The Rural-Urban Divide

13 November 2010


The Space Needle and Mount Rainier visible from downtown Seattle

I would like to draw attention to an article on the BBC, Viewpoint: How urban-rural divide sways US politics, by British author Jonathan Raban. It is nice to see, in a forum that I respect, a thoughtful and intelligent piece on the rural-urban divide which, moreover, takes the Pacific Northwest as its point of departure. Raban has lived in Seattle for twenty years, and so is intimately familiar with the political issues that have shaped the region in the recent past, and so have shaped my life in particular.

There is no question that Raban is right that the fundamental ideological split in the US is not between left-leaning states and right-leaning states, but rather between large urban areas on the one hand and small towns and rural areas on the other. From a strictly demographic point of view — since a few years ago humanity passed the landmark of being a mostly urban species (with more the 50% of human beings living in cities) — the handwriting is on the wall for the future of this ideological split.

Raban writes that, “it’s depressingly hard to see how this profound division might be healed, either here in Washington or in the nation at large.” While this divide will not be healed, the long term effect of urbanization will mean that this split will only continue to increasingly favor urban populations in the long term. Thus regardless if the split is healed, there will be a resolution as small towns and rural areas are more and more marginalized over time, because, as Thucydides said, the strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must.

Ultimately, the political dominance of cities is both a product of and a driver of the industrial revolution; the rise of cities as a political power is tied to the industrial revolution: the two are joined in a process of coevolution. The changes of the industrial revolution were primarily founded and felt in the cities. Cities went from being administrative, cultural and religious centers to being fundamentally centers of industrial production, and, almost as much, centers of consumption. The revolutions that have shaped political life since the modern period have primarily been incubated in cities (with the obvious exception of Mao’s revolution); indeed, it was a cornerstone of Marxist thought that it would be the immiserated industrialized proletariat of the cities that would expropriate the expropriators.

There were profound changes in the countryside as a consequence of industrialization, but the primary change, once industrialization was in full swing, was the depopulation of the countryside. When ninety percent of the populace of a political entity resides in the rural countryside, the rural countryside has the power derived from pure weight of numbers. Local feudal nobility lived on their estates in the country and ruled them as petty tyrants, which they had the power to do because they were producing food and the king and upper nobility depended upon them to do so.

The depopulation of the countryside in the wake of scientific and industrial changes in agricultural meant at the same time the political impoverishment of the countryside. And when the countryside was depopulated, where did these populations move? Into the cities, and with them they took the political power that derives from sheer numerosity. The continuing development of the industrial revolution in the industrialized countries, as well as the spread of the industrial revolution to other regions of the world, has only accelerated the depopulation of the rural countryside; this is a development that has yet to reach its apotheosis.

While I am not projecting an exponential growth curve (industrialization has already experienced exponential growth in western countries, and this growth curve is now a sigmoid curve), we can safely extrapolate further urbanization from present trends. If industrialized civilization continues in its present form of development, and does not experience any truly profound strategic shocks (like the emergence of an alternative form of civilization), I can easily imagine that the rural-urban divide of medieval feudalism — a time of nearly pure agriculturalism — might be entirely turned on its head, and instead of a rural-urban split of about 90 percent to 10 percent, we may yet see a rural-urban divide of 10 percent to 90 percent. And if ninety percent of the world’s population eventually lives in cities, this will have a profound influence on politics, culture, and upon civilization itself.

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7 Responses to “The Rural-Urban Divide”

  1. lorenza said

    Raban’s article caught my attention too yesterday and I remembered Harvey’s comments on Soft City (1974) in The Condition of Postmodernity. I really enjoyed reading your comments on it.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Lorenza,

      I’m glad you saw the Raban piece on the BBC. Thanks for bringing my attention to Harvey’s book. Since you earlier brought my attention to Ian Nairn I have obtained one of his books by interlibrary loan.

      I am very skeptical of any use of the term “postmodern” to identify a socio-cultural period as much as I am skeptical of the use of “post-industrial” to identify a socio-economic period. It seems to me that writers invoke “post-” something-or-other when they understand that there has been a change, but they do not yet fully understand the meaning and significance of the change. While this represents conceptual progress over not realizing that there has been a change, it points to the need for further conceptual work to discern the exact character of an age.

      In other words, “post-” is a cipher for an unknown age.

      Best wishes,


  2. carlos9900 said

    Nick, very nice post. I am using the graph for a presentation. I think Parag Khanna is using your same expression on the “urban species.”

    • geopolicraticus said

      Glad to hear you found it interesting, and thanks for the link. It is especially timely as I have been preparing a post on Parag Khanna, although now I see I will have to do a little more research as I was unaware of this article.

      If you’d like to elaborate, I would be interested to hear anything you’d like to pass along about your presentation.

      Best wishes,


  3. Amanda said

    The graph’s population should be labeled millions not thousands.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Amanda,

      Thank you for pointing out this error in the graph. When I looked closely I saw the problem. The label was off by several orders of magnitude. It should have been “billions” rather than “thousands.” I have since changed the label on the graph, and I greatly appreciate your attention to detail that made it possible for me to correct this.

      Best wishes,


  4. Alice said

    Dear Nick,

    I work for an educational publisher called Garnet Education in the UK. We are shortly to produce a book entitled: C21, English for the 21st Century. In the book, we would like to use the graph titled ‘The Urban and Rural Population of the World, 1950-2030’ from your blog post.

    These course materials are of an educational nature and are aimed at students preparing for higher education study at an English-medium college or university. The book will be sold and distributed around the world. The proposed print run is 10,000 copies for print and the same again for eBook.

    I hope that you will be able to grant us permission to use this material for which full acknowledgement will be made. If you have any preferred wording for the acknowledgement, please let us know and we will endeavour to accommodate this. If you do not control the rights to the material mentioned above, I would be most grateful for the name and address of the copyright holder.

    If you could contact me back with your response and any questions on I would be very grateful. We are working to a very tight schedule with this title, so I would be grateful to hear from you before Friday 29th April.

    With kind regards,

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