Dispatches from the American Left (part two)

That camp I went to is directed at outside recruitment and PR, and, as is historically typical of the Greens, most (not all) of the participants were white, middle-class 20-somethings from other regions. Locally based, single-issue activism depends on external support and national media pressure in order to offset the massive power differential between huge corporations and those most heavily exploited. That latter position is shared by mute Nature and her children, a group of people cast as ‘stupid victims’ by media stereotyping, in this case “hillbillies,” “mountain people,” “white trash,” etc.

The way this plays out, resource extraction and social oppression with the complicity of local political leadership (not to mention a thriving black market), is similar enough to neocolonialism that there are debates within Appalachian Studies about whether to call Appalachia an internal colony or a peripheral region within the imperial center. The role of outside activists would then seem to match up with that of international aid workers; both involve a somewhat conflicted relationship with the local community they’re supposedly there to assist. The chief difference is that unlike aid workers, or Americorps, or Teach For America, an org like MJS lacks the resources to create substitute institutions (education, health care, etc.) for local communities to become dependent on — and anyway, especially given in its environmentalist stance, tends to reject the usual justifications for such things — decontextualized abstractions like “helping people” — as valid.

Instead, the camp functioned more like a school for the outsiders, with occasional visiting lecturers from the territory. Community activist Teri Blanton, for example, showed us around her hometown of Dayhoit, KY (a Superfund site since ’92), and explained the consequences of having a coal power plant and some abandoned coal sites within a few hundred feet of inhabited neighborhoods: the depletion of drinking water and poisoning of what’s left, widespread cancer and other illness, and the seemingly endless battles she and others have had to fight, with everyone from the county commissioner to coal company executives, the MSM to the EPA, in order to get the tiniest bit of consideration. “Most of my friends, the people I grew up with, are dead,” the middle-aged Blanton told us, in the even, practiced tone of someone who has related this story many times before. As of a few years ago the rest of the country started listening. Erik Reece’s award-winning piece in Harper’s can be found here.

According to Reece, desire for “an ecological education” is what motivated his investigation of strip mining. What sort of education would this be? Not a ‘communion’ with Nature in the hope of excavating some spiritual truth (as it was for the Transcendentalists), but the re-orientation of humanity and civilization according to their position within an ecological framework. How to accomplish this for others? This is the question not only of a the more holistic versions of environmentalism, but of any sort of education that depends on more than just adding information to the archive, that wants to stage a revolution in thought, overturning the subject’s old understanding of ‘the way of the world’ and insisting that the world was always thus — in short, any theory that would become a movement. Regardless of which ’causes’ which, you can’t have a revolution in social consciousness without a revolution in social action.

True to ecological principles, despite the loyalty of MJS to a single issue, the idea that total revolution urgently needs to take place was pretty widespread among the week’s participants. That they should consider themselves allied to the anti-capitalist, anti-globalization left may be less obvious, but was also (largely) true. MJS exemplifies the activist model for ‘social change,’ leftist code for the overthrow of capitalism (the number of times I heard the phrase “revolutionary practice” casually tossed around made me think I was back in grad school). A basic assumption of left activism in the U.S. (which is largely based on anarchist or autonomist principles) is that capitalist society’s accepted critical institutions, the media and the university, involve a particular sort of training tailored to the production or consumption of commodified product. Subject to the same pressures as any other capitalist organization, they can maybe be critical (provided there’s a market for criticism), but no real challenge to the system can come out of either as they currently are.

reclamation site

Thus, organization is volunteer-based and ‘horizontal’ (non-hierarchical), completely dependent on the commitment of its members. Camp workshops included a mix of issue-specific education, direct action training, organizer education, and entertainment. One could call the outcome ‘committed eclecticism.’ A historian ran an excellent seminar on the history of the opposition to strip-mining, arguing that in many ways the real precursors to the mainstream environmental movement (generally held to have begun with Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962, and been preceded by figures like Thoreau and Muir) can be found in the labor movement and working class culture (his book can be found here). Workshops were offered in climbing (useful, I’m told, for banner drops), ‘primitive skills,’ the ethics and strategy of non-violence, ecology, community economics, environmental philosophy, and much else. Taken together with evening musical performances, film screenings, and non-official activities like campfire circles, and the pressure to attend even the most frivolous thing that always seems to follow gatherings of idealistic strangers, there was an overriding sense that, for this week at least, and for better or worse, play and work had indeed become the same thing.

The heart and soul of activism is of course self-reproduction, organizing, ideally taking the single issue to the national stage and keeping it there. Though workshops were disproportionately geared toward college campuses, there was plenty of desire to connect with other communities — as one organizer put it, the match of privileged students with ample free time to the problems of overworked, underpaid, underrepresented local people is a “revolutionary combination” — but only vague ideas of how to do so. The better ideas came from those working with groups already involved in a struggle of some kind, usually a housing, labor, or pollution issue. Otherwise proposals tended toward community service (depoliticizing unless transitional), as a self-legitimating supplement to action mostly directed at university policy (i.e. getting the administration to adopt clean energy). Those not intimately connected to universities, specifically their undergraduates, whether as students themselves or as part of a larger activist organization with student ties, were basically left out of discussion. SDS redux, RAN, Rising Tide, Earth First, Greenpeace — I’m not sure any org was represented that didn’t revolve around the college campus and environs.

Fortunately, the situation at hand — strip mining in Appalachia — worked to moderate disagreements and exclusions. What might seem from the point of view of an anthology to be an unwieldy, ‘undertheorized’ conglomeration of ‘leftisms’ — anarchism, socialist democracy, labor, social justice, deep ecology, social ecology, etc. — was not at all divisive in practice. A few people I think were basically Republican conservationists (almost all from in-state, or those whose lives are directly impacted), but even they were clear on the ‘root causes’ of strip mining and what, at least initially, should be done about it.

The question of what should be done was organized around the following problems: a) how to help locals organize against their oppressors without undermining their own interests, b) how to organize and publicize at home, both for this issue and others and c) the methodological controversy over organizing vs. publicizing, or to put it crudely, politics vs. media.

Two added complications. One, I got the sense that over the years it’s become increasingly unclear what role outsiders are actually supposed to play in putting a stop to strip-mining. As I tried to suggest already, even if the unions have sold out, community activism in the Appalachians is extremely strong and getting stronger. The odd direct action aside, within Appalachia MJS has limited itself to holding these camps and doing, as someone put it, “a lot of listening.” One woman I talked to, an Appalachian from a working-class family who was fortunate enough to go to college and now works on this issue in between semesters, told me she’s starting to think local activists would benefit more from donations than help with organizing.

The second complication is that under capitalism local problems with resources of any kind are inevitably reduced to examples of a larger tendency. The state of coal has obvious importance for everyone, even if taken as a whole it seems impossible. The lure for the generally more privileged outsiders can’t be reduced to individual psychological states like altruism or narcissism. Like any self-respecting ponderer, I look for the structural explanation. Rather than a rotating staff of humanitarians, the temporary concentration of activists in ‘problem areas’ can almost be understood as a microcosm of the concentration of labor in the cities, or students in the university town. But unlike those examples, neither capital nor production are direct incentives. The closer model is vacation spots.

So where is the fine line? We have only one way of measuring it. The site, regardless of its importance for inhabitants, would not be on the map were it not also a potential stage in the formation of a potential movement. Utopian forms of community are experimented with, long-distance connections are made in a coming together of strange bedfellows otherwise engaged in all sorts of interests and activities, concluding with the exchange of email addresses, facebook IDs, and promises. And then…dispersal.

A deficit in experience, maybe, but I could find no simple, practical reasons for us outsiders to have spent that week together. If we have problems with practical solutions, ours are ‘local’ too. For while a ban on strip mining may someday be achieved, maybe even as a product of our labor, it will have little to do with the visions of social transformation many of us write, dream, and sing about. The currency of our altruism, they amount only to a promise in the name of a possible future, the latter nothing more than a product of the former. No draw for us but the prospect of ‘social capital‘ and ‘knowledge production,’ seductive for having rejected their material guarantors, reaching out for a new ground that does not yet exist, a ground no one seems to know how to build except by more reaching.

This is a source of enormous tension for everyone involved.

More to come…

6 Responses to “Dispatches from the American Left (part two)”

  1. These posts bring to mind my first job after I got out of school, working for a surety company in Chicago. A surety bond guarantees performance of contracts and other commitments. One type of suretyship is the land reclamation bond. In order to get governmental permission to strip mine a particular piece of land, the mining company has to comply with state and/or federal regulations for restoring the land. If the mining company fails to do so, the surety company has to step in and pay for the work to be done.

    Mining is a speculative operation, like drilling in There Will Be Blood. Paying for the land reclamation comes out of the profits from the mining itself. If the lode turns out not to be a very rich one, then the mining company has to eat the land reclamation costs. In order to qualify for such a bond, therefore, the mining company has to be very rich.

    So, I was a surety underwriting trainee in the midwest regional office, which included Kentucky. So I got to see the financial statements of a lot of these coal companies. As I recall a lot of them were shell corporations organized around a particular mining project, so there wasn’t a lot of corporate money to be had. The real money was in the personal financial statements of the owners, who joined together in various small partnership arrangements which interlocked into a a network of maybe a couple dozen really wealthy individuals. Every year the surety VPs would fly down to KY purportedly to inspect the reclamation work, to investigate profitability of the mining operations, etc. What I think really happened was that the mining honchos would wine and dine the surety guys, fly them around in private helicopters, flash a lot of cash, visit the thoroughbred farms, probably pay a call on the high-class call girls, etc. I suspect they played the same games with the Dept. of the Interior boys, showing them what a fine job they were doing and showing them a good time along with it.

    Environmentalism isn’t a new concern in this country or even in mining areas, as you point out. Still, at the time (late-70s) it was rare for a claim to be filed against one of these mining operations for defaulting on the reclamation requirements. Before they started mining a new lode they’d have to file a reclamation plan with the government regulators. Based on that plan the regulators would set the required amount of surety bond to guarantee completion of the reclamation work. My sense was that the mine-owning gentlemen, through their close personal and financial ties with local and federal authorities, were always able to negotiate pretty minimal reclamation requirements. This was probably the sort of favors Dick Cheney handed out the the mine owners of Wyoming when he was a congressman there.

    So it seems to me that the issue isn’t coal company compliance with reclamation and contamination requirements; rather, it’s toughening up those requirements at the state and federal governmental level. I have no idea what’s happened in the intervening 30 years, but my bet is that the requirements have gotten ever more lenient as the government has moved further to the right especially on energy-related concerns.

    Thanks for indulging my trip down memory lane, Traxus. Did this stuff come up for discussion during the camp?

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    hey ktismatics, thanks for the background. i don’t know about the specific requirements for reclamation, but bush’s people influenced the epa (in response to complaints from big coal) to add loopholes about ‘valley fills,’ so that the poisonous overburden and other garbage can be dumped more easily into streams.


    which is of course horrible for the people who live there, but also limits the number of sources the country can expect clean drinking water from. considering the recent water shortages, it just further demonstrates how deeply buried U.S. policy people are in other peoples’ wallets.

  3. Fascinating and appalling. Permitting the mining companies to dump already-prohibited toxins into stream fills? I guess that’s why they call it the Environmental Protection Agency.

  4. […] working the midnight shift, which is a part-time job I once held. And at American Stranger, Traxus described attempts to counteract the wide-scale environmental destruction wrought by coal strip mining. I was never a coal miner, though my great-grandfather and his […]

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