A ‘ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork’? Cities and progressive politics

By Niamh Cullen

Fintan O’Toole’s intriguingly entitled article in Saturday’s Irish Times, ‘The decision that I made on contesting this general election’, got me thinking about a few things. I was enthusiastic about his idea of seeking out people who were active in civil society – whether the arts, business, education or community work – at a local level, but were emphatically not politicians, to contest the election. But at the same time, I could see why such an idea was probably doomed to failure – or at least not to live up to the expectations placed in it – especially given the very short time frame. But it was O’Toole’s citing of Mary O’Rourke’s dismissive comment that all it would amount to would be a ”a few gurus in posh areas” that really made me wonder about why people vote the way they do.

I’m intrigued by the rural/urban divide in politics and very often, social attitudes, that exists not just in Ireland but pretty much everywhere I can think of. The milieu of the city has always fascinated me as a historian; what makes a city a city rather than a village or an oversized suburb? And why have people, throughout history, always been drawn to the urban, whether a teeming nineteenth century metropolis or a cluster of houses organised around a square that becomes a marketplace on Sundays?

Cities have always been places where ideas are exchanged rapidly and excitedly; in coffeehouses and pubs, in newspapers read quickly in cafes, hairdressers, on buses and trams, and then discarded by numerous people throughout the day. They are places where you meet people who are both like and unlike you; those employed in factories and now more likely big companies, work alongside people with similar experiences and grievances every day. Meanwhile walking down the central city streets to and from work, or sitting on the bus, Luas or Dart, you pass people you most likely won’t see again and wouldn’t notice if you did. Cities are places where you can find solidarity – with people you work with or who have similar interests to you – but will also have your curiosity piqued by suggestions of the new and exotic, or the endless diversity of life.

Are these reasons that progressive politics might take off better in cities? Historically, socialists have always been more inclined to preach to the urban working classes; working together all day in large factories and doing the same mundane work in the same harsh conditions, it was easier to convince these people that they could work together to improve their collective lot. Throughout history, progressive left-wing intellectuals and activists have always made only half-hearted attempts to appeal to rural peasants and farmers. The Russian Revolution was doomed before Stalin ever came into the picture because urban intellectuals failed to convince the rural peasantry that socialism might be in their best interests too.

Whatever the precise merits of communism, or of one socialist doctrine or another, rural communities throughout the twentieth century would undoubtedly have seen their lives improve with progressive measures like state pensions, health insurance, efficient infrastructure and services in rural areas and other provisions made under most socialist and social democratic systems. But – and this is of course a massive generalisation, although one I think with a basic truth – rural constituencies tend not to support progressive politics very much, allying themselves instead with the kind of paternalistic, conservative powers entrenched at local level – parish priests, landed gentry, middlemen and so on – that consistently persuade them to keep voting against their own interests.

The fact that rural life is usually structured around the family farm, pub or shop – or even small local businesses or commercial farms which still have very little in common with a large city or suburban factory – means that people tend to identify more with paternalistic local powers than with intellectuals or activists from the city. Often there is a sort of siege mentality; the community must be protected and things preserved as they are, these people from the city don’t understand how things work here.

But is it a failure of imagination on the part of urban socialists that they don’t manage to persuade rural voters – whether in Ireland or elsewhere – that a vote for them could improve their daily lives? The populist Right everywhere – whether in Italy, the US or France – has managed to garner votes by appealing to people using the language and symbols they hold most dear – family, tradition, individual freedoms – while the Left has consistently failed to get their message beyond the progressive milieu of the city, whether it’s New York, Boston or San Francisco; Paris, Milan or Dublin. Left-wing urban intellectuals clearly don’t use the right language to appeal to voters; to persuade them that their lives too can be improved if say universal health insurance is introduced and that far from destroying the family, this measure might even help them, especially by protecting their more vulnerable members. Do progressive intellectuals, activists and politicians make their appeals and state their policies in overly abstract terms, failing to show their understanding of local communities, traditions and values? Do they fail in a sense to bridge the gap between rural and urban outlooks and to get beyond the perhaps understandable suspicion or hostility to those outsiders who seem to ‘know what’s best’ for them?
Social issues too – divorce, abortion, civil partnerships – are another powerful way for conservative interests entrenched at local level – in Ireland, priest and parish – to scaremonger voters into continuing to support them. ‘It’s us against them’; the city with its progressive politics is seen as a destructive force, besieging rural Ireland. But for those who don’t agree with them, should these really be the deciding issues? After all, they don’t impinge on their daily lives. Surely economics; a fair living wage and equal access to state services should be more important.

So how, if at all, could these issues be addressed? Perhaps a greater dialogue between rural and urban areas would be a good place to start. Is there really any need for the mutual suspicion and lack of understanding? The movement between the rural and the urban has worked almost exclusively in one direction; many leave the countryside to work or study, but few return to live. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Stony grey soil of Monaghan’ is just one – if unusually forceful and bitter – expression of bitterness and disdain at his country roots. John McGahern in contrast tries to capture rural life in all its complexity; as someone who, born in Leitrim, spent most of his life living in cities whether Dublin, London or elsewhere, but eventually returned to life as a farmer in rural Ireland, he wanted to understand and do justice to both worlds, both points of view. There is surely no need for such a gulf between big cities and rural areas – perhaps we could channel what is good about the urban – exchange of ideas, diversity of cultures – into towns and small cities too, helping people to feel better connected to the wider debates and issues of the time. After all, cities are about communities; huge, chaotic, loud and sprawling maybe, but filled at the same time with energy, movement, constant newness and reinvention, ideas, questions and endless debates.

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2 Responses to A ‘ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork’? Cities and progressive politics

  1. Eoin Purcell says:

    A very nicely written piece.

    I suspect that as city folk we tend to overlook the fact that rural communities are as divided as city based ones. Yes populist parties of the right have been known to find adherents there, but they find them just as easily in cities and suburbs too. There was many the landless peasant in the 1900s that had as radical a social vision as the urban worker too.

    Perhaps the biggest challenge is overcoming the mental image city dwellers have of rural dwellers and rural dwellers have of city dwellers. If that could be done, perhaps the radical city dwellers might align more easily with the radical rural dwellers and the moderates with moderates too!


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