There’s no solidarity in the ‘sovereign citizen’ protests now taking off around the world, only incoherent rage.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 16th February 2022
When a group in black fatigues called Alpha Men Assemble began practising paramilitary manoeuvres in a park in Staffordshireat the beginning of this year, it looked pretty threatening. These men, we were warned, were about to launch an insurrection against vaccines and in favour of “the sovereign citizen”. Since then, silence. It wouldn’t be surprising if the group had dispersed: a society of self-proclaimed alphas is bound to fall apart.
This was just one example of the incoherent protests now sweeping rich, English-speaking nations. Others include the truck blockade in Ottawa and its duplicates in Australia, New Zealand and the US, and the angry men outside the British parliament, waiting to pounce on passing politicians. By incoherent protest, I mean gatherings whose aims are simultaneously petty and grandiose. Their immediate objectives are small and often risible, attacking such minor inconveniences as vaccine requirements and face masks. The underlying aims are open-ended, massive and impossible to fulfil. Not just politically impossible, but mathematically impossible. Listening to these men (and most of them are men), it seems that every one of them wants to be king.
The “sovereign citizen” theory is a powerful current running through these movements. Its adherents insist that they stand above the law. Some of them refuse to buy vehicle licences, or pay taxes or fines. They believe they are exempt from public health measures, such as lockdowns and vaccine passes.
In other words, they arrogate to themselves sovereign powers that not even the monarch enjoys. They produce elaborate pseudo-legal documents to justify these claims. The “memorandum of understanding” published by two of the leading organisers of the Ottawa blockade, which makes impossible legal demands of the government, looks like a classic of the genre. It was supposedlysigned by 320,000 people before the organisers withdrew it.
What explains the appeal of this movement? Such claims of individual sovereignty arose in the 1970s with an antisemitic, racist agitation called Posse Comitatus. They appear to surge in hard times. Some people believe they can annul their debts or tax arrears by renouncing their citizenship. But I suspect it’s about more than money. The promise of capitalism is that one day we will all be alphas – just not yet. It is a formula for frustration and humiliation. The less equal the economic system becomes, the wider the gap between the promise and its fulfilment yawns. Humiliation, as Pankaj Mishra argued in his excellent book Age of Anger, is the motor of extremism. Noisy assertions of sovereignty look like an obvious attempt to overcome humiliation.
There was a time, in the rich nations, when it seemed as if we could all triumph. From the second world war until the late 1970s, general prosperity rose steadily. The top 1% captured a decreasing proportion of total income. But then, in the US, the UK, Canada, Ireland and Australia, the curve suddenly turned, and the 1% began to grab an ever greater share. The trend has continued to this day, sustained by the neoliberal doctrines that were first imposed in the rich world by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
The ultra-rich have gained most: since the beginning of the pandemic, the world’s 10 richest men have doubled their wealth, while 163 million people have been pushed below the poverty line. Wages for many people in the Anglosphere have stagnated, but the costs of living, especially housing, have soared.
But even during the “glory years” (1945 to 1975) the universal triumph capitalism promised was an illusion. The general rise of prosperity in rich nations was financed, in part, by poor ones. Decolonisation was resisted by the rich world with extreme violence and oppression, then partly reversed through coups and assassinations (such as the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, the crushing of Jacobo Árbenz’s government in Guatemala in 1954, the murder of Patrice Lumumba in Congo in 1961, Suharto’s coup in Indonesia in 1967 and Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile in 1973). Today, such extreme measures are seldom required, as the transfer of wealth is secured by other means. The rich world’s wealth continues in large part to rely on the exploitation of black and brown people.
Incoherent protest movements tend to be infested with racism and white supremacy. Some of the key organisers of the Ottawa action are reported tohave a grisly history of racist statements, and some of the protesters have flown swastikas and Confederate flags. When black and brown people assume positions of power and authority, and appear more alpha than those who expected tribute from them, this is perceived as an intolerable reversal. The current wave of incoherent protest began in the US with the reaction against Barack Obama’s government, and soon evolved, with the encouragement of Donald Trump and others, into undisguised white supremacism.
Some of the Ottawa organisers also have a history of attacks on trade unions. The “independence” they demand means freedom from the decencies owed to other people, freedom from the obligations of civic life. In pursuing these selfish freedoms, they reinforce the neoliberal policies – such as the crushing of organised labour – that helped cause the impoverishment and insecurity suffered by those they claim to represent.
Canadian truckers, for example, especially immigrant workers, now suffer from wage theft, unsafe conditions and other brutal forms of exploitation, caused in part by a loss of collective bargaining power. But the protest organisers seem uninterested. Sovereignty and solidarity are not compatible.