The Enclosures of Appalachian Commons

The recent industrial disaster in West Virginia, which saw the leakage of vast quantities of toxic chemicals into the river and drinking water supplies, prompted Grant Mincy of East Tennessee to reflect on the enclosure of countless commons in the Appalachia region of the US.  His piece in Counterpunch, “Reclaiming the Commons in Appalachia,” caught my eye because it pointed to the extreme inequalities, suffering and dispossession that have occurred in Appalachia as corporate control has gotten more concentrated.  A sudden – the huge spill of chemicals into the river – then shines a bright spotlight on the situation.

Mincy notes how the “extractive resource industry” – chiefly coal companies – have used their property rights and political influence to enclose the commons of Appalachia:

The use of eminent domain and compulsory pooling has robbed communities of their cultural and natural heritage.  Capital is the authority of the Appalachian coalfields, and has created systemic poverty and mono economies.  Instead of prosperity in the commons, the mechanism of authority has spawned tragedy.

Property is theft in Appalachia. The current system is concerned with the well-being of the politically connected corporati instead of the common good – Appalachian communities. This system exists because legal privilege is granted to industry. The development of this socio-economic order is political, as opposed to free and participatory. The current authority in the coalfields, the corporate state, is illegitimate. It is far past time we transition to society free of it.

Mincy goes on to note that communal land is still a living tradition in Appalachia.  Land is shared for livestock, hunting, root digging and recreation, and new community land trusts and conservation easements are sprouting.  But the corporate dominance of land “has made these traditions difficult to practice," writes Mincy. "Even family cemeteries are now industrial property — folks need permission to pay their respects to the dead.”  And clean air and water presumptively belong to the corporations to despoil without undue consequences. The coal town of Bud, West Virginia, hasn’t had clean water for five months.   

It’s striking that the commons is invoked in this context instead of the familiar “development” arguments such as, “Just let the corporations create more jobs and generate more wealth for everyone!”  That dog won’t hunt any more.  The history of “development” is readily seen for what it is – a system of private aggrandizement, usually of outsiders, at the expense of everyone who lives there.  

Mincy concludes by noting the many positive things that are developing as small-scale, decentralized alternatives arise.  “Reclaiming the commons in Appalachia will allow new markets to develop,” he argues.  “Numerous institutions and networks will emerge. In the commons, social power will build anew within the shell of the old. This cannot happen under centralized authority. States and big business are guided by self-interest. The commons are guided by co-operation and mutualism — the natural, biological tendencies of human beings.”