The weirdest job I ever had was at a large environmental nonprofit, where nobody seemed clear on what they were supposed to be doing. People had titles and roles, but when applied to reality those roles became confused, muddled. On paper I was an “organizer,” but it was never clear whom I was supposed to be organizing, or to what goal. Usually it just meant making Facebook posts that challenged our enemy’s narrative about coal mining.
I started this job at the tail end of the coal industry’s “Friends of Coal” campaign, which began in the mid-2000s as an attempt to unite coal bosses and their workers against environmentalists. It was an effective campaign. The damage done by mountaintop-removal coal mining was considerable, and primarily felt by working-class people—waterways and wells were being poisoned, boulders crashed through houses and even killed on occasion, and people living near surface mines were at higher risk for birth defects and cancer—but for the industry to protect its profits, it needed a campaign that could pull public opinion to its side.
Friends of Coal started out with billboards and political ads, but some coal states like Kentucky started commissioning pitch-black license plates—like coal, get it?—with pro-coal messages like Coal Keeps the Lights On! Soon there were bumper stickers, shirts, and high school indoctrination programs. It was a propaganda campaign in the truest sense: put up with the boulders and the poisoned water and the cancer if you want to see the coal jobs stick around. If you objected, you could be ostracized from your community, or worse: you could be labeled a tree hugger.
When it came to working-class issues, we had no way to counter the Friends of Coal message. We couldn’t offer people jobs; we were proposing to do away with actual jobs. We could offer them slightly cleaner streams, but the angle here would have been for recreation—and who wouldn’t sacrifice a few streams for a decent income and some healthcare? More to the point, we couldn’t really offer them respite from the sickness and destruction brought by coal mining, because our solutions—to really work—would have required more of them than they had to give us. How many working-class people had spare time to go lobby for environmental regulations? Who could set aside multiple jobs and family obligations to show up for rallies and lobbying days? To get in fights with their neighbors over obscure water quality provisions?
Take the Stream Protection Rule, which makes my stomach ulcer bleed to think about. It was a regulation proposed by the Obama administration to reduce the amount of toxins released into streams from mountaintop-removal mines. In practice, it would have been pretty ineffectual—it still allowed some amount of poison to be released into streams, rather than the preferred amount of none—but we put enormous energy into passing it.
The coal industry was no less determined: when the federal government held hearings on it in the fall of 2015, the industry’s lobby groups turned out paid protestors and coal miners to voice their opposition by getting riled up and threatening us with violence. These hearings seemed to serve the purpose of getting a bunch of pissed-off people in a room to see who could make the best argument. I guess we won the argument, because Obama signed the rule into effect in 2016. We also lost: Trump immediately discarded it when he took office in 2017. The ulcers we endured are all that remain.
Who could blame working-class people for staying home? Who would want that kind of stress?
Since then, the nonprofit industry has increasingly deferred to the coal industry’s monopoly on the working class. This is partly due to guilt, I think; the nonprofits had, after all, tried to kill a lot of coal jobs, and in some cases they were very successful. But it was also strategic, an effort to stay alive and relevant by regrouping and charting a new course. And so instead of fighting for complex regulations with few obvious short-term benefits—or long-term prospects—many environmentalists and social justice nonprofits in Appalachia began repositioning themselves as job creators.
This great repositioning became known as the “Just Transition Movement.” At its core, it had a simple, albeit vague, goal: to diversify the Appalachian economy beyond coal. It took a few things for granted. First, that coal was going away, and that everyone agreed it was. Second, that in the absence of coal, the region would need to replace coal jobs with . . . something else. But something like coal; better, perhaps, for the environment and for workers’ health, but the important thing was that it would provide jobs in perpetuity. Only against the background of coal’s entrenched hegemony could such a program seem progressive: the goal was job creation and the method was markets.
Yet by taking for granted that everyone—coal CEOs, miners, environmentalists, and politicians—all knew that coal was going away, and that it was therefore in everyone’s interest to diversify the economy, the Just Transition Movement began to flatten across the political spectrum. If it had to appeal to everyone, then anything had to be acceptable, because anything could be transition. Green jobs, yes, but also gas drilling. Clean water and tourism, sure, but also prisons. Hemp farms, perhaps, but definitely industrial parks.
The nonprofit industry had painted itself into a corner: if the goal was to provide jobs, then jobs were all it could provide.
Why do nonprofits exist?
The generous answer is that society is imperfect: people have needs that the government cannot meet (and that corporations refuse to meet). But the cynical answer is that there’s money to be made in nonprofits. Not for the people actually working at them, of course; they make very little. But for their extremely wealthy patrons, the rich people who want to protect their capital from being taxed and expropriated by the government, nonprofits are not only lucrative—they’re an effective way to provide legitimacy to the ruling class.
The scale of the industry is phenomenal. As Elizabeth Kolbert recently pointed out, the growth in foundation assets has exploded in the past eighty years, from “less than a billion dollars to more than eight hundred billion dollars.” In the next two decades, “affluent baby boomers are expected to contribute almost seven trillion dollars to philanthropy.” Nearly 10 billion dollars a year is spent on shaping public policy alone.
Of course, there is a distinction between foundations and the kind of environmental nonprofit I used to work at. Nonprofits “organize,” but foundations serve as the organizational vehicle for wealthy people’s money. They pay almost no taxes in exchange for supporting, usually through grants, the various organizations that Go Out Into The World and Do The Work of advancing the policies or public works that the foundation supports. But the foundations and their “grantees” are functionally very similar in the faith they place in the elite to fix the world’s problems. No matter how progressive the receiving nonprofit proclaims to be—or how committed to “organizing”—the larger philanthropy ecosystem will bind the nonprofit to its wealthy patrons (and their often very vague demands), unless the nonprofit relies solely on grassroots donations.
One of my coworkers once described a surreal meeting with an eco-friendly millionaire over coffee; when the millionaire explained that he wanted to use his money to “take down a coal company,” my coworker was, of course, receptive. The millionaire was a rich liberal from northern Virginia who was concerned about the destruction of the region’s beautiful views and rich biodiversity. I always got the sense that these millionaires—many of whom live on the region’s periphery—just wanted a pretty vacation spot, and it infuriated them that the region’s beauty was being mined away for coal, and so they wanted to do something about it. At the end of the meeting they hadn’t identified the coal company or the method with which to take it down, but when the check rolled in, everyone scrambled to meet his needs, dropping what they were currently working on to identify a coal company that might fit the millionaire’s liking and then poring over thousands of pages of water-quality discharge reports.
The CEO of the coal company we eventually targeted is now governor of West Virginia.
Meeting the needs of millionaires is not easy. When their needs are vague and undefined—or poorly thought through and unsuited to the needs of local communities—it requires labor and stress (and ulcers) to keep them satisfied. It also requires a great deal of exploitation: the people working the hardest at nonprofits often make the least. People will work themselves to literal sickness chasing vague grant imperatives and using their dedication to The Work as a justification for their physical and mental burnout.
The treatment of workers in the nonprofit industry is perhaps its most disturbing feature, and it often goes unnoticed by larger society. There is a confusion, a frustration, that arises when you don’t see society changing at the scale or speed with which you’d like it to, especially when that “change”—however vaguely defined—is your literal job. But as long as nonprofits exist, it will be this way. This is because nonprofits exist to manage the contradictions of capitalism. When you find yourself unable to do that—or unable to deal with everyone around you blindly accepting that the contradictions can only be managed, rather than changed—you simply lose your mind, or the lining of your stomach.
In the absence of concrete results—and in my experience, the absence of concrete results begins to look more like the norm than the exception—you start to see the concrete function of the nonprofit sector differently. For all the good intentions it’s paved with, philanthropy is an illusion, a mirage. And it tricks you into accepting (or even embracing) the underlying fact of philanthropic giving: that rich people have a lot of surplus capital, from exploiting and immiserating thousands of lives, and they need somewhere to put it. It doesn’t matter if the millionaire is a Koch brother or an eco-friendly crusader. Vast profits, often the direct spoils of exploitation—the rightfully earned wages denied to workers, or the profits made from poisoning people’s water—are plowed right back into a system that, by design, can never alter the balance of power.
This is hardly an original critique. But when I started working at a nonprofit, when I first moved to eastern Kentucky in 2012, I was naïve and idealistic and I accepted this system unthinkingly. Faced with horrific problems—staggering poverty, poor health, a destroyed environment—something has to be done to address those problems, right? You can’t just let them continue to exist without doing something about them, right? You have to do The Work!
2012 was an election year, and Hal Rogers, the district’s longtime Republican representative, had just secured another round of funding for a prison he was trying to build in Letcher County, Kentucky. Rogers had already built three federal prisons in his district, the poorest in the nation, and when a group of activists started agitating against Rogers’s newest prison—outside of the nonprofit complex—I joined them.
Many of us were drawn from the ranks of the Just Transition Movement, and to us, the prison was a perfect example of an unjust transition. It was an expansion of the carceral state, which we considered to be an integral part of this nation’s white supremacist legacy; it was reactionary, because incarceration targets the poor without offering rehabilitative or restorative solutions. Opposing it was not only the moral thing to do: the legitimacy of the Just Transition message rested on opposing it.
But then a funny thing happened.
Shortly before this, the heads of the Just Transition Movement had identified a gap in the Friends of Coal campaign’s logic. They asked: What was going to be done with all the legacy issues of coal mining—the environmental and infrastructural and public health problems—that the industry left behind after they disappeared? Their answer was that the environmentalists would win back the support of the working class by stepping up and taking care of these legacy issues, and they’d do it using a big pot of money sitting idle up in Washington, DC, known as the Abandoned Mine Lands fund.
The proposal felt perfect, a solution contained within the problem: the fund had been created by a per-ton tax on all coal mined in the US since the early 1980s, and there was now plenty of money in it that could be put into some kind of New Deal–style jobs program. In other words, it was money just sitting there that could be used for reclamation projects, and this translated to that new magic word for the Just Transition Movement: jobs.
I was one of the early proponents of using this fund to establish a program that could create jobs, and I even coauthored a piece in the Daily Yonder that explored the idea. Miners would be Put Back To Work, reclaiming abandoned mine lands and preparing this region for . . . well, that still had to be hammered out, but the point was that the money was there. Something Could Be Done. All that was needed was a little bit of political will.
The problem with political will, however, is that it’s never in short supply when you’re willing to give something up for it. The Just Transition Movement was willing to give up its integrity: they turned to Congressman Hal Rogers to make the fund a political reality. And so, overnight, this man whose policies we’d fought against for so long was suddenly rehabilitated. The prisons, the millions of dollars funneled to law enforcement agencies to “combat the drug epidemic,” the systematic reduction of EPA funding, the skyrocketing health issues and cancer rates and poverty, the facilitation of child concentration camps and militarization at the border—all of this was to be erased because he let us into his office and listened to us. He agreed that the region needed to be diversified, and that we could set aside our differences on coal, and that he would start working to push a few economic diversification plans through Congress.
The foundations loved it; it was a bipartisan solution in tribalistic times. Money poured in, and before long there were spinoff policies and corresponding campaigns. The Power Plus Plan. The RECLAIM Act. The Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Program. As the nonprofit sector marshaled its resources, with millions of dollars of foundation support, entire new organizational programs were created to advocate for the economic diversification funds and to work intimately with Hal Rogers’s office in crafting a public image of coalitional support for them.
Soon a very surreal dynamic emerged, pitting workers within organizations against each other: one side would be fighting the conservative policies Hal Rogers supported, while the other would be working with Rogers to bring about social change. It didn’t help that this occurred right in the middle of the 2016 election primary; these conversations invariably took up the language and rhetoric of that sordid year. Some of us were purists, who missed the forest for the trees, while others were pragmatists who admitted that, yes, perhaps Hal Rogers was bad, but he could be worked with because it was in his interest to move the region away from coal.
In the end, only the congressman benefited: looking bipartisan gave him cover for what he had really planned to do all along, which was to build prisons.
In the summer of 2016 several of us organized a protest of the prison at one of Rogers’s public appearances and, when the largest social justice nonprofit in the state caught wind of it, they asked us to back down. I remember my comrades and I sitting there in disbelief as the director of this “progressive” organization told us that a public confrontation over the prison would endanger the economic diversification programs. We went through with the protest, but it was eye-opening. Standing up to Hal Rogers would have endangered his willingness to meet with the nonprofit managerial class and would therefore have endangered the nonprofit sector’s revenue stream; standing up to Hal Rogers was therefore the one thing they could not do.
After the nonprofits had been neutralized as adversaries of Hal Rogers, it was hardly surprising that no one raised a peep when, in August of this year, Rogers announced that he’d secured $4.5 million from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to build water and sewer lines to his new prison. The programs the nonprofits had wanted to preserve—that they told us would be endangered if we protested Hal and his prison—were to be used to build his prison. By making these economic diversification programs seem so vital and politically fragile that only he could be trusted with their success, he had walked the entire eastern Kentucky social justice sector into a trap.
Never mind that the entire county needed this crucial infrastructure, with or without a prison; Rogers even implicitly acknowledged this need by noting that the infrastructure would serve an additional 100 Letcher residents. The nonprofits had no coherent message or framework to explain why any of this was happening. They had no way to counter Hal’s lies that the prison was the only way to get infrastructure for distressed Appalachian communities, or that it would create x number of jobs. They had been played, taken for a ride by a master politician. And we’ll all suffer the consequences of that for many decades to come.
I’m telling you this story because I imagine there are others, like me, who want to see a better, kinder world, but they’re not sure how to go about achieving it. When I was 24 I thought it was through proper, respectable channels: NGOs and civil political gamesmanship and gradual pressure for reform. I now know that those proper and respectable channels are an illusion, anesthetizing you to the fact that the world is a vicious brawl for resources, with capitalists leading every major offensive.
And I’m telling you this now, of all times, because I’ve witnessed the future. It’s in Appalachia. It’s in a place called Martin County, Kentucky, where there is no running water, and what little water they do have is poison. It’s in a place called Letcher County, Kentucky, where—instead of rebuilding the public water infrastructure—they’re building another federal prison and calling it economic diversification. It’s in a place called McDowell County, West Virginia, with the highest per capita overdose rate in the nation. In each of these places there are pockets of resistance, begging for help and relief, but no one hears them. In fact, politicians actively ignore them, because the old kind of politics is dead. Look around and you’ll see catastrophe on the horizon of every major issue of our times. The nonprofit sector has failed to manage the contradictions of capitalism in Appalachia, and they will eventually fail you, too.
It is for this reason that we have to acknowledge that what we do in the nonprofit sphere is not actually progressive politics. It’s business.
To escape the logic of this system you have to give up the part of yourself that says you can change the world. You cannot change the world. Mass consumption, mass media, and individualism have rendered the world primitive again, a social vacuum in which there is, paradoxically, no individual. And because there is no individual there is no accountability, no rights, and certainly no social contract. The dream of liberal democracy is dead. All that exists is the global oppressors and the globally oppressed.
I submit that the only thing that offers you a way out of this contradictory mess is the analytic framework of Marxism, combined with the social application of class struggle.
This is a difficult statement to make. It sounds so lame and self-serious. It sounds out of touch. How can you sit there and tell me the working class isn’t interested in wonky economic policies, you might ask, and then shove a 150-year-old book in my face? But Marxism gives you the tools to pry the system apart and see how it works. There’s no wonky economic theory here, nothing like the Stream Protection Rule or stomach ulcers. The words are big but the message is simple, something you already knew: you are worthy, you are not surplus, you must overthrow the capitalist class to reach liberation, and you must band together with your fellow workers to do it. You do not have to sacrifice your intellect, integrity, or potential to the liberal cause of social tinkering. Take my word for it: that road will only lead you to self-doubt and self-abuse.
There is an entire stratum of society dedicated to the cause of social tinkering; it finds its most concrete forms in philanthropy, the liberal media, and the Democratic Party, and over the past two years it has reached a fever pitch of outrage that is at once powerless and powerful. This segment of society is comprised of the upper and middle classes, and as a result the discourse that it produces—and forces onto the rest of us—can only reflect the values of those classes. This is why every few months we are treated to a cataclysmic meltdown about the abolition of norms and procedure, and it’s why they invariably tell us there’s nothing we can do about it except vote them out.
But it’s also why this same segment of society keeps telling us that the left doesn’t have a vision for the future, despite the fact that it does. This vision is actually quite robust and imaginative; for example, there are plenty of working people who are disillusioned with political and electoral systems, and who are fed up with having to work to stay alive, but no one is telling them that human beings shouldn’t have to live like this.
The union traditionally served the purpose of activating these people’s imaginations and class-consciousness, but this is beyond the pale for the liberal theory of change, because there’s no corresponding system of merits or rewards or social-media-savior posturing attached to it. There’s no grant for organizing your workplace, no pat on the head or body of individuals who will thank you for all the great work you’ve done. So as a result, the liberal discourse tells us that history is frozen, and that we’re all just a little bit shell-shocked and uncertain about what to do about it. In fact, they maintain, we are helpless to history—at least until the next election. But this cannot be further from the truth.
Human beings can seize history, and we know this because it’s been done before. In fact, it’s the only thing that’s ever worked. It will take years to build up a movement that is strong enough to do this, and this will require sacrifice and hard work, but it can be done. In Appalachia that will look like organizing the people at the margins of society on the premise that, if they really want it, they can shut the system down, because they create the profit for those at the top. In my community, those people are the nurses, the teachers, and the service industry workers. You could rebut this and say that our country is simply too reactionary and backwards for this to actually work, and you may be correct. But have we even tried? We know that voting is becoming less and less effective as more and more people are purged from electoral rolls. So what other recourse do we have? For starters, we have our labor power—the fact that a fundamental aspect of this system is our collective fate.
If we are going to survive the coming years it is necessary that we demolish the liberal theory of change. This theory tells you that the individual can change everything, while simultaneously insisting that the individual is powerless to change anything, unless it’s in a voting booth. It insists that you, the individual, can be whatever or whoever you want to be, and by doing so, you can somehow compromise or bargain or reason with the forces of capital. I’m here to tell you that you can’t. Those forces only want you dead. You are surplus to them. You are disposable. Sooner or later they will come for you. Don’t let the Hal Rogers of the world lead them to you.
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