"Dark as a Dungeon"--Coal's Dark Lessons for Sustainable Business

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31-coalRepeatedly, in these pages and in my work more generally, I have ever insisted that the surface of things--whether bleak or blissful, represented a facade that could only prohibit understanding if we took it as face value. This sort of thinking, in turn, underlies the contention that I have often made that a multifaceted pattern of interrelationships rules all that is. Thus, today, three seemingly disparate faces of King Coal show up for folks to consider.

Paradox and contradiction inhere in such a necessary appearance of disequilibrium between what is uppermost, and hence obvious, and what is innermost, and therefore necessarily hidden. I often find myself responding to quizzical students when instances of this truism put in an unexpected appearance with a simple quip that "everything is paradox."

This pops up if we even think for a second about how we view ourselves as a people, or if we contemplate for a fraction of a minute about how much of our lives we take imperiously for granted. We are 'Americans, proud and free,' and 'if we run out of toiletries (and by all means, readers should substitute whatever necessary commodity springs to mind and substitute it into the clause), we'll just go to the store and get us some more, thanks very much.'

We seem to have internalized the second half of Woody Guthrie's opening refrain: "This land is my land." Not by accident then can we discern imperial penetration into every aspect of existence. Iraq and Afghanistan are obvious, as is every relationship outside our borders. Smedley Butler, his two Medals of Honor more bona fides than emblems of pride, forces us to admit that military-preparedness is imperial militarism.

The entire police state apparatus, meanwhile, a huge part of the contemporary economy--with its 'black-market' reflection in the underground marketplace, is largely another pose of empire, as the products of the Urdus and the Colombians and the gang-bangers, who get their start in the streets but keep their heads because agencies of our government put them to use, flood the inner city neighborhoods of North America and Europe.

31-industry-montageWithout stretching--in relation to agriculture, pharmaceuticals, minerals, and with only one or two exceptions (concrete, to an extent), for every segment of this production colossus that is Pax Americana, the roots now are imperial, and the bloody bath of Roman pretension and scorn has touched every street, every home, every citizen of this once-legitimate Republic. This imperial thread is critical to following the weave of today's narration.

The role of the South and of Latin America, in this evolution of a colony that has mastered the planet, is also a part of this story. These pieces of the puzzle that the world presents just now have been showing up since I began this series nine weeks ago. Folks may not have noticed. I have certainly not stated the matter as a one of the main tag-line points with which I've been initiating these materials.

Nevertheless, the pox of slavery, and the purge of life and livelihood that ended it (everyone should read Lincoln's Second Inaugural once annually, to recall the biblical horror of that time) set the stage for one of the most monumental expansions in the history of humanity. Within sixty years of Appomatox, and as a direct result of the forced union that it elicited, much to the enrichment of carpetbaggers and Union generals from industrial families, our nation owned the earth.

We still do, and to no small degree that stems from the assumption by the victorious Yankees of the strategy of Latin expansion that had been the bailiwick of the defeated slaveholders much more so than of the nascent industries of the East coast and early Northwest. When the slaveocracy's hoped-for retrenchment in South America came to naught, however, the socio-economic progeny of the corporation lawyer turned-martyr who led the nation in the Civil War took up the cause of a bully's control of his home turf, to which General Butler among many others gives such startling and vivid testimony.

Ethics and justice and democracy, in this cauldron of contradiction--we believe in freedom, so we will bomb you into submission; we believe in prosperity, so we will starve your masses and then deny them exit visas; we believe in freedom of speech and religion, so we will hone the knives of censorship and sharpen the swords of theocracy and call ourselves 'Patriots' in every 'Act' of this sort-- are a citizens only hope. This trio of virtues, in the context of actual communities of cousins, has been the rallying point for human progress since I began this work. They remain the basis for amelioration and advance in today's posting as well.

INTRODUCTION

Whatever else one can offer to diminish the appeal of coal, one must acknowledge the staying power and central role that this solidified waste produce has played in human history. While all manner of materials would assist the citizen in obtaining this knowledge, he or she might also recall that Marion King Hubbert's background was in the explication of just such geological knowledge.

John McPhee might do an equally lovely job, but we can grasp the foundation from Hubbert.

"The fossil fuels, which include coal ..., have all had their origin from plants and animals existing upon the earth during the last 500 million years. The energy content of these materials has been derived from that of the contemporary sunshine, a part of which has been synthesized by the plants and stored as chemical energy. Over the period of geological history ... a small fraction of these organisms have become buried in sediments under conditions which have prevented complete deterioration, and so... have been preserved as ... fossil fuels. ...

(T)hat it has taken 500 million years ... to accumulate the present supplies of fossil fuels (makes) clear that, although the same geological processes are still operative, the amount of new fossil fuels ... produced during the next few thousands of years will be inconsequential. Therefore, as an essential part of our analysis, we can assume with complete assurance that the industrial exploitation of the fossil fuels will consist in the progressive exhaustion of an initially fixed supply to which there will be no significant additions during the period of our interest."

31-whats-in-mine I had the great good fortune to interview, for an article about one of today's recollections that I wrote nearer to the time of its occurrence, the first Black United Mine Workers Local President in UMWA history. He told me of his first experience of the coal face, where, with his hard hat illuminating a six foot high seam of bituminous, the gleaming ebony mineral extended in both directions into darkness.

He spoke with a breathy hush, his tones communicating such awe that I felt my own heart constrict. "I don't know how to tell you how amazing it was; you see, there were trees there, like they had been jumbled up atop one another--like it was a whole forest from long ago just waiting for me to come along and find it."

I couldn't help myself. I like to sing.

"Like a fiend for his dope, or a drunkard his wine
A man will have lust for the lure of the mine,
Where it's dark as a dungeon, as damp as the dew
Where the danger is doubled and the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines,
It's as dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.

This scene is one of those that will stay with me. It's as deeply ingrained as almost anything else that has happened to me. I'm not sure why; perhaps the fact that we were standing near the entrance to a mine, now closed and deserted but for us and the clutter and carved out architecture of the earth, in which thirteen men had died a year before, seeped into my heart as I listened. Perhaps the echoes of the refrain, which I'm still wont to trill, solidified my memory.

Whatever the case may be, my interlocutor on that occasion would have understood Hubbert's introduction to the world of coal instantly. And he and I and the rest of us also need to recognize the accuracy of Hubbert's follow up. Humankind has risen as coal mining has increased, and the liquid fuels significantly accelerated the uptick in the human condition.

31-wrights_coal_tar_soap_1922No matter how we manage to move forward from here, we must comprehend this basic relationship. Life expectancy, abundance of food, literacy, technology, plentiful entertainment and joyous regard and mad carnage have all grown in tandem with, initially, the conversion of coal to heat and steam, and then of oil, both in similar fashion and in connection with the petrochemical industry that has yielded both corcucopia and chaos for our kind.

Again, because of the boost provided by this bank account of energy deposited by ancestors that most folks would not even countenance as cousins--though they were, all of them, our DNA relatives--we may today imagine, without being moronic insodoing, a 'transition' to gentler, more holistic, more integrative techniques for enhancing human labor and provisioning the larders and energy stores on which we've come to rely. But we cannot get anywhere useful if we merely spew forth, "Oh, coal! Yuck!!!" and somehow believe we're above the foul, messy, lethal filth of it and can just get something better because we da**** well deserve something better.

I have yet to write of coal. My intellectual baptism was in the study of H-bombs and reactors, but my closest approach to rigorous, long form scholarship was in relation to the coal-fields and metal industries of North-Central Alabama.

Since I have a very good imagination, I have sympathized with the suffering and marveled at the strength that miners must have merely to put in a day on the job. In finding a way to create the future, we would do well to bow to those cousins who have toiled away in the bowels of the earth.

THE STRIKE OF 1935 AND UMWA'S PART IN CONSTRUCTING AN AMERICAN WORKING CLASS

31_coal_strikeJohn L. Lewis could serve as an iconic representation of the great glory and fatal weakness of the American labor movement. He engendered the notion of industrial unionism as a 'mainstream' idea, without the charge of revolutionary violence that the IWW brought to its more thoroughgoing class consciousness, focusing almost exclusively on improving wages and conditions, but relying on the most muscular exercise of the strike power that the United States had ever seen.

This emphasis on fierce class battling, without class war, to paraphrase Melvyn Dubovsky's authoritative biography, brought Lewis to the head of the United Mine Workers, in the massive strike of 1919-1920, which ended up both tempering the limits of industrial direct action in the context of a State always willing to bring force to bear, and demonstrating the final words of "Solidarity Forever," inasmuch as "the union makes us strong" enough to get a much better deal from the bosses.

This issue of class, of class conflict, of the forces that shape social life and society, have appeared fairly frequently in these pages. On the other hand, the point of these efforts is not so much sociological as it is reportorial, to provide perspective and analysis and insight about the scientific, technological, and social aspects of energy and environmental issues. So saying, I am hopeful that my readers will forgive the very thin, even facile and to an extent probably false class analysis of the labor movement here.

I am capable of better, but it would take me longer than time allots. Thus, we focus much more on John L. Lewis than on the boys and men who laid their lives on the line every day in mines and pits, and who, when whatever issue was aboil came to a head, were responsible for winning or losing the battle at hand. For all of his flaws, John Lewis never forgot that the most important word in the organizational name was "United."

31-umwa Because of the strength that resulted from the unity and discipline displayed at the end of WWI, the UMWA was one of the only labor organization to grow significantly stronger until the economic decimation of the 1930. With the social carnage of Depression, and the ever present voracity of capital for even more of the productive pie, the growth of a modern industrial-union model had to move from the mines to the factories and other facilities of the nation.

Communists and radicals of every stripe led the way in the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, but John Lewis managed to craft a leading role for himself in that nascent powerhouse of labor, essentially taking over the American Federation of Labor in the process. AFL may come first in the name, but the troops, the potency, and the money of unionism shifted forever to industrial unions in the 1930's.

This week is the seventy-fifth anniversary of one of the lesser-known, but arguably centrally important, labor actions of that era, the comprehensive coal stoppage of 1935. During the days of Bloody Harlan County(), at the depth of the depression, Lewis and the miners stood firm and struck rather than accept reductions in wages and increases in pace of work.

31-brookside-strike-harlan-ky1 They did not get the five day week for which they were bargaining, but they did win wage increases. Most crucially, they established the power of disciplined militancy that was to provide the force of the sit-down strike movement and give further impetus to the need for national legislation permitting as a matter of right for labor to organize. Thus, today, if we are so inclined, we may bow our heads to labor heroes of the past.

Heroism is second nature. Though plenty of other lessons emanate from the mining accident near Tuscaloosa, Alabama nine years ago today, this centrally powerful element of the story should remain in view. We need a sense of heroism today, when all the proponents of contemporary power urge us to be cynical and selfish.

THIRTEEN DEATHS AT AN ALABAMA MINE AND THE PLACE OF COAL IN BUSINESS AND EMPIRE

I covered this story in 2002, when the impact of 9/11 was still overwhelmingly fresh. I wanted to make a point in covering this story. "This is a lesson in memory," I wrote, "and a lesson in the understanding of sacrifice." Very few people, outside of the hills and hollows and creeks of West Alabama had paid much attention when, so close upon the heels of people leaping from burning buildings, thirteen miners met a bitter end on the job 2,000 feet below the surface of the earth.

I hadn't noticed. But I began talking to miners as I was working on a history of coal in Southern Appalachia that much more closely approximated a gangland shoot-'em-up than it did any sort of academic exercise. So I did see the first anniversary of this community tragedy approaching while the nation convulsed about a single passage around the sun since 9/11.

Merle Haggard's song warns of the mortal dangers, the mine's locus "Where the demons of death often come by surprise, One fall of the slate and you're buried alive." And in the Jim Walter's #5 mine just outside of Tuscalloosa, four miners received a devastating shock late in the afternoon of the 23rd, when a component of their rig broke loose and crashed down near a component of the electrical set-up. The resulting sparks ignited thus far undetected methane gas.

The resulting explosion didn't kill anyone, but it disabled one of the foursome, Gaston Adams, and set the stage for tragedy. This is not a random sad tale of death and self-sacrifice, however. Jim Walters resources had over and over failed to maintain its ventilation system in this, the deepest mine in North America, and had skipped or attenuated various time-consuming logistical operations associated with long-wall mining, such as supporting the walls and placing blocking beams close together against the roof. As one writer put it simply, "it was a recipe for disaster."
31-bamaleft-vid Both the company and the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MHSA), in the aftermath of the deaths, pointed out the company's safety record, but many miners grew furious at "(s)tatements such as these, (which) have struck many miners here as inappropriate at best, given that 13 miners are now dead due to what they see as Jim Walter's negligence. In fact, the company has been handed 10,930 safety citations at its Alabama coal mines over the past five years. Ten days before the fatal explosions at No. 5, MSHA cited Jim Walter Resources for 10 'significant and substantial' safety violations. Three had to do with unsafe roof conditions."

This essay will not go into great detail here, although much material--both from legal actions and government documents, and to a lesser extent from the progressive and socialist press--does document this twisted tale of profit over safety. As one chronicler summed up the ironic anger of many miners, 'there's no lobbyist like a dead miner.'

As Adams lay in darkness, pinned by rock, no doubt praying to live to see his family again, a shift supervisor and eleven of his UMWA comrades volunteered to go back down to the depths where he lay and rescue him. As they approached, the electrical system disabled because of fear of methane and hence the ventilation system no longer operational, large quantities of the odorless offshoot of some mines, such as the number 5 mine in particular, collected in the vicinity of the rock fall, setting off a gargantuan explosion that brought the poorly shored roof crashing down, killing all thirteen of the men still underground.

The Chicago Tribune did report on the anniversary. " A year later, with memories of the disaster still fresh among the
miners and anger toward the company growing stronger, the story of what went wrong is still being pieced together. Some surviving miners blame the company for the horrific death toll. Jim Walter routinely sacrificed safety for coal production, they say. And during the frantic 50 minutes between the two explosions, they say company supervisors issued misleading directions that led to miners' deaths."

The MHSA's hearings into the matter, and later Congressional hearings, affirmed this bitterness toward Jim Walters Resources, as did various law suits that survivors filed.

31-bamaleft2 Still, many would argue that the money--a few thousands of dollars in fines, perhaps a few millions in legal fees and court sanctioned payments, can never fully compensate for this loss. Nor, as a miner's advocate would certainly point out, do such sums even begin to punish or eliminate the careless, even cavalier, regard with which capital ever considers workers.

As readers, we may note this incongruity and bring to memory this understanding. Such 'externalities' of capitalist production (Jim Walters remained solidly profitable throughout this period) are not just a matter of Depleted Uranium and discarded miners. They seem to gravitate toward business inexorably.

And inasmuch as those of us here on JustMeans are even slightly serious about 'business better,' then we need to tune our memories to make the elimination of such ridiculously labeled 'external' eventualities central to the disposition of social approbation. No company in the position of producing Gulf War Syndrome, and no company that snuffs out the lives of thirteen brave coal miners, should ever make a profit again. At the least, such a stance would serve notice that 'business better' had some teeth.

'PLAN COLOMBIA,' COAL, AND AN ACCURATE VIEW OF CURRENT CAPITAL'S AGENDA

Another story from my past has come back to make its presence felt in my labors. This tale has haunted me for years. It also dates from the early parts of the decade. As a result of it, I met one of America's unsung heroes, Dan Kovalik, an attorney for the Steel Workers and a stalwart advocate for human rights and international solidarity among wage earners.

As above, I can only briefly outline this massive and centrally important story of the nature of contemporary capitalism. However, inasmuch as coal-as-energy is a part of my 'beat,' so to speak, and given the right confluence of forces, I may be able to follow up on this tale in the future.

As a graduate student, preparing my thesis on "A World That Workers Made: Birmingham, Alabama from 1900-1930," I had encountered the fearsome patriarch of Drummond Coal Company, a firm and an owner that had made Walker County, Alabama competitive with Harlan County, Kentucky as the most hellish place on earth to work. Drummond Coal, a primary operator in Alabama's fields and powerful elsewhere in the Appalachians, had grown to be one of the nation's largest energy companies.

Sons Gary and Neal Drummond retained control of the business after their father died, and while the level of violence never approached what made the '30's and '40's seem like a gangster setting, tough and brutally oppressive conditions did, according to many observers, continue to be prevalent in coal mining, especially when one had the poor luck, or made the choice, to offer oneself for hire to the Drummonds.

31-strip_coal_mining In 2001, the company essentially closed every operating mine it owned in Alabama, throwing thousands of miners out of work. Before a year had elapsed, however, it had built a half billion dollar operation in the shadow of the 19,000 foot high Valledupar Volcano in Northeastern Colombia, where all manner of U.S. energy companies have been on a feeding frenzy since the 1990's.

This complicated and still not fully explicated story involved the Drummond Brothers' powerful motivation to operate a non-union business. They closed down profitable mines that yielded relatively low sulfur coal. They put decades of profits into building a new enterprise in a foreign land. The coal there was cheaper to extract, but it contained much more sulfur and other impurities, and with shipping costs, its delivery to utility customers was more or less equivalent in cost to the delivery of Alabama carbon.

But instead of a solidly pro-union environment in which, despite decades of infighting and sell-outs within the UMWA, those who put their lives on the line underground understood that a union was essential, the Drummond owners were able to pay members of local paramilitary operations, already supported and trained by the United States, to provide security at its new facility, 'security' that included keeping organizers out. And for a time this was fine.

But seven miners died when equipment malfunctioned. Injury rates climbed, and wages did not rise. The pace of work was exploitative to a degree remarkable even for Colombia. And union sentiment grew. Brave men confronted the Drummond operation with demands for recognition of a union.

Then came the death threats. And, in one of the most troubling stories that I ever had to report, the two leaders of this simple attempt to bring some equity to the labor/capital divide, after they had appealed personally, via cell phone, to Gary Drummond for a chance to remain at the mine over night and been refused, faced a death squad upon leaving the work pit. One of them was shot several times in the head in front of a busload of other miners, the other faced a day of torture and maiming before mercy prevailed and he too was murdered.

800px-wujek_coal_mine_-_museum_06 More organizers die in Colombia than most of the rest of the world combined. Colombia, through the machinations of 'Plan Colombia,' nonetheless (or, as I would maintain, "Therefore")remains the darling of Presidents, two Bushes, a Clinton, and an Obama. This hideous acquiescence, at the very least, of murder in order to maximize profitability and control, is obviously the diametric opposite of 'business better.'

Perhaps its promulgators, 'smart guys' at the State Department, DOD, and in the oil companies and fossil fuel giants, believe this approach to be sustainable. Certainly, proponents keep backing 'Plan Colombia' and its offshoots to the hilt, as it were. A thousand or more union organizers, and tens of thousands of ordinary Colombians have died in the process, as, all the while, our government's agents have participated in the drug trade and acted as proxies in turf wars with Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales.

Of the components of today's story, this one is so gripping and centrally dispositive of our collective future that I must promise to follow it up. For now, I would merely ask readers to reflect about what life in a community like that confronted by Balmore Locarno and Jaime Orcasitas would be like, living in constant fear of grotesque brutality and summary execution. Is that kind of world, closer and closer to home, worth the trappings of a nationalistic empire?

Albert Einstein understood this notion: "Nationalism is an infantile disease--the measles of mankind," he said. I'd modify that: more likely, a metaphor of blood cancer would be apt, though we can leave the childish trope in place as apropos to the selfish willfulness of those who would order, or allow, such relationships to dominate a society.

Those of us who would do 'business better' can only seek ways, through community, democracy, and knowledge, to transform and eventually eliminate such parodies of social responsibility. In the interim, one should be careful about condemning King Coal for the operational protocols of the Princes of Capital. Plutocracy would prove loathsome even if powered by wind; even nukes would nearly be palatable in a democracy surrounded by strong and capacitated communities.

CONCLUSIONS

31-mine-memorial-shaft Even the briefest of interludes can instruct the attentive. And no one has ever accused me of being 'the briefest' at anything that I do. I grew up with coal. My grandfather was a miner for a brief period, until the claustrophobic fear of the roof collapsing drove him out of the pit. I would spend Winter evenings with the hushed whoosh of a coal stove firing furiously a few yards from the big bed where I slept with my brother.

For many years, I felt little fear at the constraints that might stem from oil's withdrawal, because I knew the hills which I called home had still rich bituminous deposits beneath them. Now, of course, having seen close up the vomitous of strip-mined land, and having covered first hand the horror of miners whose lives were a sacrifice to the black deity, I am dubious about such a commitment to a coal-fired future.

On the other hand, I remain skeptical of those who would shut down the mines as soon as humanly possible: that would be later today, after all. And I do not accept, without qualification in any case, that all future uses of coal must contribute to human perdition.

Looking at the history of things is important to developing perspective. I can see the ways that miners' organizations betrayed their duties. I have witnessed the depredations that coal company operators have permitted against workers hither and yon. I know first hand that the drive for profit, inextricably intertwined with the drive for empire, directs the machinations of big business in this energy realm, whether the issue is safety and maintenance in a small shaft below the Black Warrior River or the right to organize at a massive open-pit facility in the shadow of an equatorial volcano.

31-energy-montage And I know that renewable energy looks more easily to be a sustainable business model. Nonetheless, I also recognize that the difficulties with coal are not so much inherent in its essence--and this separates it profoundly from U-235 and Plutonium, by the way--as issues of social choice, political power, and economic gain.

This recognition, as I memorialize some events today and mourn others, allows me to engage my creative faculties. Those who would do 'business better' and promote sustainable technology and commerce all too often lack any organizational roots. Our natural constituents thus cannot help but view us, often anyhow, as busy-body interlopers who want to lecture them about 'truth' and cosmic grooviness.

The narrative today ought to suggest, if one pays appropriate attention to it, that sustainable business and renewable energy need not be antithetical to coal, however carboniferous it may be. If we could prove ourselves of value to this highly disciplined, and often fairly well-organized, subset of our cousins, then whatever message that we wanted to deliver to the powers-that-be would pack a load more of punch.

This awareness of an opportunistic conjunction need not impel us to opportunism. It can merely form the basis for political thinking that might lead us to formulate outreach and networking in directions different from those that we normally follow, when we seem always to be talking to ourselves.

I'm not sure how it would work, a conjunction of union miners and solar advocates, a gathering of organized colliers with community leaders seeking improved access to energy and power, but I'm quite certain that such constituencies as these are natural allies instead of obvious opponents.

Manifesting these connections in practice that we make in our minds is part of the job in this labor.

Another key concluding aspect of today's post centers around borders and the empires that inevitably accompany such an apparently neutral process of mapping things out. The very notion that a certain river, or an imaginary line through arid mountains, truly separates the United States and Mexico states an absurd proposition, which becomes by turns hilarious or tragic when one considers the human history of theft and conquest that attends those geographical facts.

As such, one implication of the stories of today--Drummond's destruction of two union movements, one by high-handedly shutting mines down and the other by imperiously opening them up is very telling--is that just as 'capital laughs at borders,', insisting on a free flow of whatever morass of commodified goods that it commands, so too we should insist that all cousins can travel freely in the dominion that we share. This would strike a blow at the rule of money arguably more potent than the UMWA's and John L. Lewis' strike at FDR, which threatened the New Deal for capital seventy five years ago.

Finally, this same intersection of energy and empire and class calls us to a higher level of commitment to each other, to our communities--at all levels of 'civil society,' and to the earth and the life that springs from it.

Thomas Paine put this in simple terms. "It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government." Now, our duty is to apply this easily followed notion to the complex web and woof of politics today.

AFTERWORD

In her forward to Eduardo Galeano's most essential of modern readings, Isabel Allende captures for readers the 'great emotion' of imbibing Open Veins of Latin America. She also makes sense of how underlying patterns assert themselves despite our 'best intentions' to 'shape the world' along good and generous lines. The upshot of these recollections of a hopeful youth, the assassination of her uncle and President of Chile by agents of the United States, prepared her heart for the healing energy of Galeano's honest delving of the past.

31-allende"In the early 1970s, Chile was a small island in the tempestuous sea in which history had plunged Latin America, the continent that appears on the map in the form of an ailing heart. We were in the midst of the Socialist government of Salvador Allende, the first Marxist ever to become president in a democratic election, a man who had a dreamof equality and liberty and the passion to make that dream come true.

That book with the yellow covers, however, proved that there were no safe islands in our region, we all shared 500 years of exploitation and colonization, we were all linked by a common fate, we all belonged to the same race of the oppressed. If I had been able to read between the lines, I could have concluded that Salvador Allende's government was doomed from the beginning. ... (T)he United States would not allow a leftist experiment to succeed in what Henry Kissinger called "its backyard." The Cuban Revolution was enough; no other socialist project would be tolerated, even if it was the result of a democratic election. On September 11, 1973, a military coup."

Other books have had a similar impact on me, even as my experience of Galeano was much like what Allende describes: emotional and confirmatory of the parameters of politics in their intersection with history. C. Vann Woodward's The Origins of the New South is another such volume; its clear-eyed depiction of the way that money from the North interacted with the desire of a dislodged ruling class for restoration in many ways explicated my life.

A truly transitional moment in my life took place when these two ideas--of the hooks that Wall Street maintains in the South to this day as a result of overthrowing slavery, and of the imperial import of Latin markets and resources for U.S. leaders' strategies--synthesized to form a bedrock of the paradigm that I bring to my understanding of the world. In the context of this paradigm shift, many things--'wars' on drugs, immigration, coal-mining, and more--begin to take on a different appearance, at once more substantial and evanescent.

The desire to do 'business better,' to discern a model that can last, is difficult to balance with a view that capital bleeds people dry. And of course, this is not the generally accepted perspective, though certainly its adherents are numerous. Smedley Butler's profile was not that long ago here.

What I have asked folks to consider, who want to achieve a 'better-business' methodology, is that they must start with the bedrock fact that many, many folks do believe the above assertion about businesses. As Ted Fishman recently wrote in Harpers Magazine, "the myth of capital's good intentions" has spread far and wide among elite intellectuals and those who ply their way through life with words and ideas generally.

"(Such arguments for capitalism make) a powerful presentation, and wrong. Global trade has a sadly mixed record as a creator of wealth and as a peacemaker. Moreover, where the rewards justify the risks, money will brave any hellhole. ... (M)oney, we sometimes forget, has no special designs, no particular desire to improve anyone's life.

The freeing up of the world's markets may have nothing to do with the declining fortunes of many of its citizens, but the capitalist impulse can just as powerfully prolong poverty as end it. And even as the influx of capital helps some countries prosper, it pulls others relentlessly toward war. The lethal double dynamic begins with the dirt poor whom the spread of global capitalism has not helped.

Half the planet lives on less than two dollars a day, a billion people on half that. For them, globalization has meant little in terms of real income gain. Oxfam recently recalculated the statistics in the World Bank study on developing countries, this time not weighted for population, and determined that incomes for people in countries that are pursuing a global program grew just 1.5 percent. For one in three of these countries, incomes actually rose more slowly than in states that resisted reforms."

Again and again, if one lingers in Dixie for longer than a few moments, this same paradox presents itself. The only way up appears to involve fitting one's agenda to the fast food assembly line, what Thomas Friedman has called the "Golden Arches theory" of conflict resolution; yet those who resist this integration into capital's relentless conglomeration of everything in existence often seem to be a bit better off--vastly more healthy psychically, and maybe even a little bit more prosperous, or otherwise materially capable.

Moreover, this sense of maddening contradiction moves, miasma-like, until it subsumes everything that one examines, no matter how intimate, no matter how distant and abstract.

*Thus, coal yields the strongest working class organization in the history of the United States, the UMWA, which in turn develops extensive ties with financiers, and possibly worse.

*Thus, the long confluence of reactionary agendas among rulers further South, from Jefferson Davis to Alvaro Uribe, has also manifested the strongest threats, a la Fidel and Hugo, et al., to the ineluctable victory of the franchisors.

*Thus, a desire to honor 'progressive' development and innovation runs directly counter to the job prospects of hundreds of thousands of miners, who in turn victimize, and find themselves alienated from, each other.

And unraveling the skeins of crazy quilted meaning in everything seems worse than impossible, because it is necessary: madness lurks close by, waiting with a quiet smile.

Ted Fishman takes us to the lapping shores of this ebb tide of insanity.

31-monet_men_unloading_coal"Should we be surprised, then, that the freeing up of world financial markets and world trade has spread an epidemic of violence? The dictators, warlords, cotporate partners, banks, law firms, and nations that thrive on deadly business have known it all along. The profits extracted from teetering states, masses of poor, and gaps in the law move as quickly and expertly around the globe as the profits of a hot-money hedge fund. No business has moved faster than arms makers to exploit the free flow of goods and money, distributing weapons as widely as cotton. The ties that
bind Nike to Third World sneaker manufacturers bind Wall Street to war as well.

...(And) (t)here is no market mechanism for resurrecting the lives of the millions killed for profit. No incentives can reclaim half a billion small weapons sold into the world or the suitcase nukes bought out of secret bank accounts. World capitalism does not distribute insight into how many deaths are too many or into how to save a world that profits in its own destruction. Like the tide, it cares not the slightest on which shore we land."

Here, if we are willing, is a buoy. We do care. We can acknowledge the perfidy and opportunism and sacrilege that maintain an insidious hold on relations among all the cousins seeking surcease, and that have so poisoned the connection of each of us to our source: the placid sea and 'uncaring' tide; the crystalline mountain airs that neither judge nor hope; the rain forests and tidal pools whose inhabitants either live on a much longer timeline or who come and go in a day.

And in holding on to the fact that we do value something other than the 'quick profit' or the 'big killing,' we can seize hold of the notion that choice remains possible. Certainty may be for fools, but choice at times is the only thing that we do, ultimately, own.

Thus, we can choose to honor a bevy of brave miners who faced horrific immolation and suffocation rather than abandon a handful of comrades who might still live.

Thus, we can cleave to each other in creating an indomitable organization that can, at any moment, 'strike' for the power that is always latent in us when we stand together, all the while retaining our awareness of the soft whispers of co-optation and corruption that attend our expressions of organized capacity.

Thus, we can start--as in this instant, to refuse continued acceptance of our leaders' embedding our resources, our funds, and our names in self-serving regimes that brutalize the cousins whom we need as allies and devastate the earth on which our future depends.

Thus, we can reject war and empire, at the same time that we embrace democracy and community.

We can recall what Kenneth Roberts said: "They call war an art, but it isn't. It largely consists in outwitting people, robbing widows and orphans, and inflicting suffering on the helpless for one' s own ends--and that's not art: that's business.". And we can affirm that no model of business that we will follow affirms such a nostrum, no matter the lure of easy lucre.

And we can swear, that if nothing can separate capital from such a fate, then we will do all that we can to separate ourselves from capital and find different ways to thrive.

Photo Credits

Wind: twicepix
Mine: Michal Osmenda
Metal: Webtreats
Chemicals: Horia Varlan
Textiles: Adalbertop
Strip coal mining: Komencanto
Salvador Allende statue: Juanjo+Willow
Mine Shaft/Ludlow Massacre Memorial: Beverly
Ludlow Memorial sign: Beverly
West Alabama Miner video stills: Left in Alabama
Coal and mining images: public domain

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