Photo by Andrej Ivanov / AFP
Artillery Row

Herald of a new politics

The old coalitional politics of left and right have given way to tribal identity

Activists have blocked roads across the city, thousands of commuters have been inconvenienced, businesses have been disrupted and ambulances delayed, and the government has sought new powers to push back against the demonstrators.

Part of the country is shaking its head at the selfishness of the fringe cranks gumming up the roads, but many people are sympathetic to the protestors, and disturbed at the government’s attempt to suppress the freedom to protest. The two groups are pretty much divided into the right and left wings of the culture war.

Ottawa and the so-called “Freedom Convoy”? No — London and the Insulate Britain protestors. Only the difference here is that the British activists are generally middle class environmentalists who drew support from the left, and the Canadian protestors are largely blue-collar workers backed by the political right.

The two protests were almost entirely perceived through the lens of the culture war

Like more and more political fights across the West, the two protests were almost entirely perceived through the lens of the culture war. The old coalitional politics of left and right have given way to an entirely different, and far more synthetic and media-drive, mode of discourse that is more about identity and tribalism than it is ideology or class.

In the past a group of protesting workers would have typically drawn the support of the left and the condemnation of the right. Teamsters’ unions in particular were amongst the most radical and powerful groups in organised labour in North America, and were often on the front lines of battles between left wing workers’ agitating for better pay and conditions, and a conservative establishment which allied law enforcement, big business and local government to suppress strikes, often by violent means.

The tactics employed by the current “Freedom Convoy” would be familiar to the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikers, who brought the mid-western city to a grinding halt, before the strike was forcibly ended following the shooting of unarmed strikers (an event known as “bloody Friday”), and the imposition of martial law.

But the left, both nationally and globally, are emphatically not backing the truckers. Indeed according to a public statement:

“The Teamsters Union denounces the ongoing Freedom Convoy protest at the Canadian border that continues to hurt workers and negatively impact our economy. The livelihood of working Americans and Canadians in the automotive, agricultural and manufacturing sectors is threatened by this blockade.

“Our economy is growing under the Biden Administration, and this disruption in international trade threatens to derail the gains we have made. Our members are some of the hardest workers in the country and are being prevented from doing their jobs. The Teamsters call on the organizers of this action to end this protest and instead, engage in meaningful political discourse with the Canadian government to find a solution.”

A Jacobin article joined the chorus of condemnation in North American media, accusing the truckers of being a racist, libertarian fringe that cared nothing about the labour issues facing fellow truckers.

Being left wing today is no longer a matter of socialism and class politics

But unions too are changing, and their traditional focus on good conditions for all their members has been increasingly pushed aside by other concerns. Union leadership is increasingly concerned with issues of race and sexuality, as these are the causes that now dominate left-wing politics worldwide. It has fallen to the right to question whether it is in union members’ interests to support such causes as de-funding the police, whilst the bourgeois left celebrates the dilution of class politics in unions even as it borrows ever more of the language of revolutionary marxism.

Left wing politics used to be built on correcting class injustice, and creating broad, inclusive coalitions across lines of race and sex to do so. But that logic has flipped, and increasingly class is at best an after-thought in a movement that is about maximising “inclusivity” for its own sake.

If solidarity has broken down on the left, it has also been forgotten on the right. The right once opposed the left’s politics as divisive, balancing the worker’s demands with the interests of the community as a whole, respect for established tradition, the principles of law and order, and the ideal of a national and spiritual community.

There is no question that much of what left wing critics say of the truckers is true. In the days of the 1934 strike where teamsters faced bullets not banks, vital supplies like food were allowed to pass through, and a negotiated settlement was the intended outcome. Organised labour was in fact organised, and understood itself as part of a community which it wished to serve as well as critically confront.

Today’s protesters are individualists and libertarians, their cause mixed up with conspiracy theories, and their demands are for bodily autonomy and de-regulation. But they are no less victims for that fact.

The truckers, like the gillets-jaune in France, find themselves part of an emerging class of poor now left behind by left wing politics. Being left wing today is no longer a matter of socialism and class politics, but of a whiggish devotion to rationalism, technocracy and internationalist moralism. As well as suffering from the general modern malaise of atomisation and the loss of strong communities, there are sections of the population who have found their interests abandoned at the level of national politics.

Risks of infection have quickly become superstitious and polticised terrors

In a cynical double-gesture, such groups are denounced by the left for their alleged racial animus, irrationality and lack of care for the environment, thus retrospectively justifying the indifference to their concerns which has helped produce and foster such attitudes. With racial, covid and ecological policy carried out in a way that heavily disadvantages sections of the white poor and lower middle class, especially in rural areas, it is hardly a surprise that many revolt against the principle as well as the practice of such agendas.

New political tribes are emerging divided upon such lines as region, education and race, and with policies increasingly aimed not merely at implementing an alternative vision of the good, but actually demoralising, disadvantaging or even criminalising their rival tribe. Covid has accelerated this process, giving a pseudo-rational basis to feelings of fear and disgust towards political opponents.

The risk of infection, or fears of new vaccines, might form an at least theoretically logical reason for concern, but they have quickly become superstitious and politicised terrors. With 90 per cent of truckers vaccinated and the disease abroad in the population, there is no real basis for Canadian requirements that truckers be vaccinated. Equally, not wanting to get vaccines has rapidly translated into bizarre conspiracies about the vaccinated posing a risk to the unvaccinated.

The mobilising rationale for these outsized fears are all about new tribal attachments in a rapidly individualising world in which social trust has broken down and traditional institutions are seen with suspicion by both left and right. A loose sense of belonging has come into being, but it is negatively oriented around the fears and resentments of an increasingly manichean culture war.

The “Freedom Convoy” will in time join a long list of half-forgotten battles over identity, but the new form of politics is only going to become more dominant unless we can find a way to rebuild solidarity and a shared devotion to the common good.

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