The urban-rural divide: dissecting the culture wars

Saturday 18 November, 12:3013:45, Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, StockholmBattle of Ideas Europe

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This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Stockholm

‘I have seen the future — and it has a Swedish accent,’ declared tech bible Wired when praising Stockholm’s plans to implement new ideas in energy management, eldercare and transportation. But beyond the metropolis, Sweden’s rural communities are shrinking and becoming impoverished as they struggle with the effects of long-term population loss to the cities. Concerns are such that this year Prime Minster Stefan Löfven shunned tradition by not attending Almedalen Week, the annual political festival on Gotland. Instead he opted to travel around the towns and rural areas not usually found on the political map; ‘The fixation with Stockholm is over’ he said, promising more cash and attention for those living in the country.

While the key issues in cities are housing, densification, reducing driving in the city centres and integration of migrants, rural regions prioritise unemployment and a declining tax base, in order to support provision of public and welfare services. But some argue that the real difference is cultural. Whereas Stockholm plays host to a cosmopolitan population of managers, politicians, media and knowledge economy personnel, the countryside is home to farmers, small entrepreneurs, workers in the mineral, forestry and fishing industries. One study of voting preferences last year showed that support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats (SD) is twice as high in the countryside (24.1 percent) as it is in the city (12.1). According to Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, his movement’s rise is not about economic well-being, but cultural identity and divisions between rural voters and those who live in the city. ‘It’s not mainly about money,’ said Åkesson, ‘It’s mainly about values. It’s about how we manage to keep society together.’ Similar divides exist in the US and the UK. David Goodhart’s recent book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, describes a Britain divided between the marginalised ‘people from Somewhere’ – rooted in a specific place or community, socially conservative, often less educated – with those who could come from ‘Anywhere’, who are more likely to subscribe to a cosmopolitan identity and are well-travelled, footloose and metropolitan.

How should we understand Sweden’s urban-rural divide? Does the populist outlook of rural Swedes express the rebellion by those whose concerns have been ignored and routinely pushed aside by a media and political elite?  Should we understand the rise of new antagonisms of non-urban dwellers as a challenge to the city-based cosmopolitan elites’ values or a as fight to cling on to traditional attachments? Is the rural-urban divide merely a ‘morbid symptom’ of a dying political order, or are the sentiments expressed the first signs of a democratic renewal?