They call it “The Honkening”. Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, is currently being besieged by a novel kind of protest. Honkening is a fairly appropriate name for what’s going on. Thousands of truckers have driven to the capital, and barraged the city with the noise of truck horns creating a cacophony of sound. Elsewhere, on the border between the United States and Canada, truckers, farmers and cowboys have blockaded traffic.
As the protests enter another week, Ottawa’s mayor has declared a state of emergency. Jim Watson described the truckers — ostensibly protesting against Canada’s harsh Covid mandates — as “out of control”. Watson sees anarchy; the truckers fulminate against Covid authoritarianism. But this battle is really about working-class discontent.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
The naive among us could be forgiven for thinking that this protest signalled something auspicious about “late capitalist” society. For decades, the common folk wisdom for both the Left and the Right was that the West’s working classes had been completely neutralised as a political force, and that class conflict itself was a relic of the past.
This idea took hold in the Sixties, when Herbert Marcuse theorised that Western workers had been subjected to a “socially engineered arrest of consciousness”. Their vested interest in the existing capitalist order made them impossible to radicalise. Ever since, finding new theoretical models to explain the unreliability (and stodgy conservatism) of workers has been a recurring activity on parts of the Left. Marxists had made a horrific discovery: the working class were not their foot soldiers. As Joan Didion once put it: “The have-nots, it turned out, mainly aspired to having.”
Many on the Left came to believe that without their corporatist union structures, and without their shop stewards and political organisers, the working classes were done for. They were little better, to paraphrase Marx, than a “sack of potatoes”.
Without proper leadership, the workers would be too inert and stupid to do anything about their plight. As such, the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union (and the defeat of the strike waves of the Eighties) saw many Leftists indulge a wistful nostalgia for a time when the workers stuck it to the powers that be. Celebration of the good old days of the Left, and of “working-class power” in general, was thus central to the aesthetics of the now completely defunct wave of Left populism in the 2010s.
With that backdrop in mind, the explosion of worker militancy over vaccine mandates — and, on a related note, high fuel taxes in Europe — ought to have been greeted by enthusiasm by the Leftist activist and organiser set. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The truckers in Canada have instead triggered a primordial sense of dread in the hearts of the urban classes, in the people who Canadian trucker Gord Magill has dubbed “the email job caste”.
This sense of fear and dread at the machinations of the proles is hardly something unique to Canada. Indeed, even the United States saw a large increase of worker militancy and wildcat strikes over oppressive vaccine mandates. Like their compatriots in Canada, America’s various professional friends of the working class responded with horror and scorn. The well-known Marxist economist, Richard Wolff, was mobbed on Twitter for suggesting that workers striking over mandates were actually part of something called “class struggle”, rather than merely an expression of “fascism”.
Ottawa’s truckers are a symptom of the massive class divide that is opening up across the West. Marxists are sticking their heads in the sand about this generational moment, or papering it over with absurd topsy-turvy leaps. In one recent display of moon logic, the Canadian activist, writer and self-described socialist Nora Loreto complained that “labour” was invisible in the resistance to the “fascist” truckers that had occupied Ottawa. An exasperated comrade chimed in with a story of being a shop steward for a teamster (truck driver) union, and — horror of horrors — the painful truth was that many teamsters were more likely to be in the protest themselves than protesting against it.
The exchange is modern Western Leftism in a nutshell. Is there a single better illustration of the contradictions of the moment? An “activist” and organiser” recoiling in horror at a bunch of truckers — people who work in the real, material economy, ferrying the foodstuffs and goods we all depend on to survive — staging a political protest, only to then ask “but where is the organised working class in all of this?”. Isn’t it obvious to the point of parody that the workers are the people inside the trucks?
It’s easy to laugh at this sort of absurdity, but the lesson here is anything but a joke. The divorce between “the Left” and “the workers” is now complete and irrevocable. Nora Loreto may not be a person with calloused hands, and she may very well belong to Gord Magill’s “email jobs caste”. But for the longest time, the political rhetoric and worldview of the Left depended on the idea that the trucker and the activist were merely two sides of the same coin.
Without the activist and the “organiser”, the trucker would never be able to know how to organise himself and his fellows politically; without the trucker, the activist and the organiser would not have a cause for which to organise. Now it seems that the trucker — and by extension, the pilot, the garbage collector, and the bus driver — does not need or want this caste of self-appointed leaders.
This divorce has happened all over the world in recent years. After the massive rejection by Red Wall voters of Jeremy Corbyn and his activist base in the smart, urban, and highly credentialed parts of Britain, one started to see a rhetoric of open loathing for the dumb, uneducated gammons and proles. In Germany, the Left party Die Linke has endured several rounds of severe internal fighting and strife. As in the UK, the younger, more urban, more credentialed parts of the Left have fought a running battle — and thrown pies — against pro-worker “racists” such as Sahra Wagenknecht.
In Canada, that loathing has now turned into fear — and into outright hatred. The problem of the truckers is not really the honking (which the Guardian sniffily calls “crude behaviour“), because sooner or later, that honking will stop. The state of emergency will end. But the protests, significantly, have shown how confused and weak the opponents of the working classes are today.
During the pandemic lockdowns, the email jobs caste loved to talk about essential workers, and luxuriated in public displays of gratitude for them. But this caste of genteel urbanites never realised that this choice of nomenclature was in fact much more meaningful — and ominous – than they understood. Some people, it seems, simply are critical to the functioning of the economy, pandemic or no pandemic. Once those people — and truck drivers are perhaps the most critical of them all — start to demand to be listened to, they have ways to make those demands felt.
For the Left, the problem of the truckers is their newfound political independence. Nostalgia really is a thing of the past now; the dinosaurs that were thought long extinct are back now, and they are hungry. Gone are the halcyon days of dreaming about halcyon days – where serious working class militancy was just a distant myth.
The real danger of any trucker’s strike, or any pilot’s walkout, or any fuel tax protest in Europe, is that every new confrontation sets a precedent: a precedent that says that the Gord Magills are done taking orders from the Nora Letos of the world.