West Virginia Mine Disaster: The State is Also to Blame

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On April 5th, 2010 a deadly explosion of methane gas ripped through the Upper Big Branch coal mine near Montcoal, West Virginia. Early reports from the authorities stated that 25 miners had been killed, but 4 were unaccounted for, and could possibly have survived had they made it to the underground survival chambers that are supposed to offer a safe haven of clean air and fresh supplies to any miners trapped below ground.

One can only imagine the collective exasperation that gripped the mining towns of southwestern West Virginia, and indeed the entire Appalachian coal belt, as they were once again forced to faced the grim reality of the brutal demise of family, friends and loved ones deep in the mines. One can hear the resounding cries of "Not again!" emanating from mining families across the region, as the Upper Big Branch disaster follows on the heels of a similar catastrophe in Sago, West Virginia just four short years before, in which 12 miners were killed in another explosion of combustible methane gas.

Much like Sago four years earlier, the media from across the nation and globe descended on the small West Virginia town pursuing yet another ‘disaster story' that promised to pump up ratings and keep a worried nation enthralled with the suspense surrounding the rescue the efforts for the 4 missing miners. Over the next several days, we were treated to televised press conference after press conference from local politicians, the state Governor, rescue authorities and company officials encouraging us to keep up hope that the missing miners would be found alive.

However, regardless of the media-driven suspense, anyone with an objective view of the situation could only conclude that after an explosion of such magnitude so far underground, the missing miners would not be found alive. Indeed, as the days passed, the tone from the official press conferences grew more and more grim. On April 9th, four days after the explosion, officials announced that there were in fact no survivors. Apparently, the damage inside the mine has been so great that rescuers had passed by the bodies of the four missing miners in their initial searches several times without even recognizing them. The underground survival chambers-another supposed marvel of modern technology to eliminate the ancient perils of underground labor-utterly failed to do anything to stop a violent explosion of methane gas.

Another mine tragedy has this time taken the lives of 29 miners. Combined with similar recent mine disasters in Russia and Mexico, the world is once again grimly reminded that even in the so-called ‘post-work information age', significant numbers of workers continue to make their living putting in long hours in a dark hole dug into the side of a mountain filled with poisonous gasses than can ignite at any time and where the risk of a deadly cave-in is omnipresent.

However, despite the media's perpetual desire to exploit the suspense of the rescue efforts-a theme common to all disaster stories-there was nevertheless something a little different about the media's response to the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion compared to how it treated the Sago disaster four year earlier. Now, the political climate is different. George W. Bush-a fellow known for his close connections to the energy industry-is no longer President. The new President is none other than Barrack Obama, a man elected on a solemn pledge of ‘bringing change'. Moreover, this disaster takes place in a climate of anti-corporate rhetoric emerging from the Wall Street collapse and subsequent bailouts in 2008. The dominant narrative of bourgeois ideology is that the state is now the working man's friend-his only real protection against the greed of the banks on Wall Street that have the power to wreck the entire economy, and the vicious pursuit of profits by reckless companies such as Massey Energy (the Upper Big Branch Mine's owner) that skimp on costly safety measures in order to increase their bottom line.

Keeping in line with this narrative, the media subjected us to a barrage of "investigative reporting" in the week of so after the disaster documenting the numerous and repeated safety violations at the mine and the outrageous political conduct of Massey Energy in pursuit of maximizing its profits-conduct, we were told, that included the effective purchase of a seat on the state Supreme Court for a barrister friendly to Massey's corporate vision.

As a result of this reporting, we learned an entire slew of disconcerting facts such as that in the month prior to the explosion the Upper Big Branch Mine had been cited for 57 safety infractions by federal inspectors, including 2 citations just the day prior to the explosion. Similarly, we learned that in 2009, Massey Energy had been fined a total of $382,000 for "serious and unrepentant" violations for lacking proper ventilation as well as failing to follow through with its safety plan. In the year prior to the explosion, federal regulators had ordered portions of the mine closed over 60 times. Finally, as if to reassure us that the state was on the case, we were informed that the FBI has opened a criminal probe into the explosion, investigating charges of criminal negligence by Massey Energy and the possible bribing of federal regulators. Then, as if to show us his profound difference of character with Bush, President Obama himself attended the memorial service for the dead miners, eulogizing them with the gift of eloquence his predecessor sorely lacked.

So how did the dominant media narrative explain the apparent powerlessness of federal government regulators to do anything to stop yet another mine explosion of an almost identical cause as that which caused the Sago disaster four years earlier? They blamed it on Bush. According to this narrative, under George W. Bush, a ruthless conservative, free-market ideology fell over the federal government, through which big business was able to ‘capture the state' and effectively neutralize its power to regulate the private accumulation of wealth when it comes into conflict with the overall interests of society.

This narrative of corporate domination of the state under the auspices of Bush and his Republican buddies is being carted out to explain just about every disaster that the Obama administration has had to deal with since taking office. The collapse of Wall Street and the subsequent necessity of the mega corporate bailouts is blamed on the gutting of banking regulations under Bush, which allowed the development of banks ‘too big to fail'. Similarly, the mine disaster (and now the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) is blamed on the evisceration of regulatory agencies during 8 years of Republican rule, in which the conservatives pursued a devastating strategy of ‘starving the state', resulting in the loss of competent regulatory personnel, deflated budgets for regulatory agencies and the development of a cozy relationship between industry and government in which government regulators looked forward to a giant pay day upon retirement from public service in the very industries they were supposed to regulate. "Surely," the narrative goes, "Obama can't be expected to fix this mess in just two short years in office. But he's on the right track. For starters, he really cares enough to show up to your funeral and make a nice speech."[1]

Of course what this narrative fails to mention is that the process of selling off the job of essential state functions to private businesses and neutering federal regulatory agencies-while it may have been the ideological brain child of the Regan/Thatcher Revolution of the 1980s-has been pursued with as much fervor by Democratic administrations as Republican ones. Clinton himself was a champion of the so-called ‘entrepreneurial state', a stance shared by his Vice President turned anti-global warming activist Al Gore. Moreover, despite paying lip service to some of the anti-corporate rhetoric sweeping the country, Obama's own connections to big business interests, particularly Wall Street is well known-a fact the media has found difficult to conceal, necessitating some tepid criticism of his administration as "too close to the banks."

What does this all mean for the working class who bear the brunt of such disasters as the Upper Branch Mine explosion in the form of lost lives, lost jobs, shattered families and economic ruin? Who are our friends and enemies? Where can we turn for protection against the big greedy corporations who obviously show little hesitation to put our lives on the line when it comes to making a profit? Well, for one thing, it should be clear from the Upper Branch Mine disaster and those like it, that we cannot rely on the state. Despite pledges and promises to increase safety following the Sago disaster in 2006, the explosion at the Upper Branch Mine belies the futility of relying on the state to protect us on the job, or even to make simple changes that could save lives, such as ensuring the proper ventilation of methane gas, which experts all agree could have prevented this explosion. Obviously, Massey Energy has more to fear from its shareholders for not making a profit than it does from the federal government for failing to comply with tepid safety standards. This has proven the case as much under the Obama administration as under the previous Bush regime.

The question of the increasing privatization of essential state functions and the idea of the ‘capture of the state' by various corporate interests in the most powerful state in the world is a question that is ripe for theoretical deepening for the workers' movement. To what extent is this idea an actual reflection of the dynamic in decomposing capitalism? What are the implications for the state's ability to do its job of advancing the overall interests of the national capital against narrower sectoral interests? What are the implications of this for the tactics and strategy of the workers' movement? These are all questions that demand further clarification. However, the point of departure for this remains the perspective defended by revolutionary Marxism: the state is the executive arm of the bourgeois class; it is not a neutral organ, which the working class can use to protect itself from greedy corporations. The state is an organ of the very same social system that produces that corporate greed: world capitalism.

We will hear a lot about this in the period ahead. The bourgeois media will continue to work the theme of the state against the corporations as long as it can.[2] Workers must recognize this for what it is: an ideological ploy to tie the working class to the state, to make it see its future in defending the state from corporate seizure. Workers must realize that in reality there is no fundamental difference between the corporations that exploit them and the state agencies that are supposed to regulate those corporations. This is true even when the state takes action against a particular corporation whose actions call the credibility of the state as the protector of society into question. [3]

As for the miners of West Virginia, this disaster is one more example of the assault on their living and working conditions, which has already been declining for decades. These workers have suffered between the Scylla of a declining coal industry in a state which offers few other employment opportunities on the one side, and the Charybdis of speed- up and declining safety standards on the other, as the coal companies struggle to make their remaining operations profitable. However, regardless of the desperate state of the working class in the coal belt today, we should be careful not to fall into an uncritical nostalgia for the early twentieth century when the miners of West Virginia fought numerous pitched battles with the coal companies' hired goons in an effort to win the right to organize. These episodes took place in a different historical period, during the transition between the ascendant and decadent phases of capitalisms, when the integration of the unions into the state had not yet been fully completed. Moreover, almost without exception, these actions were eventually defeated-often violently crushed-generally with the generous assistance of the federal state. [4]

Today, the future of the class struggle lies not in pitched armed battles, but with the extension of mass struggles across sectors, eventually unifying the entire working class behind a decisive confrontation with the capitalist state.

Henk 18/06/10

[1] Consequently, this line has proven much more difficult to maintain during the continuing carnage resulting from the explosion of the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, with the media now talking about "Obama's Katrina," in the wake of the federal government's inability to do anything to stop the release of oil into the ocean. See article in this issue.

[2] The emerging dominant narrative of the state as the protector against greedy and socially irresponsible corporations is not without challenge. As we showed in on our article on the "Tea Party" in Internationalism #154, capitalist ideology in decomposition is also capable of producing a bizarre anti-corporate ideology, which is simultaneously, if somewhat inconsistently, anti-state.

[3] Somewhat luckily for the U.S. bourgeoisie, the recent oil rig catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico has taken place on the watch of British Petroleum, giving the U.S. the chance to convince the world that not all greedy irresponsible corporations are American.

[4] This included the now infamous use of the United States Army Air Core to bomb rebelling miners during the "Battle of Blair Mountain" in 1921


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