In his campaign, Donald Trump made promises to the people of West Virginia that he would bolster its economy and put people back to work. Specifically targeting the region’s economic woes, Trump promised to bring back mining jobs to the area, which continues to be one of the most underdeveloped regions in the United States.
Based on the budget pursued after Trump’s inauguration, it became clear that he and the rest of the capitalist elite surrounding him had no desire to follow through with these promises, as exemplified by plans to completely defund the Appalachian Regional Commission. However, it is only to be expected that such a capitalist monster has no way of truly sympathizing with the most destitute among us. His true agenda of racism, virulent sexism, expansion of imperialist wars, and rolling back workers’ rights has become painfully clear.
Let’s look at some of the facts regarding the current West Virginian economy:
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there are currently 21,700 mining and logging jobs in West Virginia as of October. Of those jobs, roughly half represent surface and underground mining jobs in the state.
Compare this to the employment numbers at the industry’s height in 1950, when over 125,000 people were employed in the industry.
The sharp reduction in employed miners is a direct result of automation within the industry over the past few decades.
Under capitalism, this automation, which could have produced higher standards of living for all working people, instead led to workers being laid off and higher profits for mining and energy companies. As a result of a lack of economic diversification, an all too common feature of capitalism’s inability to plan for the future, the region continues to suffer today.
Low-cost retail now king
In stark contrast from the height of extractive industry, today the corporate giant Walmart (the largest private employer in the state) employs 11,965 people as associates, roughly the same number as those employed in mining. Another major retailer, Dollar General, operates one of its company’s highest density of stores in West Virginia. This shows capitalism has adapted and changed from its earlier manifestations in the region. Low-cost retail is now king, as opposed to the earlier reign of coal.
Walmart states that its associates make $13.69 an hour on average, which when compared to the rest of what limited work is available in the region is fairly decent money for an individual! However, in true corporate statistical magic, it goes on to say that this wage is the average for its hourly associates who work full-time. All it takes to dispel this capitalist hocus-pocus is to ask someone who has worked in retail as to whether they have ever consistently worked full-time hours.
Time and time again, businesses skirt labor laws that mandate employee benefits to fulltime workers by cutting hours. Coupled with the high rate of unemployment due to the economic underdevelopment in the region, this means people are not able to make enough in wages to get by. Thus the fight for a union and higher minimum wages is critical in raising the standard of living for working-class West Virginians. When you consider that women, people of color and LGBTQ disproportionately work these jobs, the stakes become even higher in the struggle against these corporations.
Adding to the state’s troubles, West Virginia has one of the fastest aging populations in the nation with the average age 42.2 years old as of 2015, which calls into question what future lies in store for the state. With an aging population comes the need for higher investments in healthcare combined with a smaller tax base to draw upon to fund the services. Young people who are able to are leaving the state, further reducing the tax base for dealing with the predicted needs of senior member of the working class.
Capitalist solution: more polluting extractive industry
To the region’s established capitalist order, whose interests are represented by Donald Trump and the elites of both capitalist parties, there seems to be no way out of this crisis except by leveraging the immense natural resources of the region for short term gain. Extraction of natural gas, obtained through the disastrous practice known as “fracking,” is set to increase in the region. Its effects on the safety of drinking water are well known, and the pipelines required to transport it represent known threats to public safety and the environment we live in. Birth defects and cancer abound in areas where mining and other extraction industries are prevalent.
Despite attempts to steer us down the path of token reforms, we know there is no way out while living under the tyranny of capitalist hegemony. Simple tax and spend solutions advocated by liberal Democrats, while possibly minimizing the effects of the inevitable crises , ultimately fail to fundamentally address the issues at play in capitalist markets.
Changing conditions in West Virginia still point to need for socialism
What sort of world do we live in where we are forced to make the choice between employment at a living wage and a clean, safe, and sustainable environment? West Virginia almost uniquely exemplifies the contradictory nature of capitalism. We have the resources and technology required to ensure every single person a quality education and standard of living, yet our state’s poverty rate consistently ranks among the highest in the nation.
It is only through the struggle for socialism, a system in which the working class itself plans economic activity to meet human needs, can West Virginians truly overcome the economic problems the state faces. The struggle for higher wages, the protection of our environment, and so on, all represent various facets of the struggle against capitalism and for a political and economic system that meets the needs of everyone.
If Marxism teaches us anything, it is that everything in the world is in a state of constant flux. There can be no doubt that the conditions of capitalism have changed since the heyday of mining in West Virginia, and it would do us well to adapt our understanding and tactics to meet those challenges head on.
Donald Trump’s tokenization of rural poverty shows just how out of touch with our reality he is. We are more than just another source of cheap labor and polluting energy. We must stand in total solidarity with all workers who demand full employment, higher wages and better working conditions.
However, we must realize that our conditions have changed since the times of the great Mine Wars, despite the fact that the enemy, capitalism, is still the same. We have simply traded in the company store of the coal camps with the modern day company store of Walmart. The solution today is still the same as it was then … organize and fight for socialism!