by Michael Hasty

An oligarchy is defined by Webster’s as “a form of government in which the power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique.” The second definition is “a state or organization so ruled.”

It may as well have said “West Virginia.”

From its earliest days as an independent state, democracy in West Virginia has usually taken second place to industry. For example, one of the principal reasons for the inclusion of the Eastern Panhandle and Potomac Highlands within West Virginia’s borders when it seceded from Virginia was the presence there of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which was needed to move Federal troops and supplies to the Civil War’s western front. Despite overwhelming Confederate sympathies in that region, when the question of statehood was put to a popular vote, a total of thirteen people in those seven counties voted against it.

Naturally, one of the new state’s first US senators was the president of a B&O subsidiary.

The less-than democratic nature of West Virginia’s formation led noted historian John Williams to conclude that the consequence was a continuing legacy of “official cynicism, a propensity to ignore the spirit of democratic institutions as long as the form was observed.” Could there be a more apt description of Governor Underwood’s Task Force on Mountaintop Removal?

Although coal had been mined in this state as early as the 1830s, it was done so on a small scale, chiefly to power local cottage industry. Following the victory of the industrial northern states in the Civil War, the development of the railroads — which already held a dominant position in West Virginia politics — became a national priority. And because trains used coal for fuel, and West Virginia coal with its high efficiency and low sulphur content was regarded as the best coal in the country, the railroad barons seized the opportunity to expand their fortunes in the coalfields.

A spreading network of railroad lines opened up what had been a largely agrarian territory (ninety percent of the state consisted of small farms) to ruthless exploitation of West Virginia’s mineral and timber resources. In the process, many farmers were swindled out of their land by the agents of capitalists residing in New York, Philadelphia and Europe.

This swindle was accomplished with the help of local federal judges whose concern for the rights of out-of-state millionaires was matched only by their openness to bribery. Eventually, more than half the state’s land area, representing 80 percent of West Virginia’s total value, was owned by nonresidents. And in this as in any other state, property equals power.

In the administration of Governor Cecil Underwood – a coal company executive himself – we have a return to the colonization of the executive branch that characterized the early 20th century. Who could have thought that it would ever again be this bad?

As the coal industry mushroomed in the 1880s, making coal the dominant economic force in the state, coal operators increased their stranglehold on West Virginia politics. Labor historian David Corbin has noted that for a period of fifty years, until the reforms of the New Deal, US senators and representatives from West Virginia “were generally either coal operators or men directly affiliated with the coal establishment.”

Corbin continues, “the coal establishment dominated the state’s executive branch.” Every governor during that period was either a coal company executive or had reached “certain understandings” with the industry. There was also an understanding with the state’s judges. Local sheriffs were coal company employees; their deputies were mine guards.

And although coal’s power in the legislature was somewhat diluted by representatives from agricultural counties, the operators were usually able to get their way by either trading favors or outright bribery — not too much different from our present situation, although today the bribery is legal. We call it “campaign contributions.”

On the rare occasion when a law contrary to the coal operators’ interests squeezed through, it had either been watered down to the point of toothlessness, or violations were winked at by those responsible for enforcement. Federal laws were also ignored. At a US Senate hearing on labor unrest in the southern West Virginia coalfields, one senator referred to the state as an “industrial autocracy.”

It was a sentiment shared throughout the country. A New York paper editorialized that “the political affairs of that State are dominated by a band of financial adventurers…Men of great capital have bought the oil, coal and timber lands and rule their domains like barons.” Labor leader Samuel Gompers described West Virginia’s government as “the most incompetent and least responsive to the common welfare of any in the United States.” The Baltimore Sun opined that coal operators “have brazenly bought up the politics of the state. Through their control of successive state administrations they have controlled the law officers and the courts…and have ruthlessly brushed aside every constitutional guarantee.”

In the century since King Coal established his reign in West Virginia, how far have we come?

The government of our state is still more responsive to the interests of out-of-state coal companies than it is to the needs of its own citizens.

Why else would a state with such vast resources have the lowest median household income in the nation? Why else would our state government still be so resistant to enforcing federal laws meant to curb the environmental excesses of an industry that poisons the water we drink with acid and mercury, pollutes the air we breathe with noxious poisons, alters the very landscape we walk upon, and robs us in the process?

As a result of the most violent civil disturbance in the US since the Civil War (the post-World War I West Virginia mine wars) and the pro-labor administration of Franklin Roosevelt, a more equal balance was struck in West Virginia between the coal operators and miners. But despite their sometimes conflicting interests, both sides worked together to advance the progress and profits of the industry, keeping coal dominant in state politics.

That’s why today the most significant split in the state’s progressive coalition is between coal miners and environmentalists. The gains of organized labor are now working to the coal companies’ advantage. The miners know they live in a cruel economy where good-paying blue-collar jobs are disappearing, and are as wary as the corporations of a post-coal world.

In the administration of Governor Cecil Underwood – a coal company executive himself – we have a return to the colonization of the executive branch that characterized the early 20th century. Who could have thought that it would ever again be this bad?

And as for the legislature: coal demonstrated its control conclusively in last year’s session, when there was unanimous sponsorship of a resolution in the House of Delegates urging the US Senate to reject the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. We can appropriately deduct the cost of emergency response to more-frequent weather disasters, from the alleged benefits coal brings the state. But Big Coal spends big bucks to convince elected officials — and in a different way the general public — otherwise. As the vice-president of the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association has pointed out, we live in a “corporate-oriented America.”

So, as it turns out, the last bastion of democracy is the courts. Here the public can meet the corporations on a fairly equal footing, if they can find enough pro bono lawyers. But a pro-business outlook is pretty much a prerequisite for a judge to be appointed these days; and there are no liberal justices left on the US Supreme Court. Opportunities for equal justice are shrinking everywhere. We have to take them where we can find them.

Coaligarchy has deep roots in West Virginia. But it is not invincible, as dedicated citizens have proven time and again throughout our state’s history. Our job today is to keep the spirit of democracy alive in very challenging times.

It doesn’t go too far to say that the future of West Virginia – and perhaps the fate of Earth – depends on it.

Michael Hasty is a writer, activist, musician, carpenter and farmer. His award-winning column, “Thinking Locally,” appeared for seven years in the Hampshire Review, West Virginia’s oldest newspaper. His writing has also appeared in the Highlands Voice, the Washington Peace Letter, the Takoma Park Newsletter, the German magazine Generational Justice, and the Washington Post; and at the websites Common Dreams and In January 1989, he was the media spokesperson for the counter-inaugural coalition at George Bush’s Counter-Inaugural Banquet, which fed hundreds of DC’s homeless in front of Union Station, where the official inaugural dinner was being held.

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