Book Review: Ramp Hollow

Despite of my sniffiness about AI, I have to admit that’s “books people like you liked” algorithm is pretty good. That’s not surprising, because they have so much data behind it, nobody has been arsed to spend the money to manipulate the reviews in my part of the market, and the algorithm is really easy to implement. I’ve tried to cut back on my purchases via Amazon, but sometimes I use the recommendations to search for the books on Ebay.

One of The Commentariat(tm) – I forget who – recommended The Whiskey Rebellion [wc] – which I will review eventually, and Ramp Hollow [wc] came up as related. I pre-ordered a copy and I’m glad I did. I’ve got to side with Amazon’s recommendation and say that Ramp Hollow, The Whiskey Rebellion and Meet You In Hell [stderr] form a set of books that explore an important question about the evolution of American capitalism. Or, depending on how broadly you wish to think, it’s a story about civilization’s transition from agrarian economies to industrial economies, and its impact on labor. If you want to complete the story-arc, begin with David Landes The Unbound Prometheus [stderr] because it will provide the overall context for what is happening. I’d probably wrap up the excursion with a biography of Marx and a history of WWI, but then the picture gets too big to grasp: at a certain scale it’s just the history of civilization. In one of the podcasts I listen to someone said “the history of the United States is the history of labor, and the history of labor in the United States is slavery.” I’ll go a step farther and say that understanding the transition from a nation of small steadholders and farmers to a nation of slaves and factory-workers is the key to understanding our times, which are filled with the dying screams of the industrial revolution as capitalism consumes and destroys its foundations during its transition away from materials-based economics toward numerical gambling. There’s a sign near the edge of that cliff and it reads “bitcoin.”

The picture gets that big, I’m not kidding. So I can’t review Ramp Hollow without sketching the landscape around it. The industrial revolution marked the transition between an agrarian economy and a centralized capitalist economy where labor served corporations that kept a tight grip on the means of production. When George Washington marched out with the nascent U.S. Army – its first official act being to suppress the population “conceived in liberty” – it was to further enact Alexander Hamilton’s program of building a stronger central government and structuring the system so that the right people would be taxed, and the wrong people would not. That was the story of the Whiskey Rebellion: Hamilton concluded that taxes on alcohol were the most effective way to extract money from the poor; taxing real estate would have gone against the interests of his patrons (such as George Washington) who were huge land-speculators. To build a strong nation, Hamilton needed the right source of money – and it worked, once the army put its boot on the citizens who had, just a few years before, screamed “no taxation without representation!” I’m not painting slavery into the picture; you must do that yourself – color in the lines. In Meet You In Hell the author explores the way that The Battle of Homestead played out, as the Pinkertons (hired thugs) beat immigrant laborers to get them to work the molten steel – and when The National Guard arrived to de-escalate the situation, the guard did just what the army did in The Whiskey Rebellion – and beat down the workers.

“The Holler” – a former freehold cabin dating back to revolutionary war times; about 3 miles from my studio

Ramp Hollow tells the tale of where the workers came from. America had a problem, you see, it consisted of small freeholds and farms, who were able to subsist just fine without government, vote, or even money. Whiskey was a currency, until Hamilton corrected that. The great transition came as land rights and mineral rights were used to dispossess the farmers of their farms. All across Appalachia, little farms in “hollers” (steep valleys) were made to be unsustainable, so that the residents needed to get paying jobs in the logging and mining industries. How do you get people to work the hot steel? Make them need money.

Steven Stoll is clearly aiming to write historical analysis as literature (or even art) and succeeds quite well. It’s neither dry nor bitter and it’s not pretty but his use of language serves the story he’s telling. It may be a tour de force. If you enjoy good writing you could read this book for that, alone. The things he’s writing about are so painful that it would be unbearable; at least it’s not unreadable.

Taxation transmits power. It makes people behave in specific ways. It’s not merely a source of revenue. After all, if a government wants gold for equipping armies or building roads, it can mine it, hoard it, and store it. Why strike metal or print notes, circulate them, and then demand them back? Like centralized money itself, with its images of patriots and its symbols of prosperity, taxes combine State and Market. The combination seems to say that when we use these symbols to represent the value we create and when we pay taxes out of our fund of labor, we become citizens.

He’s putting his finger right on the lever of the trap. The trap that turned freeholders into wage-slaves.

A century later and an ocean away, French colonizers imposed a head tax on every household in Madagascar. They actually called it an “education tax,” because it instructed the uninitiated in the civilizing process of earning money. Malagasy farmers learned that the colonial state would torment them if they did not pay up. So, they sold rice to come up with the needed cash. But the glut of rice that resulted drove prices downward, forcing them to sell too much, leaving them with too little to eat. That compelled them to buy rice on credit. Debt, in turn, compelled them to plant market crops like coffee and pineapple. To make up for their short-falls, they sent their children to earn wages on plantations. Some of the money paid for consumer goods and luxuries, creating a circuit of debt, wages, and consumption that fundamentally changed Malagasy culture. The colonizers declared their lesson a success.

America was unique because it went from colony to colonial power, colonizing its own people from within while wiping out the original denizens. The Whiskey Rebellion and Hamilton’s establishment of a financial structure for a powerful central government, was when the farmer-rebels that shook free of England’s chains forged and hammered on a new set. When you read something like Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, [wc] it drops right into the contextual frame – the US established itself in this manner, and has grown to a powerful empire by repeating the techniques of its own formation on nations weaker than it.

Stoll explains the dynamic between land-owners and speculators and land-occupiers. In the early 1800s, there were companies and speculators rushing in to secure legal rights to huge tracts of land, ignoring completely the families that lived on them. This happened in waves, but what really made the process kick into overdrive was coal. Coal, the blessing and the curse of Appalachia. Coal, the lever that Trump pulled; the lie that Trump told. Coal, the dirty energy source that may be our extinction. The problem the capitalists and land-owners had was how to turn coal into money, and they converted the population that was farming the land into a population of coal-miners and loggers.

The industrial class in Charleston and Wheeling also cheered the conversion of the blanketing woods into money. They justified the human and ecological fallout of the takeover as the necessary violence in the achievement of something greater – civilization, historical progress, social order. “Already, the peaceful seclusion of those hills and vales is a thing of the past. The timber-hunters, the oil-explorers, the coal-buyers, the projectors of new railroads, the seekers after cheap lands for homes or for investment, are everywhere.” This revolution that “put capital and commerce into domination” carried extraordinary costs, this writer admitted, “One sees these beautiful hills and valleys stripped of nature’s adornment; the hills denuded of their forests, the valleys lighted with the flames of coke-ovens and smelting furnaces; their vegetation seared and blackened … and one could wish that such an Arcadia might have been spared such ravishment. But the needs of the race are insatiable and unceasing.”

Yes, it’s white man’s burden. The burden is: other white men. Your place in the world is this coal mine. It’s a demonstration of the success of Orwellian cynicism when we see the descendants of those colonizer immigrants begging for their overseer to return the shackles their parents wore and which were struck for them by their neighbors. Reading Ramp Hollow I often had to set the book aside because of nausea.

What Stoll is writing about is nothing less than the creation of poverty. Where did poor people come from? Rich people made them, because they needed cheap labor.

Karthaus, the bend in the river where my house is, is on the map, near the bottom of the great coal-field that fueled Pittsburgh

The moralizing writer Hannah More praised poverty itself as a great motivator and moral instructor. She condemned Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791 and 1792) especially Paine’s thundering demand that government come to the aid of the poor. More wrote fables about the contentedness of the indigent. In one short story, a gentleman named Johnson encounters a shepherd and asks if he is hungry. “Sir,” says the shepherd, “poverty is a great sharpener of the wits.” The shepherd goes on to explain that he sends his children to collect the wool torn from browsing sheep clinging to bushes and brambles.” In More’s view, keeping the poor intent on their survival kept them from sin. It made no sense for the rich to relieve this blessed condition. These are some of the ways that political economists construed hunger as improvement and poverty as progress.

Poverty being the alternative to hard, honest, work in the steel mills or coal mines or hauling logs.

Slavery is laced through the narrative as it must be, since it was the ultimate form of poverty – a person stolen from them self has nothing – but mostly in the context of how it was used as an alternative to keep the newly-created poor laborers from being able to negotiate collectively. We see the origin of capitalism’s hatred for unions (naturally) and why, for a while, America’s industrial workers supported the unions. Now, they have been propagandized to believe that unions are the reason the jobs went away, so they attack the wrong target.

Cottage logging and industrial logging had only trees and saws in common. The former provided households with money from the ecological base. The latter funneled profit to shareholders, resulting in a transformation so devastating that it marked the end of an epoch in the history of the southern mountains. The clear-cutting of the Appalachian woods did not happen all at once but in different locations and altitudes at different times. Yet along with the direct loss of homes and hollows through sale, ejectment, and the separation of mineral rights from surface rights, the removal of the forest brought about the enclosure of the functional commons. It uprooted highland society, setting off the transfer of tens of thousands from a subsistence economy to wage earning. They tumbled and splintered down the creeks into camps. Combining logs and workers in sawmills resulted in lumber, the sale of which accumulated money. Their labor had always turned trees into boards. Now, it confronted them in alien form, a a commodity owned and sold by someone else.

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Did anyone else, reading that, see Hannah More as the spiritual ancestress of Anne Coulter? Parasite.

By the way, as far as lining his pockets from his politics, Donald Trump is a mere piker compared to George Washington, who was the country’s biggest land-owner and real estate speculator. Most of the other founding fathers owned huge tracts of land, as well – which is why real estate taxes didn’t enter the picture until long after they were safely dead and buried. Today, real estate taxes are used as a way of prying valuable land out of property-owners’ hands and forcing them to sell it (to pay the taxes on it). The Whiskey Rebellion does a good job of illustrating how Hamilton’s tax system was specifically designed to tax-farm the poor. Sound familiar? It’s American as fucking apple pie.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … I forget who – recommended The Whiskey Rebellion …

    Prob’ly me.

    … George Washington, who was the country’s biggest land-owner and real estate speculator.

    Not to mention a major surveyor. I suspect, but have yet to find evidence, that errors in his work in the Ohio River valley led to the chaos in land ownership in Kentucky that undermined the white economy there for much of the 1800s.

  2. says

    Reading Ramp Hollow I often had to set the book aside because of nausea.

    Hmm, sounds like this is exactly the kind of book I should add to my reading queue. After all, a proper cynic like me can never allow themselves to become optimistic. Additional periodic reminders of why the world sucks are exactly what I need in order to maintain my carefully cultivated depression. /sarcasm tag

    Seriously though, I probably will add this book to my reading queue. And I just realized that thanks to your input over the last two years my reading list has become grimmer than it used to be. Thank you, Marcus!

    In More’s view, keeping the poor intent on their survival kept them from sin.

    Humanity as a whole benefits from there being as few sinners as possible; this way a lot of people can lead virtuous lives. Being poor and struggling to survive keeps a person away from sin. This means we want as many people as possible living in poverty. Thus we have to concentrate all the existing wealth in as few hands as possible. (Wealthy people are leading sinful lives, and we want there to be as few sinners as possible, hence we want as few wealthy people as possible.) And this, my dear readers, is the rich man’s burden and service to the rest of the humanity—rich men sacrifice their souls so that everybody else could lead lives free of sin. Every poor man out there who gets to enjoy a virtuous life free of sin ought to be grateful to the few rich men who are selflessly carrying the burden of wealth so as to ensure that the rest of humanity can lead virtuous lives. /sarcasm tag

  3. says

    Tangentially-related, I remember reading somewhere (possibly in one of Bill Bryson’s books) about how alcohol production was pivotal to the early American economy. Given the size of the country and the state of the road network, prior to the invention of the locomotive converting grain crops into alcohol was a cost-effective way of getting them to market before they spoiled. Not to mention that it was a hell of a lot safer to drink than most water sources back then– by our standards, the people of the time drank a lot of liquor, both distilled and non-distilled (I might be misremembering but I think the figure quoted was something like 20-30 litres of spirits for an adult male per annum!) Taxing it was a no-brainer, really.

  4. Jazzlet says

    My dad told me about how his grandfather had schooled him about debt, at the end of the war (given it was dad’s grandfather I think we are talking the Boer war) the family farm was owned freehold and clear of all debt, as they’d been able to sell their produce for good prices through the war. The banks all came calling to offer loans at incredibly good initial rates, because there was a fine property to secure the loans against. The family declined and last I heard the farm was still in (distant) family hands. They were lucky that the mines in Cornwall were sufficiently deep not to affect them, and that though near the china clay pits (which are the largest man-made holes in Europe), there isn’t any china clay under the farm or near enough to be a problem.

  5. jrkrideau says

    Nothing particularly to do with the USA but an interesting book on money and capitalism, and many other things is
    Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: The first 5,000 years. New York: Melville House Publishing.

    There is even a free pdf version on the net if one wants to dip into it to get a feel for the topic and author. Debt

    BTW Marcus I think, perhaps, you should consider reviewing some L. Frank Baum books for Ieva Skrebele sake.

  6. says

    When the book came out, I caught the Book TV presentation by Steven Stoll. Got the book from the library. Unlike you, I only managed to get about 1/3 of the way through–not sure why, but it seemed as if it just wasn’t getting to any point (and didn’t reflect what I’d seen on Book TV). Based upon your recommendation, I guess I need to check it out again and try again.

    Book TV link:

  7. jimmf says

    Thanks, I think. Reading this material alternately enrages and depresses me. Like the news. But I can’t look away for very long. There aren’t enough software projects, car repairs, or tree stumps that need to be dug out by hand to keep me focused on things that are upbeat and uplifting.

  8. says

    it seemed as if it just wasn’t getting to any point

    It’s not exactly high-impact. For me, it snapped into my world-view like a puzzle-piece that had been missing, which connected a whole region of the picture. By itself, I think I’d have still found it quite interesting.

    I’ve also got an unusual interest in the topic; my dad did some books back in the 70s, on daily peasant life in the middle ages, so topics like “what happened to the peasants during the industrial revolution?” were in the air.

  9. says

    Reading this material alternately enrages and depresses me. Like the news. But I can’t look away for very long.

    It’s part of the price we pay for trying to understand things, I think. I originally got interested in all this stuff because something or someone challenged me to understand conservatives a bit better than I did. Naturally, I started with their ideal state, and never got much past it. “Conservatives” are disturbing authoritarian submissives or sociopaths of the worst sort. Once you figure that out then you look at the government and, “oh, fuck.”

  10. says

    jrkrideau @#6

    Nothing particularly to do with the USA but an interesting book on money and capitalism, and many other things is Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: The first 5,000 years. New York: Melville House Publishing.

    This looks interesting.

    BTW Marcus I think, perhaps, you should consider reviewing some L. Frank Baum books for Ieva Skrebele sake.

    I assume this was a joke (considering how my initial comment was sarcastic).

    I have never read any of Lyman Frank Baum’s books, so I cannot judge those, but in general my experience with children’s books has been awful. I hated them even when I was still a child. A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh is my most hated book of all time. At school, my literature teacher forced me to read this crap for several years in a row. I just couldn’t stand the sheer stupidity of the protagonists who were constantly carrying idiot balls. Consider that chapter where protagonists are going on an expedition to find the North Pole. By the time I was forced to read this book, I already knew what the North Pole was, where it is located, how far away it is, and what weather conditions one would encounter there. Reading about how the idiot bear found the North Pole felt outright cringeworthy for me. I don’t hate children per se, I just dislike childish behavior. It’s irritating (I’m not planning to have any children). I also dislike reading books with stupid or immature protagonists. It seems for me that too many children’s books revolve around childish protagonists doing foolish things. (I know there are exceptions, there have been a couple of children’s books that I actually liked, it’s just that I disliked most of the ones I have been forced to read by my literature teacher.)

    Jimmf @#8

    Thanks, I think. Reading this material alternately enrages and depresses me. Like the news. But I can’t look away for very long. There aren’t enough software projects, car repairs, or tree stumps that need to be dug out by hand to keep me focused on things that are upbeat and uplifting.

    That’s what hobbies are for. In my case it’s painting and photography. I also like reading books. I have spent prolonged periods of time not reading news at all and sticking to only doing things I enjoy. For me that is the easy thing, I can easily look away for very long. For me reading depressing materials is what requires an intentional decision to do so. This brings up the question of why do I even do that if it serves no practical purpose and only ruins my mood. Let’s assume I read a book about how big corporations mistreat their workers and pollute the environment. So what? How does me knowing these facts changes anything? I cannot help the victims. Nor can I do anything to curb the abuse. It’s just some useless knowledge in my head. If all humans bothered to learn about all the nasty things happening on this planet, then it could lead to things getting better (at the very least, then there would be no Trump fans). But a single person can do very little. I can avoid buying products that are sold by abusive corporations. I can try to pick the lesser evil on the election day. But this hardly changes anything. Reading grim history books seems even more useless, considering how all the victims are already long dead and beyond saving.

    One might argue that understanding all the shitty aspects of human experience is essential to making sure that nobody gets to manipulate you. For example, somebody like Trump cannot mislead and manipulate a well-educated voter who understands exactly what Trump is doing. I suppose this is probably the main reason why I bother reading depressing materials—I dislike the very idea that some other person might manipulate my beliefs and determine my thoughts. This possibility seems disturbing per se, because I like the idea of being free. Well, I do understand the practicalities and I know that a human being cannot possibly be completely free, but I at least want my mind and my thoughts to remain my own rather than manipulated by somebody else who usually has nasty intentions.

    Then again, I don’t believe that humans have free will in the first place. We only have the illusion of it. I cannot read grim books and educate myself in order to acquire freedom of thought. Instead I can only get the illusion that my mind is free—an illusion that sort of makes me happier. If I start feeling like somebody is controlling me, it bothers me, it makes me unhappy. Therefore, for the sake of my happiness, it’s pretty important to maintain the illusion of freedom. Intellectually I know that it’s an illusion, yet it still influences how I feel. It’s really a matter of perception—if I feel like I adopted my current opinions by carefully analyzing all the available information, then I’m happier. If, on the other hand, I have reasons to suspect that somebody manipulated my opinions and spoon-fed my thoughts, then that disturbs me, because my freedom has been compromised. On top of that there’s another practical benefit to educating myself—I’m somewhat less likely to end up holding very stupid and bad opinions.

    Then there’s also the fact that humanity is speeding towards a mass extinction anyway. It looks like it cannot be stopped. So why bother thinking about anything depressing? I might as well enjoy the time I have left to live on this planet and instead of thinking unhappy thoughts I can fiddle while the Rome burns. None of this matters anyway; the only option left for me is hedonism. By the way, I’m not depressed or unhappy—I’m pretty good at being a hedonist.

    As you can see, my opinions about the usefulness of educating oneself are a mess and I’m not sure what to think.

  11. says

    Marcus @#10

    “Conservatives” are disturbing authoritarian submissives or sociopaths of the worst sort.

    Maybe, just maybe, conservatives love their children too.

    I assume you know whom I’m paraphrasing here. Although, long before I heard this Sting’s song for the first time, I had read a poem written by a female Soviet poet who expressed exactly the same sentiment—in her poem she insisted that Americans must love their families too, and that there’s more in common between Americans and Soviets than politicians tend to claim, which is why a nuclear war is highly undesirable.

    Anyway, a “sociopath” is generally accepted to be somebody incapable of love and empathy. There’s also supposed to be only a small amount of such people (only a few percent of the population). On this planet there are more conservatives than sociopaths, so I see a problem with your claim. More importantly, the fact that you are labeling conservatives with these labels that have highly negative connotations indicates that your understanding of them could be questionable.

    Not that I understand conservatives either. For me talking with modern conservatives is akin to reading novels written several centuries ago—my values, my worldview, even the facts that I consider true differ from those held by the other person whom I’m trying to understand. And I just cannot understand them because of how weird and alien their worldview seems for me. For example, I cannot understand why some human being might want to submit to somebody else (personally, I’m the exact opposite of submissive). Or why they would support somebody like Trump. I have never felt or experienced anything similar, so I cannot understand this sentiment that the other person claims to have. Despite all this, I try not to simply assume that the conservative person must be a “disturbing authoritarian submissive or a sociopath of the worst sort.” I’m willing to assume that they probably believe what they claim and that their worldview makes sense for them, they believe themselves to be right, they see themselves as good people. (Behold the power of childhood indoctrination!) I’m also not defaulting to the assumption that they are just evil or stupid or harbouring bad intentions. Just because I cannot understand somebody doesn’t give me a permission to slander them with all the nasty adjectives I can think of.

  12. Jazzlet says

    I see that I left out the point of my family story, which was that banks need people to be in debt to them to make money, and that you are best getting by with no debt if at all possible. Nothing we all didn’t know, but interesting coming from a 19th century Cornish farmer. That farmer had inherited his farm from the Cornish mine engineer, he had looked after the steam pumping engine that kept one of the deep tin mines clear of water and powered the lifts, who had used every spare penny to buy land on which to grow food to try to make the family independant of the mine owners and the banks. They were also Primitive Methodists, who were fundamentally wary of The Establishment and it’s treatment of all who were not part of it, a benefit the Dissenters gave to their adherants that we tend to forget today.

  13. says

    Lately I’ve been on a bit of a kick reading up on the social changes imposed/caused by enclosure in England so this seems particularly apropos. That’s going near the top of the queue.

    “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” would be the right soundtrack to such a book.

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