by Ramin Mazaheri for The Saker Blog
If there is one thing the election of Donald Trump showed the United States it’s that there is an enormous urban-rural divide.
That’s not true at all….
The US “discovered” this exact same problem following the elections of Bill Clinton and Dubya Bush: rural voters found Clinton immoral, urban voters found Bush immoral – open support for either president made one immoral. Both were vilified as totally unacceptable leaders by either the city mice or the country mice.
Both presidents were atrociously immoral and unacceptable modern leaders, of course. However, 2018’s unprecedented animosity towards Trump only shows that undeserved self-righteousness has temporarily swung back to the urban sector.
But the reality is that anger is simply what American mice do: they are angry, and they think that the venting of anger equals power, when most everyone else knows it equals the opposite. But this anger is a phenomenon endemic across today’s West: the French public is aggressive, culturally chauvinistic and incredibly rude, England trails only the US in an assumed sense of superiority, Canadians are the kings of passive-aggressive behaviour, and the list goes on.
The capitalist-imperialist West’s enormous political dysfunctions, faulty presumptions and roads they refuse to take…I cannot offer a remedy to all these things, but this article does discuss real solutions to their unbridged urban-rural divide.
Due to the mass urban migrations of the 20th century, this divide is felt more acutely by rural inhabitants, but it is clearly a cultural and political dysfunction which must be immediately remedied…and which China has already remedied.
I explained China’s solutions in the 3rd part of this 8-part series: When Chinese Trash saved the world: Western lies about the Cultural Revolution. It’s an article which is not that popular, probably because it lacks the sensational appeal of discussing the Great Leap’s famine or the personal appeal of discussing Mao, but the Cultural Revolution is surely the most important Chinese event since 1949.
There can be no remedy to this divide if we don’t acknowledge how timeless and universal it is: the urban-rural dichotomy is as fundamental to human society as male-female, old-young, home life-social life, science-faith, etc. Creating a satisfying cultural synthesis is thus a difficult but necessary undertaking.
China had a big leg up in this particular dichotomy thanks to the Confucian hierarchy of farmer-scholar-tradesperson-merchant-soldier, in that order, but the West gives no such value to the rural producer of everyone’s food. The West has advantages in other cultural dichotomies, but this article does not examine them.
At some point, the West’s urbanites (often effete, annoying, condescending, ultimately intolerant) are going to have to realise, accept and appreciate the timeless fact that this dichotomy is indeed valid and sensible, because different values are needed to thrive in rural settings than in urban areas; therefore, rural values must be as equally promoted as urban values in the overall national culture, in stark contrast to the current policy of denigration and exclusion.
A problem is that urbanites insist that their values are at the crest of the wave…but very often it is a wave of mere fashion. Another problem is that urbanites view their wave as an all-erasing tsunami rather than just one moderate-sized wave on one side of the island. But there is little doubt that the values of rural areas are more enduring because they are more adapted to nature, which certainly runs a longer timespan than the those of powerful cities and their cultures.
Just as men and women must get along despite their natural differences, so must urban and rural – here are some definite answers.
How do we solve the urban-rural divide? Change the culture
I have a very simple solution for the West: have their version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which had the bridging of this urban-rural divide as one of its main tenets.
Of course, my idea will be met (unfairly) with shock and horror, because Western propaganda is that the Cultural Revolution was an unceasing cavalcade of horrors and injustices. The 3rd article of this series overcomes that dominant propaganda simply by discussing the true, known and factual motivations, policies and results of the Cultural Revolution, which are ignored in favor of tabloid, self-serving coverage in Western media and academia. The dominant Western view of the Cultural Revolution is thus a reactionary, prejudiced view, and I encourage you to please read that article in order to appreciate this one – it may go so far as to prepare you to at least consider the possible need for certain aspects of China’s Cultural Revolution in your country.
(Iran doesn’t need a Cultural Revolution – we just had one, and there are legislated polices and rules which truly ensure that it is rather permanent and self-refreshing, but that is a whole different series of articles….)
China, as I detailed in the first part of this series, is largely geographically unsuited for farming and yet they have always held the global championship belt for “World’s Best Farmers”. As I mentioned with the Confucian hierarchy, their esteem for rural life made it easier for China to solve this divide, and also made it only natural that Maoism was the first socialist philosophy to place the farmer on a perfectly-equal basis with the modern industrial worker.
In short, just as the West in 2018 so fervently believes its problems are caused by the racist hicks of rural areas, Maoism so fervently believed the opposite.
The question we should be asking is: Why did Mao believe in the cultural worth of rural values?
Well, he spent years in the countryside, so he knew how they lived. He was not in an ivory tower, nor stuck in a bohemian part of the city, nor surrounded by like-minded factory workers. He actually went to the country (and made a rather Long March around it, too).
But in the West how many people have lived in the countryside for more than a weekend?
I prefer not to make my articles about myself, but: I’m an urbanite, and prior to about 20 years old I could count the number of times I had seen a cow on one hand. But then I lived exclusively on a farm for more than 1.5 years.
To say that it was an eye-opening, humbling experience is an understatement. I quickly perceived how shallow my worldview truly was, having been limited to urban areas. I realised how very rich is the life of the rural people whom urban culture told me to disparage and feel superior to.
I often compare the experience to someone who lived in strict gender segregation until the age of 20: how full and rich is life alongside our other gender, and how empty without it? Male-female, yin-yang, city-country – all of these represent two opposites of perfectly equal, yet different, powers.
But in my discussions with Western urbanites I have rarely come across people who claim to have had genuine experiences in both urban and rural settings.
So when the Communist Party sent everyone from mild reactionaries to city-kid students to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, I am personally certain that it was most often a positive thing, and I am not surprised that it is reported that the era is fondly remembered in rural areas. The Party knew it would be reforming and supremely enlightening because it would increase the scope of one’s understanding of the world, affirm the experiences of other people and thus increase one’s love of humanity and of life itself.
The West’s problem becomes even more profound when one realises that the West’s leaders have not had these types of necessary and rounding experiences…and that China’s leaders have had them:
China’s President Xi spent seven years in the poor countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Xi lived with lice & hard rural labor, and spent nights reading to illiterate farmers. That’s even though his father was the Party bigwig who created the first Free Economic Zones across from Hong Kong – no nepotism there, for sure, eh? Emmanuel Macron, in contrast, spent time at Goldman Sachs. Hillary spent time doing looking down on the people of Little Rock and callously planning her success / her opponent du jour’s downfall.
My political enlightenment on the rural-urban issue came through talking with others – not just watching the corn come in and go out. Without the rural friends I made, and without their patience in correcting my uppity, uniformed city slicker bullplop…I would be a far, far worse person today, and certainly a far, far worse journalist.
What we need to realize is that the only remedy for urban elites is indeed to get them out into the country long-term – enlightenment cannot be a short-term project. China’s Cultural Revolution should start appearing not so drastic, but as the only solution to a universal cultural problem.
A simply policy to make this change in the West are obvious: Civil service programs and public propaganda campaigns to support them. Compulsory service in the armed forces provides another way for people to see how the other half of their country lives, and to provide necessary emergency services (such as China’s People’s Liberation Army).
Of course, this will take the ever-so-incredibly-valuable time of suburban high schoolers away from all those after-school programs they need so desperately to get into capitalist-restricted higher education; the discipline, humility and slogging work such a program requires and creates will also conflict with the “hustler” capitalist mentality promoted on every urban street corner and in every media.
The propaganda battle will require just as big a cultural change: Phrases such as “flyover country” will have to be seen as what they are – signs of reactionary thought, whereas they are instead bizarrely seen as some sort of signifier of leftism/liberalism.
The old rural values – and I don’t need to list them because they’re largely the same – must be promoted with at least equal vigor as the modern urban values of detached alienation, disregard for home life and “be cool, cool, cool” even at 75 years old (which is really quite Parisian, where you truly see 75 year-old men wearing skinny jeans, LOL).
Clearly, something like a ”cultural revolution” would be required to make this long-term and lasting change in the West. Hmm, I wish somebody had thought of that earlier…..
The bottom line is: I just don’t see how the urban-rural divide can be crossed without crossing over? The mass migration of rural to urban during the 20th century makes it clear which side has to make the move.
How do we solve the urban-rural divide? Change the land
This section takes an unexpected tack – let’s not worry about rural land ownership, but urban land ownership.
A reason why there is so little ability for urbanites to spend serious time in the country learning about the country side of life is because they are under such constant financial pressure…to pay rent. The cost of living, and especially housing, is far greater in urban areas, of course.
A fascinating cross-cultural study was issued last year, which found that Paris and London had the highest rates of social psychosis. What I found of great interest was that owning your home – or not – was found to be the single biggest indicator of mental and emotional stability.
Research published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association found, “the strongest area-level predictor of high rates of psychotic disorders was a low rate of owner-occupied housing”.
It is quite logical: When a person is constantly worried about being able to pay the rent, or when the rent will be raised without warning or limits, a person cannot feel themselves to be truly stable; in societies where only the rich can afford housing without concerns, then the myriad small neighbourhoods which compose a country necessarily become full of unstable people:
“People in areas that are socially deprived (i.e. not rich) may have more social stresses, which could predict psychosis incidence, as suggested by other studies,” said a researcher.“An alternative explanation could be that owner-occupied housing is an indicator of social stability and cohesiveness, relating to stronger support networks.”
The researcher is right on both counts: “land poverty” (i.e., not having a stable, long-term home) is a stress which creates psychosis, be it mild or severe. And non- “owner occupied housing” (i.e., forcing to hand over 1/3rd to 1/2 of our paychecks every month to a rich, two-home owning bastard (which the landlord probably just inherited from his parents)) means that people are forced to move a lot, have shorter ties to the community and get into debt. The land issue means that capitalist communities thus have inherently reduced “social stability and cohesiveness”.
And also, the lack of a stable home shoots the whole “civil service program” in the foot: What is the point of making a multi-year cultural revolution if people have no place to return to where they can implement and share what they have learned?
This study was the first of its kind in 25 years, and I highly doubt it was geared towards proving the necessary of socialist housing for urbanites, but it clearly does. China did not need such a study to prove what is clearly just common sense – that housing laws must massively favor renters and not landlords, and that is at the very least.
So pity poor Western millennials: 70% of Chinese people aged 19-37 own their own home, double Western rates. Number 2 in the study is Mexico, at 46%. Just 69% of French millennials plan to buy a home in the next 5 years, the highest in the study. Of course not – have you seen Paris real estate prices?! I have no plans to do so, and I’m 40 years old – who is going to pay for it / force housing prices lower?
Western culture thus has to actually spin this lack of stability as some sort of positive: Western young people are supposed to be considered lucky for being “free, flexible & unencumbered”. In reality they have no job security, no stable home, massive debt, are untethered to society and thus suffer from endemic alienation.
“Bread, peace, land” can be translated to “Bread, peace, a decent apartment” in modern times.
But it’s not only China and not only Maoism which has solved this issue, proven by their 90% home ownership rate: 80% of Cubans own their own home and thus pay no rent or mortgage. Can you guess the common denominator here?
How do we solve the rural-urban divide? Central economic planning
The socialist way is “central control but not central management”. The capitalist way is “local control and no management (except for market forces) ”…and history repeatedly proves that this puts rural areas at a fundamental disadvantage: There is simply no way to safeguard the rural half without central economic planning – they will always be left behind because helping hillbillies will never turn an immediate profit.
Except for politically advanced places like Cuba (where fuel shortages provoked by the international blockade required the mass creation of urban food gardens) food, the ultimate currency, is produced in the country…but the money flows to the cities via their middlemen, distributors, commodity exchanges and banks, and it stays there. Therefore, rural societies wind up being perennially poorer than urban societies.
While this fact should be well-known already, the structural causes of the natural exploitation inherent in the rural-urban divide is supplied in multiple eras of Chinese history.
I quote from the Western establishment’s “doyen on China” John King Fairbank’s “China: A Modern History”, which I have referred to many times in this series. Whether he realized it or not, the right-wing Fairbank makes the case for central planning as the only solution to end the urban-rural economic divide:
“Deng and his successors realized that in order to move to the market, it was necessary to decentralize and to reduce the concentration of political and economic power in the central government; but they did not foresee the extent to which such an economic and political decentralization would result in a decrease in the flow of taxes to the center. This diminished the reach of the party state authority and fostered an informal federalism. In the short run, decentralization helps economic development by allowing more tax revenue to stay in the local areas to stimulate growth. But in the long run, as occurred in the late Qing Dynasty, it leads to a relative decline of central government revenues and thus decreasing expenditures on education, health, and infrastructure, eventually undermining economic growth, especially in the countryside.”
Whether it is in Qing-era feudalism or modern neoliberalism, without economic central planning to redistribute revenue money will flow in a largely one-way direction from country to city in the long run, creating an economic rural-urban divide.
Fairbank continues, and Deng-era capitalist failures will sound very 21st century:
“As revenue declined, the government shifted much of the responsibility for investment to the local governments and enterprises. But while they were prepared to invest in economic projects, local governments were less ready to invest in education and health….Likewise, with the abolition of the communes which had provided the funds for healthcare, education, and infrastructure development, particularly public irrigation networks, rural communities could no longer finance their own public activities. Evidence indicates that rural health, education, and public works gradually deteriorated in the 1990s.”
And this is exactly where the EU and US find themselves today: without central planning in order to fund unprofitable rural infrastructure it simply never gets constructed, and thus the urban-rural divide is never bridged. Socialism differs from capitalism in that the government exists in large part to provided needed services, and not to turn a profit.
Crazy Americans say that unprofitable rural towns deserve to die and that rural citizens don’t need opportunity and equality but simply “need U-Haul” in order to move somewhere else. This is not a humane, intelligent, or culturally-sustainable solution, and it justifiably increases the anger of rural residents towards the urbanites who propose such a “solution”.
Furthermore, in the modern and universal context of increased absentee landlordism – the 19th century phenomenon of landlords moving to the city, thus divorcing themselves from rural society, and thus drastically increasing rural exploitation (this is discussed in greater detail in the next article of this series) – only the government can play the role needed to fully protect rural societies from urban exploitation. The urban-rural divide may be timeless, but what goes ignored is that it has been exacerbated in the past two centuries by industrialism and modern capitalism, and that it is being manipulated even further during the digital era.
The irony is that the great Western breadbaskets – the Midwest for the US and France for the EU – already do have major subsides to protect their farmers, but the subsides are mainly for their farming corporations and not small farmers. Central planning is thus not at all new to the West, but socialist (non-corporation centered) central planning certainly is….
The urban-rural divide is not existential – it can be addressed
The Western view of the urban-rural divide seems to be: “take no prisoners in this cultural war”. That’s a problem, because I don’t know how we could eliminate one without the eliminating the other.
Wait – what?
“What” indeed, my rigid Western friend!
The unity of yin-yang, male-female, urban-rural and other “opposites” is only irreconcilable in Western contexts – they are viewed natural, inevitable, desirable complements in Chinese-influenced societies. Until Westerners learn to respect the “other” – such as other races or religions, for example – their unbalanced self-centeredness can only continue to manifest itself violently.
In the globalist era of “the modern person is a proud citizen of no nation”, perhaps whether one identifies as “urban” or “rural” is actually the 21st century’s most fundamental “nation”? This modern intolerance between urban and rural is not a major problem for everyone, however: as Fidel said, a divided society is an ideal society for imperialists.
Certainly, making these fundamental shifts – in national popular culture for humility towards rural areas, resolving the land issue, and economic planning to defend rural areas (and not just multinational farming corporations) – requires nothing less than a cultural revolution.
I am not expecting one tomorrow in the West, but nor do I see a solution without one.
China provides the example…but China’s example was more than a bit violent – if the West could study and learn from the Cultural Revolution, perhaps theirs could be less bloody? But too many find the Cultural Revolution as boring as watching the cows come home – they need to find the revolutionary poetry in both.
The main step, I believe, is to realize that there is no getting over the rural-urban divide – it is too fundamental to human existence – there is only synthesizing and celebrating it. China is way, way, way further along on this issue than the West.
Maybe you don’t like my solutions to the West’s rural-urban divide? At least I am providing an attempt at a mutually-beneficial cultural synthesis based on mutual respect, rather than fomenting intolerance. Turn on your TV – how many Westerners are promoting that?
This is the 5th article in an 8-part series which compares old versus new Western scholarship on China.
Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
The Cultural Revolution’s solving of the urban-rural divide
Once China got off drugs: The ideological path from opium to ‘liberal strongman’ Macron
Prefer the 1% or the Party? Or: Why China wins
China’s only danger: A ‘Generation X’ who thinks they aren’t communist
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.