Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, maker or doer. Do you like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and get more conversations like this delivered to your inbox every week.
In 2018, Loka Ashwood – professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky – published a book called Democracy for Profit: Why Government is Losing Rural America’s Trust. Rather than accept the conversation-ending answer of rugged individualism, Ashwood seriously investigates rural Americans’ distaste for government institutions. The author’s case study involves Burke County, Georgia, which is home to one of the state’s two operational nuclear power plants. Among Burke County residents, negative attitudes toward the state are not rooted in ignoring their own interests, but in years of land loss, environmental degradation, and the understanding that the interests of government align better with those of business than with its rural interests. inhabitants.
I’m late to discovering this crucial work of rural storytelling, but my conversation with Ashwood seems urgent enough today. Enjoy our dialogue on rural anarchism, the current evils of utilitarianism, and the field of rural sociology itself, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you tell me more about your background? Where does your interest in rural sociology come from?
Loka Ashwood: I grew up surrounded by farmers and rural people in rural Illinois. My interest in the stark differences between the familiar and urban spaces began when I was an undergraduate student living on the outskirts of Chicago. My first reaction was to come back close to what I knew, and I did an internship for a few years as a reporter on the US Farm report show. However, reporting on notable communities and farmers began to be overtaken by my interest in more controversial, but crucial, issues like the Packers and Stockyards Act. My search for answers led me to historians, who helped me understand why a stereotypical treatment of rural America was one that glorified its struggles, but also facilitated its extraction. Thanks to this mentorship, I received an undergraduate scholarship to compare the Farm Bill to the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union. In short, European policy was also not doing what was best for farmers, but it was doing better than the United States. I focused on Ireland, which – next to Poland at the time – was experiencing the fastest decline of farmers. I then worked on a master’s degree in Ireland, where I discovered the European Society for Rural Sociology. I found my footing with people doing the kind of research that facilitated the change I felt was increasingly necessary at the intersection of space, politics, economics, environment and power. I did a year of direct outreach work on community development with the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs, then returned to my studies with the outstanding faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, particularly my supervisor, Dr. Michael M. Bell whose work inspired me.
DY: What is the liberal-conservative binary missing about the anarchist tendencies present in rural America, which you discuss in an article you wrote in 2018?
THE: Anarchism captures animosity toward the state (anti-statism) as well as a view of a world where state imposition of power over life is unnecessary (statelessness). Rural people who call themselves agrarians or pagans are not necessarily Republicans or Democrats. However, they often romanticize a stateless view of society and even link the decline of rural America to the rise of cities. The stereotypes applied to city dwellers and their marked lack of self-sufficiency can be part of the vision of stateless people.
The anti-state approach to politics is where you will find rural people working across political lines to stop extraction or to complain about government subsidies. Anti-statism is, in short, “I want less […this…] kind of government. Someone who votes Democratic or Republican may have different words to put in those brackets, but sometimes they want the exact same thing. The mistake we seem to be making these days is preventing people from working together to bring about change by replacing who they are with the candidate they vote for. We need alternatives outside the electoral system.
DY: You write that “The Code of Federal Regulations stipulates that nuclear power plants can only be located in rural areas, to control risks. What does the rule of numbers mean for rural America? How is it possible that its “relatively few people are rendered insignificant” when political pundits on all sides so often point out, for example, the rural bias in the US Senate?
THE: The US government is only partially concerned with elections and also with politicians. These are also non-elective positions which are codified by the development of administrative laws carried out by agencies. You name the subject, we have the agency. All of these agencies are required by law to use cost-benefit analysis when determining how and where to spend money. The cost-benefit analysis is predominant. A crude example of this logic at work is water monitoring and quality – state and national environmental agencies favor urban places because more people live there, actually allowing the most harmful activities for the environment. environment in rural areas. In the end, it’s not good for anyone.
Utilitarianism, at the heart of cost-benefit analysis, has a grim history in our country. Jeremy Bentham’s logic justified slavery, the idea that if you sacrifice a minority (people of color) it will be better for the majority (whites). This logic piles a burden on minorities – which is why the poorest people in the United States are Indigenous people and black people of color living in rural areas.
A final note on this. The electoral system confuses power. This suggests that your vote counts like anyone else’s. But what if there is only one party that has political power near you, which is quite common in rural areas? What if you only have two parties and you don’t particularly like one of them? Parties negotiate the power of any vote through a web of bureaucracy that limits meaningful direct action for people who go to the polls.
DY: In a particularly gripping moment in the book, you describe how a Burke County resident refers to the government and the power company with the same pronoun in the same sentence, a clever “they.” This malleable boundary between state and business is a major theme of Democracy for profit, and does not seem to be fundamentally modified by the politics of the moment. Why is there so little mention of partisan politics in the book? Do you think Republicans and Democrats don’t differ significantly in their willingness to sacrifice rural livelihoods for the “greater good”?
THE: In the context of this text – where nuclear energy is the industry and land grabbing the local outcome – I would say yes, Republicans and Democrats are leaving the people of Burke County with little representation. It would, however, be a mistake to think that the root of this problem is purely electoral. The property rights of rural people, today and historically, have been encroached upon by predatory development corporations and state-sponsored projects. Corporations use share sales to largely dispossess black farmers and landowners who leave their land in the hands of their heirs. If those heirs missed a tax bill or if one in a hundred wanted to sell, a court-appointed executor could force the entire plot or plots to be sold.
More recently for white families, they sell under threat of eminent domain when the Fortune 500 Southern Company or the state of Georgia threatens it. In both cases, local people are being dispossessed, and you see this time and time again with pipelines and other projects that take capital away from rural people and centralize it in corporate coffers.
How can they do this, we might ask? It’s because of state-level laws upheld by the US Supreme Court, which treat energy as synonymous with a public good (regardless of who benefits from its production) and also prioritize human rights. ownership of those entities (i.e. corporations) that can prove they make the most money (regardless of whether only a handful of executives make the most of it).
DY: Finally, a selfish question: As someone who writes deeply human stories of rural life alongside more technical breakdowns of the financialization of agriculture, how do you feel about the divide between sociology and economics? Was immersing yourself in either for the first time difficult for you? Do you have any advice for someone who is moved by the work of rural sociology, but intimidated by the economic knowledge it requires?
THE: I have found that my insights are mostly distillations of conversations and observations with people who live with these issues on a daily basis. I believe that my work helps them to identify the causes of these problems, whatever the depth required, to serve democracy and strengthen their communities.
Doing so requires going against the grain of conventional economic theory. Rural sociology often does the same, so it serves more as a lifeline that connects localized findings to metastructures. Yet, it can seem daunting because you’re not just trying to understand one area, but trying to understand everything in a way that’s different from what you’ve been conventionally taught. But it is absolute liberation.
Rural sociologists as a group tend to be grounded and down to earth because they seek to make the world a better place through the work they do. Sometimes there is strength in small numbers, and there are few rural sociologists. This is perhaps an important lesson for utilitarians. Small is beautiful.
This interview first appeared in Path seekers, a weekly e-newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Every Monday, Path Finders offers a Q&A with a rural thinker, maker or doer. Join the mailing list today to have these insightful conversations delivered straight to your inbox.