Two lessons from the Freedom Convoy protest
It's fun to laugh at, but the right's latest astroturfed publicity stunt actually has a few important lessons for socialists.
It’s easy to laugh off Ottowa’s antigovernment Freedom Convoy protests as a ridiculous publicity stunt by a fringe minority since that, well, is exactly what it is. An abysmal 2% of the truckers predicted to participate actually showed up, and polling released this week shows that only 22% of Ottowans support them.
Nevertheless, watching this play out, I’ve seen two issues emerge that leftists would probably do well to reflect on.
1: What do we actually mean when we talk about astroturfing?
When people hear the term “astroturfing” what usually comes to mind is something quite narrow, like “paying actors and otherwise disinterested recruits to protest.” Historically this is precisely what a lot of astroturfing actually was, so it’s understandable that people would think that.
But today, that’s just now how astroturfing usually works. And the FC has been a good illustration of this — and of how the rich actually use their wealth to market their agenda as popular. In this case, the protesters themselves seem to be quite sincere in their libertarianism, and the funding does seem to come from a significant number of small donors. But the rich have played two crucial roles:
First, they have relentlessly promoted the protest through their corporate media channels. You can always find someone who believes just about anything online; but of course, only certain people get the kind of amplification through corporate outlets that guarantees you’ll have an impact.
This same media apparatus has also promoted crowdfunding campaigns associated with the FC, guaranteeing that it would receive many more donations than it would have otherwise. At least some of this money has, in turn, gone to cover the expenses of protesters. So instead of directly writing protesters $200 checks that they can spend on anything, even as they spend $200 on protesting, rich people have funded a media / donor machine which guarantees that protesters will still get this money, but that it will go directly to expenses. It’s a legal scheme for laundering dark money.
Generally, leftists need to pivot their understanding of propaganda away from one that revolves around censorship and overt lying, and towards one that revolves around the techniques of flooding and amplification. The rich don’t need to silence you. All they need to do is ignore you, and to give powerful megaphones to the people who disagree with you. Do that, and you can conjure up a “populist” movement for anything you like; more about this here.
2: Is this protest doing anything right?
It depends on how you define success. If it means “swaying public opinion” then the answer is pretty clearly “no” — as the poll mentions above alludes to, the FC has been wildly unpopular so far. As far as consolidating support goes, I think the answer is probably yes: if you are looking for excuses to oppose government action against Covid, the FC gives you a good way to pretend that you are part of some authentic blue collar working class populist movement of truckers.
And if it “success” means “challenging some genuinely powerful people and institutions,” then I think the answer is unequivocally yes — though only because of one small aspect of the protest.
I’m talking about the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge between the United States and Canada. This has generated some pretty bad publicity for the protesters so far — for example from this video of truck drivers who said they were being “held hostage” and prevented from going home because the bridge was blocked. But the protesters have also accomplished something extremely significant: they have shut down a Ford engine plant in Ontario.
Socialists have long recognized that the most serious and consequential labor actions you can do in the contemporary United States would focus on a few key logistical supply chains — at least academically. In practice, however, socialist protests continue to mostly revolve around the 60’s model of marches and rallies in major cities. Even more aggressive actions, like rioting, are often extremely unfocused and undisciplined — often in part because they are completely spontaneous. In consequence, powerful actors often regard these actions as either easily controlled opposition or as nuisances; rarely do they look at modern protests as threats.
None of this is to say that the FC is “challenging power” in the sense of challenging the bourgeoisie as a class. They are actors in an inter-class conflict among the bourgeoisie, in this case pitting energy interests against certain parts of the auto industry (EG Ford).
Nevertheless, socialists should note how even this partial logistical disruption has been enough to provoke a serious response from the authorities. In the US, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer complains that “The blockade is having a significant impact…it’s hitting paychecks and production lines. That is unacceptable.” In Canada, Windsor mayor Drew Dilkens says that “Our community will not tolerate this situation for long. Every hour this protest continues, our community hurts.”
When I made this point earlier today, some socialists responded that leftists would have been assaulted and arrested long ago if they tried to get away with blockading the Windsor Bridge. This is probably true. But one reason it’s true, I would argue, is that leftists have trained Americans to understand a protest as something that isn’t supposed to cause anyone any problems. This means that when we gather at a pre-reserved spot on the National Mall to hold up some signs, the public thinks that cops are already showing admirable tolerance and restraint by refusing to arrest us. And it also means that when we protest any other way, people can tell themselves that this was an unusual protest that warranted an unusual response.
I suspect that normalizing this protest would encourage the public to adjust its ideas about what protesting actually is — and would force them to decide, in cases of violent repression, whether they actually support a right to protest or not. Regardless, if you think that cop sympathy for reactionary politics means that they’ll stay their hands against the Window Bridge blockade forever, just watch what happens as the economic toll continues to mount. In the end, even the cops are no match for the power of capital.
This is why Trump’s attack on Lafayette Square protesters provoked such outrage: it was an attack on “the good kind” of protesters who stick to designated protesting areas and “legitimate” protesting activities, like chanting and holding signs. Note how much of the coverage of this incident makes a point of reminding us that the protesters were not in violation of DC’s 7pm curfew. Would it have been acceptable to fire tear gas at 7:01 instead of 6:59?