Monday, October 13, 2014

Might the trillions spent on corporate wars help West Virginia?

Source: Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

West Virginia is one of only two US states that was formed during the Civil War and the only border state that actually seceded from the Confederacy. The state has a long history and association with the United Mine workers and has traditionally been Democratic. But if polls and surveys are accurate, it appears the Republican Party is about to make some major gains in the coming election.  This situation led the Wall Street Journal to headline a report on the state last week: More Than Ever, West Virginia Leans Right. Oh happy days.

But is this truly the case? The reader should keep in mind that generally in the US when the mass media talks of left or right in politics it is referring to the difference between two parties that serve the interests of billionaires and the 1%, two parties bought and paid for by Wall Street. Workers are so disgusted with bourgeois politics that millions of people have abandoned the electoral process entirely due to the failure of both parties to address the problems workers and the middle class face in our daily lives. The only consistent rewards for voting Democrat or Republican are increased poverty and inequality, a declining standard of living and endless wars.

West Virginia has traditionally been conservative on social issues but Democratic and has a long history of radicalism with the United Mine Worker’s Union. But with the decline of the coal industry, West Virginia coal exports declined 40% in 2013 and consequently, the influence of the UMW has also declined. The still intact umbilical cord between the Democratic Party and the heads of organized Labor has also contributed to the decline in worker power and increasing poverty and alienation that has infiltrated working class communities, urban, rural, and more recently suburban communities. West Virginia is the US's second poorest state after Mississippi.

“A key reason for the rightward tilt is a strong antipathy toward President Barack Obama and his administration’s energy policies,…”
, the WSJ writes, “….most notably stricter limits on power-plant emissions that will favor burning natural gas over coal.”
Voters are blaming the decline in coal production on the Obama Administration and tougher emission standards although increased natural gas production through fracking has also contributed to it. From 2008 to 2013, the amount of natural gas used to produce electricity in the U.S. rose 23%, while the amount of coal used for generation fell 17%.”, the WSJ writes.

With this decline of coal production and the power of the UMW there are few decent jobs left.  What remains are retail jobs or working for firms blowing the tops off mountains. These jobs don’t pay much and benefits are rare. “In some the run-down coal towns of the south, median incomes are $16,000, barely a third of the US average.”, the Guardian noted in a report on West Virginia, with unemployment well over 20%.

The desperation in McDowell County, where at least one-third of residents are living below the poverty line, has led to a massive increase in drug addiction according to another report from al Jazeera America noting that McDowell has earned the reputation of being the nation’s drug overdose capital. From 1999 to 2004, the state had a 550 percent increase in overdoses — the highest in the U.S., according to a study of unintended pharmaceutical overdose deaths by JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“It’ wasn’t always that way
” says school principal Florisha McGuire in War West Virginia.   But with the decline of the coal and steel industry, brought about by the inherent boom and bust cycle of the capitalist mode of production and now the pressure of technology, natural gas and the fracking industry as well, conditions are dire.
“When it escalated into drug abuse, the addiction got so bad that, on average, about 43 percent of my students had lost a biological mother or father, either from overdose or removal from their homes.” McGuire told al Jazeera.   

The plant that leaked this toxic chemical in to the water supply in West Virginia had not been inspected in over 20 years and its safety record is abysmal.” I wrote at the time adding that, “As the Charleston (WV) gazette pointed out last week, ’At the same time, shrinking revenues and declining investments in public infrastructure have led more and more small communities to contract with private companies like West Virginia American Water to provide drinking water services.’”.  Some 300,000 people went without water for five days and the disaster is estimated to have cost more than $160 million dollars.
Counties affected by this years chemical spill
In addition to this, West Virginia suffered a catastrophic chemical spill earlier this year.
The same company that produced this disaster doesn’t limit its activity to West Virginia.  There’s more on them here.  The company is appropriately called “Freedom Industries” as freedom for the 1% means capital being able to go where it wants, when it wants and without any barriers to profit making.

As far as the reasoning behind this so-called swing to the right on the part of West Virginia voters we have to look at the objective circumstances in which this vote takes place.  I have outlined some in this commentary. Marx stressed that we have “free will” but not under circumstances of our own choosing. We have a perfect example of that here.

It’s clear that the war cry of the coal capitalists that emission controls amount to “Obama’s war on coal” finds an echo among West Virginia workers, but for different reasons.  The Coal bosses are angry about losing profits while the workers are concerned about losing jobs, their income and the future for their children and grandchildren. Starvation is on the minds of West Virginia workers and seeing no alternative they will take coal if nothing else is on offer. The luxury of placing the environment above a job is for those that already have one or enough money to not have to worry about it.

Coal-fired plants, produce about twice as much carbon as those powered by natural gas which is a good thing, although fracking as we are beginning to learn is just as bad.  Labor saving devices, technology, these are all good developments but they are in the wrong hands.  Workers do not get to decide how the process of producing society’s needs functions.  The owners of the mines, mills, factories, retail giants, in short, the means of production decide and are a small section of society, an ever more concentrated group of capitalists whose priority is extracting surplus value from the worker as surplus value is the source of their profits.

The 1% or the real owners of the commanding heights of our economy (more like the .01% perhaps), may, on an individual level, be saddened by the ravages their economic system and their actions inflict on the land and the worker.  But they are driven by this system they govern to take the road they are on. The health of the environment or the worker does not trump the profit card. No ruling elite commits class suicide. Their free will also is determined by circumstances beyond their control also.

We do not see the horrific conditions in West Virginia on TV and in the press as often as we do a beheading or a terrorist attack in the Middle East. This is not a wise use of the media they own. We need to be afraid of foreigners not the economic terrorists that run our lives and control the economy.  The conditions in the urban ghettos and the prison industrial complex are also only brought to our attention when the conditions become so odious people revolt and then, the aim is to denigrate the victims, the blacks in the ghettos, the whites in Appalachia.  These problems are not caused by immigrants and the Mexican hordes coming here to take our jobs.

The heads of the UMWA and organized labor as a whole could begin to make a difference, could begin to offer an alternative but they don’t see one.  They have the same worldview as the boss. They absorb the ideology of capital like a sponge, even a limited offensive against the bosses’ terrifies them because they cannot see a mobilized working class leading to anything but chaos; they are ideologically bankrupt and this leads them as it did recently to join with the bosses in protests against environmental regulation.  They are a disgrace. I recall in the book, Detroit I do Mind Dying how the majority of the snipers shooting at cops during the 67 riots were white Appalachians who had also migrated north with the black population.  Better folks like that have easy access to drugs rather than politics and guns.

One woman who organizes food parcel drop offs in Ritchie County, says of the attitude the politicians have toward the workers and poor of her community: "This is not an issue for them. If we tell them this is going on they don't believe us. They think we are hillbillies, that this is our choice, that this is the way we want to live. But often it's not choice, it's not the way people want to live our lives. They forget about the small people."    It’s comments like these that reveal to us the dead end of racism and xenophobia. The ruling class has contempt for all of us, racism and sexism are simply divide and rule tactical issues for them.  

She’s only partially right of course. They don’t forget about the “Small people” when they need cannon fodder for their wars to defend their profits overseas.  Then we’re all on the same team.

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