Eilert Sundt Lecture 2019: revenge of places that don’t matter

How does the rising discontent affect political behavior in the EU? And how do people from the so-called “places that don’t matter” – vent their anger against the system at the ballot box?

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Don’t matter: Brexit, the election of Trump and populist mouvements in Europe are all excamples of protests from people from “places that don’t matter”. (Photo: NTB/ Scanpix)

Andrés Rodríguez-Pose is a professor of Economic Geography at London School of Economics and this year’s lecturer of Eilert Sundt Lecture, which takes place November 19.th. In this interview, he evaporates à bit more on his topic for the lecture.

– You have called your lecture “The revenge of the places that don’t matter”. What kind of places are you referring to?

– A place that “doesn’t matter” is a place that is being left behind, that has experienced long periods of economic and industrial decline, as well as outward migration and brain drain.

Andrés Rodríguez-Pose

More importantly, “places that don’t matter” are places where the feeling that there is no future and no hope is pervasive. This belief comes both from an internal sense of despair and from outsiders telling them that the future lies elsewhere.

– Discontent as an explanation seems to be the keyword to understand political behaviour I Europe and elsewhere. What is this discontent about (to generalize) and how is it expressed?

– Discontent refers to the unhappiness and gloom experienced by people living long-term declining regions – be them rural areas, old industrial towns or medium-sized and small cities – as a consequence of the lack of opportunities and economic development prospects they face.

– Discontent so far is mainly manifesting itself at the ballot box, with citizens from “places that don’t matter” voting for anti-system parties. However, this discontent is already moving from the ballot box to conflict and violence, as we are seeing in the case of the ‘gilets jaunes’ in France. The line between discontent and violence can, indeed, be very thin.

– In the “places that don’t matter”, people, in their role as voters, are casting their votes to bring down a system they perceive has quashed their potential and their future. So, when voting they are exacting some sort of revenge: if the system provides no future, no opportunities, no jobs, and no hope for them, there should be no hope and no future for everyone. In other words, they have had enough of being patronised and have said, rightly or wrongly, that enough is enough. They have been told for long that they are sinking, that they don’t matter. Now they are intent in showing they matter, by, in an act of desperation, bringing down the whole ship with them. This would explain the election of Donald Trump or the Brexit vote.

– What is your biggest worry in this respect?

– The biggest worry for me is that the alternative being proposed by the parties benefitting from this growing geography of discontent leads us to a very bleak future. They are proposing simple solutions to complex problems, but solutions that are also wrong. We have an economic, social and political system in the western world that has flaws and requires serious reforms. But it is also the system that has given us the longest period of peace, prosperity and equality that we have experienced in our history. This is worth preserving and making sure that it keeps on working for as many people as possible. Going back to the 1930s is not the solution.

– What can, from your point of view, be done (by the authorities/ politicians) to meet the need of the people from underprivileged places and to make both the people and the places matter?

– It is becoming more and clearer that investment and development policies are able to mitigate the rise of discontent largely than social policies and handouts. However, we cannot continue doing more on the same. More imaginative and far better targeted investment policies than those currently on offer are required to address the roots of the problem.

– There is also a need to cover far more areas than the policy focus currently covers. Policies need to become interested in places beyond the large cities and the lagging behind regions that have made the staple of the territorial focus. Areas that are in a development trap require more attention if we are going to revert this growing geography of discontent and resentment and their consequences.

/University of Oslo Public Release. View in full here.