On January 6, 2021, just over 2,000 working-class Americans took to the United States Capitol to protest. Convinced that Donald Trump was still the President, people who called themselves patriots occupied the Capitol Building for several hours. Five people died. No coherent political demands were made, apart from attempting to overturn an election. The world continued to function as it always had.
This year, a similar pseudo-revolutionary movement has swept across Canada: Freedom Convoy 2022. Right-wing agitators fancy themselves actual revolutionaries. Left-wing critics denounce the movement’s constituents as reactionaries, white supremacists bent on bringing us back to an earlier place and time. Like the activists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, supporters of the Freedom Convoy aren’t revolutionaries: they’re reformers.
The convoy wields Canadian, Confederate, and fascist flags for a reason: their objective is not to challenge state power, nor establish a new order, but to return to an old way.
The convoy does not seek to end the oppressions faced by Indigenous peoples, working people, racialized peoples, and queer peoples. Instead, the convoy seeks to accelerate such oppression.
Journalists and researchers have tied the movement and its organizers to the far-right. On January 27, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network denounced the convoy as a vehicle for the far-right. The convoy’s participants stand shoulder to shoulder with several strands of the fascist fringe: Holocaust deniers; proponents of the great replacement theory, a pseudo-scientific doctrine contending that a “flood” of immigrants will effectively ruin the purity of the white race; and neo-Nazi accelerationists, who argue in favour of race war and the murder of racial minorities
Pat King, the movement’s loudest proponent and a former campaigner for WEXIT, a movement seeking Albertan separatism, is implicated in a 2021 attack on anti-racist activists in Red Deer, Alberta.
Another of the convoy’s supporters, a group known as Diagolon, is an accelerationist movement that seeks to incite a race war within Canada and the United States. Diagolon’s motto? “Gun or rope.”
All of this is horrific stuff, and so it seems fitting that swastikas and Confederate flags flew at the convoy in Ottawa between January 29 and January 30.
Where, one might ask, has reason gone?
Part of the issue is that the world doesn’t seem to make sense in quite the same way that it might once have. A global pandemic and the threat of ecological collapse is upending the post-War consensus. The stage set has collapsed, and a certain weariness seems to have overtaken the world.
Old ways of knowing have become untenable, and working people in North America have begun to tie themselves and their worldviews not to eternal, transcendent notions of truth, progress, and social class, but to the commodities that they consume.
Today, people attach their identities to mass-produced cultural products. People tend to see themselves as loose amalgamations of their favourite television programs, books, movies, and podcasts. Yet, the pandemic has temporarily abolished the tempering presence of commodity consumption in the lives of most working-class people. The everyday rhythms of a working life, easily followed most of the time, have begun to feel alien.
The far-right, with their facile analyses of white supremacy, sexual conservatism, and anti-intellectualism, has sought to fill a void the left has not yet attempted to fill. The twenty-first century Canadian left is defined by its inability to question the foundational elements of neoliberal capitalism, and its refusal (or inability) to unify people behind banners of class and radical change.
The absence of a strong left in Canadian politics is relatively new. In fact, Canada has a long and vibrant history of left radical action from Indigenous and settler communities.
The land to which settlers gave the name Canada first belonged to a diverse range of peoples and nations currently referred to under the umbrella term of “Indigenous.” Indigenous societies—in their modes of governance, forms of property, and propensity for egalitarian rather than hierarchical gender relations—were anti-hierarchical in ways that most forms of popular media rarely give them credit. Only upon contact were Indigenous societies subject to the tenets of European discipline. Imprisonment as a form of punishment was introduced as a matter of policy, and a politics based on hierarchy, rather than mutually-affirmed consent, was thrust upon Indigenous societies as a means of developing modern capitalism.
The treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada has been horrific. There are 60 Indigenous communities subjected to long-term drinking water advisories. When compared to the general population, Indigenous people face far higher rates of diabetes, substance abuse, and mental health issues, and have significantly lower life expectancies. These issues are structural and cannot be separated from histories of settler colonialism and its resistance.
In settler communities, left alternatives existed for much of the twentieth century. They were enacted, almost without exception, by a working class varied in its racial, gender, and sexual makeup. In the summer of 1919, for example, some 30,000 working-class Canadians, among them women, children, and Eastern European migrants, took to the streets of Winnipeg. They halted all work under the supervision of bosses and replaced it instead with radical possibility. Resources were redistributed according to need rather than private ownership. Winnipeg 1919 still haunts the very foundations of Canadian liberalism.
The politics behind the Freedom Convoy are of a decidedly different nature. Yet, by fusing the organizational tactics of collective action with the political ideology of conservative individualism, the convoy has successfully cloaked itself in an aesthetics of radical change even as it asks for nothing less than the continuation of capitalist exploitation and white supremacy.
Today, collective action, human organization, and indeed actionable politics at all have become located in a far-right whose fervour for a nebulously defined freedom—perhaps the ultimate floating signifier—has coincided with their simultaneous renunciation of individual rights. Right-wing individualism has coalesced with forms of organizing that more and more resemble the collectivist type. Autonomy has been socialized; yet the economy remains individualized. These political movements, most markedly the Freedom Convoy, now resemble the language, strategy and values of twentieth-century fascism.
To mix metaphors, home-brewed Canadian fascism is, in a sense, the sourdough starter of January 2022. It is a noxious brew, a form of hardline conservatism that naturalizes hierarchy, and provides meaning in a world hellbent on ridding popular politics of any reference to class as a social category.
The convoy is a fascist movement built upon the yearning of populism; it wields the cruel whip of Western chauvinism; it speaks with the voice of a divided working class, wrapped in the conspiracy theory and practice of right-wing acceleration.
Antonio Gramsci, a radical Italian philosopher, once wrote of the events of the First World War then unfolding in Europe. Gramsci noted: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”
Gramsci’s monsters have not disappeared—they have merely been reborn.
Fascism, as both ideology and practice, is a symptom of a twenty-first century condition that refuses to acknowledge the necessity of an internationalist, anti-racist, queer, feminist, working class-based politics.
To quote Rosa Luxemburg, a radical German thinker, we, as a species, have been presented with two options: “Socialism or barbarism.” The Freedom Convoy has chosen the latter. The Canadian left needs to choose the former—an entire world of possible futures hangs in the balance.
Harrison Dressler is the current Arts and Culture editor at The Brunswickan, an editor for the Atlantic Student Research Journal (ASRJ), and a researcher for the UNB Arts Centre’s Rediscovering the Roots of Black New Brunswickers project.
A previous version of this article first appeared in The Brunswickan, Canada’s oldest official student publication.