Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
In 2018, Loka Ashwood – Professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky – published a book called For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America. Rather than accepting the conversation-ending answer of rugged individualism, Ashwood earnestly investigates the distaste of rural Americans for governmental institutions. The author’s case study is Burke County, Georgia – home to one of two operational nuclear power plants in the state. Among Burke County residents, negative attitudes toward the state are not rooted in ignorance of their own interests, but in years of land loss, environmental degradation, and the understanding that the interests of the government align better with those of the corporation than of its rural dwellers.
I’m late to discovering this crucial work of rural storytelling, but my conversation with Ashwood feels sufficiently pressing today. Enjoy our dialogue about rural anarchism, the present-day ills of utilitarianism, and the field of rural sociology itself, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you tell me more about your background? Where was your interest in rural sociology sparked?
Loka Ashwood: I grew up surrounded by farmers and rural people in the countryside of Illinois. My interest in the stark differences between what was familiar to me and urban spaces began when I was an undergraduate student living on the outskirts of Chicago. My first reaction was to go back close to what I knew, and I interned for a few years as a reporter with the broadcast U.S. Farm report. However, reporting on remarkable communities and farmers began to be edged out 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 consider why a stereotypical treatment of the rural U.S. was one that glorified its struggles, yet also facilitated its extraction. With this mentorship, I received an undergraduate grant to compare the Farm Bill to the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. European policy, in short, also was not doing the best for farmers, but it was doing better than the U.S. I focused on Ireland, which – next to Poland at the time – was experiencing the most rapid decline of farmers. I went on to work on a Master’s degree in Ireland, where I learned of the European Society for Rural Sociology. I found my place with people doing the kinds of research that facilitated the change I sensed was increasingly necessary at the intersection of space, politics, economy, environment, and power. I did a year of direct outreach work on community development with the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, and then returned to my studies with the remarkable faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, especially my PhD advisor, Dr. Michael M. Bell whose work inspired me.
DY: What does the liberal-conservative binary miss about anarchist tendencies present in rural America, which you discuss in a paper you authored in 2018?
LA: Anarchism captures animosity toward the state (anti-statism) as well as a vision for a world where state imposition of power over life is unnecessary (statelessness). Rural people who call themselves agrarianists or pagans are not necessarily Republican or Democrat. They do, however, often idealize a stateless vision for society, and even connect the decay of rural America to the rise of cities. The stereotypes applied to city-slickers and their accused lack of self-provisioning can be part of the stateless vision.
The anti-state approach to politics is where you’ll find rural people at work across political lines to stop extraction or to complain about government handouts. Anti-statism is, in short, “I want less of […this…] kind of government.” Someone who votes Democrat or Republican may have different words to put in those brackets, but sometimes they want precisely the same thing. The mistake we seem to be making these days is disallowing people to work together to make change by replacing who they are with the candidate they vote for. We need alternatives outside of the electoral system.
DY: You write that “The Code of Federal Regulations stipulates that nuclear power plants can be sited only in rural places, to control for risks.” What does the rule of numbers mean for rural America? How is it possible that its residents, “relatively few in number, are rendered insignificant” when political pundits of all stripes so often point out, for instance, the rural bias in the U.S. Senate?
LA: The U.S. government is only partially about elections and likewise politicians. It’s also about non-elected positions which are codified through administrative lawmaking carried out by agencies. You name the topic, we have the agency. All of these agencies are required by law to utilize cost-benefit analysis when they determine how and where to spend money. Cost-benefit analysis is majoritarian. A crude example of this logic at work is water monitoring and quality – state and national environmental agencies privilege urban places because more people live there, in effect enabling the most egregious environmentally harmful activities in rural spaces. At the end of the day, that’s not good for anyone.
Utilitarianism, at the heart of cost-benefit analysis, has a sinister history in our country. Jeremy Bentham’s logic justified slavery, the idea that if we sacrifice a minority (people of color) it will be better for the majority (white people). This logic accumulates burden on minorities – which is why the poorest people in the U.S. are the Indigenous and Black people of color living in rural places.
One final note on this. The electoral system confuses power. It suggests that your one vote counts just like anyone else’s. But what if there is only one party that has political power proximate to where you live, a common enough occurrence in rural places? What if you only have two parties and you’re not particularly fond of either of them? Parties mediate the power of any one vote through a web of bureaucracy that constrains the direct action important to the people who go to the polls.
DY: In one particularly gripping moment in the book, you describe how one Burke County resident refers to the government and the power company with the same pronoun in the same sentence, a malignant “they.” This malleable border between the state and the corporation is a major theme of For-Profit Democracy, and does not seem fundamentally altered by the politics of the moment. Why is there so little mention of partisan politics in the book? Is it your view that Republicans and Democrats do not meaningfully differ in their willingness to sacrifice rural livelihoods to the ‘greater good’?
LA: In the context of this text – where nuclear power is the industry and land grabbing the local result – I would say yes, Republicans and Democrats alike leave the people of Burke County with little representation. One mistake would be to think, however, that the root of this problem is merely electoral. Rural people’s property rights today and historically have faced encroachment by predatory development corporations and state-sponsored projects. Corporations utilize partition sales to dispossess largely Black farmers and landowners who leave their land in the hands of their heirs. If those heirs missed a tax bill or one out of a hundred wanted to sell, a court-appointed executor could force the entire parcel(s) 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 either event, people locally are dispossessed, and you see this over and over again with pipelines and other projects taking away rural people’s capital and centralizing it in corporate coffers.
How can they do this, we might ask? It’s because of the laws on the books at the state level and confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, that treat energy as synonymous with public good (regardless of who is making the profit from producing it) and likewise privileges the property rights of those entities (i.e. corporations) that can prove they are making the most money (regardless of whether only a handful of executives make most of it).
DY: Lastly, 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 think about the divide between sociology and economics? Was delving into one or the other for the first time difficult for you? Do you have any advice for someone moved by the work of rural sociology, but intimidated by the economic knowledge it requires?
LA: I’ve found that my ideas are mostly distillations of conversations and observations with people who live with these problems every day. I see my work as helping them to identify what causes those problems, in whatever depth that requires, to serve democracy and strengthen their communities.
To do so, one needs to work against the grain of conventional economic theory. Rural sociology often does as much, so in effect it serves more as a lifeline that connects localized outcomes with meta structures. Still, it can seem intimidating because you are not only trying to understand a field, but you are trying to understand everything in a way different from what you have been conventionally taught. But it’s absolute liberation.
Rural sociologists as a group tend to be grounded and down to earth because they seek to make the world better through the work they do. Sometimes, there’s strength in small numbers, and rural sociologists are small in number. Maybe that’s an important lesson for utilitarians. Small is beautiful.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.