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The farmers’ revolt against green politics

Across Europe and North America, neglected urban and rural citizens are aligning in a new class struggle.

By Michael Lind

Throughout Europe, rural rebels are mobilising in protest by honking horns and wielding tractors rather than pitchforks. The current wave of farmer protests began last year in Poland, then spread to Germany and France, inspiring uprisings in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Romania and, recently, Wales.

In 2018, the streets of central Paris were barricaded by the gilets jaunes or yellow vests movement. This began, like many of the recent protests, as a demonstration against fuel price rises justified by environmental concerns and whose costs fell chiefly on the inhabitants and businesses of the non-metropolitan periphery. In the Netherlands in March last year, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), symbolised by tractor convoys, gained enough support from opponents of the Dutch establishment to become the biggest party in the upper house of its parliament. The movement was started in 2019 by critics of government plans to reduce nitrogen emissions by eliminating thousands of farms and reducing livestock numbers. Likewise, Welsh farmers are protesting against a proposed sustainable farming scheme that includes strict controls on fertilisers and which could cut both livestock and labour on Welsh farms by 11 per cent.

Some have dismissed such protests as far-right conspiracies against liberal democracy, and indeed right-wing extremists have sometimes sought to exploit them for political gain. Other critics dismiss the farmers as members of a pampered special interest group, whining about withdrawals of unjustified subsidies or objecting to reasonable regulations. But right-wing extremists and fuel and agriculture subsidies have existed  for generations. Only factors unique to the present conjuncture can explain these similar, near-simultaneous uprisings.

The grievances of European farmers vary, from competition with Ukrainian wheat imports to increases in the cost of fuel and other inputs in particular countries. But underlying the discontent is the willingness of metropolitan political establishments to sacrifice the short-term material interests of farmers and rural communities to the elite project of a green transition away from fossil fuels.

Whatever the merits of the EU’s Green Deal and British and American equivalents, the costs of a rapid transition to net-zero carbon emissions tend to fall more heavily on the employment and consumption of non-college-educated workers of all races, as well as on the manufacturing and agricultural industries in which they are over-represented. Manufacturing industries and their working-class employees have been driven out, by prices and regulations, from cities such as New York and London, which a college-credentialled overclass seeks to reconstruct as clean, walkable, resort-like settings for high-end consumption by business and finance professionals. Europe’s farmers, once idealised as strategic producers and symbols of national traditions, suffer from the new elite consensus that farmers are obstacles in the campaign to save the planet by decarbonisation.

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In the Netherlands, the “greenlash”arose in response to government plans to reduce national nitrogen emissions by compelling the abandonment of 11,200 farms and the culling of livestock at 17,600 farms, as well as forced transitions from traditional farming to experimental green farming. But the Netherlands’ contribution to global greenhouse emissions is negligible; the policy is all but virtue signalling, with next to no global climate effect. The EU-27 nations emitted 6.4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, below India (6.6 per cent), the US (11 per cent) and China, whose 27 per cent share exceeded those of all developed nations combined.

The EU’s minor contribution to global  emissions questions the assertion that draconian and costly changes, of the kind that have triggered protests, are needed in industry and agriculture. Yet along with stricter domestic regulations, the EU proposes more mandates to address the problem of “carbon leakage” –  the danger that industrial firms will respond to stricter EU environmental rules by relocating their dirty production elsewhere. Green mandates raising the cost of food production, processing and transportation could lead to the contraction of European agriculture and the replacement of its products by imports.

To minimise the possibility of such an acceleration in the offshoring of industry and agriculture, the EU last year enacted a carbon tariff, the Carbon Adjustment Border Mechanism (CABM). But the system will not come fully into effect until 2026, when importers (initially in the strategic industries of cement, iron and steel, aluminium, fertilisers, electricity and hydrogen) will be required each year to declare the greenhouse gas emissions embedded in finished goods produced abroad, and surrender a certain number of CABM certificates, bought from national governments.

The increased paperwork required for this complicated scheme will favour large firms that can hire extra staff to fill out the necessary forms. It could backfire by encouraging multinational agribusinesses to shift production and processing to multiple countries to minimise costs.

A case can be made that countries and blocs such as the EU have the right to reshore or preserve strategic industries such as iron, steel and fertilisers. But honest protectionism with sector-specific tariffs, import quotas or subsidies would be preferable to backdoor protectionism in the implausible aim of saving the world by lowering Europe’s 6 per cent share of global greenhouse emissions to net zero. And if the CABM fails or is watered down, Europe might achieve ambitious climate targets simply by deindustrialising and depending on food grown elsewhere.

At the same time they are asked to bear the brunt of largely symbolic climate change policies, beleaguered rural constituencies have lost their traditional voice in social-democratic parties, and have yet to be adequately represented by parties of the right in Europe and North America. It was not that long ago that industrial and farm workers and small farmers were championed by the radical as well as the moderate left. According to legend, Leon Trotsky, in exile in New York City before the Russian Revolution, began a speech with the words: “Workers and peasants of the Bronx!” Even if that is apocryphal, communists around the world claimed to represent the interests of both kinds of toilers.

Centrist social democracy, too, rested on farmer-labour alliances. The New Deal coalition that dominated US politics for half a century after the Great Depression focused on factory workers in the industrial north-east and farmers in the south and west. In Sweden, Social Democrats laid the foundation for their long dominance with the “Cow Deal” of 1933 between representatives of urban workers and agrarians.

But as the share of the workforce accounted for by farmers and industrial workers has declined, centre-left parties have dissolved old constituencies and elected new ones consisting of two kinds of service-sector workers: highly educated, well-paid professionals and managers concentrated in a small number of metropolitan areas, and disproportionately foreign-born service workers and servants (maids, nannies and gardeners). Meanwhile, working-class and rural citizens are becoming aligned, geographically and culturally.

Like the factory workers who were displaced when corporations offshored industries to cut costs, former farm families and workers may join the ranks of the domestic service proletariat and the low-wage “precariat” that makes up a substantial part of it.

In Europe as in the US, the old distinction between the urban working class and rural farming families has been blurred. The combination of high housing costs and low wages in European and American cities has forced most members of the working class into suburbs and “exurbs” or small towns, with big cities rescued from depopulation only by a constant influx of immigrants replacing the citizens and naturalised immigrants who move out.

Not only agriculture but also manufacturing tend to be located in low-density areas, a trend dating back a century to the dispersal of factories to greenfield sites that road transport and rural electrification made possible. Compared with US cities, non-metropolitan areas have a higher share of employment in both manufacturing and agriculture. The latter employs fewer people in rural America than the largest occupational categories –  in order: government, manufacturing, retail, healthcare and social assistance, with some farm families depending on part-time or full-time work by one member in these occupations.

In Europe and North America, the dichotomy of rural farmers and urban proletarians has given way to a new “rurban” or “exurban” economy, in which less-educated people work in a variety of occupations. The rural workforce is less likely to have a college education than metropolitan residents; increasingly the class divide maps onto the urban/exurban geographic divide.

The new exurban service proletariat lacks the political clout of older trade unions and farmers’ lobbies. But uprisings by European farmers and concessions made by France and other nations have proven the effectiveness of motorised protest against political establishments that ignore legitimate grievances. Globalisation reduces the bargaining power of assembly-line employees by allowing companies to transfer supply chains to low-wage, non-unionised foreign workforces. But this can’t apply to domestic infrastructure, industries and agriculture; infrastructure, including public utilities and transport systems based on rail, road and air, cannot be offshored. Countries can, in theory, import all their food, but a combination of national security considerations and popular support for family farmers leads industrial nations to maintain and subsidise their national food supply.

Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed a striking divide between essential workers in industries such as food processing, manufacturing, transportation and healthcare (which are over-represented outside of dense urban areas), and service workers in amenity sectors, particularly luxury sectors that cater to urban professionals such as restaurants and hair salons. In December 2020, for example, pandemic-induced unemployment was 16.7 per cent for US leisure and hospitality workers, but only 4.3 per cent in manufacturing and 6.1 per cent in business and professional services.

Society’s greater dependence on the disproportionately rural and exurban service workers gives them leverage that hair stylists and waiters lack. Controlling choke points in food production and the distribution of goods gives workers and small producers in agriculture and logistical industries the leverage lost to factory workers – who can be replaced by foreign ones if they seek to unionise or improve union contracts. Instead of single establishments, producers can threaten to shut down the economy. And unlike traditional picket lines, flash mobs of lorries, cars or tractors can coalesce quickly at chosen targets.

The eclipse of manufacturing by infrastructure and family farming as flashpoints of social conflict resembles the earliest phase of the Industrial Revolution. Before factory employment became significant, “agrarianism”, meaning the break-up of large estates and their distribution to family farmers, was often a synonym for “socialism”. Decades before the rise of large manufacturing firms at the end of the 19th century, railroads were the dominant big businesses in the US. Some of the bloodiest labour violence involved railroad strikes, as did early victories for organised labour: the Railway Labor Act of 1926 legalised collective bargaining and created a national system of government arbitration nearly a decade before the same was done elsewhere (by the National Labor Relations Act or “Wagner Act” of 1935).

Eugene Debs, the socialist candidate for US president whom the government jailed during the First World War, began as a labour organiser in the railway industry. So too did A Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and, along with Martin Luther King Jr, one of the two greatest African-American civil rights leaders of the 20th century.

Motorised revolts by the exurban working class, small producers and the self-employed against unjust and ill-conceived economic and social mandates imposed by metropolitan elites could be a future form of class struggle in Europe, North America and other developed regions. Many rural and exurban residents might rally round protesters in occupations outside their own based on a shared resentment of the aggressive overreach of elite urbanites. While the picket lines of the past were accompanied by chanted slogans, class struggles of the future may be led by choruses of honking horns.

[See also: How to fight a class war]


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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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