedom Convoy drama, but found it nearly impossible. Events continue to unfold very quickly. As I write this, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just invoked the Emergencies Act (i.e. martial law), allowing him to suspend civil liberties and basically do whatever he wants (more on that later) to crush the protests. So they may soon be quelled. Or perhaps not. No one can yet say precisely how all this may end.
But in any case news and commentary detailing the protests can now be found everywhere, so I’m just going to assume you already have a familiarity with what’s happening, as I want to try to distill a few more unique thoughts on why I find these protests so striking.
Specifically, why all this seems like such a perfect reflection of the Reality War.
In that essay, I noted how from the perspective of those with the most wealth and power, as well as the technocratic managers and the intelligentsia (our “priestly class, keepers of the Gnosis [Knowledge]”), digital technology and global networks seem to have created “an unprecedented opportunity for Theory to wrest control from recalcitrant nature, for liquid narrative to triumph over mundanely static reality, and for all the corrupt traditional bonds of the world to be severed, its atoms reconfigured in a more correct and desirable manner.”
In this mostly subconscious vision of “Luxury Gnosticism,” the “middle and lower classes can then be sold dispossession and disembodiment as liberation, while those as yet ‘essential’ working classes who still cling distastefully to the physical world can mostly be ignored until the day they can be successfully automated out of existence.”
I also quoted a passage from the late Christopher Lasch’s book The Revolt of the Elites that is worth repeating here:
The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life… Their only relation to productive labor is that of consumers. They have no experience of making anything substantial or enduring. They live in a world of abstractions and images, a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality – “hyperreality,” as it’s been called – as distinguished from the palatable, immediate, physical reality inhabited by ordinary men and women. Their belief in “social construction of reality” – the central dogma of postmodernist thought – reflects the experience of living in an artificial environment from which everything that resists human control (unavoidably, everything familiar and reassuring as well) has been rigorously excluded. Control has become their obsession. In their drive to insulate themselves against risk and contingency – against the unpredictable hazards that afflict human life – the thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.
So let’s consider this using the protests as a lens, and vice versa.
To simplify, let’s first identify and categorize two classes of people in society, who we could say tend to navigate and interact with the world in fundamentally different ways.
The first is a class that has been a part of human civilization for a really long time. These are the 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, maybe. This class necessarily works in a physical location, or they own or operate physical assets that are central to their trade.
The second class is different. It is, relatively speaking, a new civilizational innovation (at least in numbering more than a handful of people). This group is the “thinking classes” Lasch was writing about above. 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 it 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 that 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, they 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 has any direct relationship with or impact on the physical world. They are informational middlemen. This class can therefore do their job almost entirely from a laptop, by email or a virtual Zoom meeting, and has recently realized they don’t even need to be sitting in an office cubicle while they do it.
For our purposes here, let’s call these two classes the Physicals and the Virtuals, respectively.
When considering the causes and character of the current protest, and the response to it, I would say the divide between Physicals and Virtuals is by far the most relevant frame of analysis available. In fact I’d say this is among the most significant divides in all of Western politics today.
Much has rightly been made of the “working class” and their alienation from “the elite.” But this phrasing comes mixed up with associations about material wealth and economic class that aren’t necessarily helpful. Many (though not all) of those who support “populist” politics in opposition to the elite tend to frequently be either fairly solidly middle-class skilled tradesmen, relatively successful small businessmen, or land-holders (e.g. farmers, ranchers, real estate entrepreneurs) who are often actually relatively well-off. It is the character of their work that seems to shape the common identity and values of each side of the class divide more than income.
So too does this difference appear to widen – and perhaps even help explain the root of – the huge and growing gender divide in politics, given the fairly well-established preference (on average) by men to work with “things” (more concrete) and women to work with “people” (more abstract).
Meanwhile, this class divide also 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. I would suggest the nature of these two classes plays a significant role in shaping the local cultures of these places. And as anyone following events in the United States, U.K., Australia, or Europe over the last few years (such as Brexit, or the Yellow Vest protests in France) could tell you by now, partisan differences between urban metropolitan cores and provinces seem to have become one of the defining features of politics across the Western democratic world.
Below is a map of the eastern half of the United States showing at very high detail the geographic distribution of votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. The urban-rural divide between political parties couldn’t be more stark.
Differences in the Canadian electoral system mean I can’t show you a similar map for Canada, but you can be assured that the urban-rural divide there is just as significant.
But the most relevant distinction between Virtuals and Physicals 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 so has access to global capital. It is global because the world’s city-brains are directly connected with each other across virtual space, and are in constant communication. Indeed their residents have far more in common with each other, including across national borders, than they do with the local people of their own hinterlands, who are in comparison practically from another planet.
But the Virtual ruling class has a vulnerability that it has not yet solved. The cities in which their bodies continue to occupy mundane physical reality require a whole lot of physical infrastructure and manpower to function: electricity, sewage, food, the vital Sumatra-to-latte supply chain, etc. Ultimately, they still remain reliant on the physical world.
The great brain hubs of the Virtuals float suspended in the expanse of the Physicals, complex arterial networks pumping life-sustaining resources inward from their hosts. 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 parking brakes (or removed their wheels entirely), and refused to leave until their concerns were addressed, this 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 do not yet actually have the Jedi powers to move things with their minds, the truckers effectively called their bluff on who ultimately has control over the world.
It turns out that not only do the Physicals still exist, and are (for now) still able to drive themselves into the heart of the cities, they actually still have power – a lot of power. In the middle of a supply chain crisis, those truckers represent the total reliance of the ruling elite on the very people they find alien and abhorrent. To many of the Virtuals, this is existentially frightening.
The reaction of the Virtual ruling class – represented by the absolutely archetypal modern progressive male, Justin Trudeau – to this challenge has been extremely telling, and rather predictable.
Their first reaction was to dismiss the 50,000-strong convoy as representing, in Trudeau’s words, a “small fringe minority with unacceptable views.” Being, after all, divorced from reality, he did not seem to have any understanding of the implications of what was barreling toward him. No one in his government seems to have prepared at all in the days leading up to the truckers’ arrival as the Freedom Convoy drove all the way across the country to Ottawa.
But once they grasped the situation, the Virtuals’ response was to turn immediately to their default means of dealing with any problem: narrative and informational control.
Trudeau checked his diary list of most used phrases and – after fleeing the city for “security reasons” – unleashed all of them at once in one great shotgun blast of smears, saying the truckers were guilty of “antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, homophobia, and transphobia,” not to mention “misogyny” and being “anti-science.” He accused them of flying “racist flags” and “waving swastikas” (only one seems to have ever been spotted, before being swiftly ejected by the crowd), and announced that he would refuse to meet with them because of 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 protestors.
His class allies leaped to the same line of attack. Catherine McKenney, Ottawa’s non-binary, social justice-loving councilor, accused the Freedom Convoy of promoting “very right-wing extremist messages” and being “part of a movement, that is extreme and that is xenophobic.” Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly declared them to be “increasingly dangerous” and “hateful.” Ontario Premier Doug Ford labeled it “an occupation” and a “siege.” The chair of the city’s police services board ranted that the “siege” was part of a “nationwide insurrection” and “a threat to our democracy.” Angry demands started being made for Trudeau to call in the military.
Canadian state media lustily played along, attempting to ham-fistedly shove the whole phenomenon into an American political frame. The whole convoy was 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 like Politico and the New York Times warned of the “far-right” having been “galvanized” worldwide. Allegations of the protests having been organized and funded by no less than the Russians were seriously aired.
Academic “extremism experts” were trundled onto television to confirm that this was in fact a pack of literal terrorists, and that if even the protests were technically entirely peaceful (crime in downtown Ottawa having actually fallen), this was only a maliciously cunning cover to enable mass violence. “By what common understanding of the term does what we are seeing on the ground, on TV, in our social media feeds qualify as ‘peaceful protest?’” asked one, presumably talking about the hug-ins, or maybe the on-site meals for the homeless. “Is it merely the absence of physical violence and injury? That’s not unimportant but is insufficient as a definitional threshold.” TV talking heads nod sagely.
Facebook and Twitter of course also quickly shut down the accounts and groups set up by protestors to communicate (often with hundreds of thousands of members), not only in Canada but in countries across the world. They cited the need to prevent the spread of “misinformation.”
If all this seemed awfully synchronized, that’s the whole point. Systematic information control, or 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.
But have a little sympathy for them: they do this not just because it is cynically convenient (though it is), but because this is literally the only way they know how to navigate and influence the world. The post-modern fish swims in a narrative sea, and their first reaction is always to try to control it (through what the CCP calls “discourse power”) because at heart they well and truly believe in the idea of the “social construction of reality,” as Lasch pointed out in the quote at top. If there is no fixed, objective truth, only power, then the mind’s will rules the world. Facts can be reframed as needed to create the story that best produces the correct results for Progress (this is why you will find journalists are now professionally obsessed with “storytelling” rather than reporting facts).
Normally all one need do is recast the dominant narrative of events in such a way as to allow the system to reestablish compliance by enough links in the informational control chains to inspire physical action in meat space – or at least just distract the public until the problem goes away. The problem is that none of this has worked to move the trucks.
The Virtual class can’t move the trucks. Smears alone can’t move trucks. All the towing companies in Ottawa have refused to move the trucks. Because, surprisingly, it turns out tow truck drivers also drive trucks for a living. There aren’t enough police to seize the trucks, because the rank and file police in Ottawa have been taking all of their vacation and sick days, mysteriously not showing up for work, or simply resigning. It turns out that police officers tend to also be part of the Physical class, and class solidarity may actually be a thing.
Meanwhile, even the narrative reframing trick – which usually works great – has been failing. There’s simply been too wide a gulf between what citizens have been told and what they can see with their own eyes. Sympathy for the truckers’ cause actually seems to have grown. More than half of Canadians now oppose continuing to mandate vaccines, and two-thirds now support removing COVID-19 restrictions. Multiple Liberal MPs have turned on Trudeau to speak out against his approach. Five provinces have now moved to end pandemic restrictions, including Ontario.
No matter how desperately Trudeau has scrambled to change the narrative, he hasn’t yet succeeded. Even a gambit to threaten the truckers with having their children removed by child protection services – presumably to make it easier to instigate a narratively convenient violent confrontation – has only led to backlash so far. Relentless discipline by the truckers has provided him with almost nothing to work with.
Which is why the Virtual elite have steadily escalated up the ladder of more and more coercive informational control, leveraging their hold on state power to try to compel compliance by the revolting Physicals. This began with the government requesting crowdfunding site GoFundMe shut down the $10 million in funds raised there for the truckers. The company complied immediately, saying the Freedom Convoy had engaged in “an abuse of power” (what power was unclear) and was supporting “hate, violence, harassment, bullying, discrimination, terrorism, and intolerance.” Then came as many legal fines for obscure violations as authorities could find to throw at the truckers, while a replacement fundraiser on GiveSendGo was also frozen by a Canadian court.
But now, with the protests in their third week, Trudeau has gone nuclear, invoking Canada’s Emergencies Act for the first time in its history. A renamed version of what was once called the War Measures Act, this allows him to override civil liberty protections in order “to remove the blockades, including by force.” Trudeau specified this includes the ability to compel the tow companies to move the trucks.
And while Trudeau has denied that he will use his new powers to deploy the military against the Canadian people, his finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, said that financial institutions will be instructed to “cease providing financial services where the institution suspects that an account is being used to further the illegal blockades and occupations,” and that that they “will be able to immediately freeze or suspend an account without a court order” and with full “protection against civil liability.” All crowd-funding platforms will now also fall under the control of “Canada’s anti-money laundering and terrorist financing rules,” which will require fundraising campaigns to be approved by Canadian intelligence services.
That Trudeau’s government would choose to jettison any remaining illusion of Canada still being a liberal democracy just to harm their political class enemies isn’t too surprising. It’s their method of doing so that is particularly striking: control over digital financial assets is pretty much the ultimate leverage now available to the Virtuals. We should expect more use of this tool around the world anywhere the Physicals continue to revolt against their masters.
And here the Virtuals 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, which is something the protestors have rightly forsworn.
So, the current trucker protests in Canada may soon be brought to a close by the state. But this is unlikely to mark the end of the story.
The great Honkening of 2022 has already been revelatory to people around the world. It is the climax of a process in which all the divides in society, including between the “Physicals” and “Virtuals” I’ve described here, have been revealed by the pandemic and governments’ responses. At the same time, the pandemic served to clarify the continued reliance of the Virtual class on “essential workers.” The revelation of the exceptional vulnerability of modern supply chains has demonstrated very clearly to everyone paying attention that the Physicals still possess tremendous power of their own as long as they are able to act in unity and solidarity – or as many signs at the protests have pointed out to the Virtuals: “no truckers, no food.”
In this sense the Freedom Convoy has already become the most successful labor movement in decades, awakening a genuine new “class consciousness” (as a Marxist would put it) in the minds of the reality-based “working class.” And it is notable that this has already become a transnational phenomenon, with the convoy protests spreading like wildfire around the globe precisely because the exact same divide now exists in so many developed countries, where the Virtual ruling class has everywhere overreached with similarly hubris.
Naturally, the Virtuals have everywhere greeted this development with horror. Looking at the map above, or out their windows, they may have realized just how vulnerable they are holed up in their cities. Perhaps they are imagining that, should the Physicals outside – who they once felt safe to ignore – engage in not just scattered protests but a full-scale revolutionary revolt, or even simply a general strike – suspending 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. It’s no wonder that Trudeau is panicking and behaving a bit like a dictator facing an existential challenge to his rule. In a sense he is.
There is an obvious irony here in the fact that ostensibly left-wing parties, like Trudeau’s Liberals, have everywhere turned viciously on the working class – an observation that is now widespread, as far as I can tell thanks mainly to the satirists at the Babylon Bee – but this is merely the culmination of a long, inevitable political realignment that’s occured across the West as the “left” became the party of the Virtuals, the socialist revolution became a revolution against fixed reality, and the Physicals became the backwards, reactionary others standing in the way of Progress.
For the Virtual elite, the most unforgiveable thing about the Physicals, and the physical world in general, is that they stubbornly refuse to yield to full, frictionless control. There is a reason the dominant informational class is today most comfortable in a purely virtual environment – it’s 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. It’s dirty, polluting, a reminder of one’s vulnerability, even mortality. And the need to rely on other humans to deal with it is super awkward.
So expect the Virtuals of the ruling class to double down on trying to exert control, moving with all haste to develop new and innovative methods of information management and coercion to try to eliminate every human vulnerability from the machine. Self-driving truck startups are about to have an excellent next funding round.
But at least in the near term it’s Physicals like the truckers that have the advantage. They are the ones with the real leverage, and now they know it.
Trudeau and co. just better hope the workers don’t start reading Mao like he did in his youth, or they’ll learn all about how that revolutionary managed to win by “surrounding the cities from the countryside.” Or how Mao began his revolution by declaring that “a single spark can start a prairie fire” – but then the Canucks seem to have already managed to do that part already.
A small Canada update, via The Economist:
"Mr Trudeau’s government has expressed shock that racist symbols were displayed during the protest. It appears to be planning to reintroduce an “anti-hate” bill that could lead to the imprisonment of people who use racist speech. This could include a clause which would allow individuals to take other people to court if they fear that they may be about to say something which falls under the definition of “hate propaganda”. They could also be charged for contemplating an offence “motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or any other similar factor”."
Hate pre-crimes! Spectacular. I don't think even Mr. Putin or Mr. Xi has had the audacity to conceive of such a useful measure. Trudeau's Liberal party is truly trying hard to live up to its namesake.
This framing of the issue in terms of Virtuals vs. Physicals cuts right to the heart of the matter. Has anyone else put the argument in this way? It’s astonishingly brilliant analytically and clearly simplifies things in a way superior to the Woke vs Anti-Woke or Progressive vs Classical Liberal framing. New essays in Upheaval are rapidly becoming my most anticipated Substack destination.