I’ve long been meaning to write a post about rural gentrification and associated issues – localism, globalism, nationalism, migration and so forth. Some recent interactions online have prompted me to do it now. It’s a bit out of sequence in my present blog cycle concerning my book A Small Farm Future, since it’s closer to the material I discuss towards the end of the book in Part IV. But anyway…
The spur to writing this originated from two fascinating pieces by Neal Clark and Anarcho-Contrarian in the Doomer Optimism mini-manifesto series. I found much to agree with in them, but then in subsequent discussions on Twitter got to wrangling a little over the use of the term ‘nationalism’ (partly, it turns out, because I’m just not fluent in Twitter-ese).
I wrote a Twitter thread about it which, by my humble standards, went viral, prompting a mountain (or at least a large molehill) of comments, many of which were directly or implicitly critical of my general argument that nationalism is no friend of localism, whereas homesteading possibly is. I couldn’t keep up with the volume of comments, and in any case I don’t find Twitter great for these kinds of discussions. So I’m going to rake over the embers here instead.
Quite a number of the commenters operated with a stark duality – you’re either a globalist or you’re a localist. They peered warily at my localist claims, suspecting that beneath the homespun mask my true globalist colours would reveal themselves. Well maybe. But to me, as I’ll explain below, the globalist-localist duality doesn’t capture the underlying politics very well. Maybe the duality of Wall Street versus Main Street does a better job. Without a shadow of a doubt I’m against Wall Street and I prefer Main Street. But there are different kinds of Main Streets. Some I like better than others, and some of the people out on Main Street I find easier to get along with than others.
It’s the nature of smalltown life that you run into almost everyone who lives there in the end, and you have to find ways to make that work. So just to say that I honestly want to try and make my localism fit as best it can with other people’s localisms. I really don’t want to be arguing with anyone who’s genuinely for Main Street, and I’d far rather be uniting with them against Wall Street. But if there are things we disagree on it’s no use sweeping them under the carpet. Hence this attempt at clarification.
I begin in this post with some comments about nationalism, where the debate began, and then in the next post move onto a discussion of localism and rural gentrification. That’s followed by a post on migration, then I’m going to close this little blog cycle within a blog cycle with some thoughts on rural gentrification and the internship problem, before returning belatedly to my larger present theme by wrapping up the cycle on property.
I’m aiming to publish these posts in fairly quick succession, probably with a couple of days between each one. I’ll quote occasionally in them from specific comments in the Twitter thread, but I’m not going to name anyone from Twitter individually here, or debate with anyone on Twitter itself – I’m happy of course to debate further in the comments under the posts. I’m the last person to explain to anyone else how to navigate their way around Twitter, but if you have time on your hands, you can probably follow much of the discussion out from here.
So – one commenter wrote: “a nation is precisely that land within its borders AND the people who inhabit it AND their shared history together”. But this is to assume what’s in question – how did the borders get determined, why do the people within them feel a particular allegiance with each other, and how do they come to feel that their history is shared?
For sure, I share some political history with somebody living in, say, Kent, simply because we’re under the same government. But if a few medieval battles had turned out differently, I might be living in Angevinia and zipping across the Channel to visit my compatriots in the continental part of the country to the south, while needing to pack my passport when I head east to Kent. If people just accepted this historical randomness of the polities they live under with a shrug, then I don’t think nationalism would be a topic worthy of attention. But if that were the case, I wouldn’t be engaging with people on Twitter with taglines like “America – love it or leave it”.
Nationalism papers over the historical randomness, telling us that what is so had to be so, usually in a way that seeks to make the power of existing politics seem natural. If I’m going to get along with a compatriot in Kent, I’ll need something more than the fact that we share Boris Johnson as a prime minister. Nationalist ideology provides that something more. But it’s a narrative choice. As the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein put it: first the boundaries, then the passions.
Actually, that’s not quite right. The passions come first, but they’re passions for known places, people, practices and landscapes. The genius of nationalism is to take that passion for the known, immediate and local, and breathe life into other places that we don’t know with the same emotional charge by braiding them together into a common story of the nation.
But it’s important to stress that it’s a common story, not the common story. Nations aren’t just born complete unto themselves like a person. They’re actively constructed over time via an awful lot of hard work on the part of historians, poets, novelists, journalists, musicians, artists, politicians, cartographers, soldiers, architects, bureaucrats, sportspeople, drinkers in bars and a whole host of other folk. Traditions are invented and communities are imagined. And most of this inventing and imagining has happened only in the last couple of centuries or so across much of the world. Ennius, a poet from classical times, wrote that he had three hearts – Greek, Oscan and Latin. As historian David Gilmour puts it, “It was romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century – and its more sinister successors – that insisted on a single heart” (The Pursuit of Italy, p.46).
So the passions, the boundaries, the traditions and the communities that emerge aren’t the only ones possible. There are always other dividing lines and alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of a Highlander who explained his decision to vote against Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum on the grounds that people in London didn’t care about Highlanders, whereas people in Edinburgh really hated them. Or of the small community of Christian subsistence whale-hunters in Lamalera described in Doug Bock Clark’s amazing book The Last Whalers, who find the verities of Indonesian nationalism (move to the city, help out in the national development project, get a job in construction or service, get rich, get married, be Muslim) of little help in negotiating the contradictions of technological modernization versus indigenous local identity. Especially where local identity itself is transected by other details of history – the long shadow not only of European colonialism but also of pre-European slaving empires, contemporary clan memberships holding remembrances of past migrations and assimilations, the tension between Islam and Christianity, and so on. These Scottish and Indonesian examples are but two of an endless litany.
Ordinary local people, especially ordinary rural local people involved in cultivating the land, often loom heroically large in nationalist mythmaking. But this rarely works to their own long-term benefit. Usually it’s oriented to the benefit of the political centre as it lards its internationalist and urbanist powerplays with a salty rural legitimacy according to its own needs, not those of the ordinary rural people it self-servingly exalts. In his book Ramp Hollow, historian Steven Stoll describes this nicely in the case of the small-scale white farmers of Appalachia, celebrated by cultured opinion-makers as lusty frontier pioneers at the start of the 19th century, dismissed by their successors in racialized terms as congenital indigents holding up economic progress by the century’s end (incidentally, Stoll notes how Karl Marx deployed parallel evolutionary notions about the absolute inability of small-scale rural cultivators to achieve self-realization, bequeathing a bad legacy to the political left all too familiar today in its endless hostility towards agrarian localism).
As to small-scale black farmers, or black folks in general, in the USA among other countries – well I guess they often get written out of both national(ist) and local(ist) histories altogether, as, for example, in the commenter under my Twitter thread citing the Black Lives Matter signage spotted on a nearby farm as proof that it couldn’t be a real local concern. Or more generally in the whole tradition of southern agrarianism. I’ll take my stand on the possibility that other national stories can be written, like the one Jocelyn Nicole Johnson plays with in her recent dystopian cli-fi novel My Monticello, where Sally Hemings gets her due as a mother of the nation alongside Thomas Jefferson as a father. Race, agrarianism, the south. For every configuration of the nation that anyone tries to mobilise, there’s another one demanding to be heard.
So when one commenter under my thread wrote, “At the risk of being naïvely ahistorical, I think nationalism is just localism scaled up and if it isn’t then it could be” and another replied “Strongly agree. It’s a natural part of the scaling. Globalists denigrate the national because they want that power. The nations stand in the way of their goals” I guess I’d have to say that, with respect, yes this is a bit naïvely ahistorical. Nationalism really isn’t just localism scaled up.
But I agree maybe it could be, and this might be something to aim for. Though if people successfully scaled up localisms of the sort that present political, economic, ecological and cultural crises demand the result would look so unrecognizably different from existing nationalisms that we’d probably need a new word for it. I hope to pursue that issue another time. Although I’m not a big fan of nationalism, one thing I would say is that all that hard intellectual work of nation-building has made modern nations and their populations pretty solid political vessels, which means the future is very unlikely to be ‘feudal’. But more on that anon.
What interests me more for my present purposes is the idea in the last comment I quoted that nations stand in the way of the globalists’ goals. It’s true that a certain kind of globalist of the neoliberal, Wall Street sort does denigrate the national because national governments have local pressures and agendas that militate against simply conniving with that guiding light of Wall Street globalism, the frictionless flow of global finance. And because national governments have the leverage to deliver on those agendas (albeit some more than others, the USA more than most).
Even so, any government that obstructs the frictionless flow of global finance too much risks fierce punishments from ‘the globalists’ that few governments dare contemplate (though in my view they should). So when it comes down to it, national governments usually cleave to the interests of Wall Street more than to those of Main Street – a fact that’s better known to ordinary local people on the Main Streets of poorer countries who historically have derived less implicit benefit from globalism than their localist counterparts in rich countries like the USA. But as the contradictions of the global economy intensify this fact is becoming more apparent in the rich ones too.
The get out strategy that governments often employ in these circumstances is to stoke up a nationalist smokescreen, usually aimed at ordinary people among ethnic or other majorities – ‘make America great again’, ‘take back control’, ‘get Brexit done’ and so on – often served with a generous helping of culture war stuff aimed at stopping ordinary working class people from allying with ordinary middle class people to further their joint local interests against the globalists.
That strategy has been pretty successful of late, but I don’t think it’ll work long-term because it can only paper over its manifest contradictions for so long. Here in the UK, a few cracks are beginning to show currently with a degree of buyer’s remorse among voters in hard-hit post-industrial towns who opted for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s increasingly English nationalist Conservative Party at the last election to ‘get Brexit done’, only to learn that he was quaffing champagne at Downing Street parties while they were diligently observing the Covid lockdowns he’d imposed.
In the words of one headline, “They’re laughing at us”. Yes they are. I strongly suspect that the hapless woke libtards and cosmopolitan elites routinely fingered for their scorn of ordinary people among certain sections of the press and public are laughing at said ordinary people a lot less than Johnson (Eton and Oxford) and his cronies, or for that matter than the very stable genius who recently vacated the White House.
But in the long-term, as the nation-state frays there will be bigger issues to confront than lockdown-busting parties. The question is whether they’ll be met by more organic forms of exclusionary nativism and nationalism from the grassroots, or whether there may be openings for populist alliances between cosmopolitan newcomers to Main Street and its existing denizens around a common interest in localism. I’d like to think the latter. After all, nationalist ideologies invite us to identify with people and places we don’t know. When localists born or made embrace or adopt a particular place to live there’s surely no reason for them to base their localism in an inherent lack of openness to people or ideas from elsewhere.
But whatever the rights or wrongs of it, into this potent and contested space of the local now steps the figure of the gentrifying neo-agrarian homesteader, which I’ll consider in my next post.