Rural and City Folk ARE Different, and History Shows this Isn’t New

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Michael Rapport is a professor of history at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His latest book is The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution (Basic Books, 2017).

The poor people seem poor indeed: the children terribly ragged, if possible worse clad than with no clothes at all; as to shoes and stockings they are luxuries. A beautiful girl of six or seven years playing with a stick, and smiling under such a bundle of rags as made my heart ache to see her. They did not beg, and when I gave them anything seemed more surprised than obliged. One-third of what I have seen of this province seems uncultivated, and nearly all of it in misery.

So observed the British traveller Arthur Young from his carriage window as he rolled into Brittany in western France in September 1788. Young’s diary – first published in 1792 as Travels in France during the years 1787, 1788 & 1789 – records in detail the people he encountered on his journeys, the conversations he had, the towns he visited and the architecture of the buildings he inspected. He was a technocrat, an expert in farming who was Secretary to the British Board of Agriculture, so he describes the landscapes over which his coach rumbled and jolted, the crops that he saw growing in the fields, and the conditions of the peasantry whom he met and with whom he chatted. And he did all this just as the society that he so vividly described was about to be torn apart by the French Revolution. Young’s descriptions of rural poverty are particularly striking, especially when placed alongside his pen-sketches of some of France’s great cities. The fact that he was never uncritical meant that when Young did lavish praise he really meant it. The Champs-Elysées, the Place Louis XV (today’s Place de la Concorde) and the Tuileries Gardens in Paris he praised as “open, airy, elegant, and superb” and as for Bordeaux, “much as I had read and heard of the commerce, wealth, and magnificence of this city, they greatly surpassed by expectations.”

This, admittedly extreme, contrast between rural squalor and urban grandeur reminds us that the “urban-rural divide,” a modern-day global phenomenon that is being researched, discussed and worried about from a wide range of perspectives, has deep historical resonance. Today’s concerns about urban-rural differences in levels of poverty, especially among children and the aged; in employment and of the types of job available; in cultural and educational opportunities, would not have looked out of place to late-eighteenth-century Europeans like Young, nor to subsequent observers in the nineteenth century. There is also a political layer to this division, today and in the past, as political scientists and journalists probe how far recent electoral shocks, such as the British vote to leave the European Union in June 2016 and Donald Trump’s election the following November, can be explained by a rural base sweeping aside the opposition of the cities. The French presidential election in April-May 2017 to some extent bucked the trend: in the contest between the far-right Marine Le Pen and the centrist Emmanuel Macron, there was, loosely-speaking, an east-west divide, with voters in the west and south-west coming out strongly in favor of Macron, the east and the Mediterranean coast tending more to support Le Pen. Yet even here, it is striking that the great cities – Paris, Lyon, Marseille, for example – were Macron-supporting oases within Le Pen-voting regions.

The urban-rural divide is real in almost every sense, economic, social, political and cultural. At the root of modern-day concerns are poverty, unemployment and the decline of the economic activities that gave rural areas their vitality, including agriculture and the extraction industries. One of the characteristics of relative rural languor is the movement of country-dwellers who are able to move into metropolitan areas, leaving those who are not behind. This, too, has historical echoes. In a process explored by Eugen Weber in his seminal 1976 work, Peasants into Frenchmen, by 1914 the French countryside had been gradually if unevenly integrated into the state and the wider national economy and had absorbed national – for which read urbanized – forms of culture. Yet some of the many critics of Weber’s thesis suggest that the forces of modernization, including the expansion of the railways and schooling, may actually have made much of the French countryside more rural and peasant in its character. This was because those who could move away did so, especially the young and literate who saw greater opportunities in the towns, leaving their home villages all the poorer. We see a similar dynamic at work around the world today, including in rural America.

Yet studying the past also warns us against giving too much weight to one factor – in this case, geography – as against others. Stark, real and worrying though the urban-rural divide around the world is, some present-day analysts have also noted the challenges common to both towns and countryside. In eighteenth-century Europe, for example, some anxious observers noted that as cities grew, so traditional patterns of life within the urban community began to break down. This was most pronounced in London, whose population swelled to over a million by 1800 and where a well-heeled, prosperous West End had grown up, allowing the elites to leave the City and the East End to the working population. In Paris, with its 600,000-strong population, this process was also underway, but was less pronounced, so that in 1789 it was still common to find neighbors from different social and economic layers still living in the same tenement buildings, stratified so that the higher the floor, the poorer the occupants. New York in 1776 was much smaller, so while distinctive neighborhoods of rich, poor and middling existed, the different social groups were never too distant from each other. These differences, I argue in my new book, The Unruly City, may have been one reason that Paris and New York experienced revolutions, but London did not.

What this tells us is that the geographical divisions between rich and poor vary in character from one context to another. It also shows that problems such as poverty and social segregation – with some communities being left behind others – are common to both town and countryside. The precise nature of the problems may have different configurations of causes, dynamics and effects in different places. They are certainly more acute in rural areas: research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has shown that the poverty rate in rural counties is significantly greater than it is in metropolitan ones. Yet the problems still cut across the urban-rural divide. According the September 2016 U.S. Census report on Income and Poverty in the United States: 2015, 16.7 percent of people in rural areas are poor. That 13 percent of urbanites are also poor is only marginally less shocking.

There is a corollary to the point that rural and urban areas face common problems: it is that town and country are also mutually dependent. Today’s political expression of rural-urban differences on the electoral maps around the world may obscure both the similarities of the challenges that both types of area face and the interdependence of town and city folk. This, too, was evident in the past. One of the two great political dynasties of revolutionary New York, the Livingstons (the other one was the Delanceys) founded much of their influence on their landownership in Dutchess County, in the great hinterland of the Hudson Valley.

Urban-rural dependence could, of course, be thorny. The reliance of revolutionary Paris upon imports of food from the surrounding countryside – and the suspicion that peasants and their noble landlords would deliberately withhold that supply to crush the Revolution itself – was a factor in the insurrectionary activity of the Parisian crowd. The sullenness or, worse, hostility between city and rural dwellers was mutual, for while the agriculture of the region around Paris prospered from feeding the French capital, during the Terror the Parisian sans-culottes formed revolutionary armies to march out into the countryside and requisition food stocks from the peasants.

Yet it was more often a positive relationship: cities, then as now, relied on migration from both rural areas and abroad to flourish (in the 1770s, two out of three Londoners or Parisians were born in the provinces, or abroad – and one English person in every six had spent some time in London). In the U.S. today, one of the positive stories to emerge is that entrepreneurship is strikingly vibrant in rural areas, probably of necessity – and evidence suggests that the more rural a county, the higher the level of self-employed business proprietors. An energetic private sector is one of the keys to a healthy economy in general, and is the foundation of a well-funded public sector – and both benefit metropolitan and rural areas alike. So it may well be that the historic, mutual dependence between town and country, if nourished by individual initiatives and nurtured with the right forms of investment in such areas as infrastructure and education, may provide part of the solution to the problems that beset both city and countryside, and thereby ease the inequalities inherent in the urban-rural divide.

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