RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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402 Troubling Rustbelt Revolts: Regional Geographies of Discontent and Political Grievance (2): Demystifying Narratives of Political Economic Grievance and Right-Wing Populism
Convenor(s) Sarah Knuth (Durham University, UK)
Gordon MacLeod (Durham University, UK)
Chair(s) Gordon MacLeod (Durham University, UK)
Timetable Friday 30 August 2019, Session 4 (16:50 - 18:30)
Room Sherfield/SALC Building, Room 5
Session abstract A visceral geography of discontent has been troubling the political landscapes of several hitherto bastions of liberal democracy. If perhaps most strikingly articulated in the UK Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as US President, it also surfaced in significant support for the far-right parties avowedly hostile to the European Union which competed in the national elections of France, Austria, and Germany (Dijkstra et al, 2018; Hendrickson et al, 2018). Even allowing for how such populist and anti-establishment electoral campaigns have garnered substantial votes among the wealthy and middle-classes, support for Brexit and anti-EU parties appears to be most conspicuous in regions enduring protracted industrial decline and in distressed rural and coastal localities. Similarly the 2016 US Presidential election saw many desolate farm towns and former industrial heartlands of the Midwest disregard a traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party in favour of a brazenly impulsive billionaire. In what is being variously labelled as a ‘revolt of the rustbelt’ (Hazeldine, 2017; McQuarrie, 2017) or the ‘revenge of places that don’t matter’ (Rodríguez-Pose, 2018), many communities appear to have been registering grievances about how the process of globalization – much-fêted by business leaders and political elites alike for its tendency to agglomerate wealth in major metropolitan centres (PwC, 2016; Florida, 2017) – has left their own localities haemorrhaging jobs, talented people, and public services, and in some cases to precipitate the erasure of a whole way of life.

If the earlier shockwaves of deindustrialization generated a rich seam of geographical research (Bluestone and Harrison, 1982; Martin and Rowthorn, 1986), it would seem that the later waves alongside its associated ‘half life’ have remained relatively under the radar (cf. Longworth, 2009; Goldstein, 2017; Linkon, 2016; Trubek, 2018). One notable characteristic of this ‘half life’ sees a ‘representation gap’ between communities in distressed regions and their continued support for leftist and social democratic political parties (McQuarrie, 2017): hardly surprising given how such parties – in modernizing towards a Third Way partisan-free democracy (Mouffe, 2005) and incorporating liberal cosmopolitans and suburban conservatives alike into their social base – “have organized their contest for voters along lines that ensure that regional decline will not be an issue for national politics” (McQuarrie, 2017: 140). More than this, though, and while such communities have witnessed metropolitan financial elites being grossly over-compensated just as they have been left to nurse renewed scars of deindustrialization and deepening austerity, so they began to feel displaced in socio-cultural terms, even provincialized, whether by the ‘meritocratic snobbery’ of a coastal elite and its derisory approach to ‘flyover country’ or the condescending metropolitan bias exhibited by many New Labour politicians and indeed much of the London-based commentariat (Galston, 2017; Elliott, 2017; Hazeldine, 2017). Acknowledgement of this ‘representation gap’ and of the regionally articulated erosion of consent for the hegemony of globalizing neoliberal capitalism could help reveal how and why communities located in places experiencing prolonged socio-economic disinvestment have been so persuaded by populist pledges to ‘restore manufacturing in America’ or ‘make Britain great again’, alongside anti-globalist promises to ‘take back control’ over industry, borders, immigration, or sovereignty (Longworth, 2016; Pacewick, 2016; Clarke and Newman, 2017; Rodrik, 2017; McClelland, 2018; MacLeod and Jones, 2018). While the iconoclastic left critic Slavoj Žižek has interpreted the election of Donald Trump to signal a ‘crack in the liberal centrist hegemony’ (Eaton, 2019), given the present political climate and with twenty-first century capitalism seemingly so weighted in favour of metropolitan hotspots of finance, creativity and tech (Florida, 2017), this geography of discontent surely poses challenges for harnessing a progressive politics and strategies for a more just and sustainable spatial economy (Martin et al, 2016).

This session seeks papers that take up these conceptual and strategic questions. Contributions are particularly encouraged on (but not limited to) the following themes and questions:

• It is important to reveal the evolution of the precise embedded economic harms and the articulated grievances of particular places, as well as how such experiences are interconnected and shared within and across localities and regions. In what has been at times euphorically trumpeted as an emerging urban century (Glaeser, 2011), might there be a need to rebalance this focus so as to investigate metropolitan spaces in relational association to their rural and regional hinterlands (McCann, 2016)?

• There is also an obvious case for work that extends beyond the now de-privileged former industrial heartlands of the USA and Europe to interrogate the geography of deindustrialization in the Global South, not least those – such as Brazil – that are witnessing their own rise of populist discontent (Schindler, 2018). Such studies would also serve to place in context the claims about ‘America First’ and the white revanchism of populist demagogues like Trump.

• How might geographers imagine more durable livelihood chances? And what geographical political economies and material ad social arrangements will support such new shared prosperity? Do new welfare states require re-imaginations of production (ostensibly ‘post-industrial’ or ‘post-material’) as well as a revised understanding of the politics of distribution? Notably, any such ventures are duty bound to undertake a more meaningful engagement with the impending disasters of fossil capitalism, and the necessity for dealing with the grievances and reparations of a clean energy economy (Knuth, 2019).

• Equally, geographers have an important responsibility to envision progressive political moments which might be vitalized around the shared injustices and pains of the present conjuncture. Of course, there is the very real and present danger of a lurch towards further authoritarian government. Nonetheless, the seeming disruption of a post-political consensus democracy – viewed to have done much to suture the scope for meaningful critique of neoliberal capitalism – may also herald the scope for renewing democratic institutions, whether via a revived social democratic regulation of a more just capitalism or left populisms, and whether articulated from within the workplace to the sphere of housing to health care or political organizations (Mouffe, 2018; Sutowski, 2018; Swyngedouw, 2018).
Linked Sessions Troubling Rustbelt Revolts: Regional Geographies of Discontent and Political Grievance (1) Regional Geographies of ‘Left Behindness’ and Socio-Institutional Exclusion
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Revolt of the Peripheries? From "Petismo" to "Bolsonarismo" in Brazil's Marginalised Urban Territories
Matthew Richmond (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK / Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil)
Electoral data show that the poor peripheries of wealthy metropolises in Southern Brazil swung heavily in favour of recently elected far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. Having previously been important bastions of support for the Workers' Party (PT) in presidential elections, the shift has been interpreted by some as evidence of a rejection of the Party's redistributive policy agenda. According to this argument, lower-income populations who benefited from job creation, social programmes and rising consumption during Brazil's long boom came to adopt more individualistic and meritocratic attitudes, as well as a social conservatism promoted by rapidly growing Evangelical churches. Based on extensive fieldwork conducted in low-income peripheral neighbourhoods in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro between 2013 and 2018, this paper argues that rather than fundamental ideological change it is transformations of place, and the ways these articulate with formal politics, that explain recent electoral shifts in peripheries. Peripheral voters do not, on the whole, reject the PT's redistributive agenda. However, changes to everyday life in peripheries have opened up a space in which conservative narratives could gain traction – in particular, those concerning urban (in)security and means-tested benefits. Meanwhile, the decline of grassroots institutions that had previously articulated support for the PT in peripheries (trade unions, social movements, radical Catholic organisations) has produced a more fragmented institutional landscape. In this environment, Evangelical groups and right-wing political networks making effective use of social media, have been able to grow and push their political agendas.
Revolt of the Peripheries? The Changing Political Geography of Germany
Tim Leibert (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Germany)
After decades of relative stability, the German party system is changing rapidly. The parties that have dominated the political landscape for decades – the centre-right Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats are faced with declining voter support at all administrative levels. The rise of the far-right “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) – which describes itself as bourgeois and conservative – marks the dawning of a new age in German politics. Not only is the extreme right represented in the Bundestag for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. The simultaneous decline of the Christian and Social Democrats, the stabilisation of the Liberals and the Left Party and the current boom of the Greens makes the formation of stable majority governments increasingly difficult. The changes in the German party system have been linked to the “refugee crisis” and the “Euro crisis”, but also to the peripheralisation of rural and old industrialised regions and the effects of globalisation. Some political commentators see an increasing polarisation between a cosmopolitan, socially liberal and urban voting bloc represented by the Greens and a conservative, anti-European, anti-immigration, anti-diversity and predominantly rural voting block represented by the AfD. They argue that the traditional political cleavages are replaced by “identity politics” and that the antipodes in the German party system are no longer the Social and Christian Democrats but the Greens and the AfD. Common wisdom holds that the “losers of modernity” who feel threatened by immigration, social change and globalisation are the core constituency of the far right while the “winners of modernity” who embrace diversity and change support the Greens or the liberal Free Democrats. This view is not uncontroversial. There are also studies that the middle- and upper classes are most likely to support the extreme right. Based on cluster analyses of the results of the Bundestag elections 2013 and 2017, the European elections 2014 and 2019 and the 2018 state elections in the socio-economically polarised Länder Bavaria and Hesse at the district level, the spatial pattern and change of regional party systems will be analysed (see Leibert and Haunstein 2018): How is the change of local party systems linked to the socio-economic and infrastructural peripheralisation of rural and old industrialised regions? Do voting patterns support the notion of an increasing polarisation between centres and peripheries? And how do voting patterns reflect the regional disparities within Germany?
From Brexit…to the Break-Up of England? Thinking in and Beyond Nationalism
Allan Cochrane (The Open University, UK)
This paper sets the experience of Brexit in the context of the UK’s reshaping and redefinition over recent decades, with a particular focus on the troubled (re)emergence of ‘England’ as an imagined political territory. It analyses Brexit as a symptom of the political, economic and social geography of the UK, its uneven development in a spatial polity dominated by London and the South East of England. The divisions within the UK were reflected in the voting patterns of the 2016 referendum and this may have significant implications for the UK’s future as a multinational state, and particularly for England as a central pillar of that state. The paper explores some of the key factors that underlay the geographical patterns of how England and its regions voted in the referendum, highlighting the importance of uneven development in generating significant political outcomes and embedding social difference in place. It draws on geographical concepts to explore England’s changing position within the UK as a political and economic entity. And it reflects on some of the complexities of constructing an English national identity, at the same time as the political space of Englishness is becoming less rather than more certain – not only are most of England’s cities becoming increasingly multicultural and even cosmopolitan, but some of the older (now often post-)industrial areas are becoming increasingly marginalised and consigned to decay. ‘London’ is both a symbol of globalised economic power in place and a fundamentally divided and unequal space, so simple stories of London versus the rest fit uneasily with the emergent geographies of England’s continued search for a post-imperial settlement.
Regional Geographies of Content? Australian Interventions in ‘Rustbelt’ Regions
Sally Weller (University of South Australia, Australia)
John Tierney (Australian Catholic University, Australia)
In 2015, all three of the international automobile manufacturers assembling cars in Australia ¬ Ford, Holden and Toyota ¬ announced their phased withdrawal from local production. The multiple long and short-term factors contributing to their decision are discussed elsewhere (e.g. Beer, 2018). The closures would produce XXXX direct job losses from the OEM lead firms, and a further anticipated XXXX job losses as dependent supplier firms close down. Estimates of indirect jobs in affected localities and their wider regions have vary and depend on the effectiveness of remedial assistance. Policymakers in Australia – where the trade union movement retains a voice in government through its association with one of two major political parties, the Australian Labor Party, now in opposition – have long adopted labour and regional adjustment policies intended to smooth the impacts of structural change. These initiatives largely forestall the ‘revolt of the rustbelt’ evident in more overtly market economies (Hazeldine, 2017; McQuarrie, 2017). In Australia, these places do matter (cf Rodriguez-Pose, 2018), and there is long history of bipartisan support, under both Labor and conservative Liberal governments, for the provision of structural adjustment assistance to regions and industries experiencing rapid change (Beer, 2016), especially when the change is occurring in a marginal electorate. Bipartisan acceptance of these essentially redistributive initiatives is one of the many reasons why the adjective neoliberal sits uneasily with the Australian context. The explanation is structural: without these interventions, given Australia’s compulsory voting and a system of preferential voting, electorates in marginal areas would be vulnerable to capture by charismatic independents. As a consequence, McQuarrie’s (2017) ‘representation gap’ does not exist in Australia, since both major parties work tirelessly to stifle the political fringes. This system also encourages the policies of the two major parties to converge in a battle for the support of the moderate centre. This paper suggests that of the multiple purposes of structural adjustment assistance, the political objective of ‘being seen to act’ and the policy imperative to concretise cooperative and partisan-free models of governance are at least as important – perhaps more important – as the material effects of these policies for the individuals and regions concerned (see also author, 2018). What is important about the Australian case is that here there remains a mainstream acknowledgement of redistribution as a political imperative. The result is an absence of outside-the-tent progressive political moments in disadvantaged locations, but at the same time a worrying advance of post-political technologies of governance.
Discussant
Kathrin Hörschelmann-Glendinning (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Germany)
Discussant