The COVID Class War: The Obedient Online Educated vs. The IRL Resistance | Opinion

A new class conflict is emerging across the world. You can see its face in the mass protests over COVID-19 restrictions from Paris, Berlin and London to southern California and Melbourne. The protestors are often cast as a death cult of ignorant rubes, but they are exposing a new class conflict that's pitting two increasingly irreconcilable populations against each other: those who wish to obey and those who refuse restraints.

To be sure, a serious public hazard like Covid-19 requires that steps be taken to protect the vulnerable and develop vaccines and treatments. Resisting a jab, as all too many Americans have done, does suggest that there is no vaccine for stupidity, as one writer put it.

But at the same time, the attempt to achieve total safety—notably in places like Australia and parts of North America—has expressed itself in a highly authoritarian approach that even to some on the Left seems more about social control than just an emergency response.

Lockdowns in particular have sparked an incipient civil war between rival classes, not just in the U.S. but across Europe. "There are people who can work in the virtual world, which tells them how to act and think, and they can stay safe," Laure Mandeville-Tostain of the Paris-based Le Figaro noted astutely. "Then there are those who object to the rules—people who have to go to work and see this as another way in which the elite is telling them how to live."

The division Mandeville-Tostain lays out—between an online obedient class and a real world resistance—exists all over the world, from the U.S. to China. And though the obedient class have good jobs, many of them constitute what the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently called "lost generation," given how little financial stability they have. As a result, this generation is embracing a circumscribed, digitized reality and is as a result highly amenable to suggestion and monitoring.

Every country has its name for this generation. In America, they are called millennials and Generation Z. In Japan, they are known as shinjinrui, the pioneers of "a new sort of high quality, low energy, low growth existence," as journalist David Pilling put it. Apparently they don't need much energy; almost one third of Japanese adults entering their thirties have never had sex. Similar patterns can be seen across the West and even in China, as young people are increasingly giving up on marriage, family and even starting a business.

Often eschewing physical ties for the safety of digital connections, this generation's sense of reality is all too often shaped by media, which seem most concerned with whipping their audiences into an emotional frenzy by alarming rather than informing them.

And you can see this effect in the way Americans think about the pandemic: A Gallup study found that Americans are "deeply misinformed about the severity of the virus for the average infected person" and that we wildly overestimate the likelihood of hospitalization. In response, the authority of organizations like the CDC is often blindly accepted as something emanating from Moses at Sinai, despite the often changing edicts and general incoherence.

covid protest
Protesters hold placards as they march as part of a demonstration against the vaccination certificate and the requirement to wear masks amid the Covid pandemic on Seapoint Promenade in Cape Town, on October 2, 2021. - More than 1.000 people took part in the protest. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a few days before a new standardised Covid vaccination certificate, which could ease travel and help access events that require proof of innoculation. RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images

Of course, it's not just when it comes to COVID-19 that this generation endorses control over freedom. The notion of imposing authoritarian controls over speech has particular purchase among the young and college educated. In other words, as Mandeville argues, the chasm between the obedient and the non-compliant has much of its basis in class.

For example, when it came to lockdowns, people who could work remotely did very well; key sectors like finance and technology actually fattened themselves up to gargantuan size during the pandemic. Homeowners and investors saw their property values soar as people fled cities and sought more space.

By contrast, the traditional middle and working class has fared poorly. The Harvard Business Review suggests that many face "an existential threat " and some project that one third of U.S. small businesses, who employ nearly 50 percent of all American citizens, could ultimately shut down for good, including nearly half of all Black owned businesses. Overall, as many as half of all restaurants could end up not being able to pay their rent.

This has had a disproportionate impact on low wage service workers employed at these places. In the first year of the pandemic, almost 40 percent of Americans making less than $40,000 a year lost their jobs. Salaried workers were laid off at half the rate of hourly workers. The unemployment rate for Americans without a high school diploma skyrocketed, from 6.8 percent to 21.2 percent; meanwhile, for college graduates, it rose from 2.5 percent to just 8.4 percent.

So it's not surprising that many who own and work at struggling businesses resist what the New York Times has called "a new absolutist health fad" that includes sometimes dubious restrictions on outside activities, or requiring masks in uncrowded, open areas or elementary schools. In truly lunatic locales like Oregon, the pandemic may never end; the state now considers making mask mandates permanent.

And while, the theoretically laudable goal of what one writer calls "zero risk" may work well for the obedient class, for millions, they have meant displacement and a return to poverty.

Much of this can be traced to knuckle-dragging, bigoted and generally just stupid Trumpistas, as suggested in the media, and perhaps more positively, our traditional emphasis on individualism. More recently, however, new vaccine mandates have spurred protests among traditional progressive allies like labor unions, including airline and hospital personnel, and even groups like Black Lives Matter.

It's not all bad news: The pandemic has altered society in ways that offer promise, like with the rise of dispersed work and a greater emphasis on public health. But it might also drive a descent into governmental autocracy. In Australia, the move for "zero-Covid" has taken on the character of house arrest.

We need a focused, open discussion about strategies like long-term lockdowns, natural immunity and even where the virus came from. These are not concerns that should be censored or ignored by an utterly compliant new class of highly educated digital natives.

Of course, we should also not let the non-obedient totally off the hook. They need to embrace some sense of responsibility for the health of others. Low vaccination states like Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama now have the worst fatality rates in the U.S., along with New York and New Jersey; the more highly vaccinated Florida, despite occasional fits of media hysteria, have performed somewhat better, particularly given its older population.

What's needed now is less politics and more public spiritedness, intellectual tolerance and logic. Vaccines, for example, are critical, but perhaps we could consider some accommodation for the natural immunity of those who are post-infection, which recent Israeli studies suggest may be far greater than that provided by injections.

More focus should be placed on the relative effectiveness of long-term lockdowns, or whether the more targeted model used in Sweden is more effective, given Sweden's fatality rates are lower than those in the United Kingdom or France, which imposed broader restrictions.

What we need is to find the policies that protect our health without groveling to authority or expanding our already too large class divides and further shrinking the prospects for future generations.

The issue here is not just our physical health, but our civilization.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.