MUST READ: Why City Air Makes You Free – And Bad


“CITY AIR MAKES you free.” Or, in the original German, Stadtluft macht frei, refers to the early-medieval Germanic tradition that a serf who escaped his feudal master, took refuge in town or city, and manged to live there unclaimed for a year-and-a-day, became a free man. While this arrangement obviously suited the serf in question, it was also, arguably, a boon for the Lord of the Manor. After all, the sort of man (there is no tradition of women being included in this arrangement) bold enough to make his escape from lord, family and friends, and seek his fortune within the walls of town or city, was likely not the sort of troublemaker a medieval potentate would want in his village, filling the heads of his dependents with the dangerous notion of personal liberty. All-in-all, it is possible to represent this tradition as being beneficial to both town and country.

The notion that cities are inherently more likely to produce socially tolerant and politically energetic citizens is not only an old one, it’s a true one. It is certainly the case that, ever since the industrial revolution of the late-eighteenth century, the great manufacturing hubs of Europe and North America have proved fertile breeding-grounds for all manner of liberal and left-wing ideologies. Indeed, without the growth of the urban proletariat, so beloved of Frederich Engels and Karl Marx, socialism would have had nothing to work with.

By the same token, country dwellers, and the small towns that gathered-in their produce and catered to their needs, have always been represented as bastions of tradition and seedbeds of political conservatism. It was here, in the “shires” of England, that “Toryism” sank down its deepest roots. Ditto, the Republican Party of the United States: quintessentially the party of that part of rural and small town America located north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Unsurprisingly, these parties, dedicated to the preservation of traditional hierarchies and the nurturing of established institutions, have tended to be the ones which their state’s electoral systems strongly favoured.

The First-Past-The-Post electoral system (FPP) was particularly notorious for advantaging the rural and small-town electorates over those of the major cities. Urban electorates might rack-up massive majorities for the candidates of the Left, but, in the countryside, with its sprawling electoral boundaries and considerably fewer concentrations of urban voters, it was a very different story. The Right typically won these “marginal” seats with smaller majorities than their left-wing rivals in the big cities, but in numbers often wildly disproportionate to their party’s overall share of the popular vote. Thanks to FPP, a right-wing party’s two-fifths of the votes cast could easily be transmuted into three-fifths of the parliamentary seats.

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New Zealand’s political tradition in relation to urban voters is very different from that of the medieval German serf. In this country, city air was not deemed to make you free; it was said to make you bad. Though a clear majority of New Zealanders have lived in towns and cities for most of the nation’s brief history, the governing elites – both rural and urban – have tended to locate virtue in its rural population, and vice in the teeming streets of its unruly cities.

This ‘rural virtue/urban vice’ dichotomy persists – even to the present day. Speights Breweries (owned by the Japanese) has led the way in this regard: contrasting the stoical and reliable inhabitants of rural New Zealand – “Southern Man” – with the superficial and acquisitive inhabitants of the big cities – especially Auckland. The latest Speights ad, in which a bunch of rugged rural workers teach their awkward mate to dance like the big city-slickers is a bona-fide classic of the genre.

This myth of the “real” New Zealand being something inherently and mysteriously rural explains a lot more than the enduring popularity of “Country Calendar”. In its political guise it is actually extremely damaging to the interests of the urban poor. New Zealand’s urban geography ruthlessly separates the virtuous middle-classes in their “leafy” – i.e. fake rural – suburbs, from the vice-ridden and environmentally blighted neighbourhoods of the dangerous underclasses. In effect, the rural/urban divide, with all its prejudices and adverse moral judgements, has been symbolically replicatedwithin the urban boundary.

It is this withering political alchemy which explains why even the demise of the FPP electoral system, and its replacement with proportional representation, has failed to break the peculiar hold which traditional and deeply conservative ideas continue to exert over very close to half the voting public.

It also explains much of the hostility towards fundamentally important urban issues such as public transport, which is represented by the Mike Hoskings and John Roughans of this world as a form of socialist constriction. What’s needed are roads and motorways, so that the virtuous citizen, free to roam in his car, can locate himself as far from the cities’ morally-suspect lower orders as possible.

The pervasiveness of the rural virtue/urban vice myth similarly explains the widespread refusal of the Right to accept the reality and urgency of climate change. The countryside cannot be disentangled from the extractive and environmentally unsustainable industries it supports. But, accepting this fact means casting rural New Zealand in the role of ecological villain, rather than economic and cultural hero. Unacceptable.

We should not be surprised. Stadtluft macht frei, itself, came to an abrupt end in the thirteenth century when the feudal lords decided that too many of their serfs were seeking, and receiving, freedom in the independent cities of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany). According to the honestly-titled “Statute In Favour of the Princes” of 1232, “cities under royal jurisdiction were forbidden to protect serfs originally owned by the regional princes or their vassals”.

Eight centuries may separate the rulers of New Zealand from those favoured German princes, but the threat which cities pose to the “natural” order of things remains clear. Energetic, diverse, innovative, and creative: the city, in whose absence the word “civilisation” loses all meaning, has, throughout history, refashioned human-beings into something new; something dangerous; something free.

Which, for the powerful, rural and urban, can only ever mean – something bad.


  1. Yet we have two main parties who are essentially alike. Both of whom prop up the global neo liberalism of the last 30 years. Labour started us down that road in the mid 80’s, brought in regressive unfair taxes like GST and passed the CP-TPP into law. Now I see we have the RCEP coming up, also under Labour.

  2. Why don’t we live separately then. Socially and financially. The cities could demonstrate their superior innovation and skill by providing their own economic and physical sustenance .
    D J S

    • Rural people will have to develop our own clique of humanities, law and politics graduates who have never had an actual job, to tell us what to do.
      However would we survive otherwise.

  3. I agree and a great Post @ CT.
    Of course, in AO/NZ elements of your Post have been used to great advantage for the once-were, rural fellows, now happily ensconced in Auckland’s riche boulevards. That’s why bill english, jim bolger, jenny shipely etc. All either one time farmers or are still ‘down on the farm’. And the reason for that, of course, is that’s where the money’s at. Between the farm gate and the end consumer. They never have to lift a finger or crutch a shitty sheep to make billions of dollars.
    Ignore the almost irrelevant politics for a moment and take a simpler look into Nu Zillinds hinter-velds.
    A fellow and his wife arrives from Ireland back in the day and settles onto an all too familiar bog.
    The bog is drained, the bush is cleared and cows and sheep are sown about.
    From those cows and sheep, meat and wool is provided to a northern hemisphere winter bound population because we invented refrigerated shipping to enable that.
    More arrivals, more sheep and cow sowing, more land cleared, more exported….
    More money.
    Any good middleman ( Middle-person) will tell you, get in there. Get in there and latch on to a good thing. Then build about yourself the logical fallacy that it is you, the middle-person, who is, in fact, the one that’s most vital here.
    The national party have convinced the AO/NZ farmer that they are dependant upon the middle-persons the national party represent.
    I understand what you’re writing here I think. I must confess, your superb use of the language leaves me constantly sifting through my dictionary and the web but I think you’re trying to convey the sociological and political ramifications of the rural versus urban culture by suggesting that, those differences go a long way back.
    You’re right. They do.
    Moreover, I was in my rural ‘town’ the other day and was having a conversation with a fellow in an engineering firm who was a kind of like minded soul. We chatted away amicably until we got to politics. It was in there that he was as ignorant as a wart on a camel about our politics. He believed we were being drawn into communism and yet other things he said were inherently social-ist so he constantly contradicted himself. I had to inch away and go home and get drunk.
    If there’s to be one thing to be done immediately, it’s to engage with our rural people. Never mind global warming, never mind the nuances of politics. We absolutely MUST gather our farmers into the urban fold then help us to come together. ( That, came out wrong. )
    Local body rates in small towns, high transportation costs, poor urban health servicing and no public rail transport were all foisted upon rural communities in the 1980’s to deliberately segregate our primary industry from the on-going enlightenments enjoyed by city people. Being exposed to art, culture, i.e. film, plays, stage productions generally, library’s and most importantly to the influence of other, like minded souls is vital and yet it’s entirely overlooked for our rural communities.
    I know what I’m talking about because I was one of the lucky ones who escaped the terrible gravitational pull of the farming family. Living in such an intimate work environment, heaving and labouring with one’s family is a dreadful anchor on those with a more inquiring mind to head out and explore the world.
    But for the traitor middle-persons and their bankster cronies, we’d all like to see our farmers prosper so as we could see the money they earn for our country returned to our economy via taxes. We, as a country of 4.7 million people and perfectly positioned to survive global warming would flourish in all the right ways.

    • You agree people are made better by moving to the city because they become good lefties?
      Read it again CB.
      Country people righties. Righties bad.

      • @ Keepcalmcarryon.
        ” You agree people are made better by moving to the city because they become good lefties?”


    • 1000% COUNTRYBOY.

      Yes we need to use that promised “public affairs” type TV channel like TV7 was, that we are yet to recieve – “so we have a voice to be heard” (said Jacinda)

      So labour you meed to very soon rob another channel from the countless useless channels springing up all over the sky network and get that promised TV channel up now to start sending the meesages out to sell your good messages as the oppoostion are now crowing out your government voices so we are loosing faith in the communities up and down this country.

      Today the channels were full of Paul Goldsmith and Judith Collins and co, but your Government presence was totally absent exept for one hero Winston Peters, our champion .

  4. A potent mix of arrogance and myopic ignorance, this effort Mr Trotter. Unless it’s satire?
    God I hope so.
    It is not the cities shriveling, infrastructure neglected, having their way of life misunderstood and attacked, being preached to on how to farm, hunting bad, conservatism bad.
    No, the cities swell, hotbeds of the (as per your myopia)oh so virtuous left? Where does Hosking live?
    How about some historical virtuous lefties who made a name for themselves after moving to the city to become bettet people Pol Pot anyone? Paris really opened his eyes. Chairman Mao? Shining examples.
    Cities give us bureaucrats, middle men and paper shufflers. And woke idiots. All far more important than food producers obviously, since it’s clearly a childish competition for you.
    Please tell me you are joking and the obvious hypocrisy is on purpose,

    • Pol Pot emptied out Phnom Penh into the Killing Fields as the first thing he did. Seen the picture of the guy waving the pistol? Get it right.

      • Spent some time there chap.
        He’s a fine example of Trotters rural peasant who bettered himself by going urban.
        Trotters image (rural people are just uneducated peasants, only the best of whom make it to the cities) is both insultingly patronizing, but also clearly in the case of some of the worlds most horrendous mass murdering lefties, patently stupid.

      • My take on it is yeah, we do have a dichotomy but (I don’t want to say only but I’m feeling lazy) but only for a select group of ultra orthodox lefties or alt-rights.

        I do think Chris Trotters blog wins the psychology and social terms, rather than a political one. If we accept what ever labels as meaning that we are motivated by deeply held anger and hatred towards other groups, resentment or betrayal by the elites, and a sense of powerlessness and failure in the face of overwhelming corrupting of ones national identity, in both left and right, city of rural town. Then it probably is rightwing.

        But I don’t see right wing people or the values they hold dear as something that would want to destroy themselves. That’s not politics at all.

        I think Pol Pot, Pinochet or even a Brenton Tarrant or even a Tame Iti are deeply deluded in THE how to achieve victory. The principe being to ameliorate the conditions in which conflict can erupt.

  5. Kia ora Chris
    Rural New Zealand is no more homogeneous that its cities. There are large and small holders, corporate farmers, hippy environmentalists and kainga Maori, Filipino contract milkers and German orchardists, the idle poor and the leisured rich, hardworking labourers and industrious landowners, along with the full gamut of vice and virtue.
    A fair few of your readers do hail from rural New Zealand. Often they are the ones who put their names to their comments, and thus they can be judged truly free in a way which the mass of anonymous or pseudonymous commenters are not.
    They may also be erudite, informed, moderate and constructive. The rural connection is important. Cities cannot survive without a rural base, and the rural hinterland is profoundly affected by what happens in the cities. “The land”, whether in its natural or modified state, is also central to our sense of national identity.
    Social change is best brought about by a constructive interaction between city and countryside, involving the exchange of ideas, values and resources. Where city and countryside are at odds with one another (for example the Soviet Union’s campaign against the kulak peasant farmers, or the Khmer Rouge attempt to depopulate Cambodia cities) the outcome is more likely to be malign. If we are to take sides we should take the side of those who combine good sense with good will, those who are fair, open minded, generous and compassionate. Never mind whether they dwell in the city or country.
    City folk, most particularly the “urban poor”, should not lose sight of the truth that the countryside is also their own birthright, and that rural folk are of their own whanau. They should remain open to the strength, virtues and wisdom of those who work most closely with the whenua. None of that can be “damaging to the interests of the urban poor”. Rather it will be an essential to their liberation from the forces of domestic and global capital.

  6. Yep, farming is just big business these days. Dairy is bad for the environment and yet as you say these folk won’t have a bar of any criticism of our primary industry. Well bollocks. The writings on the wall and not before time either. Sorry Dairy farmers but you gotta change and stop fucking the environment. Don’t need all your milk anyway, 90% exported. Us townies want our clean rivers and lakes, not open drains polluted by farming.

  7. Another Leftard who doesnt know where his food comes from and has no idea at all about climate science, quoting zee germans now are we as a defense of massive fraud and social experimentation on us.
    hers one for ya “Arbeit Macht Frei” thats exactly where you would have us all isnt it?
    There is no global warming thats man made,in fact theres no global warming at all.
    The Leftards know this and are trying to shift their narrative to ‘Climate Change’, here is a quote from Valintina, every human could leave the planet tomorrow except for one scientist, then he wouldnt even be able to measure the difference in Co2, we are talking about 0.3(man made) of 3 percent of the atmosphere after all.
    Co2 is only plant food, the sun is going though its natural cycle and you are screaming that the sky is falling, attempting to blame farmers and country folks for your own ignorance, in an attempt to further your own agenda, it just goes to show what an education gained in New Zealand is actually worth, not the toilet paper its printed on.

    • I have to agree that this anti rural narrative and chicken licken fear of the sky falling is often labelled as “leftist”, but is in fact a green world view, not “leftist”.. Considering the green vote successfully splits the left vote all over the world, enabling “rightists” to retain power, is it possible that blaming the rural producers for the weather is a way of driving a wedge between progressive thinkers in town and country? Why should the country folk be painted as “right wing” when we live and work under the sky and still believe in freedom and equality,the two great Kiwi dreams? and plant more trees than townies can even count? And why paint green beliefs as “leftist”, when they clearly split the left? Bomber, why keep alienating those of us who are radical thinking country based workers, rightly skeptical of climate change, yet who vote labour with hope, love the land, and mistrust the greens with their poison helicopters..

    • YOUR ignorance is offensive. We don’t need all this dairy farming, but we do need beefies and sheep units for food. Those who are still in denial about climate change just need to get real, try and put your self centred life in perspective and try and understand what IS going to happen, and that us oldies have caused it. Get off your high horse and don’t be such an arsehole.

    • “Arbeit macht frei” (Work Makes Free) was a Nazi distortion of the older saying quoted by Chris T. The Nazis often tried to fit their poisonous doctrine into older German traditions in a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing sense (no insult to wolves intended).

  8. I remember G.M. Trevelyan’s popular Whig interpretation of English history favouring the countryside as the heart of England. All the walks, treks and mountain-climbing of folk like Tolkien. You take the Greek view. Very popular in our day to have a connection to the country despite our urbanisation rate. Virtue came from the country. Still have 3 farms where I can visit for half an hour.

  9. Excellent article Cris the rural right is kept alive in most jurisdictions solely to maintain the political divide.Especially NZ where it has enabled total idiots to remain in power for decades.

  10. I’m sure as you flew by jet to Europe and cruised the rivers on your fossil fueled boat recently, sipping cocktails waited on by the poor from other countries, supping with fellow non productive boomers from around the world , that you had ample opportunity to research the transgressions of those stupid few who still cling to life in New Zealand’s “regions”. How dare they!
    How foolish they are to defy the weight of scientific evidence that they are warming our climate!!
    And they vote Right!
    They should listen to the cities I tell you. The cities.

  11. I can tell you that its the poor who are suffering from your pompous ideas and taxation stratagems, extra taxes on the fuel we all use have already resulted in rising food prices and a general cost of living increase across the board, everything travels and uses fuel to get to the inner countryside, pressure on housing from increased immigration has resulted in housing shortages and rent increases in all rural centers.
    And now to be told you will be penalized for driving an old car so city knobs can get cheaper battery cars is the last straw, no battery car in the market today is any use to someone in a country environment, the lack of range and carrying power, not to mention their susceptibility to cold weather makes them next to useless, a bit like a Labor government.
    Heres a better idea, move out of the concrete jungle and lose the urban heat island effect, grow yourself a garden, quite wining and bitching about what everyone else has and get yourself a real fukin job.

    • Taranaki is hardly a concrete jungle, in fact it’s really just one big farm. Which is where I live. I have been to many of these farms as a truck driver and it’s not my cup of tea, farming I mean. But that’s irrelevant. Some look down their nose at townies, are ignorant as fuck and know sweet FA about the real world outside of farming, just like you. The worlds changing, get used to it. The old days are gone and they won’t be back.

  12. Great Stuff Chris.

    The whole point, missed by many of your critics who think you are dissing the farmers and rural life in general, is that urbanisation is unstoppable thanks to the automation of farming and various other forces.

    And that the main significance of the rural myth is to distract our attention from urban issues affecting most of the modern population such as the cost of housing and lack of good jobs.

    And to discredit urban social movements that complain about these issues as not somehow representing the ‘real’ nation or not being tough and stoical enough to suffer in silence, unlike all those farmers’ sons at Gallipoli.

    Of course we need the farmers to grow our food.

    But that’s not the point.

  13. I see Trotter produces zero evidence to support his vapid and divisive generalisations.
    How does France where a much higher % of rural inhabitants are participants in the gilets jaunes revolt fit into this moronic assertion?

    It seems Trotter hasn’t shaken off his neoliberal sympathies. After all isn’t rule number one of the neolibs: First of all categorise, sectionalise and through that divide the opposition to corporatist global hegemony?

    • In my experience, those who complain the most tend to have the thinnest skin. They don’t want people to be able to speak their minds, they want to be able to attack others without having to worry about consequences.

      For example, look at how past and present authors of the standard are so utterly shocked and horrified that Clinton lost. They can’t bring themselves to acknowledge she’s a terrible candidate so attack Trump the person, not the President.

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