Rural Consciousness as Political Identity

Rural Community

Rural consciousness has redefined the nature of identity politics as it shifts the dominant political conflicts from class to place. This is the second part of a series on political identity and its place within democratic theory.

Rural Communities in Political Conflicts

The divide between those dependent on an agricultural economy and an industrial economy is long standing. The French Revolution changed after the Great Fear led to a redistribution of property in the countryside. Ever since, the French countryside has had distinct interests apart from the more radical revolutionaries in Paris. And yet, democracy has defined its conflicts in terms of class rather than place. Elections have revolved around questions of economic resources within the context of capital and labor. The rural population has remained outside this conflict as a moderating force between the two. They have occupied the broad middle of every electorate that determines the winners and losers. 

Class conflict, of course, is a largely urban divide. Marx established a cleavage between a working class and a managerial or ownership class. Neither of these groups had significant presence in the countryside during the nineteenth century. The countryside has always relied disproportionately on an informal economy. The line between household chores and work had no formal definition. While a lawyer might focus on their practice without concern for the filth in their home, farmers do not draw a sharp line between work in the field and work in the home. Disorganization in one creeps into the other. 

Urbanization and Specialization

Cities pull their residents into the formal economy. Not only does a sharp line divide work and home, but life is reduced to the lowest common denominator. Families dissolve into smaller and smaller units so eventually individuals find comfort in their own home or apartment isolated from everyone else. Moreover, everything has a price from the care of children to transportation for groceries. The sharing economy involves a lot of transactions in an urban setting, whereas rural communities have always shared resources. Rural communities, on the other hand, rely on informal transactions based on goodwill, favors, and relationships. Neighbors help one another out and families naturally pool resources together.

Economics is not just a social science, but a moral project designed to encourage social cooperation through specialization. Rural communities, on the other hand, make specialization difficult. Population densities, of course, make specialists economically unviable, but social cooperation also depends on general rather than specialized knowledge. And the tendency toward general knowledge has idealized rural communities as the cornerstone of democratic governance. Indeed, democracy itself demands a flexibility within its citizens to step outside their normal occupations to embrace additional duties and responsibilities. Specialization challenges the importance of general knowledge. It confines knowledge and divides the community into individuals with their own unique qualifications. Indeed, specialization gravitates toward technocracy.

Loss of a General Knowledge

Education once emphasized general knowledge through the study of philosophy and literature. Today neither philosophy nor literature is immune to specialization. Education once represented an expanded range of communication. References to the Bible or the Classics gave clarity to a speech or a text. Today references make sense to a handful of specialists who have done the required reading. But the general public does not aspire to consume an intellectual cannon necessary for intelligent conversation. Indeed, intellectuals shun the notion of a cannon as inherently incomplete, because past efforts have been too male, white, and European. But the resurrection of a contemporary cannon does not mean the resurrection of the old one. Indeed, room exists for Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, and Salmon Rushdie not as token inclusions, but as important voices in their own right. 

Nonetheless, rural communities do not represent some ideal of generalized knowledge where farmers converse regularly about Plato and Homer. Henry David Thoreau no longer retreats to a cabin on Walden Pond to meditate on the meaning of life. As the purpose of education has changed, rural communities have rebelled against education itself. Rural identity pretends to have a sense of timelessness and immutability, but transformation is a natural part of the world. Nothing stays the same without intense energy and effort. Rural identity did not arise out of a sense of permanence, but rather its vulnerability in an environment where its continuation relies on a gradual transformation. 

Politics of Place Replaces Politics of Class

All of these transformations have shifted the politics of class to a politics of place. Corporations have blurred the line between capitalists and the proletariat. The working class has given way to an aspiring middle class. Indeed, the corporate ladder implies every employee has an opportunity to rise within their organization. Moreover, they share ownership not just in their own company, but in the larger economy through a 401K. The line between economic class has not disappeared, but their interests have converged in ways which complicate efforts to redistribute economic resources. Globalization, moreover, has made the working class more sympathetic to business. No longer do workers look toward their employers as the primary enemy, but toward foreign competition as a common challenge alongside management. 

Surprisingly, economic inequality today better explains conflicts between places than conflicts between classes. Rural communities resent the investments governments and companies make into urban communities to improve their economic viability. Wealth begets wealth as public investments lay the foundations for private investments into these communities. Rural communities, on the other hand, watch as their schools consolidate and their shops along main thoroughfares go out of business. Rural communities become resentful of public investments because the resources have a disproportionate impact in high density communities. 

The Moral Dimension of Economics

But the politics of place differs from the politics of class because it is not about who gets what. The politics of place reorients questions of distribution around a moral dimension. The politics of class is surprisingly amoral. It focuses on the outcomes of economic policies. Conservatives look to increase economic growth and expand national wealth, while liberals look to alleviate inequalities. Implicit within the economics of class is a tradeoff between economic growth and inequality. The politics of place and identity gives the nature of work itself a moral dimension. Efforts to reduce workplace discrimination on the basis on race or gender do not look to redistribute opportunities, but rather to add a moral dimension where individuals earn opportunities on their own merits. 

Rural consciousness offers a more radical moral dimension to economic life. It defines work in physical terms. Hard work involves sweat and exertion. The relocation of manufacturing into small towns from the cities has solidified the alliance between farmers and laborers. Both groups earn their incomes through their labor rather than their ideas. But it is not so much that they disparage knowledge, but rather view it from an entirely different perspective. Rural identity distinguishes between useful and useless knowledge. Useful knowledge becomes communal. Knowledge has meaning because everyone recognizes its usefulness. Anything esoteric has less value because so few people find it useful. Consequently, the knowledge of common repairs like changing the oil of a car is more useful than linear algebra. 

The Privatization of Knowledge

Intellectuals on the left just as much as those on the right have privatized information and knowledge. Ideas and skills have value because of their scarcity rather than their proliferation. Research is valued for its novelty and originality rather than its shared wisdom. Companies and businesses today more often originate out of an idea than a product. Rural communities do not value knowledge because of its scarcity, but rather because of its abundance. Consequently, scientific warnings about global warming find skepticism because its acceptance relies on the specialized knowledge from others rather than something anybody can figure out on their own.

Rural Consciousness Becomes Rural Identity

Kathy Cramer found rural consciousness was not simply based on place of residence, but a sense of personal identity. A person can live in a rural community, but fail to represent its ideals. She notes a divide between the public and private economy in these communities. A politics of resentment emerged in part because public employees received better pay and benefits than others in rural communities. But like I have said, rural consciousness can accept economic inequalities so long as the wealth is earned. Public employees, however, do not earn their salaries and benefits from physical labor, but through specialized knowledge and skills. Rural consciousness has a sense of value detached from the market or labor economics. It intuitively assigns greater moral worth to general farm labor than any position in a bureaucracy. The fact public employees make more and receive better benefits than others in their community is unconscionable. .

 The poverty found in rural communities has given the left the mistaken notion the conflict is over economic inequality. They fail to recognize the moral dimensions within modern economic policy. Moreover, the solutions to revitalize rural communities are never clear. Greater public investments might offer greater economic opportunities. But it also has risks. The line between too little and too much investment is not obvious. And the two may even overlap one another. It is possible investments may transform an idyllic community into something else entirely as new industries bring new residents who do not share the same values or aspirations. Moreover, the investments have to reflect the needs of the community. Kathy Cramer notes how the development of a tourist economy in northern Wisconsin brought investment directed at urban tourists rather than the local residents. The investments exacerbated rather than reduced feelings of resentment. 

A New Political Language

Some of the greatest minds in political science and sociology have examined how rural communities have established a divergent sense of identity over time. Kathy Cramer, Arlie Russell Hochschild, and Angus Deaton and Anne Case have all offered different perspectives on the same phenomenon. Rural communities have radicalized. And the shift is not unique to the United States. The Gilet Jaunes movement represents a divide between the interests of urban and rural communities in France. Brexit demonstrated a divide between rural and urban communities in the United Kingdom. 

The politics of place pose greater risks than the politics of class for democracies. At first glance, this insight comes as a surprise. But the divide between urban and rural communities introduces a moral dimension into both economics and education that class conflicts largely avoided. The solution does not require new policies so much as a new language of politics going forward. Politicians must find a language that bridges the divide between rural and urban communities to govern effectively. Moreover, a recognition of the differences is necessary for the negotiation of compromises. The aim is not so much to resolve the conflict, but simply to find a path to manage it. 

Related Content

Chad Alan Goldberg on the Wisconsin Idea and the Role of the Public University in a Democracy

Zizi Papacharissi Dreams of What Comes After Democracy

Working Class Political Identities

Readings on Rural Identity

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine Cramer

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold by Ross Benes

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