The rural used to be radical. What happened?

in Featured/Opinion by

If you are looking at your smartphone to read this article, you may be looking at the product of coltan mining in the rural Democratic Republic of Congo. If you eat fish—wild or farmed—you are eating the product of rural workers. For good or for ill, the corn that makes up much of our North American diet is produced in a rural space, albeit an increasingly industrialized one. The lithium in your hybrid’s car likely comes from under-regulated Chilean mines, mining that has led to another round of exploitation of Native Chileans.

When we treat the rural as only a leisure space—a place to go camping, a ‘pure, natural’ space, a place of romantic tranquility inhabited by rustic rubes, a place to take pictures of wildlife that we can conveniently carry back into our sanitized urban environments—we do a disservice to the workers who live there and miss a political opportunity for solidarity when it comes to combating consumptive capitalism and the climate change crisis. Building alliances between urban and rural workers is key if we want the green economic revolution Naomi Klein so powerfully proposes in This Changes Everything, and if we desire to continue the resistance to the shock tactics of Brexit and Trump outlined in her more recent No is Not Enough.

A radical past

The rural, after all, used to be radical. Six generations ago those in rural corners of the United States—those people who grew America’s food, raised its meat, and dug in the dirt for its fuel—were far more comfortable with words like ‘socialism’ and ‘union.’ Canadian rural radicalism is well-documented as well: it was Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas, and his socialist democratic administration that gave Canadians its first single-payer, universal health care program.

Rural distrust of the federal government walked hand in hand with a deep distrust of capitalist greed in early twentieth-century America. Rural union members routinely showed themselves willing to put their bodies on the line. West Virginia coal miners founded some of the strongest unions the country has ever seen, and the Matewan gun-fight against Pinkerton detectives set on busting the union in 1920 left seven detectives dead, as well as three townspeople. In 1933, Wisconsin dairy farmers struck to raise dairy prices. When it became evident that their refusal to sell might not be successful, they set up elaborate road-blocks to prevent milk from being transported across the state. They put kerosene in milk, and they threw bombs into creameries. The state eventually used tear gas and fixed bayonets to disperse the dairy farmers. When former governor of Idaho Frank Steuneuberg was assassinated in 1905 by a bomb placed just outside of his home, the likely suspect was Harry Orchard. The motivation? Stueneuberg’s declaration of martial law, and his request for federal military assistance to put down the miners’ strike in Coeur d’Alene. The Western Federation of Miners was suspected to be behind the bombing, and its first president had indeed boldy declared class war: “There can be no harmony between organized capitalists and organized labor. Our present wage system is slavery in its worst form.”

Rural distrust of the federal government walked hand in hand with a deep distrust of capitalist greed in early twentieth-century America.

Those historically radical rural spaces are hard to conceive of when most urban dwellers today experience the rural as a consumer space. Tourists visit toy-like nostalgia villages far away—but not too far away—from the cities. Comfortably ‘historic’ towns offer a conveniently commodified experience: your quaintly appointed Bed and Breakfast comes complete with gourmet food, herbal teas, and clearly marked ‘adventure’ trails. Tourists buy souvenirs depicting a sanitized rural past devoid of work, industry, or even people. Those with a stomach for more adventure fill a backpack with brand name gear, grab a high-tech fiber tent, and head for the nearest national park. There, they find friendly park rangers working hard to create—to produce, really—a version of rural space as rugged, untouched wilderness for the pleasure of the city-dweller.

Rural people now live alongside these massive open-air resorts for the urban and the wealthy, working in what little is left of the industries that used to sustain them, or in the service industry that caters to eco-tourism. Canada’s national park jewels in Jasper and Banff stand alongside Alberta’s far more lucrative treasure, the tar sands. The sands provide jobs—at least when oil prices are up—that can sustain the middle-class, but for the dirtiest industry on the planet. As Klein and others have demonstrated, the oil industry inevitably drags local politics to the right. Alberta’s provincial government may be Canada’s only NDP government, but that government dares not question the politics of oil.

The post-war drift

After World War II, something began to change and rural America began to drift increasingly to the right. Idaho—once a mining union stronghold—became a Republican fortress. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker is determined to drive the last coffin nail into organized labor. West Virginia, which had held out against the Republican onslaught longer than most, fell to Karl Rove’s machinations in 2000. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? recognized the obvious: the Republican party had manipulated social issues—such as abortion—to dupe naïve rural voters into abandoning a strong tradition of workers’ rights and agricultural unions. One additional answer could be found in the condescending tone of Frank’s title, but an even more interesting response might be found in how rural spaces have come into conflict with the environmental left.

“NO FRACKING,” and “FRACK OFF” have become new rallying cries for rural based resistance to capitalism.

Environmental issues have repeatedly driven a wedge between urban dwellers who fantasize about a pure rural space and the ‘hicks’ who actually make their living there. Two telling examples of this wedge come out of Idaho alone. During the Spotted Owl controversy of the 1980s environmentalists demonstrated a casual disregard for the loggers who made their living harvesting old growth forests, and ‘environmentalist’ and ‘liberal’ became dirty words in the Idaho panhandle. During the ongoing effort to reintroduce the wolf to Idaho and other Rocky Mountain states, dismissive rhetoric was used—and sometimes still is—to dehumanize the farmers, ranchers, and residents who have legitimate concerns about living—and working—next to wolf packs.

People who live and die in rural spaces have repeatedly found that the only voices willing to address their concerns were in the pro-capitalist Republican party. Once in power, Republicans worked hand-in-hand with neo-liberals to strip unions of their right to exist, ushering in the age of globalized capital that would disperse jobs and industries to less regulated corners of the planet. As apocalyptic as those moves were, rural voters could not help but notice that the Republican party was at least willing to defend resource extraction. Loggers, miners, and farmers who wanted to make a living doing what their families had done for generations found a home in the GOP.

Meanwhile, in Canada…

Canada’s rural population has yet to be completely captured by pro-capitalist politics, but the same dynamics exist. Outside activists such as the laughably under-informed Paul McCartney targeted Newfoundland’s seal hunt—practiced by Inuit and Newfoundlanders sustainably for centuries—while ignoring one of the greatest environmental and industrial disasters of the late-twentieth century. The Canadian government’s moratorium on cod fishing was only imposed after years of ignoring fishermen’s warnings about declining stocks. Ottawa eventually learned that the ‘rubes’ and ‘Newfies’ were right, but only after the environmental disaster they were determined to ignore in the service of global capital destroyed approximately 40,000 jobs, a way of life, and a major source of the planet’s protein. The moratorium is now in its 25th year, the seal population is fine, and there is at least some evidence that those seals are feeding on the few cod that have returned. A codfish is not as cute as a seal, and Inuit tradition doesn’t hold as much weight as an urban dweller’s squeamishness.

We stand on the cusp of a new era: we have the chance to renew the relationship between the urban left and the rural worker. The rural worker is increasingly under attack from a variety of very different sources. In the oil industry’s rush to extract more short term stock market profits, they have turned to extremely dangerous methods of extraction: “NO FRACKING,” and “FRACK OFF” have become new rallying cries for rural based resistance to capitalism. Industrial agriculture has all but destroyed the family farm. The collapse of fish stocks, the disappearance of bees, more frequent and vicious storms: we are all increasingly aware of imminent environmental collapse, and the capitalist excesses behind that threat.

We, as a species, cannot afford to write off the rural as outmoded, passé, backwards, or inherently conservative. Urban dwellers cannot hold individual loggers, ranchers, and miners responsible for a system of globalized capital that produces the very commodities necessary to everyday life. It has become fashionable to call for urban density zones as a way to consolidate diminishing resources. More urban immigration—which after all was the hallmark of the original industrial revolution—is not the answer. Such efforts created untenable situations in Peru and Calcutta, where the government is actively trying to find workers to move back to rural spaces. People will be required to grow the organic lentils, lettuce, and chicken that urban dwellers demand in an age of growing environmental enlightenment.

We have the chance to renew the relationship between the urban left and the rural worker.

A focus on the rural worker may already be giving us the model for locally produced food, beer, and clothing. Population density zones require industrial agriculture, industrial fish farms, and industrial textile production. Small communities harvesting resources that do not extend much beyond the needs of that given community are less likely to need industrial-scale equipment and fertilizers. Better city planning is needed, yes, but a monoculture of megalopolises assumes that resources will not actually need to be developed.

If, as Naomi Klein suggests, climate change changes everything about the political landscape of the near future, we as a species will require robust conversations between farm-to-table food service worker unions and the unionized farmers who produce that food. It will require urban dwellers in favor of wildlife conservation and resettlement to treat rural hunters and fishers with respect; their cooperation is needed to regulate, observe, and preserve endangered species. The urban left needs to reach out to the rural working-class, not treat them as obstacles to a greener future.

Once we recognize the dignity of the rural work space, and its right to exist, we can begin to organize work fairly and sustainably. And, ironically, we will do so with ever-increasing leisure.

NATHAN ELLIOT holds a Ph.D from the University of Notre Dame. He has published scholarly work on the novelist Charlotte Bronte, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the playwright Joanna Baillie. He has also published creative nonfiction and fiction in a number of venues including Creative Nonfiction, and he is the 2016 winner of Newfoundland and Labrador Art Council's Lawrence Jackson Writers' Award for his manuscript How Red Became My Favo[u]rite Colo[u]r. ROBIN DURNFORD earned a Ph.D from the University of Alberta, and she has published three books of poetry: A Lovely Gutting (McGill-Queen's UP, 2012), Fog of the Outport (Jackpine Press 2013), and Half Rock (Gaspereau Press, 2016). Currently she is completing work on another volume of poetry tentatively entitled Gap-Toothed Girl.