Narratives Essential to Renewable Energy & Sustainable Business
These pages, at various junctures ranging from an institutional history of the TVA in relation to sustainable business to examinations of a particular industry such as coal to a deconstruction of the meaning and utility of a common trope about common carbon energy forms now in use, have oriented readers to the way that established forces in favor of present modes of energy production exist in complex interplay with two distinct primary pathways to coming energy transitions.
Today, in a way that again undertakes to show the pervasive and potent role of mediated expression, again in relation to the Southern Appalachian's leading indigenous energy source--which is to say, coal, THC takes readers on a tour of the gritty, vile, and murderous legacy from which the mining of coal has developed.
John Sayles' mastery of the medium blesses our journey, but, as was often his approach, history is the fundamental guide, the muse that contextualizes--that absolutely must for the foundation for-- any rational study and comprehension of this seamy dark tale of America.
Prior to reexamining, with slightly different and additional detail added to the mix, the history and political economic reality of coal in Appalachia, or to pondering the heart-wrenching venality of capital and government that transpired in Central West Virginia, and the heroic struggle of men and women who stood together in solidarity in spite of that vicious assault on human rights, this humble correspondent intends to provide some threads with which to put a different spin on the fabric of this yarn.
In the first place, THC asks readers to consider the earliest introduction to his work, in which he wrote, "Energy consists of three sorts of increases in human capacity beyond that in our bodies alone: the first drives machinery that has brought us a world of plenty; the second produces either process heat---anything from cooking to the necessity of speeding up reactions at paper mills--or the ability to warm water or ourselves; the third involves any current of energy---now overwhelmingly electricity---that we use for comfort, light, entertainment or otherwise."
These down-to-earth formulations, today, call forth both other earthy responses and more difficult sorts of ideation. Readers may follow along apace.
William Kinsella represents a certain sort of intellectual development. Arcane language, references to seemingly iconic but overwhelmingly inaccessible texts, and a general disposition to convey a sense of conversation among the cognescenti abound in his writing. But what he says is exceedingly useful to those who would ground themselves in how science, technology, and energy function in shaping social and political possibility.
"The terms “big science” and “big technology” signify pervasive and characteristic phenomena within the contemporary social order. ... a mode of activity that combines well-established, modernist goals of knowledge production with more recent forms of organization. The organizational forms of big science involve complex, long-term, costly projects conducted by large communities of researchers, support staff, and administrators, rather than by individual actors or small groups. ...(T)his modality increasingly represents what science means to scientists, sponsors of science, the public, and those who study science from academic or policy perspectives. ...(L)arger disciplinary networks...inform their projects and practices. Concepts of “'social epistemology,' 'epistemic communities,' or 'superorganisms' capture some of these features of big science and suggest implications for epistemic agency."
What Kinsella--and he is only one of thousands of thinkers doing this--is pointing out is that the 'knowledge' that moves social decision-making forward about technical matters more and more appears as if given-from-on-high. These networks of 'knowledge-creation' leave no room for citizen commentary, let alone participation in development of policy or construction of specific implementations of policy.
Second, readers ought to be able to apprehend that all such matters of energy usage--involving interwoven strings of resource extraction, power production, electricity consumption, and more, all inevitably involve a polarization of the local and the global. This flows from the above observation in a way that should be obvious. The folks from the street-corner cannot really speak to the issues, and the perquisites of corporations larger than nation-states rule the conversation.
One question that develops from this concerns the potential for communities to network in such a fashion that local empowerment is possible without completely gutting the seeming irresistible impetus to centralized production and management. While this is precisely what THC has argued again and again, particularly in regard to that little engine that could in Vermont, evidence of such thinking regularly appears in different contexts.
One group from Appalachia is exceeding clear about this. "'Think globally, act locally.' More and more, it takes a region, a 'community of communities' to solve problems experienced locally. This blog is an exploration of emerging 'regional communities' and the 'regional intelligence' that brings them together. 'Community precedes cooperation.' This is my thesis. It comes from over 35 years of working for regional cooperation. Communities routinely manage competition." This would make Lou Zellar or Mike Ewall beam; even if they are not directly involved, their models show up here for anyone who can see straight.
Finally, redolent of both Wendell Berry and Don Harris, this humble correspondent would make the argument that these issues inevitably bring up issues very close to the center of the human condition indeed, right at the belly of the beast, as it were. Wendell Berry himself, once more, incisively and a little chillingly, asks readers to ponder this disconnect among food, farms, land, and energy.
"Now that the issue of sustainability has arisen so urgently...we can see that the correct agricultural agenda following World War II would have been to ...refine the already established connection between our farms and the sun and to correct, where necessary, the fertility deficit. There can be no question, now, that that is what we should have done. It was, notoriously, not what we did. Instead, the adopted agenda called for a shift from the cheap, clean, and, for all practical purposes, limitless energy of the sun to the expensive, filthy, and limited energy of the fossil fuels. It called for the massive use of chemical fertilizers to offset the destruction of topsoil and the depletion of natural fertility. It called also for the displacement of nearly the entire farming population and the replacement of their labor and good farming practices by machines and toxic chemicals. This agenda has succeeded in its aims, but to the benefit of no one and nothing except the corporations that have supplied the necessary machines, fuels, and chemicals-and the corporations that have bought cheap and sold high the products that, as a result of this agenda, have been increasingly expensive for farmers to produce."
Developing, as folks shall soon see, from roots much earthier and more nakedly violent than what takes place in the hyper-mediated and apparently sterile, neutral public and technical environs that prevail today, these skeins of treachery and courage and resistance and betrayal and upheaval that marked coal's growth as the twentieth century grew toward its middle years have in fact yielded the sorts of analytical forms that currently hold sway.
Before THC departs this article, he hopes to permit readers to see that--despite apparent bright articulations of expertise and empirical necessity that emanate from the corps of technicians who make policy today--the same warp and woof of class conflict that characterized Blair Mountain, West Virginia ninety years ago, continue in force to this moment. Part of the process of achieving a more democratic energy policy, support for renewable energy, or promoting sustainable business, in fact, depends on this comprehension of class dynamics and social dialectic in all aspects of energy, no matter the seeming mathematical perfection of the surface appearance.
Almost certainly, most readers whose normal disposition would be to consider themselves advocates of 'corporate social responsibility' or 'sustainable business,' whatever those catch-phrases mean in a particular context of use, would bridle at the idea that studying such matters depended almost completely on a clear comprehension of labor history. Nonetheless, the dependency is, at least given an acceptance of rationality, one hundred per cent accurate.
The demonstration of this point is actually relatively easy. First of all comes the admission that 'joint-stock-corporations,' the parent of today's statutory corporate procedure, and its progeny have all existed for one primary purpose in terms of utility--to carry on a course of business activity; and another primary purpose in terms of stockholder equity--maximization of profit. That's a sum total.
Second, agreement to the following fact necessarily follows from the world's being a place of cause and effect. Should all aspects of the production and profit functions of a specific corporate animal be operating at any sort of acceptable level--i.e., nothing dire threatens either the creation and distribution of product or the profitability of such activities--the chances approach zero that it will concern itself with CSR or sustainable business. Such developments always entail some problem, issue, or conflict that the corporate body is experiencing.
Third, upon examination of both the logic of capital and the history of capitalism, every expression of such problems, conflicts, or issues--global warming, environmental degradation, child labor, sweatshop practices, predatory competitive practices, and on and on and on and on, ad infinitum--relate to, stem from, or intertwine inextricably with the basic dialectic of capital, the conflict between worker and owner. No corporate form can legally evolve otherwise, inasmuch as fiduciary responsibility necessitates the greatest profit possible.
Once this is clear, gentle readers will note, quod et demonstratum, THC has proven his original point, inasmuch as labor history, detailing a working class existence central to which is the class conflict from one expression or other of which flows a bearing of the burden of CSR and such, now obviously underlies any explication of this assumption of an unwelcome business burden. Examining the history of labor conflict and coal has a lot to do with present notions of appropriate technology, sustainable business, and so forth.
Now THC is well aware that another view is possible. Corporations might increase profits vis-a-vis a building up of goodwill, branding themselves as the defenders of right and honor, and all other manner of hypothetical possibilities. Were we to inhabit a hypothetical world, such POV's would be worthy of attention. In the actual world, such a model has practically zero predictive or empirical validity, however, so onward to the labor history of coal we go.
A single source can often provide such a 'balanced and accurate overview' that a reader might well stop right there. Although it only touches the the most obvious points, an Appalachian blog makes accessible much of the way that Appalachia's history intermixes with the history of coal-mining.
On the other hand, even a bit more research, as for example an early twentieth century obituary of an industrial family's scion who opportunistically leads the way in the development of an industry, shows the multilayered sorts of developments that make up this as-yet untold overall tale of how the mining of coal impelled and paralleled the rise of the United States.
One way of examining this vast, complex, exciting, innovative, secretive, murderous, and prototypically capitalist industry breaks it into five time periods, two of which are completely beyond the focus of today's article, which is John Sayles' feature film. So much remains to explore and explicate, but as a way of viewing this history, such a five part division can help.
The early period, which actually begins in the early-to-mid eighteenth century, continues until the Civil War, more or less. During this time, markets for coal are almost exclusively local, mining itself takes place, for the most part, along waterways that have exposed deposits, and the labor of extraction depends primarily on men and boys, with some assistance from horses and mules.
While many of the current regions that produce much of America's underground coal, such as Western Virginia as early as 1817, had begun to produce coal during this period, technical skill did not permit the extraction of coal given geographical challenges. Thus, only the river valleys permitted mining, as in Paducah Kentucky, or along the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and their tributaries. Small operations were overwhelmingly predominant, and although grueling and dangerous, the industry did not snuff out lives by the hundreds.
The next period, though on occasion earlier operations show some more industrialized characteristics, dates from roughly the end of the Civil War to the last decade of the nineteenth century, more or less. Two factors played key roles in this technically. The first was the invention of dynamite, which primarily supported mining and civil engineering projects that required removing large amounts of earth and rock, or digging into it.
The second element of the rise of mechanized deep mining was the growth of steel. Of course, both the chemical experimentation of Nobel and others that produced copious new ways to blow things up, and the multiple innovations in steel processes that grew geometrically from the mid-nineteenth century onward, in turn connected with the capacity to extract and ship coal.
What almost all standard annals overlook in these varied technical melanges, however, is the way that 'labor problems' drove innovation, and the concomitant increases in productivity. Already, in the coal towns of Appalachia and elsewhere, these processes had begun to manifest themselves in the final decades of the 1800's.
Sometimes, all of these factors--new technologies, huge upgrades in output, and vicious class-battles between owners and miners--all go hand in glove. Such a case defined the inception of this second phase in one of the world's most important coal fields, the anthracite mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania, where low sulfur and relatively accessible deposits that were ideal for metallurgical applications mushroomed production in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The "Molly Maguires" phenomena in the anthracite mining districts--in which pro-union terrorists committed murder and mayhem, in retrospect turn out to resemble propaganda campaigns that such large scale mine operators as Charles Gowen carried out to criminalize and otherwise intimidate organizing efforts. Some of the miners hung for 'crimes' in these cases received pardons, well after they had hung from their necks until dead.
The third period includes the events depicted in John Sayles' film, "Matewan," and runs more or less to the beginning of WWII, or even later, depending on how one analyzes the social, technical, and economic processes of mining. In this interval, the introduction of rails, of electrical conveyance, and of equipment to amplify the striking power of the gritty miner began to appear and became increasingly common.
Overwhelmingly, without even a hint of equivocation or doubt, this humble correspondent can deduce several important points about the mining of coal, the initial two of which are relatively benign and uncontroversial, though often overlooked for all of that. First, colliers define the induction of the industrial epoch, especially of course in the creation of a relatively cheap source of steam. Second, nearly every sort of mechanized complexity that an observer might take as 'modern' stems from, or has inextricable ties to, the mining and use of coal. The same sorts of things apply to petrochemicals generally, as well, but coal definitely came first, and arguably led the way.
Third, and most clearly, though almost never put this way in 'standard' assessments of the industry and its impacts on society, mining has evinced the most vicious, visceral, almost primordial expressions of class conflict. In relation to current questions about energy policy, jobs, sustainable business, and other topics of particular interest to JustMeans readers, this connection of coal's history to class conflict is especially noteworthy. Reform, and 'business better' in such cases, thereby flows from the bedrock nature of capitalism in ways that one might otherwise ignore or misinterpret.
Appalachian history, in particular, connects to coal's hideous history of murder and mayhem. In lopsided fashion, the initiation of and benefiting from violence flow from the top down, exactly opposite of the characterization that flowed out of the above-mentioned 'Molly Maguire' incidents.
While scores and scores of commentaries make this point now--that owners were corrupt, aggressively and even murderously violent, and completely dishonest in their dealings with labor and the 'public,' such narratives largely allow this interpretation by looking at particular cases instead of at the trend of the coal industry and capitalism generally. This humble correspondent, however, insists on making the general point, though, anomalously, few other monographs of recent vintage have done this.
For an ineluctably authentic vocalization of this indictment, one can turn to such a source as the Autobiography of Mother Jones, "the miner's angel" who regularly risked life and limb both to bring organizing assistance to the benighted and to distribute the collier's message to a wider audience. For more than three decades, her calm wit documents THC's point about coal mining and class conflict.
*In 1891, she helped strikers in Virginia and showed a keen appreciation of the way that judicial and administrative forces had decidedly mixed feelings about their almost universally siding with the owners;
*In1899, near Arnot, Pennsylvania, militant women led strikers to victory when they drove off the mules that were carting scab coal for weighing and payment;;
*In all of the early 1900's, she was in and out of West Virginia and elsewhere in the toughest country, organizing while thugs put pistols in her face and threatened to disappear her in like fashion as the dozens of disappeared miners during this time ended up at the bottom of old mine shafts or otherwise disposed of for the crime of wanting a more democratic workplace. Not once did she lose her optimistic aplomb--“Goodbye, boys; I’m under arrest. I may have to go to jail. I may not see you for a long time. Keep up this fight! Don’t surrender! Pay no attention to the injunction machine at Parkersburg. The Federal judge is a scab anyhow. While you starve he plays golf. While you serve humanity, he serves injunctions for the money powers.”
*In all this period of strife, she played every sort of role--nurse, organizer, documentarian, legal expert, formal witness, administrative liaison: she helped broker the meeting between Teddy Roosevelt and John Mitchell that ended the massive strike of 1902 in the miners' favor; she recalls Clarence Darrow's closing argument in one egregious action against the union--“This contest is one of the important contests that have marked the progress of human liberty since the world began. Every advantage that the human race has won has been at fearful cost. Some men must die that others may live. It has come to these poor miners to bear this cross not for themselves alone but that the human race may be lifted up to a higher and broader plane.”
*In one encounter after the end of that victorious action, owners' gunmen assassinated half a dozen union backers while they slept, her vivid recollection of blood darkened pillows splattered with bits of brain and bone simply awful; after another, later strike victory, she first challenged union leadership over Mitchell's seeking a subscription of a dollar per miner for a big house for his wife, stating a philosophy of stewardship that ought to stand for those who want anything worthwhile to this day: "From then on Mitchell was not friendly to me. He took my attitude as one of personal enmity. And he saw that he could not control me. He had tasted power and this finally destroyed him. I believe that no man who holds a leader’s position should ever accept favors from either side. He is then committed to show favors. A leader must stand alone."
*In many other cases between the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1920's she showed up, she spoke truth to power, she validated a worker's right to a union and a better life, referring to Pennsylvania women "who sang themselves out of jail" after they chased away scabs to land behind bars-->once(http://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/jones/ch18.htm), "in a frightful district called 'Russia,'" ... miners had been peons for years, kept in slavery by the guns of the coal company, and by the system of paying in scrip so that a miner never had any money should he wish to leave the district. He was cheated of his wages when his coal was weighed, cheated in the company store where he was forced to purchase his food, charged an exorbitant rent for his kennel in which he lived and bred, docked for school tax and burial tax and physician and for 'protection,' which meant the gunmen who shot him back into the mines if he rebelled or so much as murmured against his outrageous exploitation. No one was allowed in the Cabin Creek district without explaining his reason for being there to the gunmen who patrolled the roads, all of which belonged to the coal company. The miners finally struck – it was a strike of desperation," and Mother Jones was there; she organized a huge march, under such circumstances, perhaps over a thousand strong, against the State's governor whom she characterized as akin to 'Nero,' fiddling while West Virginia suffered burns from hellish fires.
*In 1919, after concentrating for years on peace issues with Debs, another miners' promoter--who went to prison for saying that folks didn't have to go to war, she found herself, in 1919, in West Virginia once more, where her "attention was called to the brutal conditions of the Sissonville prison Camp in Kanawha County, West Virginia. The practices of the dark ages were not unknown to that county. Feudalism and slave ownership existed in her coal camps. I found the most brutal slave ownership in the prison camp. Officials of state and nation squawk about the dangers of bolshevism and they tolerate and promote a system that turns out bolshevists by the thousands. A bunch of hypocrites create a constabulary supposedly to stamp out dangerous 'reds,' but in truth the constabulary is to safeguard the interests of the exploiters of labor. The moneyed interests and their servants, the officials of county and state, howl and yammer about law and order and American ideals in order to drown out the still, small voice of the worker asking for bread."
*In 1919, she described the Steel Strike in similar terms: "During the war the working people were made to believe they amounted to something. Gompers, the President of the American Federation of Labor, conferred with copper kings and lumber kings and coal kings, speaking for the organized workers. Up and down the land the workers heard the word, 'democracy.' They were asked to work for it. To give their wages to it. To give their lives for it. They were told that their labor, their money, their flesh were the bulwarks against tyranny and autocracy. So believing, the steel workers, 300,000 of them, rose en masse against Kaiser Gary, the President of the American Steel Corporation. The slaves asked their czar for the abolition of the twelve-hour day, for a crumb from the huge loaf of profits made in the great war, and for the right to organize."
*Again, in 1920, all over the world, all around the country, and in Matewan, where THC's attention will soon focus, "The government, under Hoover, opened up scores of scab mines. Non-union coal was dumped on the market. The miners believed that the Federal Government was against them. They set about organizing the non-union fields. I went here and there. I went to West Virginia. Thousands of dollars had been spent in that field. I went among the women in the tent colonies on the hills. The story of coal is always the same. It is a dark story. For a second’s more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty--a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window--for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win."
This humble correspondent's reliance on the articulation of this brave, hilarious, and compassionate godsend to the working class is not at all a matter of necessity. Instead, it is explicitly a result of ease of presentation. Mary Harris Jones showed a breadth of vision that made hers a voice of authority around the country and around the world.
Repeatedly, she verbalizes accurately the true state of class relations and social conflict amid the engineers and trigger-men who were the technicians and muscle for capital(http://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/jones/ch13.htm). "Whenever the masters of the state told the governor to bark, he yelped for them like a mad hound. Whenever they told the military to bite, they bit."
On another occasion, "The people of Colorado had voted overwhelmingly for an eight-hour day. The legislature passed an eight hour law but the courts had declared it unconstitutional. Then when the measure was submitted directly to the people, they voted for it with 40,000 votes majority. But the next legislature, which was controlled by the mining interests, failed to pass the bill."
During the war, she spat out, "The cost of living during the war went rocket high. Copper stock made men rich over night. But the miner, paying high prices for his food, for his living, was unpatriotic if he called attention to his grievances. He became an 'emissary of the Kaiser' if he whispered his injuries. While boys died at the front and the copper miners groaned at the rear, tile copper kings grew richer than the kings against whom the nation fought."
Just before Wilson won reelection for lying to the people about his peaceful intentions, she spoke to 'middle-class' women in the West: "You Don't Need a Vote to Raise Hell," she pointed out, "I am not an anti to anything which will bring freedom to my class, but I am going to be honest with you sincere women who are working for votes for women. The women of Colorado have had the vote for two generations and the working men and women are in slavery. The state is in slavery, vassal to the Colorado Iron and Fuel Company and its subsidiary interests. A man who was present at a meeting of mine owners told me that when the trouble started in the mines, one operator proposed that women be disfranchised because here and there some woman had raised her voice in behalf of the miners. Another operator jumped to his feet and shouted, ‘For God’s sake! What are you talking about! If it had not been for the women’s vote the miners would have beaten us long ago!’"
Later, she wrote, "Some of the women gasped with horror. One or two left the room. I told the women I did not believe in women’s rights nor in men’s rights but in human rights. 'No matter what your fight,' I said, 'don’t be ladylike! God Almighty made women, and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies. I have just fought through sixteen months of bitter warfare in Colorado. I have been up against armed mercenaries but this old woman, without a vote, and with nothing but a hatpin has scared them. ... Politics is only the servant of industry. The plutocrats have organized their women. They keep them busy with suffrage and prohibition and charity."
And, penning her memories about the months immediately following the brutality on Blair Mountain that John Sayles depicts, the intrepid ninety-odd year old tigress spoke of "Medieval West Virginia," a place where human progress had moved opposite the suppositions of Horatio Alger and other American boosters. "I have been in West Virginia more or less for the past twenty-three years, taking part in the interminable conflicts that arose between the industrial slaves and their masters. The conflicts were always bitter. Mining is cruel work. Men are down in utter darkness hours on end. They have no life in the sun. They come up from the silence of the earth utterly wearied. Sleep and work, work and sleep. No time or strength for education, no money for books. No leisure for thought. With the primitive tools of pick and shovel they gut out the insides of the old earth. Their shoulders are stooped from bending. Their eyes are narrowed to the tiny crevices through which they crawl.
Evolution, development, is turned backward. Miners become less erect, less wide-eyed. ... Cruel is the life of the miners with the weight of the world upon their backs. And cruel are their strikes. Miners are accustomed to cruelty. They know no other law. They are like primitive men struggling in his ferocious jungle-for himself, for his children, for the race of men."
To allot just a single additional witness to the compelling testimony of Mother Jones, this humble correspondent might turn to a popular historian from the 1930's, a wealthy woman who had turned in directions decidedly pinkish because her conception of 'sustainable business' and something at least vaguely resembling democracy required such a shift in direction. Mary Heaton Vorse's Labor's New Millions, now a classic, told the story of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in the process paying homage over and over to the stalwart struggles of the miners.
|"This is the Allegheny Valley, known as the Black Valley. Up here in Breckenbridge, Fannie Sellins was murdered in 1919. Near here the coal miners, protesting against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, were beaten and fired on. All union labor was crushed in the Black Valley for a generation. Only the miners kept the union flag flying."|
She notes the origins of one of the chief tactics underlying CIO victories, since owners were chary about shooting workers who had tied themselves to the owner's goods. "What was equivalent to the sit-down was an old custom of the mine workers. When the company became so economical with timber that safety was endangered, coal ceased to come up."
A wide variety of other sources also document these matters. Academic and State Governmentrchives are full of recollections, log books, photos, court records. The source material for this story still exists.
Moreover, the reality of the coalfield experience is also possible to imagine statistically. A local compilation of data might tell of the four or five or six miners in a community who die, on average, over a period of years at the coal face. Recent reconstructions of data can list, in dry detail, the fifteen to twenty thousand miners who died in 'catastrophic accidents' that killed five or more at once, leaving the analyst to scramble for other sources to tell of Black Lung, lost limbs, those who died singly or in pairs or trios or quartets.
However one chooses to reconstitute this tale so central to whatever America is at this juncture, the view is of grim-faced workers who must frequently choose between staring down a bayonet and wearing a scab's lamp into the mine. This history is the skeleton on which today's hopes and cheers for 'business better' hangs. And yet, and yet, nothing has yet truly compiled and conveyed these horrific annals of brutality and heroism, That ought to be a part of any sustainable business scenario for the future, so that the fresh-faced naif of the present day can learn a bit more than what this humble correspondent can command on short notice.
In any event, having seen anew the early development of coal mining generally, and in slightly greater detail having familiarized themselves with the stages of development of coal mining in Southern Appalachia, readers have arrived at the end of WWI in the region, a time of dire straits in the industry and hugely competitive forces generally. As well, as readers may recall, the United States was in the process of tossing aside the League of Nations and adopting a 'go-it-alone' attitude toward an 'open-door' foreign policy.
All of these matters come to bear on the occurrences that took place on Blair Mountain in West Virginia in the Summer of 1921. John Sayles' film "Matewan" proffers a tragic vision of that time and place and trouble at once lyrical and heart-wrenching, both socially real and dramatically intense. This movie should form part of the core curriculum of all who want to understand 'energy' questions, as well as of those who would do 'business better.'
'FIRE IN THE HOLE' OF THE DUNGEONS OF DEATH--JOHN SAYLES' UNDERSTATED PRECISION IN DEPICTING THE SOCIAL LIFE OF COAL
The gritty, barely discernibly lit mining interiors that Sayles presents in this film serve the intentional purpose of expressing for viewers the true nature of underground mining. The opening scene thereby circumscribes the enclosure that swallows up the miner, whose cough suggests a nascent black lung that was as common as weeds among lifelong miners. The title, "Matewan," probably means less to people than, for example, "9/11," but just as important a story of terror lies behind the former as behind the latter phrase.
In its development--from mundane aspects of working the bowels of the earth, such as breathing, blowing up rocks with dynamite, working among sweating beasts and men--to its concluding lines, "Take it or leave it," this initial introduction captures the entire tragic arc of this tale and life under capitalism generally. Lacking any organized expression of collective power, miners can either go without a job or work for ninety cents a ton, far less than promised.
The effect of such arbitrary reductions immediately appear, as a miner's wife and other family members of workers find themselves shut out of the only place from which they can buy food with the scrip money that they receive as pay. A tough and exceedingly gruff and unfriendly, but well-dressed guard fends them off with a rifle.
An affecting bluegrass tune, "Fire in the Hole," makes its first leap from the screen here. Its lyrics can mean either that a dynamite blast is about to occur or that men have just died in a mine explosion. Perhaps this mirrors a recurring thematic element in the film of the dual, or even dialectical, meanings and messages that yield ubiquitous tension, as between the need to work and the one-sided inequity that characterize the drudgery.
To break the spontaneous walk-out of the miners after the company summarily lowered its rate, the company brought in Black and Italian strikebreakers. All of this happened constantly in the hyper-competitive environment of over-capacity and decreased demand that followed WWI, in which the owners had made super-profits that made no difference in their desire to continue maximizing return.
Whites threaten violence, but the Sheriff, Officer Hatfield, warns them that he will brook no violence. This scene, like so many in Sayles' films, bristles with this unresolved angst, a sense that the merest breath will unleash a hurricane of violence or wild trouble.
And that stress then increases as the Blacks meet their new bosses' interlocutors, who inform them of the the nature of the reality that they have contracted to endure. Their tools will cost a week's wage; they will not receive actually cash wages, but company scrip that they must spend at the company store; moreover, their housing, water, and other services, all 'provided by the company,' will also lead to paycheck deductions.
The sense of futility and seething anger at this rotten deal simmers in the scene, which Sayles breaks with the introduction of the pro-union miner sent to help organize the facility, who shows up to rent a room from a relatively young widow--her husband died in coal-face accident, and she now keeps body and soul together by running a rooming house.
At dinner, the viewer meets yet another intriguing character, a fresh-faced, earnestly holy fourteen year old Pentecostal preacher who is also a miner. This introduces the element of religious fervor into the story, which is yet another set of contrarieties, since Kenehan, the organizer, is pretty clearly agnostic in his outlook.
The next group of scenes, which in a Hollywood film would have been the beginning of 'Act Two,' develops the central message of the story--that of class consciousness. The organizer avers that they all--as working men, are under the boss's 'iron heel,' and that they need models like Big Bill Haywood, a hero that illustrates Kannehan's IWW inclinations.
At the mine camp, from which the striking worker's have all been evicted, the Blacks, joined by Italians, learn that while the promised rate for their labor has without warning diminished, the prices at the company store have risen. They also learn that complaints are futile and bring hostile and threatening warnings.
The 'company-preacher,' played by Sayles himself, gives a fiery anti-communist sermon next--again matching the reality of many company supported clerics. He says that Satan, in the form of Bolsheviks and Union organizers, is very likely present right now, right here. At the assertion of the equivalence of the "Prince of darkness" with unions, the Pentacostal youngster glares angrily at his senior.
Meanwhile, the striking miners are meeting with Kennehan. Many express their hatred for n******s and d***s; the Blacks merit the label of scab, according to one person, while the Italians know nothing about mining and get people killed as a result. One bespectacled fellow who looks altogether too soft to be doing any underground work, says that 'we'd rather blow up the mines that put up with Black and foreign competitors stealing our jobs.'
Kennehan listens attentively, when Jones shows up saying that someone had let him know about a union meeting. He knows that he has been the subject of derision, to which he responds that he is willing to accept the 'n' word without a fight, but that no one will get away with calling him a 'scab.'
Kennehan challenges him to be worthy of 'being treated like a man' by standing with the working class against the owners. He compares them all to no better than manure to the rich capitalist class, suggesting that only two kinds of people in the world, those who work and those who don't.
'We work, and that's all anyone needs to know' to know what to do.
He also deals with the issue of violent retaliation. He warns that any such action will serve as an excuse to crush the union and only their disciplined solidarity with each other can overcome the money and guns and political clout of the owning class. When 'they can't get the coal from the ground,' then they'll bargain.
Kennehan and another union representative have a meeting with one of the Italian miners. The scene shows his wife, their small child, in their humble dwellings. Italians bemoan the 'sindicato' complication. If they fight the owners, the company goons shoot them. If they continue to scab, the miners might very well shoot them instead. In the end, cooperation is decided upon, a decision cemented by the following scene: James Earl Jones shows the Italians how to work a coal seam, though, in one of the many touches that speak to the way that workers in fact--as those who have worked such jobs know--help others who are in the same shoes that they have no choice but to wear.
When, after a scene break, a night-time confusion of torches and anger erupts, the White strikers take up arms and go to fight off the interloping Blacks and immigrants whom they believe are headed to the mine in order to scab under cover of darkness. Instead, the strikers find that thy suddenly have new allies, when the new work crews all toss their buckets and tools back at the owner's rep and announce their mass resignation.
Just prior to the next union meeting, stronger now, an unseen hand signs a note: "a 'Red' has shown up. Send help." Professional anti-union goons, the type that this humble correspondent has studied in the course of his American Studies thesis, ride into town in a rattletrap but serviceable motor car, each with pistols and several sporting rifles or shotguns in addition.
All of these disparate forces make for complicated storytelling; Kennehan's message that class conflict makes sense of the scene, however, placing most of what shows up on screen in a useful context. Not everything fits neatly, however. When the thugs come to assert their territorial right to pick fights and practice vicious intimidation in the miners' woodsy encampment, the only thing that prevents them from badly brutalizing one minor that they have already injured is that wild, furry hillbillies emerge silently from the woods to hold ancient but obviously quite functional musketry on the mercenaries, who, led by their nervous leader, beat a hasty retreat.
THC does not want to ruin the filmic experience for his readers. Somehow, despite all of the contradictory energy and manysidedness that Sayles unleashes here, which just looks about impossible to wrap up neatly--and plenty more, dealing with love and gender and slighted womanly passion and murderous spies and liberation theology and libel and contracts to kill and more pops up to complicate everything even more--the film not only reaches a narratively satisfactory, if tragic, ending.
Something akin to justice wins out for a short time, even though the concerted power of capital and national guard and hired henchman in the long run plunder the working class and ruin most attempts at organization. The many deaths include those characters to whom this humble correspondent and many other viewers will find most compelling and with whom identification is easiest. John Sayles doesn't go for 'feel-good' vibe.
His experience of making the film tells the tale of finding out about the 'Coal Wars' for the first time as he hitchhiked through the State while huge UMWA battles were brewing. When people said, 'Oh, it's nothing like the coalfield wars,' a movie was born.
Of course, he had to finance it himself, out of the proceeds of "Brother From Another Planet," because nobody from Hollywood wanted to do a film about a 'socialist mining martyr.' Progressive, and some would say radical or even 'socialist' historian Eric Foner, has reviewed "Matewan" and the companion book about the movie that Sayles penned. Foner incisively reveals that the finely honed capacity of the movie to show a specific place in ways that seemed gritty and real was also a failing, in terms of a bigger picture understanding of the social and political reality of the Blair Mountain battles of ninety years ago.
|"Yet the relentless concentration on the local community, MATEWAN’s greatest strength, also contributes to its most glaring weaknesses – the absence of context, both historical and political… (T)he Matewan strike an isolated local incident, as portrayed in the film. Rather, it formed part of a prolonged struggle for unionization that lasted for decades. Unionism in 1920 was hardly new to the miners of southern West Virginia, and it did not require someone coming from outside the community...to bring its message to Matewan. The region-wide 1912 strike had inaugurated a period of intensely violent struggle between the union and mine owners. ...(M)oreover, the mine workers union, perhaps the most racially integrated labor organization in the nation, succeeded in uniting black and white miners, as well as natives and immigrants. The problem is not that Sayles does not trace these earlier events but that he gives the miners no sense of their own history, forcing them to rely on an outsider for lessons in union organizing and racial tolerance…"|
For all of the historical accuracy of what Foner contends, this humble correspondent remains adamant. For an understanding of class conflict and the nature of class solidarity, few other American films come close to what Sayles has accomplished here. And for those who care, this is a service for those who would comprehend better what sustainable business must mean, if it means anything more than a corporate P.R. slogan.
Rebecca Bailey's dissertation, Matewan Before the Massacre, clearly represents one amazing possibility for focused knowledge about a particular community that stands at a critical intersection of class, commodity, region, and nation, with mediating influences of family, community, and culture. Her work both supports some of the sense of inevitable conflict that emerges in the previous two sections and suggests additional factors--particularly national policy and economic administration, that comprise part of the next level of investigation of coal's inputs and impacts into America and its relation with energy.
This humble correspondent has also compiled, in just his brief review of this topic, literally dozens of source materials that examine such influential elements of local life as culture and community and microeconomics and local politics, in place of class conflict and capital's rule, in order to account for Matewan's place in the swath of deadly strife that came to pass as the great culling took place in Europe. THC proposed, nevertheless, that Mother Jones was accurate, and that the IWW hero of Sayles' film, Kenehan, was correct in pointing to the working class' actions--both inchoate and conscious--were the dispositive keys to Matewan.
This also means that they would be the 'dispositive keys' to understanding the development of energy sources and the relationships between development and energy, even though all of the other components undoubtedly contribute to the telling of a good yarn, whether that tale concern the whole sweep of the killing fields of Appalachia or the introspective memories of the life and times of a boy preacher who remembers the struggles of his youth. While 'coal is king' has a certain resonance, 'class is king' is the expression of America's 'great evasion' that has frequently made an appearance here before.
Looking forward from the viewpoint of 1920, and the bitter mayhem emanating from the inherent fury of the workers' fight with the owners, one would have to wonder about the known diminution of unions in this nation. Explication of that, readers may rest assured, is forthcoming. The issue forms one sturdy piece of a triad of elements in the next installment in this series on coal.
Looking backward from 1920, the words of a Harvard professor, from his 1924 monograph, Coal and Civilization, are at the very least interesting to consider. He promotes a heroic view of carbon quite popular at that time, and exceedingly out of fashion now.
Whereas the benighted 'races' of Europe lacked easy access to "this truly magnificent mineral," one can easily discern that "the rise of Great Britain and Germany, in the past two centuries, is clearly and mainly bound up with their great coal resources." The author, E.C. Jeffries, a plant paleontologist, innovated methods for determining the exact nature of the entire range of coals--from peat and lignite to shale and tar sands, from which he might have deduced that the massive elevation of the sciences in the university and economic life generally also intersects remarkably with this dirty, combustible rock.
Of course, THC would advise caution in accepting such grand statements wholesale, at the same time that these ideas likely have more useful and truthful to say than otherwise. And, in this day and time, when the fashion is to disparage coal and disregard its continuing influence on social, political, and economic life, the lessons of Dr. Jeffries, as well as the more willfully ignored lessons of "Matewan," should form core pieces of a reschooling curriculum about how the world actually works.
The aphorism is indisputable. 'One cannot find a way forward without an understanding of where one wants to end.' Equally inevitable is another quip. 'One cannot determine a favorable goal that is rational without clearly apprehending how one has arrived at one's current pass.' As with so much of what he places on the plate, THC is adamant again in his imprecation to 'pay attention.'
M. King Hubbert, toward the end of his life, wrote "The World's Evolving Energy System." He also spent his passage through this 'veil of tears' asking for folks to employ their capacity for keen observation and evolving understanding. Based on his life as a geologist and astute chronicler of the real ways of science, he provided a powerful big-picture composite that nods to and fits snugly with THC's admonitions about class and sustainability.
|"Human history can be divided into three distinct, successive phases. The first, comprising all history prior to about 1800, was characterized by a small human population, low energy consumption per capita, and very slow rates of change. The second, based on the exploitation of the fossil fuels and the industrial metals, has been a period of spectacular and continuous exponential growth. However, because of the finite resources of the Earth's fossil fuels and metallic ores, the second phase can only be transitory. Most of the ores of the industrial metals will have been mined within the next century. The third phase, therefore, must again become one of slow rates of growth, but initially at least with a large population and high rates of energy consumption. Perhaps the foremost problem facing mankind at present is that of how to make the transition from the present exponential growth phase to the near steady-state of the future by as non-catastrophic a progression as possible."|
In pondering Hubbert's thoughts, the pupil now might, "sure as shootin'," as THC's father liked to proclaim, profitably consider the sorts of materials that John Sayles and this humble correspondent are making available. That Hollywood bridled at funding Sayles is certainly noteworthy. As to the clunky prose outpourings of THC, they are like the mine-owner's tonnage rate. Readers can 'take them or leave them,' as they see fit.
The "Fight to Reclaim the Commons" offers some grounded advice in matters of this sort. A project of the Media Education Foundation, its recent documentary, "This land Is Our Land," puts in cultural focus all of the elements of this story today--commoditization, scientific and industrial secrecy and dissimulation, vicious predation by the upper classes, working class resistance, and the media nexus of this movie.
THC will be reviewing "This Land Is Our Land" more carefully in the future. For now, he would merely want readers to note that this intersection--the rejection of property's untrammeled rights in conjunction with the claiming of the common elements of life by working people--is one inextricably linked both to the history of coal that has here unfolded, and to the evolutionary potential for such dreams as sustainable business.
Finally, for a further grounding-through-media, to close this penultimate section of this article, THC has a couple of additional suggestions. One would introduce the reader to a distant, but still planned story, of the Centralia mine ignition and continued--for close to eternity--combustion there, where the voices of the local folk and the miners resonate with loads of wisdom for mortals less aware of the realities of history. The second would be a close viewing of and listening to John Sayles himself, talking about this experiment in meaning that has formed the basis for our discussion today.