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West Virginia: Past, Present, and Future

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Hamilton Nolan’s tour of West Virginia’s labor history and dying labor movement is well worth reading. If you believe that Bernie Sanders’ vision of America can revive a leftist populist movement, you might be inspired, at least by the possibilities. I’ve discussed the major events in West Virginia’s labor history several times, including the Matewan Massacre, the Battle of Blair Mountain, and the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act that occurred only after direct action protests in West Virginia over mine safety and black lung. I’ve also chronicled the horrible long-term effects of coal upon West Virginia, such as the 1972 Buffalo Creek slurry dam disaster. And if you want to be inspired by the potential of working-class organizing in the face of horrible repression, you can do so by reading this history. That’s one of the benefits of labor history.

But I also know southern West Virginia pretty well. And I was just down in the coal region for a few days in March. It’s just screwed beyond belief. There is no hope for this area’s economy, with or without a populist movement. And it’s really hard to move beyond this. The problem with an one-industry economy, especially if that’s an extractive industry, is not that different if it it’s West Virginia or if it’s Venezuela. If that industry dies or if the prices for the product collapse, there is no answer. West Virginia has other problems as well, which is that it is filled with a lot of people who live in a place where the geography allows for no other options than coal. Southern West Virginia is extremely rugged. This whole area should be, in an ideal world, national forest land managed like the mountains of the West. The possibilities for tourism here are, in a vacuum, quite large. And in some areas, especially the area around Fayetteville, they have been developed to some extent. But farming is not really possible and what jobs are going to go into this area? In addition, the tourist possibilities are limited by the incredible damage to the land by coal, by the hostility of local residents, and of 150 years of everyday people trashing the land, which include massive mounds of garbage between the roads and the creeks they follow.

In 2001, I was in a courthouse in West Virginia. I picked up the tiny local newspaper. It talked of the need for mountaintop removal so that the state could have “flat, developable land.” This is of course absurd, but it also is a pretty realistic assessment of how the geography of West Virginia makes widescale economic prosperity almost impossible. If you combine this with the insular and politically conservative (which the state always was on many issues) culture, why would a business move there that wanted to attract top talent? They won’t. The schools are absolutely abysmal, the state has no money, and the racism is naked and grotesque. The Confederate flags per square mile measurement must far surpass anywhere else in the country.

And while Nolan squints to mention how during the Battle of Blair Mountain, the miners were fighting racism too, for most of West Virginia’s history, white supremacy has been central to the white population. Not only were African-Americans brought into West Virginia as scabs precisely to sow racial division during strikes and ensure that the miners of different races would not work together, but that racial ideology stayed strong long after the strike ended. Moreover, there was never some glory period of the Appalachian white working class being anti-racist. Not at all. More significant than some possibly exaggerated tales of miners fighting racism in 1921 is how the Appalachian migrants, who largely came from West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and southeast Ohio fueled the hate strike at Packard in 1943 and then contributed to the race riots in that city later that year.

There’s nothing about a leftist populism that really deals with the problems West Virginia faces. Sure, it’s possible that a candidate like Bernie Sanders fares much better in that state than Hillary Clinton did, although it’s unlikely he would have done well enough to win. But let’s say he does win. What then? Does coal come back? Of course not. Is there a major government investment in the West Virginia economy? Even assuming some stimulus package for Appalachia passed Congress, it’s entirely unclear what brings the state’s economy back to anything approaching not horrible. What is the economic engine that changes this? What fights the racism at the center of the Appalachian working class regardless of the president? None of this is remotely clear.

That isn’t of course to say that a Sanders (or Clinton) presidency wouldn’t be better for the material needs of West Virginia than Trump. The impact of decimating the ACA (which I now see as pretty likely) is going to be pretty rough on people who already have a low life expectancy. But even a leftist vision of the future doesn’t have an articulated place for West Virginia in it. I suppose a robust clean energy economy and tourist economy is a piece of what that would like, but even if that is implemented, that’s hardly going to bring the region economic prosperity. I don’t think there’s a single leftist vision, whether Sandernistas wanting a broad based economic populism or the anti-racist centric politics of other parts of the left that have any real answer for West Virginia or a real way to bring West Virginia into their visualized world. I don’t blame them for that because there isn’t a good answer to the West Virginia problem. For the same reason though, I do wish it’s problems wouldn’t be held up as emblematic of the greater problems of the Democratic Party or liberalism or whatever. Because that state’s problems are much, much greater.

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