Couldn’t Happen Here, Eh?

by Mike O’Brien

This was supposed to be a fun and light-hearted post, filled with reflections on nature and shared spaces that had occurred to me while blissfully snowshoeing in an idyllic Canadian winter. Then a convoy of Brownshirts invaded my country’s capital and entrenched themselves in a lawless occupation, demanding the dissolution of our democratically elected government and the repeal of necessary public health measures. I tried to swear off writing about contemporary American politics last year, to safeguard my own happiness and mental health. But now that those American politics have, like the effluvia of an overfull septic tank, seeped and swelled up to my doorstep, I have to write about them again. I am not happy about this.

A primer for those who don’t follow Canadian politics (which is to say, almost everyone): a convoy of truckers and hangers-on (figuratively; hanging on to a truck crossing the Canadian prairies in January requires more commitment than any movement can muster) headed out from Alberta last week, aiming to install themselves in front of Parliament in Ottawa, in order to protest vaccination mandates for truckers entering Canada and the United States. 90% of Canadian truckers are already vaccinated, and most do not support this movement. Even if Canada lifted its vaccine mandate, unvaccinated truckers would still be barred from entering the US. It gets stupider.

The organisers (among them, a founder of an Albertan separatist party, and at least one self-declared white nationalist) released a “memorandum of understanding” demanding that all Covid measures be lifted and that the Governor General (Canada’s nominal and appointed vice-regent) dissolve parliament, presumably to be replaced by a provisional committee of aggrieved truckers. Both of these demands are unconstitutional (in addition to being batshit crazy), the first obviously so, and the second because most public health measures are mandated by provincial and municipal governments with clearly delineated domains of authority.

Since arriving in Ottawa, an estimated 8000 people with a few hundred trucks have illegally blocked roads around Parliament Hill, waved Nazi flags, barged maskless into public buildings, assaulted ambulance medics, urinated and danced the National War Memorial, threatened homeless shelter volunteers, and bombarded Ottawa’s residents with deafening horns day and night, depriving them of sleep. This latter tactic would meet the legal definition of torture were it inflicted on one person rather than thousands. They have also draped their propaganda over a statue of national hero Terry Fox, which is equivalent to putting a MAGA hat on a public statue of Mr. Rogers, a quasi-sacrilegious act the depravity of which is hard to communicate to cultural outsiders. Ottawa police have taken an extremely soft-handed approach thus far, citing concerns of escalation and eliciting criticism that left-wing or First Nations protestors would have been removed swiftly and harshly by now. The Conservative Party of Canada is the only party in Parliament to voice any support for the movement, and has just ousted its leader, allowing the parties of the centre and left to score free goals by deploring the deplorables, while their main electoral rival is cannibalised by its own populist wing. Similar events, now met with counter-protests, are occurring in cities across Canada on the weekend of February 5th, and a blockade has snarled Alberta’s main American border crossing for over a week. A GoFundMe campaign for the protests, topping 10 million dollars, has been frozen and representatives of the company will be summoned to a parliamentary hearing, likely to include some rather pointed references to post-9/11 legislation regarding the funding of terrorist activities. This primer is already out of date, so I’ll abandon any attempt at comprehensiveness and get on with the gabbing.

According to Hobbes, the bond of sovereign and subject depends on a promise of mutual obligation. The subject, compelled by self-preservation to bind herself to a collective protector, swears obedience to the sovereign. The sovereign is bound, by divine command per Hobbes, and by moral duty per secular revisions thereof, to protect its subject as best it can from immediate harm, and from those pernicious forces that will lead to harm if unchecked. Some cases of harm are obvious; a flood flowing towards a valley community, a fire spreading towards a town, or an enemy army marching towards a frontier. Some are less obvious, for myriad reasons; a hostile sect that might take up arms, an economic trend that might compound into a crisis, a pathogen that might be responsible for some as-yet-unexplained rise in disease.

The strength of the sovereign’s claim to its subjects’ loyalty rests on an imperfect measure of how well it performs its duty of protection. The subject is (morally) free to withdraw obedience when the sovereign’s protection is judged to have lapsed. Hobbes believed that, for instance, a subject condemned to death had no duty to acquiesce to the sovereign’s condemnation, because it is contrary to self-preservation, the very basis of their duty of obedience. Not that such natural right will do you any good if you manage to slip loose on your way to the gallows.

It is important, from a philosophical stance, to recognize the conditional nature of Hobbes’ sovereign authority. But from a practical stance, this let’s-make-a-deal quality only matters when competing offers are available. This is the mistake that “sovereign citizens” and other such political solipsists make when declaring themselves free from subjection (besides the mistake of cobbling together a theory of rights from Facebook quotes). You can’t just reject a sovereign’s authority and retreat to liberty. You are either under an authority, or you are in a state of nature. And if you think a state of nature is preferable to paying taxes and registering your trucks and guns, then you have no idea what a state of nature means. I have belaboured this point before, but there’s a lot of work to be done recovering Hobbes’ most famous phrase from excruciating misrepresentation.

A state of nature is not pre-human, or pre-social, or even pre-civilizational. Not necessarily, anyway, and arguably not even most of the time. It need not be complete chaos, with marauders roving about killing and robbing at will. For a state of nature to obtain, (most) people need only doubt that they are protected by a collective bond. The well-grounded fear that your neighbour could, with impunity, attack your person and your property is the psychological and sociological core of such a state. It is anarchy, unbuffered by the magical thinking and ameliorative anthropology that anarchists employ to deny the disastrous consequences of their utopias.

It is quite a thing to switch sovereigns. It doesn’t happen during normal transfers of power. In Canada, our head of state is essentially a rubber stamp nominally representing another country’s monarch. In normal times, this may be a rather good idea, removing the country’s supreme political authority from the electoral fray. But it introduces a certain degree of make-believe; the Prime Minister is not the head of state, but since the head of state wields virtually no power of decision, the duties of sovereignty lay on the Prime Minister’s shoulders.

In abnormal times, when things like mortality rates and the shape of borders become more important (to most people) than prescribed divisions of political responsibility, the nested structure of duties at federal, regional and municipals can be an impediment to exercising duties of protection. In Canada and in the United States, some provinces and states are run by particularly bad leaders who handle complex affairs (or indeed any affair that requires facts to be honoured above partisan fealty) rather badly. Their failures to protect their subjects from harm is counted in hundreds of thousands of deaths per year. Federal attempts to impose, or municipal attempts to seize, the right of decision which legally belongs to these mid-level governments could be justified to subjects as a fair counter-offer to those provinces’ and states’ deficient obedience-for-protection deals.

Once the state’s monopoly on protection rackets is called into question, anyone can tender their own proposals to replace it. For such offers to be credible, the existing arrangement must be in awful disrepair, or the powers entrusted with its enforcement fatally weakened. This occurs in civil wars, when enough of the population signal a willingness to collectively abandon a shared or imposed sovereign, and transfer their obedience to an identified alternative. It can also occur when an invading power is welcomed, if not as liberators, then at least as preferable dominators. Such “beneficent” conquests are often the foundation of multi-national empires under history’s most well-regarded emperors, if the victors’ histories are to be believed.

Inflated by zeal and vanity, many rebels fancy themselves the heirs of history’s most virtuous and successful revolutionaries, despite lacking their heroes’ aptitude, justness, or breadth of support. Social media has made such misjudgements more common, as the algorithms conspire to exclude dissenting facts and opinions from people’s advertisement-plastered bubbles, permitting the most far-flung fringe to imagine itself the tribune of the people. (I remind the reader that Facebook is a blight to civil society, a clear and present danger to democracy, and a handmaiden to resurgent fascism, and that anyone of good conscience should neither use it nor encourage anyone else to use it, if possible. Instagram is less superficially toxic, but as a property of Facebook it is equally culpable for profiting from the dismantling of civilization). Sometimes a rebellion is just an exploratory exercise, with placeholder demands that are not expected to be satisfied, designed to provoke a revealing reaction.

I believe this latter scenario is what is happening with the anti-mandate occupations taking hold in Canada. Their demands are undemocratic, unconstitutional, scientifically unsupportable and morally repugnant. No sane or lukewarmly intelligent person could expect them to be satisfied. But the goals they are furthering are not the stated ones, nor indeed any goals that most of them might pursue in self-interest. This is an expeditionary campaign launched by the economic and political organs of American fascism, which have established a beachhead on the Canadian prairies, and its purpose is to probe Canadian democracy for weaknesses. Their speech is a pantomime of political participation, akin to the chants at a pro-wrestling match (I don’t hate pro-wrestling, but it is a poor model of governance). Indeed, the noxious honking of horns is the true voice of this movement, devoid of semantic content or references to fact, serving only to take the space of public life by force and hold it hostage. This hostage-taking has been successful in Ottawa, and the experiment has delivered its first result: the reaction of the state’s security apparatuses are consistent with the hypothesis that fascist aggression will be tolerated in Canada. Perhaps not indefinitely, but long enough to permit the first wave of partisans to be entrenched and reinforced, making their removal ever more dangerous.

The next questions to be answered in this experiment are, firstly, whether any concessions can be gained by negotiating an end to the siege, and secondly, whether this experiment can be repeated with modifications. I am not always a fan of Trudeau’s instincts, but his refusal to negotiate with these barbarians is the only sane approach. To do otherwise would announce to the whole country, and to the world (replete with sharp-elbowed actors envious of our economic and strategic assets) that anyone can use force and intimidation to bypass our constitutional democracy. Trudeau the Younger is burdened (or buoyed, depending on who you ask) by his father’s legacy for unapologetic action, invoking the War Measures Act and sending the army into Quebec to quell a spate of separatist terrorism, and imposing a national energy management program on the oil-rich prairie provinces. (The province of Alberta, whence this convoy began, still blames this latter decision for its imagined penury, instead of, say, its failure to charge fair drilling royalties during oil booms, or to secure deposits to fund the remediation of abandoned energy projects, or to implement a sales tax, or to hedge against a volatile commodity market.)

Understandably, Trudeau does not want to give ammunition to his political enemies by wielding too strong a fist in dealing with his opponents. But his enemies will find, or invent, evidence of imagined totalitarianism regardless of what he does or fails to do, and most Canadians want him to deal harshly with this movement. At a certain point, his fear of proving his critics right must cede to his responsibility to be the right leader for the times. Once someone declares you their enemy (as this movement has of him, though he has not yet declared this of them), avoiding their scorn is of no value. The sharpest criticism of the siege’s soft welcome belongs to the Ottawa police force, who are responsible for managing the situation themselves, or for requesting that the national police force assist them. The provincial premier, a sometimes-Trumpish but mostly just obnoxious and stupid figure, is responsible for requesting military assistance from the federal government, so he is next in line for criticism. The people of Ottawa have been left to endure this siege with scant protection from those who hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, but their forbearance is not inexhaustible. They withhold their force because they are still playing by the rules of the game, which state that all citizens follow the law and leave the preservation of order to the proper authorities. A society where rule-followers are made to feel like suckers is in dire straits. To use the language of game theory, a cooperation strategy is unstable when defectors are not punished or excluded. In rejecting the very idea of being mandated to do anything they do not wish to do, these rebels are defecting from the cooperation game of lawful democracy.

It is quite correct to worry that extraordinary health measures impinge on personal freedoms, and that governments may take this opportunity to permanently ratchet up their control of their citizens. But this is not a new problem. Any government that is powerful enough to effect good is powerful enough to effect evil, and the risk of mis-governance (and of mal-governance) is the non-negotiable price to be paid for exiting anarchy. It is always trivially true that we are on the road to tyranny, but the degree of incline and coefficient of friction on the “slippery slopes” that we inhabit are granular questions, suited to a socio-politico-historical physics, and not to the axiomatic geometry of simpleton ideologies. I don’t believe in slippery slopes myself; they are a lazy model for people who can’t be bothered to calculate the interplay of discrete forces. Populist calls for “fairness” and “neutrality” (more honestly, calls for the suspension of judgement), are similarly aimed at obscuring the interplay of discrete forces, and are often advanced by those who know that a fair and neutral assessment of the facts would result in an unequivocal condemnation of their cause.

American democracy probably has a 45% chance of surviving the next two years. The Republicans’ decades of voter suppression have set them up to win back the House and the Senate, and subsequently appoint a Republican president regardless of the popular or electoral college votes. They almost succeeded in doing this after the 2020 election, falling a few votes short. Canada, inundated with American media for decades and now even more riven by targeted social media, is vulnerable to the same rabble-rousing attacks on its own democracy. When the forces of order, like so many police forces in Jim Crow and Trumpist America (and in colonialist and capitalist Canada), stand idle and let the Brownshirts rampage with impunity, they act like a one-way valve, permitting violence to flow from right to left, but brutally supressing any violence flowing the other way. When the fascists know to expect such a reaction, the violation of public order and incitement of violence becomes a reliable and safe strategy by which to enlarge their power. It worked in Italy. It worked in Germany. It worked in Spain and kept working there for 36 years. “It can’t happen here” used to be something said of United States. Such illusions used to be rebutted by logic and analogy. But now they can be refuted by mere ostention.

I would like to be able to say “it can’t happen here” of my own country, and to believe it. Whether I can continue to do so depends on how the Canadian people, and their elected officials, react to this licensed replica of American insurrection. If a single centimetre of ground is ceded to these terrorists, we can start counting down the days until we become mere vassals of American despotism. If America cannot cure its own diseases, we will likely only be able to forestall such a fate even if we manage to right our own ship. But I’d rather have my country write its final chapter as a nuisance to fascism’s most powerful iteration, rather than as a continental partner to it.

Goddamnit, I wanted to write about snowshoeing.