The division between the elites of the virtual world and the populists of the practical world.
A great and mostly unknown prophet of our time is Michael Young, whose book “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, published in 1958, both coined the term in its title and foretold, in his fictional vision of the 21st century, the misfortune of meritocracy. destination: not the serene reign of the deserving and talented, but a society where a ruling class selected for intelligence but defined by arrogance and insularity faces a boiling populism whose grievances change but whose anger against the new class order is a constant.
This year, it’s Canada’s turn to live in Young’s somewhat dystopian storyline, set in the 2030s but here ahead of schedule. On one side of the trucker protests, you have Justin Trudeau, a condensed symbol of meritocracy blending into aristocracy – with degrees from two of Canada’s top three universities, but also the pedigree of being the son of Pierre Trudeau – and behind him a Canadian establishment that has followed public health advice on COVID more closely than the United States, imposing stricter restrictions throughout the pandemic.
Then, on the other side, you have the truckers and their allies: a complex mix of forces in the style of the French yellow vests, organized in part by the right but including all sorts of characters and ideas, defined by an exhaustion pandemic restrictions and a strong connection to the physical part of the economy – the part that relies on strength and skill, not just manipulating words and symbols on a screen.
This latter divide was not precisely anticipated in Young’s book, writing as he did before the real rise of the computer, but it ended up being a key expression of the meritocracy-populist divide. To quote pseudonymous writer NS Lyons, the trucker protests have deepened the divide between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘practical’ – that is, people whose working lives are increasingly lived in the field. of the “digital and the abstract”, and people who work in the “mundane physical reality” on which the virtual society still depends.
This division is not always that of money. Many practitioners do very well, while many virtuosos earn, say, graduate student stipends or average think tank salaries. But the class divide between the two categories is clear, as is the gap between their respective influence on the central nodes of Western power. And their simmering conflict is more likely to erupt when plans devised by meritocrats create problems in the physical dimension – whether it’s a gasoline tax hike devised by French technocrats triggering protests among French drivers, or simply from accumulated exhaustion with COVID restrictions among Canadians working in the real world rather than on Zoom.
Moreover, as Lyons points out, in the Canadian confrontation, each side used the weapons appropriate to its position. Truckers have leveraged the hulking presence of their trucks and the sympathy of other practices – from tow truck drivers to cops – to attack the physical underpinnings of the capital’s economy. Meanwhile, the counter-strike, though eventually evolving into a real physical pullout, was surprisingly virtual: first a public relations blitz to encourage friendly media to label all truckers as racists, anti-Semites and Trump supporters; then the convenient hacking and “doxxing” of convoy donors; then an invocation of the Emergencies Act, which allows the government to attack protesters via the digital realm, freezing bank accounts and even cryptocurrency funds linked to the protests.
Since politics exists to organize fears, a major question for people caught between these two camps is: what kind of power seems most frightening? The power to shut down the heart of a major city, perhaps even with the sympathy of some police officers, or the power over money and information that the Trudeau government relies on in its response? The specter of an insurrection or the specter of a digital police state? A revolt of discontented circles or a revolt of the elites?
At the moment, judging by Canadian polls, people are unhappy with Trudeau but seem to fear the disruptions and shutdowns more than the government’s response. A similar preference for a hated elite over a chaotic, disreputable opposition explains why Joe Biden is president rather than Donald Trump and why Emmanuel Macron could still be re-elected in France.
But at the same time, truckers have already won a tacit victory in moving away from vaccine passport systems in Ontario and Quebec – which, like the ongoing movement against public health restrictions in the United States, suggests the fluidity of these conflicts. And the conflicts are also more complex, inevitably, than any binary can capture: the resilience of reality creates fissures within meritocracy (as lately between parents and education bureaucrats, for example ), while the populist side has its own virtual dream palaces (the world of QAnon and related conspiracies isn’t exactly a practical dimension).
Yet once you recognize the divisions prophesied by Young, you see them in one form or another as a new class war that constantly raises the old question: Which side are you on?
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.