Keith Jay, community organizer and worker in southwestern Virginia, makes their case on the importance of organizing in Appalachia
Appalachia appears, at first sight, an extremely obvious, trivial thing. Of course, Marx was referring to commodity fetishism when he conceived of those critical words in the first volume of his groundbreaking work, Capital. Nevertheless, after careful consideration of Appalachia, we discover an analogous erasure of “abounding” underlying phenomena at the service of capital.
As Marx delineated, such a process “conceals the social character of private labor and the social relations between the individual workers,” creating a totem or black box (i.e., money) that assists in both naturalizing these processes as well as obfuscating the material conditions of the productive forces undergirding capitalism.
In a similar way, the area colloquially known as Appalachia – commonly understood as a sprawling geographic and cultural region stretching from the southern seat of New York State to northern swathes of Alabama and Georgia – continues to be the target of caricature and defamation. The result is a collective fetishization of a diverse array of communities across more than a dozen states by an elite operating from its distant, coastal perches.
The stories should be relatively familiar to anyone interested in the contours of today’s political discourse in the United States. Countless articles emanating from corporate media conglomerates like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and so on, describe in uniform fashion a regional potpourri of MAGA-capped vigilantism and Lost Cause statue theatrics; shuttered manufacturing plants and empty rail yards; Mountain Dew mouth and black lung.
Interviews with non-college educated, Evangelical conservatives and profiles of hard-hit towns across rural Appalachia account for scores of books (Hillbilly Elegy, etc.) and innumerable hours of television and radio programming, from NPR to Fox News.
Undoubtedly, parts of Appalachia’s reputation are well earned and rooted in rural America’s lived experience. De-industrialization and offshoring, reactive forces emerging out of the New Deal, post-war consensus, decimated the political economy of cities and towns all across the region.
Waves of laborers and their families were forced to migrate to urban centers in search of work along what is colloquially known as the Hillbilly Highway. From roughly the 1970s onwards, as neoliberal, late-stage (financial) capitalism matured and intensified, those Appalachians that remained inevitably encountered the transmogrification of their communities by population loss, rampant poverty and unemployment, and skyrocketing levels of diseases of despair.
In the clamor to understand and reckon with these developments and the rise of Donald Trump, regions like Appalachia continue to be carefully scrutinized. How could rural Appalachians overwhelmingly support Cheeto Jesus? How could citizens of the Southeastern hinterlands – largely white, Christian, and non-college educated – en masse “vote against their own interests” for an incompetent, thrice married, New York real estate tycoon?
The intelligentsia and political classes – the corporate media, the nonprofit-industrial complex, the canvassing ephemera of electoral campaigns – will continue agonizing over these and other questions; and as a result, by and large, the general public remains saddled with the same neatly packaged narratives of yore. This doesn’t just create simple misunderstandings between segments of the population; a corrupted epistemology results in distorted praxis.
The implications for power are staggering; at this precise historical moment, as the contradictions of capitalism threaten American democracy, relations between international nuclear superpowers, and the health of the planet, life as we know it hangs in the balance.
Meanwhile, the Socialist Left has not managed to build a meaningful base of support in the region. Although organizations like the DSA, Socialist Alternative, and others have seen precipitous growth in membership over the past ten years or so, most of that growth has taken place in America’s largest cities.
There are numerous reasons for socialists to be cautiously optimistic: A small but increasing presence of socialists of various persuasions elected to public office in The Bronx, Detroit, Seattle, and elsewhere; a reawakened (education, healthcare, distribution) trade unionism eking out moral and even some tangible victories everywhere from Bessemer, AL to Staten Island, NY; and so on.
However, although the socialist spirit may be willing across parts of Appalachia, with the faintest rumblings of socialist organization and militancy here and there, the flesh remains weak. Such schizophrenic outcomes have forced the Socialist Left to throw its collective hands in the air and cry, “What is to be done?”
By way of offering both a potential answer to the above question as well as a needed corrective to the fetishization that has obscured so much of the radical potential that exists in the region, I would like to share a few of my experiences from the fifteen years I’ve called Appalachia home.
This is obviously in no way meant to be comprehensive or prescriptive; however, the sum of my experiences as a communist, a wage laborer, a (recovering) academic, and a formally trained community organizer affords me a somewhat unique, anecdotal vantage of some of the opportunities and challenges we face in the region going forward.
I live in a small city (a town, really) nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwest Virginia (SWVA). In this part of the Commonwealth, some communities are closer to neighboring state capitols (Nashville, Raleigh) than its own (Richmond). You can feel the distance. A sibling of mine lives in Loudon County, a three-hour drive up Interstate 81.
Currently the richest zip code in the United States, Loudon County is considered a distant exurb of Washington, DC. My sibling’s neighbors work for the federal government and defense contractors; some are lobbyists. Loudon County boasts of some of the nation’s best schools and has miles and miles of amenities, from boutique farmers markets to indoor skydiving.
Some two hundred miles southwest of Northern Virginia (NoVa), it’s an entirely different story. The city that I live in used to be something of a regional manufacturing hub, mostly railcars, offering good union jobs at a low cost of living. It used to boast of a vibrant African-American commercial and entertainment center, with over three hundred black owned and operated businesses, grocers, restaurants, theaters, and medical clinics. (It was called “The Yard.”)
All of this, under the serene and unimposing figure of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is not to suggest that life before neoliberal metastasis was idyllic; The Yard was born of necessity from the violent stranglehold of Jim Crow segregation. It is also not to suggest that what remains of our fair city is nothing but a hollowed out version of its former glory.
Quite the contrary, the city is thriving…for some. But like so many cities and towns in Appalachia, the story of our city’s advance across modernity and into the 21st Century is the story of the working class fighting and continually losing ground to the most pernicious forms of capitalism to ever exist.
Although a formally trained community organizer with experience in both rural and urban settings, I had an extremely hard time finding a job in SWVA. It might surprise you, but very few advocacy nonprofits and even fewer political organizations invest meaningful time or resources in these parts.
So, to make ends meet, I would end up working in academia, construction, and healthcare over the years. At an engorged, public land-grant research university where I was a student and worked as a teacher’s assistant, I encountered the easygoing countenances of students from all over the country, but very few from the neighboring counties; college, after all, was designed for people from places like NoVa, not for residents of the agricultural communities adjacent to campus.
With my community organizing cap on, I would often (and quietly) speak with members of the culinary and custodial staffs, “essential workers,” in recent parlance, at the university where I learned and worked; to my privileged surprise, many of them commuted to campus from many miles away because they could not afford to live anywhere near town limits on their meager pay. Even many of the adjunct professors struggled to get by. At the time of writing, the university just announced it had received a $5 million donation for locker room renovations.
After university, for about two and a half years, I worked in construction and manufacturing in the right-to-work state of Virginia. Although I paid a considerable sum for a degree at the aforementioned university, my real education began as a low-wage laborer working on crews all over SWVA, from the New River Valley to Rocky Mount to Martinsville.
For over a century, many of these areas relied upon manufacturing – in particular, furniture production – as the singular organizing principle of their respective political economies. Alongside historic declines in coal mining and tobacco “cash-crop” agriculture, these single-industry cities and towns suddenly found the economic prospects and social cohesion of their communities in tatters.
In Martinsville, I worked with a craggily father and son renovating a handful of old local bank branches. It was arduous work. Often toiling elbow to elbow ripping up tile and replacing rotted soffit, I would get to know the two very well over the year we worked together as part of the same crew. “John,” the elder, never graduated high school, something he said he regretted.
He loved reading popular histories of the area and was a bluegrass fanatic, dreaming of one day taking a few months off to travel Virginia’s “Crooked Road.” John still held out hope that his son, “Junior,” would be able to “fishtail” his way out of Martinsville: Accidentally stumble into an opportunity that would take him out of a city his whole family loved and called home but never had the means to leave.
It was not to be. With so few extant opportunities and the Great Recession exacerbating already precarious conditions, Junior decided to enlist in the army and “see the world.” Injured by an IED in Afghanistan and now suffering from an acute case of PTSD, Junior ultimately wound up back home working on a construction crew with his father for about nine dollars an hour.
Working side-by-side for so many hours a day, we had ample opportunities to talk. We typically steered clear of politics – John and his family were staunch conservatives – but frequently, while chatting about this or that, I got the sense that John was one conversation shy of a full-on exorcism of conservative politics from his life if a better set of ideas came along.
Once, while ripping out some old dry wall, I watched John console his son who was struggling with shooting pain and chronic migraines. Our employer didn’t offer any benefits, and Junior was rationing medication, so breakthrough pain was growing increasingly common. (John’s own chronic condition, diabetes, went almost completely untreated due to the high costs of care.)
John left his son to return to work, sighed deeply, and muttered to himself, “Something needs to be done.” A few weeks later, our employer abruptly terminated our contracts and our crew was disbanded. I reached out to my boss for an explanation, but none of my calls were ever returned. Because Virginia is a right-to-work state, John, Junior, and I had no recourse but to accept our sudden termination and join the ranks of the unemployed. I never saw John or Junior again.
Once again looking for work and with few local options, I decided to begin a career in healthcare, with an eye towards community nursing. I started taking classes at a community college and was hired by the area’s single largest employer, a massive, privately owned hospital network with a staff of over 13,000. As a certified nursing assistant (CNA), I would be the “eyes and ears” of the hospital.
Shift nurses and doctors have relatively narrow windows for face-time with patients during rounds. With so many patients to treat and so much charting to stay up-to-date on, it is really up to a small army of CNAs on each floor to routinely monitor a patient’s health and well-being.
During grueling twelve-hour shifts (that in fact regularly lasted thirteen to fourteen hours), I was responsible for everything from retrieving medications to bathing and grooming to recording and reporting changes in a patient’s vital signs. During my time at the hospital, I was fortunate to work alongside some of the most selfless, industrious people I have ever met in my life. For most, working in healthcare was not a job; it was a vocation. The starting pay for CNA’s was under thirteen dollars an hour.
On any given day, my coworkers and I would gather in the break room to exchange war stories. We never had much time to talk; our “twenty-three to thirty-minute” lunch breaks afforded us barely enough time to clock out, walk to our lockers for our lunches, and rest our feet while we ate.
We were supposed to get fifteen-minute breaks here and there, but in the bureaucratic argot of capitalism with a nonprofit sheen, the handbook informs all wage workers that “additional short breaks may be considered if time and work load permits…but are unpaid time and considered a courtesy.” How nice.
Darlene had been a CNA for years. I shadowed her for my first two weeks at the hospital and her generous, unhurried manner was a balm to my nerves in such a stressful environment. Darlene had wanted to be a nurse for a long time. She had nurses in her family, and her disposition was uniquely suited for the work.
Early on in her career at the hospital, she took night classes at the community college and was working her way towards becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), a significant professional step forward. Over time, with tuition rates rising year after year, and the sapping nature of caring for the sick and dying gradually taking its toll, Darlene settled in to a life as a CNA; unquestionably respectable work, but not the professional apex she imagined for herself.
She turned her focus and resources to buying a used car, one that she could share with her college-bound son. Public transportation in the city was erratic, and, depending on the hour and day, service lines might not even extend into her neighborhood, forcing her to walk miles to the nearest bus stop. She was tired of “constantly running around.”
One evening, after a particularly taxing shift, a few of us went to a bar for some drinks to let off some steam. Darlene, who typically didn’t drink, decided to forgo convention and downed a few gin and tonics. Her reticence slightly greased, she would go on to reveal a life punctuated by gun violence and unrelenting poverty, of adolescent ambitions quashed by economic exploitation and institutional racism.
Towards the end of the conversation, Darlene seemed somewhat embarrassed by her admissions and tried to mask the gravity of what she said with easygoing platitudes; “it is what it is,” she sighed into her mostly empty tumbler. Before buttoning back up, as I’m sure she taught herself to do time and time again, Darlene summed up her experiences with a statement I’ll never forget, although when conducting 1:1s as a community organizer, it’s something I hear over and over again (I’m paraphrasing): “I’m lost.
My church is comforting but often seems distant and sluggish. I don’t feel the same sense of connection with my neighbors that I used to. When I yearn for change, politics are the furthest thing from my mind. I want to do something, to contribute something, to fight for something with others, but I don’t know what to do.
There’s just no place for me to go anymore.”
“No place” is exactly what Marx and Engels dispatched with when they proposed, in writings and action, scientific socialism, a program that would ultimately replace the utopian socialism of their day.
Similarly, the utopian conceptualizations of Appalachia need to be completely dismantled and replaced with a praxis that embodies nimble, grassroots commitments to relationship building in ways the Left has only rhetorically demonstrated.
Of course, these reflections are only anecdotal; a slice – my slice – of a vast array of experiences. However, relying upon materialist analysis rather than cartoonish fictions, one thing is absolutely clear: Appalachia, in all of its variance as a rich tapestry of customs, peoples, and relations, is nevertheless today a total product of the neoliberal expansion of capital.
As such, the sole task of the Left, if it wishes to build real power in the region and beyond, is in the identification and articulation of the inherent contradictions that have created near-complete immiseration on the one hand, and simultaneously, radical potential on the other.
The beauty of the solution is in its simplicity: In my experience, having canvassed all across Appalachia and knocked on hundreds if not thousands of doors as a community organizer, these conditions offer some of the best opportunities for base-building, mobilization, and organization in decades, if not generations. Alas, there is absolutely only way out of precarity and despair, and that’s through.
Deep organizing, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself, is the only way forward. Recruitment to our emancipatory cause cannot be accomplished with persuasion pieces in city dailies, social media campaigns, or canvassers sweeping through areas once every four years.
Grassroots, community organizing holds the key: Setting out in communities across Appalachia, canvassing and knocking on doors, having frank, open-ended conversations with directly-impacted individuals, carefully identifying the systemic ways that capital affects us all, and affects us all differently – through racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia – while continually recruiting, developing leadership, building a base, choosing strategic campaigns, mobilizing members, and hopefully, at the end of the organizing day, winning real improvement in people’s lives, giving people a sense of their own power, and altering the relations of power.
Notably, to do all this in Appalachia, socialists must first live in Appalachia; ideally, communities need to organize themselves. Organizations can hypothetically invest in communities from afar, but this often results in an organizing that is less grassroots and more Astroturf.
There is a vast wealth of literature about grassroots community organizing; personally, I was trained at the Midwest Academy, and the text they use, Organizing for Social Change, is as good a manual for activists as any. I leave it to the reader to do his or her own research. However, as only Jane McAlevey, renowned union organizer, can succinctly put it, community organizing…
Places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved – that’s the point of organizing. Campaigns of course matter in themselves, but they are primarily a mechanism for bringing new people into the change process and keeping them involved. It is ordinary people who help make the power analysis, design the strategy, and achieve the outcome. They are essential and they know it.
To some, it may sound like I am making a “magic bullet” argument: Do organizing, expect great outcomes! This interpretation couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a reason so few organizations can or are willing to invest in strategies that involve grassroots, community organizing: It is time and resource intensive, dividends are often slow to appear, results are sometimes intangible and hard to sell to funders and at board meetings, and most importantly, in an ever-polarizing world, taking the time to build relationships with people of differing (and sometimes odious) worldviews than your own may seem like a thankless task.
I have held some difficult jobs in my life: In construction, as a welder at a rail yard, as a CNA in a hospital. By far, the hardest job I’ve ever had was as a community organizer. There is no calling more time consuming and emotionally draining than social agitation; few industries have as high a rate of burnout than organizing, and for good reason.
But my experiences working as both a wage laborer and a community organizer across Appalachia have convinced me that, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable challenges, or maybe because of them, it’s still necessary and worthwhile to take the time to get to know our neighbors, our coworkers, and by extension, ourselves.
If we let it, infotainment and the corporate and political classes will continue to convince us that we’re inexorably different, borne of different origins, guided by different ideals, intended for different destinies. But that can’t be the case, and not just because it’s not true. It can’t be the case because, at the end of the day, we all want the same things.
John and Junior, Darlene; we all want to foster a nearness with place, to cultivate a solidarity with one another, and to stand up in defense of what we know, intrinsically and without qualification, is just and fair and prudent. This won’t, has never, and will never happen without a certain rediscovered sense of generosity and commitment.
How far, as communists, as leftists, as people, are we willing to go? How willing are we to scrutinize our own notions of ideology and history? How ready are we to listen, really listen, in spite of our assumptions and biases? Where and how far are we willing to travel to discover worlds we only ever knew in shorthand, in bromides, as slurs? Are we? Am I? Are you?
In the end, we might discover everything and anything, but no such obvious or trivial thing.