Lessons from Appalachia
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Introduction Placing Appalachia Stephen L. Fisher and Barbara Ellen Smith
We live in a world of many Appalachias. These are places of extravagant natural wealth and enduring poverty, places where the raw consequences of unsustainable economic practices predicated on human and environmental exploitation are unusually stark. These places include the oilfields of the Niger Delta, the Himalayan forests of India, the coalfields of Colombia. Far from the great urban centers of global power, these are nonetheless sites of critical economic activity because they contain the arable land, abundant water, fossil fuel deposits, and other resources on which the global economy depends. These places also represent some of the weakest links in the far-flung supply chains of global capitalism because they are often home to indigenous movements contesting the apparent imperatives of gross economic inequality, environmental degradation, and the antidemocratic power of elites.
In diverse struggles across the world, "place" and its many meanings push back against the valorization of placelessness and "virtuality" associated with globalization. Place in these varied contexts is at once a symbolic landscape of cultural tradition and human connection (the place of home) and the tangible ground that is a source of livelihood and focus of contestation (forests, watersheds, farms). Defined by capital and its boosters in terms of exploitable resources—"coalfields," "timberlands," "water reserves," "scenic views"—these places are also given meaning by the human relationships, histories, and desires arising there, different from the commercial ones though by no means uniform. Who will control the future of such places, and to what ends?
Struggles over coal-containing mountains, scenic farmlands, and suburban backyards, as well as more desolate sites abandoned by capital but not by human residents, have become the hallmark of twenty-first-century activism in the Appalachian region of the eastern United States. Transforming Places consists of seventeen original essays, plus a conclusion by the editors, that chronicle and analyze these diverse struggles. Appalachia—like other resource-rich yet marginalized regions across the globe—is often construed as a place of cultural backwardness and economic isolation. The region's intractable poverty, joblessness, low wages, and other economic woes are often attributed to its failure to attract the "modernizing" influences of global capital. By contrast, we argue that such features of Appalachia's political economy attest to the stark impacts of globalization in both its contemporary manifestations and historical legacies. They also render the region an unusually instructive political battleground for all engaged in movements for social justice. In frequently localized battles, issues of global scale and implication—from corporate privatization of public goods to climate change and the future of fossil fuels, from militarization and the expansion of the U.S. empire to the production of local foods and sustainable economies—are being contested. This book assembles lessons from Appalachia in the hope that they may be of use to others engaged in similar place-based struggles within this region, the nation, and across the globe.
[??] e Appalachian Context
Struggles over definitions of Appalachia—its geographic boundaries, cultural legacies, historiography, relationship to the rest of the United States, and the (frequently insulting) depictions of its residents—are rife throughout literature on the region, making it impossible to provide a finite, accurate summary of regional characteristics. Framed within the cultural politics of American nationhood, Appalachia is an internal "Other," a repository of either backwardness and ignorance or, alternatively, the homespun relics of the frontier; in both cases, it is a place behind the times, against which national progress, enlightenment, and modernization might be measured. Despite such a role in the American imaginary, the region contains great internal diversity and contrast. Whether limited to the central coalfields of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southwest Virginia, or expanded southward to the mountains of north Georgia, western North Carolina, and east Tennessee, Appalachia encompasses significant racial/ ethnic, sexual, and class diversity. Appalachian people live in small and relatively remote towns like Clinchco, Virginia, and in urban centers like Knoxville, Tennessee, and Charleston, West Virginia. Some enjoy opulent wealth, while a far larger number live on even less than the modest means available to many U.S. households in the early decades of the twenty-first century.
Of greatest relevance to this book is the region's long tradition of individual and collective resistance to severe political, economic, and cultural oppression. The heroic narrative of militant coal miners, striking for union recognition, black lung benefits, and adequate medical care, is most familiar, but hundreds of grassroots community groups are organizing across Appalachia around a variety of issues. The majority of these groups arise in response to a single issue and on occasion win important victories, but their singular focus typically means that they are short-lived, disappearing once the issue is resolved. In contrast are thriving and influential multi-issue, membership-driven organizations such as SOCM (for many years, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, now Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment) in Tennessee, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC), and Virginia Organizing (formerly the Virginia Organizing Project), which are building for the long haul within state-based boundaries that often spill beyond Appalachia. In addition, a number of explicitly regional institutions—such as the community-based cultural, educational, and media arts organization Appalshop, the Appalachian Community Fund (which offers financial support to grassroots groups), and the Appalachian Women's Alliance (see chapter 7)—have offered vital forums for the elaboration of regional identities and modes of resistance.
Some of this activism and lessons learned from it were examined in the early 1990s in Stephen L. Fisher's collection, Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change. This book appeared after almost three decades of particularly vibrant organizing across the region. From the mid-1960s until the early 1990s, union democracy, black lung compensation, welfare rights, the preservation of family farms, and many other issues spawned new organizations and became the focus of distinct, sometimes overlapping, social movements. Although never successfully framed within an overarching "Appalachian movement" per se, these and other constituencies came together as loose regional networks for occasional campaigns. Two examples stand out. Between 1978 and 1980, the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force, a participatory research effort involving community groups, scholars, and organizers, documented landownership and taxation patterns and their consequences for the quality of life in eighty counties in six Appalachian states. The task force produced a seven-volume, 1,500-page study that was used throughout the region to launch challenges to outside corporate ownership of mineral resources and inequitable tax structures that externalized the costs of corporate practices onto citizens. KFTC, originally named the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition, was one of the organizing efforts that originated in part from this massive participatory research project.
A decade later during the 1989–1990 strike by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) against the Pittston Coal Company, the union, understanding that it could not win the fight alone, defined the issues at stake in collective, ethical terms—for example, retirees' rights to previously promised health-care benefits—and called on supporters across the coalfields and beyond to rally behind the strikers and their families. Individuals and groups from across Appalachia and, ultimately, the world provided tactical and financial support, participated in weekly rallies and mass civil disobedience, and played crucial roles in enabling the union to win a settlement more favorable than anyone believed possible when the strike began. Although the Pittston strike remains an illuminating example of the victories that become possible when labor unions enter meaningful partnerships with community-based groups and other allies, it occurred at a time of drastic decline in the size and bargaining leverage of the UMWA and the U.S. labor movement more generally. Since well before the victory against Pittston, nonunion coal mines began spreading across the former stronghold of militant unionism in the central Appalachian coalfields, and the size of the coal mine labor force (union and nonunion) shrank below 100,000, to levels not seen since the nineteenth century and the inception of coal mining in the United States.
Today, the political climate and infrastructure for organizing in Appalachia contrast dramatically with twenty years ago. Although the labor militancy for which Appalachia is known has not disappeared entirely, the locus of workplace organizing has shifted to new constituencies and industries, particularly Latino immigrants in low-wage work such as poultry processing. Meanwhile, the UMWA and its dwindling rank and file have united with their former adversaries, the coal operators, to challenge with bitter rhetoric and mass demonstrations the environmental activists who seek an end to mountaintop removal and other destructive mining practices. Astonishingly, at least to those who witnessed then-UMWA vice president Cecil Roberts's declarations of "class war" during the Pittston strike, the coal industry has successfully positioned itself alongside its workers and the union as an embattled "insider" forced to fight for economic survival against extremist "tree-huggers" and other presumed "foreigners" to the region.
Moreover, even as processes of globalization have generated, been shaped by, and seem to require new transnational understandings and alliances (such as cross-border linkages between labor unions), organizing effectively at the regional level, much less at larger scales, has in many ways become more difficult. Indeed, since 2006, two of the more valuable regional institutions, the Southern Empowerment Project (see chapter 8) and the Commission on Religion in Appalachia (see chapter 10), have shut their doors, and some efforts to link Appalachian organizing to similar national or global struggles have faltered. As a result, many have observed that poor and working-class Appalachians remain more isolated from similar populations elsewhere than from the corporate and political forces that oppress them daily.
Such constraints on the reach and capacity of progressive organizations are neither unique to Appalachia nor produced primarily by forces internal to the region. Corporate-driven globalization, characterized in part by the relocation and insulation of economic decision making to multinational corporations and supranational organizations like the International Monetary Fund, has diluted the capacity of community organizations and labor unions to influence economic policies and corporate behavior. Although international NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and transnational, anticorporate, civil society linkages are growing, multinational corporations and their allied supranational entities enjoy capacity, authority, and representation at a global scale that the ensemble of oppositional organizing termed "globalization from below" has not yet begun to approach. Moreover, the dominance of neoliberalism in the United States and many other nation-states, which promotes market forces as the optimal determinant of social relations and individualism as the supreme ethos of human beings, has legitimated a frenzied attack on "big government" and the unraveling of social welfare supports for vulnerable populations. As some critics point out, this "roll back" of the welfare state has been accompanied by the "roll out" of repressive aspects of state power: intensified militarization, dilution of civil liberties, increased "homeland security" measures, and the social containment and disproportionate incarceration of certain populations, especially those of color (for example, poor and working-class African Americans, undocumented immigrants).
Although the financial crisis of 2008 stimulated some skepticism about and critiques of neoliberalism, it remains the prevailing philosophy of governance in the United States and much of the world. The combination of corporate-driven globalization and state-sponsored neoliberalism has worked to unravel organizational solidarities, visionary alternatives to injustice, and progressive social policies. In this climate of fear and insecurity, when commitment to collective well-being is derided as evidence of "creeping socialism" and/or potential dependence, it is no wonder that the capacity and reach of progressive organizations are compromised. The widely lamented decline of "associational life" and "civil society"—though often delinked from critical political analysis and blamed on "social capital deficits" in ways that exemplify more than explain the problem—is related to the ascendance of neoliberalism. When rural schools are consolidated to plug holes in county budgets and local unions shut down because of job losses, a decline in "associational life" is to be expected.
Although the tangible impacts of deregulation, the shrunken welfare state, and other neoliberal initiatives are easily documented—crumbling infrastructure such as bridges and highways, environmental degradation, financial crises, declining public schools and libraries—other implications are more subtle. What counts as a "social problem" and what remedies exist to treat it have shifted in ways that render collective political action more elusive. Within Appalachia, the examples of public health and entitlement to medical care illuminate this change vividly. The conviction that hard physical labor, particularly in the mines, both produces disease and collectively entitles workers at the very least to adequate health care has inspired numerous activist campaigns, including in part the Pittston strike and the black lung movement. In the present moment, however, when the organizational strength of trade unions (especially the UMWA) and the employment base of mining and manufacturing are on the wane, community after community in central Appalachia faces additional, more isolating, diseases related to despair and hopelessness, such as OxyContin and other substance abuse (see chapters 6 and 13). Such health problems are no less socially produced and in that sense political—though far more difficult to organize around—than black lung. The contrast between a collective sensibility of disease as the product of class exploitation and emblem of entitlement to redress, as was the case with black lung, and the highly individualistic, victim-blaming discourse associated with drug addiction, vividly exemplifies the self-fulfilling logic of neoliberalism: What is individually borne is no more or less than the fault of the individual and therefore should not be collectively redressed.
To be sure, the declining viability of many communities in Appalachia has also been a spur to action. The defense and reinvention of "place" are central to many of the organizing initiatives documented in this volume. However, organizing in defense of place can also be exclusionary, and the political content of such efforts, as we analyze further in the conclusion, can be ambiguous if not downright reactionary. Appalachia, particularly the predominantly white and rural areas of the region, has been a receptive ground for the culture wars. Right-wing politicians have successfully channeled class resentments and anxieties (which are often intensified by their policies, for example, opposition to an increase in the federal minimum wage) into cultural condemnations of immigrants, the poor, peoples of color, feminists, homosexuals—in short, any group that apparently does not meet narrow standards of national belonging. Defense of "place" and "community," in short, can have multiple, contradictory political trajectories.
Excerpted from Transforming Places Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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