A great and mostly unknown prophet of our time is Michael Young, whose book “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” published way back in 1958, both coined the term in its title and predicted, in its fictional vision of the 21st century, meritocracy’s unhappy destination: not the serene rule of the deserving and talented, but a society where a ruling class selected for intelligence but defined by arrogance and insularity faces a roiling populism whose grievances shift but whose anger at the new class order is a constant.
This year it’s Canada’s turn to live inside Young’s somewhat dystopian scenario, 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 blurring into aristocracy — with degrees from two of Canada’s three best universities but also the pedigree of being Pierre Trudeau’s son — and behind him a Canadian establishment that has followed public health advice on COVID more closely than the United States, imposing more stringent 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 France’s gilets jaunes, organized in part by right-wingers but inclusive of all kinds of characters and ideas, defined by an exhaustion with pandemic restrictions and a strong connection to the physical portion of the economy — the part that relies on brawn and savvy, not just the manipulation of words and symbols on a screen.
This last division was not precisely anticipated in Young’s book, writing as he did before the true rise of the computer, but it has ended up being a key expression of the meritocracy-populist divide. To quote the pseudonymous writer N.S. Lyons, the trucker protests have sharpened a division between “Virtuals” and “Practicals” — meaning the people whose professional lives are lived increasingly in the realm of the “digital and the abstract,” and the people who work in the “mundane physical reality” upon which the virtual society still depends.
This division is not always one of money. Plenty of Practicals do very well for themselves, while plenty of Virtuals scrape along on, say, graduate student stipends or middling think tank salaries. But the class divide between the two categories is clear, and so is the gap between their respective influence over the central nodes of Western power. And their simmering conflict is most likely to flare up when plans devised by meritocrats create problems in the physical dimension — whether it’s a gasoline tax increase devised by French technocrats touching off protests among French drivers, or just an accumulating exhaustion with COVID restrictions among Canadians who work in the real world rather than on Zoom.
Moreover, as Lyons points out, in the Canadian clash, each side has used the weapons appropriate to its position. The truckers have leveraged the imposing presence of their trucks and the sympathy of other Practicals — from tow truck drivers to cops — to attack the physical underpinnings of the capital’s economy. Meanwhile, the counterstrike, while it’s finally evolved to actual physical removal, has been strikingly virtual: first a PR blitz to encourage friendly media to brand all the truckers as racists and antisemites and Trump supporters; then the convenient hacking and “doxxing” of donors to the convoy; and then an invocation of the Emergencies Act, which lets the government attack the protesters via the digital realm, freezing bank accounts and even cryptocurrency funds connected to the protests.
Since politics exists to organize fears, a major question for people caught between these two camps is, which kind of power seems more frightening? The power to shut down the heart of a major city, perhaps even with the sympathy of some of the police, or the power over money and information that the Trudeau government is relying upon in its response? The specter of an insurrection or the specter of a digital police state? A revolt of the disaffected middle or a revolt of the elites?
At the moment, judging by the Canadian polls, people are unhappy with Trudeau but seem to fear the disruptions and shutdowns more than the government response. A similar preference for a disliked elite over a chaotic and disreputable opposition is why Joe Biden is president rather than Donald Trump and why Emmanuel Macron may yet be reelected in France.
But at the same time, the truckers have already won a tacit victory in the move away from vaccine passport systems in Ontario and Quebec — which, like the ongoing swing 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 inside the meritocracy (as lately between parents and educational bureaucrats, say), while the populist side has its own virtual dream palaces (the world of QAnon and related conspiracies is not exactly a practical dimension).
Still, once you recognize the divisions that Young prophesied, you see them in some form all over as a novel class war that constantly raises the old question: Which side are you on?
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.