- For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government Is Losing the Trust of Rural Americaby Loka Ashwood
A welcome addition to the spate of recent books examining rural America, sociologist Loka Ashwood's For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government Is Losing the Trust of Rural Americaseeks to explain the pervasive distrust of government in rural communities. Rather than characterize rural antistatism as reactionary, Ashwood argues that it has resulted from governance dictated by "the 'rule of numbers,' by which most is considered best" (p. ix). Oriented toward profit and corporate interests, federal and state governments have targeted rural communities for high-risk, polluting industries and have consistently favored "corporate land claims" (p. 67). For-Profit Democracylocates [End Page 754]the roots of government distrust in these developments, thus dignifying rural antistatism as a logical outcome of an exploitative system.
The site of Ashwood's study is Burke County, Georgia, home to the nuclear Vogtle Electric Generating Plant and bordering the expansive Savannah River Site (SRS) nuclear waste repository. Although the nuclear plant delivers tax revenue to the county, Burke County is designated as a "persistent-poverty county" (p. 8). Facing poverty, dispossession of land, racial division, and violence, Burke County exemplifies the sad reality where risky industries situated in poor, rural places rarely result in local economic transformation. Even with two new reactors under construction, residents seem less concerned with those additions and more disgruntled with the corporate-government power the Vogtle plant represents. For Ashwood, landownership is central to local people's discontent. Both Georgia Power and the state of Georgia own a sizable portion of land surrounding the plant, and due to eminent domain, residents rightly perceive their powerlessness in the face of these interests. The state's failure to "uphold just distribution of property ownership" violates the "moral economy of democracy" and fuels rural disaffection (pp. 56, 67).
The book's richest material occurs when Ashwood documents her time with local people. She goes boating with "rural rebel" William, a poacher with hard-earned environmental knowledge who is inclined to ignore SRS warning signs along the Savannah River; she participates in target practice with others; and she finds herself discussing everything from Jesus to school segregation. Those conversations alone make For-Profit Democracycompelling to read.
Ashwood's sources are both a strength and a weakness. The author relies on interviews frequently, and some claims seem overly anecdotal rather than verifiable. Greater precision in terms of data and land-use history would have strengthened her argument. For instance, it is not entirely clear how much land in Burke County that Georgia Power and the state of Georgia own; Ashwood highlights that both entities own approximately 42 percent of land within a five-mile radius of the Vogtle plant. However, that landownership only constitutes around 2.75 percent of the county's total land. To be fair, the Savannah River Site adjacent to the county better illustrates her claims due to its size and history. Is the problem actual dispossession, or the perception of a government with limitless power to seize land and to defend corporate interests?
Dispossession of land is not a new theme in southern history, but Ashwood's study powerfully illustrates its far-reaching consequences for one community. In The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America(New York, 1974), John Egerton laments the Tennessee Valley Authority's bullying of landowners to develop the Land Between the Lakes recreational area. At stake for Egerton was losing a sense of place, all for the utilitarian purpose that Ashwood similarly documents, when the "rule of numbers" supersedes property rights. Georgia Power and the SRS may not have submerged Burke County under water, but their presence has altered the fabric of the community. For-Profit Democracydocuments the political and social fallout of a profit-driven, corporate-minded government, leaving parts of rural America feeling more like occupied territory than home. [End Page...