Despite of my sniffiness about AI, I have to admit that Amazon.com’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.
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.
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.
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.