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Critique of Appalachian Anarchism

via Center for a Stateless Society

Commentary: A Critical Consideration of Hensley’s Appalachian Anarchism

by Eric Fleischmann

In his book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, Chris Matthew Sciabarra makes the astute observation that  “[j]ust as relations of power operate through ethical, psychological, cultural, political, and economic dimensions, so too the struggle for freedom and individualism depends upon a certain constellation of moral, psychological, and cultural factors.” This is something that Dakota Hensley, in his article “Appalachian Anarchism: What the Voting Record Conceals,” seems to implicitly know but not elaborately understand. Hensley makes four general points: there is an existing culture akin to an explicitly ideological (individualist, Christian, agrarian, and even conservative) anarchism in Appalachia, many parts of the region are already exploring a rejection of government, the region is not truly a “conservative hotbed” as the voting record might indicate, and the area has a strong pro-labor history. Although he makes a compelling case for both an existing and emergent quasi-anarchism within the culture and communities of Appalachia, he fails to critically take into account the anti-liberatory impacts of reactionary cultural elements that would hinder an Appalachian-brand anarchism’s evolution into a genuine part of a common struggle for a truly free society. Therefore, I would like to critically consider and elaborate upon both the liberatory and reactionary components of Hensley’s ideas.

Hensley begins his piece by presenting five values of Appalachia—“[i]ndividualism, community, self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and faith”—within which “we find an anarchism that has existed in the cities and rural communities for decades.” The first four of these values are absolutely central to anarchism and their presence in Appalachian culture is a compelling case for at least the groundwork for an emergent anarchism. And the last of these, faith, is not a necessary element of anarchism—at least in its religious sense—but when interpreted through the lens of Christian anarchism it begins to add up, and Hensley does this. He writes that Appalachian anarchism “is Christian anarchist in that faith is held dear to Appalachians who let the Bible guide them, despite 70% being unchurched and their native Christianity being decentralized and opposed to religious hierarchy and established churches.” This sort of thinking in anarchism absolutely has precedent as can be seen in such works as Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, in which he writes how Christianity applied to the real world takes the form of a rejection of government and violence in general. For example, Tolstoy writes:

Only because this condition of universal arming and military service has come step by step and imperceptibly, and because for its maintenance the governments employ all means in their power for intimidating, bribing, stupefying, and ravishing men, we do not see the crying contradiction between this condition and those Christian feelings and thoughts, with which all the men of our time are really permeated.

Whether this is the exact sentiment held by those in Appalachia remains to be seen—a proper study of the region might be necessary—but faith, particularly the sort of anti-hierarchical kind described by Hensley, can certainly serve to reinforce anarchism (even despite the popular anarchist slogan “no gods, no masters”). And Hensley further describes Appalachian anarchism as “agrarian in its support of the back-to-the-land movement’s components, namely smallholding, self-sufficiency, community, and autonomy,” which need hardly be reconciled with anarchism as numerous anarchists—such as Karl Hess—have supported the American back-to-the-land movement throughout its existence. Sever points out that “[o]ne of the oldest anarchist slogans was ‘Land and Freedom.’ You don’t hear it much anymore these days, but this battle cry was used most fervently in the revolutionary movements in Mexico, Spain, Russia, and Manchuria.” And even further, that “[t]he truth is, the ‘back to the land’ movement and the rural communes of earlier generations, organized according to a wide variety of strategies of resistance, turned up a body of invaluable experience that anarchists collectively have still failed to absorb.” Perhaps then, explicitly ideological anarchism can learn from Appalachia—particularly the indigenous peoples of the region who go unmentioned by Hensley—just as the latter can learn from the former.

And Hensley does not remain within the more conceptual realm of general cultural descriptions, but references specific contexts wherein “[m]any [Appalachians] spend their whole lives without interacting with a government or anything close to it” and “[m]any smaller unincorporated communities dot the Appalachian landscape, living peacefully without a local authority.” He gives the example of Wallins and Harlan, Kentucky, the former of which “doesn’t even have a government (as a result of its being demoted from a city to an unincorporated community back in 2010 after failing to elect a mayor in 2008).” Furthermore, in Harlan there are 62 unincorporated communities where the only real government presence is Harlan Police and the Harlan County, and in Wallins the volunteer fire department is “as far as government presence goes.” These examples are extremely relevant as they could be written off by non-Appalachians as indicators of ‘backwardness’ or ‘underdevelopment.’ But consider David Graeber’s summary, from Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, of French anthropologist Pierre Clastres’s thought:

[Clastres] insisted political anthropologists had still not completely gotten over the old evolutionist perspectives that saw the state primarily as a more sophisticated form of organization than what had come before; stateless peoples, such as the Amazonian societies Clastres studied, were tacitly assumed not to have attained the level of say, the Aztecs or the Inca. But what if, he proposed, Amazonians were not entirely unaware of what the elementary forms of state power might be like—what it would mean to allow some men to give everyone else orders which could not be questioned, since they were backed up by the threat of force—and were for that very reason determined to ensure such things never came about? What if they considered the fundamental premises of our political science morally objectionable?

Despite acknowledged issues in Clastres work, Graeber builds off of this general idea—using examples like the Piaora of the Orinoco, the Tiv of Central Nigeria, the society of Highland Madagascar—to propose that “counterpower” (or “anti-power”)—this being, “[i]n typical revolutionary discourse[,] . . . a collection of social institutions set in opposition to the state and capital: from self-governing communities to radical labor unions to popular militias”—need not exist in opposition to an existing state (or market) but can stand in egalitarian societies as “the predominant form of social power. It stands guard over what are seen as certain frightening possibilities within the society itself: notably against the emergence of systematic forms of political or economic dominance.” There would need to be more work on the matter, but perhaps a similar situation is taking place in Appalachia. As Hensley demonstrates, many cultural elements conducive of anarchism exist in the region. So perhaps, say, the loss of a government by Wallins due to its demotion from city to an unincorporated community or, even more so, the continuation of many communities’ unincorporation are themselves very conscious rejections of conventional institutionalized governance.

Finally, in my view, one of the most compelling points Hensley raises regarding anarchist tendencies in Appalachia is the area’s history of pro-labor solidarity. He writes:

Some will assume that Appalachian anarchism can’t be anarchism because of anarchism’s association with labor. And if we see Appalachia as conservative based on its voting record, that must make it anti-labor as well. That is far from the truth. Appalachia has had labor disputes for decades and its people are always on the side of the worker.

And this is an excellent and important point: Appalachian culture—and consequently an Appalachian anarchism—is deeply intertwined with labor struggle. As historian Elizabeth Catte explains, though the term ‘redneck’ originated as a derogatory term for poor, uneducated Southerners and Appalachians, the 1921 “Battle of Blair Mountain,” a clash between coal miners attempting to unionize and both company enforcers and the National Guard, during which miners wore red bandanas around their neck, marked a “transformation from a more generic epithet to something specific to group identity and union membership, particularly among coal miners, which is built into the way that many folks in Appalachia today reclaim the term.” (A good friend of mine carries around a bag with the phrase Put the “Red” Back in “Redneck” on it). This history and culture are central to building a more conscious working-class solidarity in Appalachia against attempts to trick rural Americans with racist dog-whistling nationalism. As Daniel Denvir writes, in the preface to his interview with Sarah Jones about Appalachia, that “[n]eoliberalism foments racism by paving the way for right-wing politics that tell white people that people of color are going to steal their share of a shrinking pie. Our response can’t be to write these people off; it has to be to build a multiracial working-class movement.” And furthermore, an important element of this is fighting the view of Appalachia as homogenously white (and straight and cisgender for that matter) and recognizing the diversity of the region. As Sarah Baird explains for NPR’s Code Switch:

While there still is a way to go, a less whitewashed portrait of Appalachia seems to be gaining a foothold nationally, thanks in part to the efforts of scholars and grass-roots organizations. The term “Affrilachia” — a portmanteau of “African” and “Appalachian” coined by Kentucky poet laureate Frank X Walker — has brought together a loose collective of multiracial artists previously excluded from conversations about what it means to be an Appalachian.

And furthermore—despite controversies around its unethical allocation of funds—the network known as Queer Appalachia has, as Elizabeth Catte writes, showcased “that some of the region’s most successful, inclusive, and creative media-makers are queer and trans Appalachians” and furthermore, one study suggests that, despite their underrepresentation in the popular understanding of Appalachian culture, West Virginia has the nation’s highest percentage of transgender-identifying teens and a relatively high percentage of similarly identifying adults. And never should be forgotten the indigenous people of Appalachia such as the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina and the federally unrecognized groups such as Appalachian Cherokee Nation who originally “dwelled in the Holston River Valley, Clinch River Valley and the Appalachian mountains” but are today spread across “Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania Virginia, and West Virginia.” Therefore, the potential for a truly anticolonial, antiracist, working-class ‘rainbow coalition’ exists in Appalachia and can serve to push Appalachian anarchism toward truly liberatory ends.

But while Hensley seems to be attempting to quasi-ethnographically piece together that “certain constellation of moral, psychological, and cultural factors” conducive of “the struggle for freedom and individualism” that Sciabarra describes, he fails to consider the manner in which reactionary cultural elements could potentially get in the way of a truly liberatory anarchist project in Appalachia. The two factors which stand out the most to me are uninformed anticommunism and social conservatism.

As mentioned, one aspect that Hensley attributes to Appalachian anarchism is that “[i]t is individualist in its opposition to communism and acceptance of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.” There is certainly nothing wrong with self-reliance and self-sufficiency, but a staunch anticommunism may be of concern to even the most individualist of anarchists. From my experience growing up in southern Ohio on the border of Kentucky, colloquial understandings of ‘communism’ in the rural United States sometimes range from flawed and superficial familiarities with Karl Marx to ‘whatever neoliberal politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton represent,’ to even somehow what ultraconservatives consider ‘deviancy’ like homosexuality or transgenderism (à la cultural Marxism). Hensley sees this problem regarding anarchism itself, writing: “Anarchists forget that the large majority of Americans know nothing about anarchism or the philosophies of Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner, William Greene and Stephen Pearl Andrews, or even Pyotr Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. The few who do associate it with violence.” But he fails to make similar observations regarding understandings of communism (and consequently anticommunism). A sentiment of anticommunism against, say, Stalinism or Juche is nothing to decry, but an uninformed anti-ideological stance could stand in the way of ideas like cooperative ownership, the commons, etc. The latter of these, as Alec MacGillis explains in his review of historian Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, was at one time an important cultural aspect of the region. He summarizes how, early in the history of Appalachia, “[s]urvival depended on shared use of the boundless forest beyond one’s own hollow or ridge — the ‘commons’ — for hunting game, raising livestock, small-scale logging and foraging bounties such as uganost (wild greens), toothworth, corn salad and ramps.” This fell apart thanks to the interests of corporate capitalists in the natural resources of the area, but Stoll imagines a “Commons Communities Act,” “under which land would be set aside for shared use, not unlike the great forests of old — farming, timber harvesting, hunting and gathering, vegetable gardening, cattle grazing — by a specified number of families. Residents would own their own homes and could pursue whatever sort of work they cared to beyond their use of the commons.” A staunch and uninformed anticommunism could be a powerful obstacle for such an initiative, and furthermore, it could—and has in the past—pushed rural Americans toward a nationalistic identification over-and-above working-class solidarity.

The second issue with Hensley’s Appalachian anarchism is its social conservatism. He asserts “that Appalachia as this conservative hotbed is nothing but a myth,” and that this stereotype is representative of “only those who vote and, even then, their personal views are nothing like the views of the candidates they vote for.” However Southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, for example, are littered with anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ signs and Confederate, Blue Lives Matter, and Trump 2020 flags are as common as dirt, which I believe are representative of a culture in rural America—including Appalachia—that is prejudicially traditionalist and reveres both hierarchy and authority. So, to say that there is little nonelectoral conservatism to me is quite a difficult claim to back up even, as Hensley does, by using voting statistics. And Hensley even identifies Appalachian anarchism as being “traditionalist conservative in its views of social issues, being opposed to abortion and supportive of the traditions of the mountains among others.” And for him this presents no fundamental problem, as he considers in another article,

Can an anarchist be socially conservative? Yes. I see no reason why someone who is anti-abortion or has fundamentalist views on sex or drugs can’t be an anarchist. Anarchism is about building a society in which no one forces their beliefs on others. As long as you respect the views and lives of others, your personal views don’t matter.

Hensley is not highly specific in either article regarding what he means by social conservatism beyond a few name-dropped key issues, so I will function under the definition from RationalWiki which seems the most conventional:

Social conservatism emphasizes convention, morality (or old-fashioned notions of morality) and established roles within society and the family. Social conservatives are often, though not always, strongly religious. They support traditional gender roles, marriage and “family values” (a term with a multitude of meanings). Social conservatism is often accused of being homophobic, due to its distaste for same-sex marriage and sometimes racist and sexist to some degree because of the associations with traditional hierarchical societies in which everybody knew their place; and in the West, at least, the White, Anglo/European diaspora being regarded as the ultimate origin and standard of civilized culture.

This issue with seeing social conservatism as an acceptable trait in anarchism is that communities with anti-abortion, antisexualist, harshly-traditionally-familial views perpetuate patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and so forth. These are without a doubt—even if they are theoretically completely free of the conventional, physical understanding of violence (which they rarely are)—systems of coercion that can stifle that “certain constellation of moral, psychological, and cultural factors” that “the struggle for freedom and individualism” is dependent on, as Sciabarra maintains. (And the rejoinder that individuals can just leave those communities that are not tolerant of their existence completely underestimates the power of community and social infrastructure in general.) This bring up the topic of ‘thick libertarianism,’ which right-libertarian critic of the conception Tom Woods understands as the assertion by some libertarians that one needs “to have left-liberal views on religion, sexual morality, feminism, etc., because reactionary beliefs among the public are also threats to liberty” but Nathan Goodman more broadly defines as “any broadening of libertarian concerns beyond overt aggression and state power to concern about what cultural and social conditions are most conducive to liberty.” An example might be Cathy Reisenwitz’s argument that libertarianism should take influence from sex-positive feminism as…

[s]ex-positivity seeks to destroy the judgment and shame which keep people from being able to fully enjoy sex, or a lack of sex, or anything in between. It seeks to allow the greatest amount of peaceful, voluntary sexual exchange. Libertarianism should seek to destroy the judgment and shame which keep people from being able to fully enjoy any kind of peaceful, voluntary exchange. In this way, it will fully engage in creating a world which allows the greatest amount of peaceful, voluntary exchange possible.

In essence, the acceptance of social conservatism—which generally stigmatizes and shames gender and sexual nonconformity, ‘excessive’ sexual activity (generally of women), abortion and contraception, etc.—ultimately creates the cultural conditions through which individual freedom is restricted via coercive social mechanisms such as public shame and unjustifiable hierarchies. Therefore, despite Hensley’s assertions otherwise, social conservatism cannot be systematically tolerated if Appalachian anarchism is to become a part of a common struggle for human freedom and a truly free society. Anarchism must maintain its commitment to liberation in all spheres of life even (or perhaps particularly) when attempting to call upon elements in existing cultural conditions—such as those in Appalachia.