A history of dispossession

Ramp Hollow:

The Ordeal of Appalachia

The American social critic H. L. Mencken once wrote that poor whites in Appalachia, by virtue of living in an “isolated backwater,” bear more resemblance to Neanderthals than to Homo sapiens. Seen through this lens, the complex of knowledge required for life in the mountains is erased and mountain dwellers appear as a people without progress; their supposed isolation from markets for goods and ideas renders them poor, backward, and stupid. Thus, as asserted by generations of politicians and industrialists, economic development and education emerge as the only solutions to the poverty and ignorance of Appalachian people.

Steven Stoll argues in his absorbing new book Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia that this ahistorical view fails to explain the development of poverty in the region. In reality, it was dispossession—not isolation—that impoverished the mountaineers of West Virginia and Kentucky. Aiming to depict the pride and plight of Appalachians, Stoll’s book introduces readers to the intricate lifeways of agrarian folks in Appalachia during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It then traces their descent from independence and economic stability into dependence and immiseration as wage laborers.

Contrary to the imperious claims of modern development theorists, the subsistence economy of early Appalachian settlers provided sufficiency rather than poverty. Until the late nineteenth century, the people of the southern mountains were independent agrarians whose use of the forest for hunting and planting allowed them to live well in the highlands. These folks engaged in market exchanges without becoming dependent on money. Instead, what little money they had—largely from selling livestock and lumber—supplemented their robust subsistence practices, best characterized as swidden, or slash-and-burn agriculture. Appalachians would need to be pried from the land if they were ever to be fully absorbed into the world of market capitalism.

But before exploring the history of dispossession in Appalachia, Stoll steps back to cover a global history of dispossession and enclosure. This is not a detour. It is necessary context for demonstrating how the dispossession of independent agrarians is central to the expansion of capitalism. Ramp Hollow places dispossession—usually an outlier, or an act of primitive accumulation, in the history of capitalism—at the center of an ongoing story that reveals unequal power, rather than simply market laws, as a forceful factor in capitalism’s expansion. Peasants never do cartwheels into the factory nor do they thank government, landowners, or manufacturers for the opportunity to claim their share of “progress” through wage labor. Power, not some vague spirit of progress, pushes them away from the land.

Among the most notorious acts of dispossession, the British enclosure movement of the 1700s and early 1800s destroyed the English and Irish peasantry by fencing the commons on which they depended for hunting, planting, and gathering wood. This land was legally made private property that could be put to the most profitable purpose, which was usually pasturing sheep. Many who had previously lived from the land were left with no choice but to sell their labor for survival. Pauperized by enclosure, former peasants formed a malnourished industrial underclass in an age of abundance and increased productivity. And, as Stoll argues, such enclosure and pauperization is not unique to England. In fact, whether in North America through the Indian Removal Act and the Dawes Act or in Africa through development agencies, proponents of liberal market economics have always waged war against those in subsistence agrarian economies.

The first such attack on subsistence in Appalachia was led in the 1790s by Alexander Hamilton and the new United States government. Like the political economists of eighteenth century England, Hamilton saw farmers as roadblocks to progress and market expansion because they did not depend on money. Agrarians had no need to sell everything they produced, or to extract a surplus or exchange value from the land, which in turn made it difficult for the state to extract value from them. Hamilton, following James Steuart, intended to make it difficult for farmers to survive without producing primarily for exchange. In fact, as Stoll laments, Steuart even suggested that the economy needed farms but not farmers, by which he meant there was no place for independent agriculturalists within an interdependent division of labor.

Much more than a sin tax, the so-called “Whiskey Tax” in 1791 expanded and enriched federal power by forcing farmers into dependence on money and production for exchange. Farmers had long transformed their rye into whiskey to control its perishability and to make it easier to carry to market to exchange for other goods. Whiskey, in practice, functioned as a medium of exchange; thus, farmers experienced the excise tax not as a luxury tax but as an income tax. By taxing production rather than sales, Hamilton’s law attacked people who produced only for themselves and left them no choice but to sell whiskey for the money needed to pay the tax. Hamilton’s tax famously met violent opposition across Appalachia. Although he eventually rode out (“as Political Economy personified,” writes Stoll) to crush the rebellion in Pennsylvania, Hamilton never had the power to permanently place the government between people and their land.

Many of the farmers who first settled the hollows of Appalachia squatted on land whose titles were owned by wealthy speculators from the lowlands. Even when settlers held deeds, they were dependent upon treating the property of absentee landholders as commons from which they could draw subsistence. The abundance often yielded by their land-use practices demanded vast landscapes for hunting, wood collection, and for planting beans, corn, and rye. Such abundance—as demonstrated by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in “The Original Affluent Society”—is not uncommon in swidden-style hunting and gathering communities, in which people often produce more food with considerably less daily work. Without romanticizing their lives or understating the difficulties they faced, Stoll establishes that the economy of Appalachian smallholders did not inherently cause poverty. Certainly, agrarians lacked money, but they usually had what they needed and they—not distant markets—were masters of their own economy.

In the years following the Civil War, the mountains witnessed a shift from passive absentee land ownership to ownership by extractive mining and logging companies seeking to turn a profit. In myriad ways involving help from state and local governments, distantly owned companies began buying Appalachia and treating it as an internal resource colony whose wealth would fill the coffers of investors in New York and London. Initially, however, mine owners were stifled by the unwillingness of locals to become dependable workers. Locals preferred to work sporadically only to supplement their subsistence practices. As late as 1900, company officials expressed hatred for local people whose forests and family networks allowed them a degree of freedom from wages and forced the mine operators to import labor. To create dependable workers from Appalachian agrarians, mine companies would first need to render them dependent.

Ultimately, in tandem with population growth and increased pressure on the land, it was the enclosure of the commons that forced the collapse of the agrarian economy in the hollows. “Mining companies,” writes Stoll, “closed off old hunting and gathering grounds,” and “lumber companies ripped out the forest and hauled it away, removing the ecological base.” As documented in John Gaventa’s classic book Power and Powerlessness, the companies captured politicians and judges, and land disputes with agrarians were increasingly settled in the companies’ favor. Nowhere left to turn, independent mountaineers entered the mines and became poor, dependent workers who sold their only remaining commodity—their own labor power—to outsiders who used it to extract the region’s wealth. Effectively living in what Erving Goffman called “total institutions,” agrarian families moved from independence to living in company towns, being paid in company scrip, and having every aspect of their lives (from grocery stores to churches to newspapers) tightly controlled by coal companies.

Yet household production did not disappear when highlanders became miners. In a thought-provoking chapter called “The Captured Garden,” Stoll explains how coal company towns encouraged families to grow gardens—even offering gardening prizes—to subsidize the low wages paid by the company. Without the forest, gardens could only provide supplementary income, which meant they could finally be used to enrich coal barons rather than to liberate their workers. With captured gardens, “employers accumulated additional capital as though by magic—without raising wages, extending the working day, or purchasing additional tools. In this way, gardens increased exploitation.” Drawing from Immanuel Wallerstein, Stoll suggests that capitalism is always dependent upon subsidies from household production, spreading as it absorbs into its orbit the unpaid work of women and children and gardeners.

Without any effort to understand the history of Appalachia, Americans have spent two centuries stereotyping the place and its people. Facile arguments—built upon the assumption that moneyless peasants are poor—have become dominant.  In the traditional narrative, poor, backward, and isolated Appalachians needed to be rescued from themselves. Corporate bosses and politicians would benevolently force Appalachians into the next stage of historical development by commodifying the natural wealth of the region as well as the labor of its inhabitants. The people would be given progress that they never sought. In fact, as Ramp Hollow highlights, public policy that says the solution to poverty in Appalachia is more development and extraction is public policy that doubles down on the thing that first caused impoverishment.

What Appalachia needs is public policy that acknowledges history. To avoid the continuing exploitation of both the mountains and the people, policy makers must understand that poverty arises not just from isolation but also from the “forced inclusion of smallholders in the global economy.” Near the end of the book Stoll begins his first foray into policy, proposing “The Commons Communities Act” to “reconnect communities and families in a structure that is sustaining for both.” The act begins by recognizing the “impracticality of coal,” citing coal’s impact on the climate, on people, and its inability to compete with other types of energy. Funded by an industrial abandonment tax, the act also proposes a structure for private land ownership within a larger, community-owned commons for hunting, farming, cattle raising, and timber harvesting. The author recognizes imperfections in his own proposal, acknowledging that it leaves in place the system that created poverty and ecological destruction in Appalachia. Still, historians would be wise to follow Stoll’s lead in proposing public policy initiatives.

Ramp Hollow is a tremendous achievement. Weaving knowledge of anthropology and political economy into his historical research, Stoll has produced a masterpiece of interdisciplinary studies. Drawing from the ethnographies of Marshall Sahlins and James C. Scott lends energy and creativity to Ramp Hollow and aids Stoll in making original contributions to the history of global capitalism and to the history of Appalachia. Stoll demonstrates that the motive forces behind Appalachian poverty have been the dispossession of agrarians, their exploitation as wage laborers in mines, and the extraction and destruction of their natural resources by outsiders—all of which should give pause to policy makers who continue to propose more of the same to address the region’s problems. Even while isolating politicians and industrialists as primary culprits in the production of Appalachian poverty, the book does not strip farmers of agency or responsibility. Ramp Hollow is history as an antidote to ignorance and oversimplification.

Issue #85

September 2012

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