There was a story the Left used to tell in the early 2010s that everyone took for granted. The era, they said, of big labour strikes was over. The Soviet Union had fallen, Thatcher had crushed the miners, the biggest union organisations were in decline. Like a cooling volcano, the capacity for the sort of large eruptions we read about in the history books didn’t exist anymore. Or so we thought.
Ten years on, the West is undergoing a furious period of labour militancy. Farmers are protesting in the Netherlands, in Germany, and in France. Rail workers are threatening the US economy with shutdowns over pay increases and a lack of paid sick leave. In Canada, truckers shut down several border crossings and occupied Ottawa for the better part of a month. British nurses and Canadian teachers are on the verge of mass walk-outs. In France, nuclear industry workers threaten strike action, while a strike among refinery workers earlier this year led to acute fuel shortages, with hour-long queues and rationing at petrol stations.
This wave of militancy displays no signs of cresting soon. If anything, given the general economic situation, things are likely to get worse: inflation is exploding, energy is in short supply, and the cost of living is rising. Workers will get angrier, and they have the ability to make their anger felt in painful ways.
Intriguingly, this revival of labour militancy has done nothing to alter the fortunes of the radical or populist Left. It has only revealed that the rift between them and the working class across the West has become more or less permanent. Six years after Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn saw their stock soar, legitimate worker anger often finds itself being dismissed as a tool of the “far-Right”, and labour militancy is feared and despised.
It’s easy to laugh at the Left in this situation — but its arc from enthusiasm to horror in the face of actual protests and labour struggles out in the street is fairly rational. The Left’s fear speaks to one of our era’s central political conflicts: a growing consciousness among working people that the biggest dividing line runs between the people employed in the “real” economy and those working in the “virtual” one.
Over the last decade, a number of terms have been invented to describe this divide, from “Professional Managerial Class” to “the email caste”. None of these labels are perfect, but their growing popularity speaks to the fact that more and more people can now see that there really is a conflict at play here. The man driving a truck or a tractor and the revolutionary working for a billionaire-backed NGO are not only not natural allies, but their different roles in the economy increasingly make them real enemies.
It is no surprise that farmers end up on this struggle’s frontline. One absurd illustration of the deep contradictions in our debt-laden, de-industrialised Western economies can be seen — where else? — on Twitter and TikTok, where you can watch clips of young, radical climate protesters who want to “abolish farming”. Farming, as it turns out, is so very damaging to the planet in terms of CO2 pollution that we must do away with the industry altogether.
Put aside the ludicrousness of this wish, which if implemented would doom us all to starvation. Rather, consider the fact that we live in a society where having this position — fighting against farming for the sake of climate change — is not only possible but also admired. For young people in college towns, the question of where the food comes from is completely abstract; and as they plod along their chosen life path, from university radicalism to an NGO to government service and then back again, they need not encounter anything to make them change their opinion of the world. Their disconnect from material reality — from the farmers working hard to grow their crops, and from the truckers who make sure the food shows up on the shelves — is nearly complete. Student climate protestors do not seem to realise that food does not grow inside the supermarket.
More perniciously, a growing crisis of over-regulation created, then driven, by “the email caste” is also taking shape. This ever-growing body of ordinances only creates frustration and anger among the material workers who have to live by them. It is not that these rules are necessarily malicious. To take one example, the idea that we should make the internal combustion engine redundant by the mid-2030s is probably motivated by genuine concerns for the environment. The problem is that these laws are completely disconnected from reality.
Last year, the Canadian trucker Gord Magill asked a simple, radical question: “How essential are the ’email job’ caste?” Magill’s essay was one early example of a new class consciousness, slowly brewing in the West. It was an open acknowledgement that there is an “us vs them” divide that refuses to fit into the Left’s conception of the “99% vs the 1%”. For Magill, it is the farmers, the truckers, and the aeroplane mechanics who comprise the “us”. And it is the NGO employees, the activist regulators, and the managers who make up the more immediate foe.
Whether you’re watching a farmer protest in the Netherlands or a trucker occupation in Canada, or even a wildcat airline pilot strike in Florida, there are growing echoes of this analysis everywhere. The figure of the enemy today is increasingly no longer the capitalist in the top hat. It is Klaus Schwab; it is the manager and the regulator. They hope to close down your farm, digitise your currency, and abolish private ownership. At one point during the 20th century, the figure of the “social engineer” was popular inside the worker-dominated social democratic parties of the West. In 2022, that same social engineer has now become a hated enemy. He is no longer seen as having any good intentions towards ordinary working people, nor can he even be trusted to understand how the real world works.
The 2020s, then, promise to be a decade filled with discontent and increasingly dramatic shows of worker militancy. Beyond inflation, beyond anger at the rising cost of fuel, heating and food, there is now a simmering political rage motivating people to take to the streets and the pickets. Like Gord Magill, workers are deciding that they’ve had enough of being ruled by an “email caste”. If email workers no longer care about the real economy they’ve left behind, why should workers care about them?