What’s Happening with Red?
At 61 years of age, Red Terry has climbed a tree fifty feet up on Bent Mountain, Virginia in an effort to prevent the Mountain Valley Pipeline from blasting a hole through her property. As of last weekend, there was no resupply of food for her, no recharge for her cellphone, or laptop. No cigarettes. On the ground below her a band of plastic yellow tape formed a perimeter; yellow tape with these words: ‘Police Line.’ The effort might seem ill advised, but she has many supporters who have gathered to offer their encouragement. She also has detractors.
The group at the bottom of the tree-sit, inside the yellow border, include a Roanoke county police officer, a plainclothes negotiator who wants to remain nameless, and a Mountain Valley Pipeline security guard from Global Security who also wants to remain nameless. He keeps his face turned down, so you can’t see who he is. No pictures are allowed.
This is Red Terry’s life right now, out on Bent Mountain, just a little beyond Roanoke, where they have been planning to build the Mountain Valley Pipeline for the last three years, right through the middle of Red’s family property.
I drove up there with another activist last weekend on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Hiking in, I saw lean-tos, flappy blue canopies, orange pup tents, prayer flags and ribbons that decorated the path along the woods. Signs read: “Water Is Life” or “We Will Win.” These are Red’s family and friends. They don’t wear masks and are happy to have their names known. Because of the distance we have to stay back from her, I have to shout just to be heard.
“How long have you been up there, Red!?”
“20 days, give or take!” She yells back. Since April 3rd.
“How long are you going to stay out there?”
“Until common sense prevails!”
“In your view, what would ‘common sense prevails’ mean?” A philosophical inquiry.
“This Mountain Valley Pipeline is going after our trees, our water, our air, and our lives. So we need to get rid of this pipeline. The politicians need to stand up. They need to stop bending over for this business.”
A suitable reply. Nearby, I hear laughter from her supporters.
“Delegate Rasoul was out here, talked to you the other day, did that offer you some hope?”
Delegate Rasoul said at a recent press conference by the Roanoke River, “We’re here to say, ‘don’t touch our drinking water.’” In reference to the problems the pipeline might cause for the local water supply.
He was joined in the television spot by the General Manager and Brewmaster of Parkway Brewing Company who added that negative impact on water quality could stunt the region’s economic growth.
“Deschutes and Ballast Point didn’t come here because the water sucked,” he said pointedly in the conference. “They came here because the water’s good and the quality of life is good. So do we let this impact us to the point where these people who have put millions of dollars into our economy make a second choice about what they’re doing?”
It was a rhetorical question that still needs answering.
All Red said from her tree top was, “Anything that gets talked about is a little bit of hope.”
Cole, Bigger Cole as he is called, Red Terry’s husband, added some detail.
“[Delegate] Sam Rasoul waded in Bottom Creek here with his daughters the other day. His two girls built a bridge out of sticks right there. Those girls did all the work. They asked him [Rasoul], ‘Why can’t she [Red] come down out of the tree? Why will they cut the tees down?”
“I don’t think he had a good answer. He hadn’t put his feet in the creek until then.” It’s a subtle metaphor and Cole, a big man with a spat of gray hair hidden under a khaki cap pauses to let the meaning sink in. He offers a wide smile to match his namesake.
Bigger Cole has a universal view of the situation, “All of our water effects all of their water. We’re a tier 3 water way. It took ten years to get that designation. That means we have some of the best tasting, cleanest water in the state. Probably on Earth. And it feeds the watersheds that let folks all the way to Roanoke and beyond drink good water.”
Streams and creeks from Bent Mountain flow into the Roanoke River, which provides drinking water to the whole region. Fresh springs from Terry’s land, along with thousands of capillary like creeks and tributaries will be crossed by the pipeline hundreds of times over. It occurs to me that we are watching an environmental disaster in slow motion.
The way Bigger Cole sees it, the personal is political. Rasoul had brought his children out to see Red Terry in her tree last week, but once his daughters started asking their questions, he knew he had to do something.
“Once he put his feet in the creek,” as Bigger Cole explained.
Delegate Rasoul heeded his daughter’s concerns. He’s asked the state to suspend permits for soil-clearing to give more time to study water impact. On Wednesday, he was joined by more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers who held a news conference highlighting Red Terry’s protest and calling on the governor to do more.
“We’re asking — urging — demanding that our good friend Ralph Northam … work with us to find common ground,” said Delegate Mark L. Keam, who was joined by Rasoul and other Delegates from Prince William, Fairfax, Alexandria and Richmond to show solidarity with southwest colleagues.
“We stand together, and we stand with Red,” said newly elected Delegate Danica Roem of Prince William County.
This is good, but it may be too late. The way most the people at this encampment see it, if it’s allowed to continue, the Mountain Valley Pipeline will destroy the water quality of Bottom Creek and Bent Mountain; it will destroy the landscape, along with their property values, along with the climate: a kind of devil’s trifecta.
Bigger Cole is not the only one with concerns. His son had also built a tree stand, but was unable to get to it before the police arrived. They took the ladder away, and little Cole had no choice but to stay on as part of a support team in the base camp. But Red’s daughter, Minor Terry, managed to scramble up her stand before they arrived. She’s down the road, also sitting in a tree, about fifty feet up, with Roanoke County police below her and a police line taping her off, as well.
I asked Red if she wasn’t an inspiration to her daughter.
“Do you think you influenced her?”
“I guess. We built these together. I went up and then she went up. She said I wouldn’t be alone, so I guess so. We are a close family. But I’m twice her age, so I get twice the area.” Red laughed.
Age has its privileges, after all, but she notes that the best property, directly below her, got taken by the police.
“Inside the yellow tape, the police got all the good real estate.”
“That’s where we can’t go now?
“Yeah, that’s why everybody has to yell now.”
“When did the police tape go up?”
“It’s been, oh gosh, two weeks. I know that it’s changed like five or six times. Every time I piss somebody off, it gets bigger.”
Red is good at pissing people off. Especially those in authority. A heavy smoker, she called down to police that she needed BC Powder for pain and cigarettes to keep her calm. The police sent up a few aspirins, but they said she’d have to come down to get the cigarettes. She didn’t take the bait. Instead, she dumped out her waste bucket on them, missing them by inches. In reaction, they expanded the crime tape to keep her supporters farther away, and probably to keep themselves clear as well.
“Yeah, I get cold at night,” she said, after I asked her about the weather, and the recent snow, “I have two sleeping bags, hand warmers. In the morning when I stick my head out and see my breath, I feel like a ground hog, I just want to go back under.”
She is charged with trespassing, obstruction of justice and interfering with property rights. And because of Eminent Domain law she’s also been charged with a Federal Contempt of Court charge.
When they took her ladder away, she asked, ‘how am I supposed to get down?’
They responded, “If you need it, it’s going to be down here.”
Since April 3rd, without food, water or cigarettes, she has yet to take them up on the offer.
Camp Kick Ass
I visited Minor Terry’s tree sit a little later that afternoon. When I asked Minor if she thought that the Mountain Valley Pipeline personnel might be afraid of her, because of her mother’s defiance and gruff manner, Minor laughed, then replied:
“Mountain Valley Pipeline can suck it. That’s me filtering.” She laughed again from her tree top, ignoring the blue tent directly beneath her, in which the MVP Global Security personnel sat, monitoring her every word. When I asked if I could speak to him, he said no, but came out for an instance and handed me a card. The bottom half of his face was completely covered with a black respirator mask, that made him look a little like Batman’s nemesis, the Bane.
“Why are you wearing a mask?”
“It’s not a mask, it’s a respirator. ‘Cause of the wood cutting and stuff.”
I wanted to point out that no one else was in need of a respirator, there were no trees currently being cut, and that the mountain offered some of the cleanest air in the state.
“May I get your name?”
“May I take a picture?”
He handed me the card and went back into his tent. There was a website address and a hotline number on it for all MVP communications: 844-MVP-TALK.
When I called the number, I was told to press 4 for a general inquiry for the project team. I left a message asking why they had MVP security personnel on the Terry’s property. I have not heard back from them yet.
At 30, Minor had the same steadfastness of purpose as her mother, but with a slightly lighter touch. Even unfiltered. She saw the absurdity of their situation clearly enough, but also saw that she didn’t have much choice in the matter, at least not from her perspective. She hovered above me by about fifty feet up, at a camp named, unabashedly, “Camp Kickass”
“The pipeline’s not even necessary. I’m here because I’d rather not let them ruin my land, my water and my family’s life. They [MVP] wants to plant a 42 inch [the circumference of the pipeline] bomb in my backyard. I’d be crazy not to try to stop it, don’t you think?”
The notion that the pipeline is a potential bomb is not trivial. The 42 inch pipeline will have a pressure of 1400 psi as it pumps fracked natural gas through Appalachia from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic coast. That’s nearly double the pressure of a smaller pipeline near Appomattox that exploded on September 19, 2008, with flames more than 300 feet high. According to Dr. Alden Dudley, writing in the Roanoke Times, the explosion “left a hole 20 feet deep and 2,250 feet in diameter (almost one half mile) in farmland. It exploded two houses and damaged 100 others. Williams and Transco Companies were fined $1 million for improper pipeline maintenance. Multiple defects in the 52-year-old pipe were known to exist, but they ignored them.”
Dudley paints a vivid picture of what an MVP pipeline ‘bomb’ would be like:
“A hole more than a mile wide. Instant incineration of all adults, children, pets, animals, vegetation, homes, schools, stores, industry, and government offices over an area 3-5 miles in diameter. Dams will be destroyed and lakes gone. Thousands of people will be killed in hill country; tens of thousands if near cities; more than that within cities. Our reputation as an environment-friendly state will never recover. Forget tourists, retirees and breweries that can no longer get potable water. In fact, forget economic development.”
He continues, “This article sounds heretical and outlandish. But certainty of a big bang is predictable. Pipeline companies speak proudly of “only 0.03 percent events per year per thousand miles of pipeline.” At that rate, the 800 mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline should have only one leak every three years. By 2006 the pipe thickness was eroded more than 50 percent, shipping of oil was down 50 percent because of pipe weakness, and there were already more than 500 leaks each year.”
In other words, there will be leaks, predictable as rain, and since it is natural gas under incredibly high pressure, there will also be explosions. It’s not a question of if, but when.
That’s why Minor is up in a tree. In the scheme of things, she tells me, she is a ‘Minor problem.’
A Minor irritant, she jokes.
“So, what’s your ideal outcome?” I asked.
“Oh, bankrupt MVP [and their funding partner, EQT]. But I would accept them caving under pressure, realizing it was just a bad idea, and going home.”
It seems unlikely, but there are signs of hope. Her supporters give her strength to continue, and her family is out there every day. Her brother camps out at night with her so she is never completely alone. Other journalists are coming out daily. On the afternoon I was there, Eleanor Buckley, a reporter from WFXR television in Roanoke hiked out and interviewed her for a nightly news segment.
She had brought with her an apple. She asked the police if she could throw the apple to Minor so that she might have something to eat.
The police officer sitting underneath Minor’s encampment told her ‘no.’
“I can’t give her an apple? A basic human need, an apple?”
“No. I’d have to charge you.”
There’s a deep irony in this, as there is an apple orchard not far from where Minor is camped that was recently cut down– destroyed by MVP — because it was in the path of the pipeline. The apple orchard was over a hundred years old.
“How does that make you feel?” the reporter asked.
“I try not to let it get to me.”
A few days earlier, Roanoke County had assured her they would see to her nutritional needs. But no one has provided her food and whatever supplies she has up with her are probably dwindling fast.
Her ‘wellness check’ amounted to some county personnel calling up to her, asking her how she was doing. One of them tied a plastic bag of Kroger Brand Cliff protein bars near the base of the tree. In order to eat these, she would have to climb down. That was the deal.
The Cliff bars still dangled there for all to see, like bait.
It’s hard to imagine the Terrys had foreseen all this when they first started building their stands, months ago. The entire Terry family worked together constructing the platforms on which Red and Minor now lay. They got the idea when folks up on Peters Mountain, near the West Virginia border stared their sits, nearly 60 days ago.
“Honestly, we kicked the idea around for nearly a year. When the Peters Mountain tree sits went up, we said if they can do it, we can do it. It was inspirational. When we heard about that, we cheered.”
“I have to fight to live here, because I can’t live anywhere else,” Minor explained. She had once moved off the mountain when she was younger, but returned within the year. “I missed it, the mountain, the woods, the silence. It’s my home.”
Now blue and white ribbons tied to stakes outline her tree sit, indicating what MVP calls the Limit of Disturbance (LOD) and what the Terrys jokingly refer to as the Limit of Destruction. According to a recent court ruling, her tree sit is in the LOD, meaning it is now MVP’s property, not Minor’s or Cole’s or Red’s. They have lived on this land for seven generations.
Yet, they remain optimistic. In a recent podcast of End of the Line, Red said that even while she sits yards above everybody, she just keeps making friends. “I’ve got a young girl that set up a tent next to me, because she didn’t want me to be alone at night. I just met her today! And she’s camping out.”
Red and Minor remember the time, not so long ago when they were undisturbed on their property on Bent Mountain. “I have no curtains in my house. I’d get up and I’d look out those windows, and I think that I’m the luckiest person alive.”
Minor describes how her mom fought off the gypsy moths when they first attacked the trees in the Bent Mountain area, for months at a time. She never gave up. “I think fighting off MVP will be at least that hard.” But she’s ready for a fight, Minor said. Certainly she and her mother have no intention of giving up anytime soon. Maybe that’s why they call it Camp Kickass.
The Hellbender Autonomous Zone at Peters Mountain
While I was interviewing Minor Terry, the reporter from WFXR gave me the low down on Peters Mountain camp: it sounded daunting.
It’s a tough hike, she explained. “They really don’t want you to succeed.” They being, in no particular order, EQT, MVP and the U.S. Forest Service.
Here’s why. You are not allowed to walk Pocahontas road, the access road to the camp, even though it’s the access road as well for the Appalachian trail. Rather, just past the entrance for the Appalachian trail, marked by a set of orange cones, you must skirt the mountain ridge, one hundred and twenty-five feet from the center of the road. What this means, in practice, is that you must walk along the side of the mountain at a precipitous angle, filled with bramble and thorns and rocks, and snakes. Yes, snakes.
The U.S. Forest Service which maintain the road, claims the 125 foot barrier is to ensure public safety. I wanted to know who came up with that number, and why, in God’s name, they would think it safer to hug a mountain ridge where one slip could break your neck, then a graveled access road? The Forest Service Ranger whom I talked with at the foot of the mountain would not comment.
Walking along the side of the mountain, I decided to call my handy MVP ‘Talk’ phone number and ask them who came up with that crazy distance. I left MVP another message. I have not heard back from them yet.
It took me about an hour and a half to get there. Through the woods, the rocks, the nettles, the brambles and snakes. Eleanor, from WFXR told me that when she attempted the hike, the rangers told her at the outset: “Call 9/11 when you fall down the hill.”
“I guess they didn’t think I would make it in these shoes.”
The Hellbender Camp is not really a true tree sit, in that there is no person in a tree, per se. Rather, an individual nicknamed Nutty [she wants to remain anonymous] has taken a 60 foot cut pole of wood and raised it with a platform on top for her sleeping area. This has become known as the monopod. She has tethered the pole with multiple wires affixed to nearby trees, stakes in the ground, and, notably, the gate to the access road for MVP. If someone tries to open the gate, the cable goes, the monopod falls over, and Nutty will be severely injured, if not killed outright.
Neither the rangers nor MVP personnel have tried to open the gate, or taken the monopod down, but rangers have given it a violent wiggle which caused everyone in the camp to yell at them until they stopped. Nutty’s game plan was to prevent MVP from getting access to two other tree sitters further up on Peters mountain who have been there for the better part of 60 days.
When I arrived, drenched with sweat and parched, folks at the camp were tense, watching U.S. Forest Rangers re-arranging their yellow crime scene tape. That Saturday, they had a type of open house in the camp for those who wanted to visit, but on the day I arrived, it seemed as if the U.S. Forest Service was fed up with the trickle of visitors they had received. They were pushing everyone back from the monopod yet again.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“Measuring. Re-measuring. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
“That’s what they say.”
“They don’t seem to be actually measuring,” noted another activist at the camp, “They seem to be guesstimating.”
“It’s not very scientific, that’s for sure.”
The lack of scientific certainty is something of a theme with the MVP saga. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in a ruling allowed the pipeline to go through, but in an important dissent, Commissioner Cheryl A. LaFleur noted that she found the argument for the pipeline based on ‘public interest’ wanting. She found that environmental impacts to the karst region and the water could be worse than anticipated, and that there were other alternatives that were not pursued. Regarding the specific notion of whether the pipeline was in the “public interest,” she said that there was still a great deal of uncertainty as to the destination for the pipeline output. Implicit in this is a question: how much natural gas does the area actually need or use?
Activists at the camp are not uncertain, however. They said that the excess natural gas was intended for markets overseas.
“14 % return on investment is what the pipeline is about. It is not about supplying us with energy, that’s for sure.”
If you follow the chain of this story, from when FERC approved the pipeline to the DEQ State approval by way of the State Water Control Board, you will find example after example of studies not made, assessments skipped, sidelined, or postponed. At each turn, MVP was granted a green light despite concerns by scientists and researchers that no proper assessment of environmental impacts had been made. Given this, it’s easy to understand the activists’ cynicism regarding U.S. Forest Rangers blithely taping off their camp.
“So I guess ya’ll are following your boss’s orders?” asked a wiry fellow off to my left. He had a large gaucho moustache, twirled at either end, and wore a baseball cap. This was Jamie Hale.
The rangers didn’t answer, just kept laying out the plastic yellow tape.
At last, maybe one of them could answer my burning question, “Who came up with that number anyhow?”
Nobody answered. Instead they were watching some of their camp members don backpacks and arranging themselves in a wide arc all along the fence line. I saw an older man, with long silver hair, and dark blue vest, nodding to another activist farther down the line, mouth the word: now.
Then, they were gone. Whoosh. Running under the yellow fence to my left, and then another, to my right.
“Get back! Get back!” One of the younger rangers yelled, while the older ranger who had previously done the measuring, hauled off after the fellow in the vest. They were trying to reach the monopod and either climb it, or throw the packs up to Nutty for resupply. Like Red and Minor, the U.S. Forest Service appeared set on starving her out. Directly below Nutty, the rangers had built a campfire that was thick with smoke, probably making it hard for her to draw a clean breath.
The two backpack laden activists ran back and forth in the woods, crunching on leaves and branches, between the yellow tape and the monopod for a few minutes, both of them breathing heavily, chased by the furious rangers who kept yelling, “’ going to jail!”, like a kind of weird mash up of Blair Witch Project, and Keystone Cops.
“He’s going to jail. Take him to jail!”
Finally, the old ranger brought Doug, the silver haired man, to the ground. “Hold him there!”
From the monopod came Nutty’s voice, watching the scene, “Ya’ll okay? You good?”
The other runner, retreated back behind the yellow line, and went toward the rear of the camp, tried to disappear amid the tents, but a ranger went in to retrieve him.
“What are you doing?” Jamie Hale asked the ranger.
“I’m just doing my job, man.”
“But does that make it right, doing your job makes it right? Come on.”
“You know you’ve touched on the wrong side of history,” said Betty, wife to the man who had been taken down in the woods, “History will judge you!” Betty went into a tent and then returned and handed the ranger a narrow blue tablet container, a little square block for every day of the week, “He has a health condition. He has Lyme’s disease. He’s had two mini-strokes. These are his meds.”
The sheriff was called shortly thereafter, and, in a surprisingly brief period of time, two deputies from the Giles County Sheriff department showed up in what looked like a black Camaro, with Pink letters announcing ‘Sheriff’ and a stylish pink ribbon meant to symbolize the office’s effort to fight breast cancer, I guessed.
The two deputies stepped out of the Sheriff’s car and walked toward the encampment.
Each carried an AR 15.
“Is that an AR 15?” Jamie asked, “We ain’t armed.”
“Well I don’t know that,” said the deputy.
“Now I’m serious. Chad, you know this. Ya’ll don’t need no guns up here.”
“I’m not up here to cause none of you trouble,” said Chad, “None of you problems.”
“Yeah, but your bringing guns into our camp.”
“We’re not disputing ya’lls legal right to be here. And we’re not telling you, you gotta leave.”
“Don’t need guns,” Jamie snapped, “I will guarantee your safety.”
“We had no idea what was going on. We were dispatched out here, 1033. That’s the only information they gave us.”
“You’re defending the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” said another activist, Emily Satterwhite.
“No ma’am. We’re not defending anything. We were just called for assistance, that’s the reason we’re here.”
“You are. You were called for assistance by people defending the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which means you are also defending the pipeline.”
“I understand, but the same scenario, if one of you called us for assistance, we’d come up here and assist ya’ll, too. That’s what we’re sworn to do.”
“Okay, I’m going to call you for assistance.” She pointed to the monopod, “The Forest Service is not letting this person get food or water. What are you going to do about it?”
“We’re state employees, they’re federal employees. They’ve got jurisdiction over us.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“There’s nothing we can do about it. They have jurisdiction over us.”
“You just said if we called for assistance, you were going to help us. But you’re not helping her,” pointing to the monopod, “You’re helping them. You’re helping MVP.”
“I’m not for the pipeline, I’m not against the pipeline. I have a sworn duty to uphold, and you know this. You and I have already talked about this.”
“Bullshit,” Jamie Hale barked, “These son ‘a bitches are trying to destroy my home, and you going to take my county taxes that pay your salary, Chad—and you won’t– Bullshit.” Jamie Hale looked down and continued to swear, finally looked up, again: “I watched you grow up. I know who you are.”
“We’re not here to cause problems for anybody.”
“Just our friends who are trying to feed a starving woman” Emily muttered. She had tears in her eyes.
“We enforce state law. But we have no jurisdiction over federal law.”
“Go give the girl some food, man.” said Jamie at last, “Don’t let me down. Lay your badge down and go give her some food.”
This story does not end well. The two deputies do not lay their badges down, as you might imagine. They do not feed Nutty. They do nothing of the sort.
Emily said, “I know you say you’re not taking sides, but every time law enforcement shows up. They win.”
Another activist yelled, more simply, “Everybody’s working for the fucking pipeline.”
They arrest the one back packer who was trying to feed a starving friend. The other back packer, Doug, the older man, has a medical condition and is being taken to the hospital to get checked up before he is formally arrested. He is delivered into an ambulance and, at the last minute, Betty asks if she can accompany her husband to the hospital. She is told ‘no’, because he is under arrest and cannot have another rider in the back of the vehicle. But another emergency rescue vehicle is there, and an arrangement is made for Betty to be driven behind the ambulance.
I watch as they all get in, and drive away. When I turn back around, I see Jamie sitting on the side of the mountain viewing all of this. His cap is cocked back. He’s leaned over as though he’s had a stroke himself, clinging to his walking stick.
It’s the end to another skirmish in a war that’s been going on for over three years now. Pretty soon, Jamie warns me, someone is going to die. It might be Nutty. It might be Red, or Minor, or one of the tree sitters farther up on Peters Mountain. They are not giving up, and MVP has the enormous power of money, and its adherent emotion, greed, and bureaucratic fear and inertia to assist them. Yes, something has to give.
Jamie leans against his walking stick, flung out against the mountain side exhausted with the day. There are tears in his eyes, though he’s not the type of man you can imagine weeping. But the way things are here, on the last stands against the pipeline, despair is as reasonable as anything else I’ve seen. I shake his hand.
“Thanks for coming out,” he says. “It’s been a long day, but we got to fight it. Our way of life is being threatened, and our constitution is being threatened.” He looks at the tape recorder I have in my hand, “and you can quote me on that.”
He takes a breath, asks, “You heading home?” I nod, “Look for the little pink ribbons right along the ridge line there on your way back. I marked a trail, so it’ll be easier that way. Tell people,” he says, “when you get back to Richmond, tell people we need their help. Tell them you’ve got to use Hale’s trail to get to the Hellbender camp. Tell them that’s the best way in.”
Update: As of April 26th, both Minor and Red Terry have been allowed food and water. “I want them to be safe, and so we want to make sure that they have food and water,” Govenor Northam said in a Facebook Live interview at the WTOP-FM radio station. “The one that’s up in one of the trees referred to as ‘Red’ has been asking for cigarettes. I worry about her health. She’s 61 years old; she’s up in the … weather; she’s smoking cigarettes,” noted Governor Northam with a hint of disapproval. Governor Northam is a pediatric neurologist.
To which Red Terry responded from her tree sit:
“Hey Gov, I am quitting cigarettes. You quit this pipeline!”
Whitney Whiting’s podcast, End of the Line, referenced in this article, can be heard at https://soundcloud.com/pipelinepodcast/sets/full-episodes
In the dystopic vision of a world enthralled by neoliberal ideology, you can imagine Lawrence Fishburne in the Matrix, his dark eyes shielded behind shades, commenting on our current, everyday reality: “What if I told you the world as we know it today, Neo, with its raging inequality, its wildly expensive, and yet poorly delivered health care, its school to prison pipelines, its rabid fear of immigrants and minorities, it selfish and insufficient minimum wage, its careless gun laws, its grossly overpriced colleges and universities, its pockets of hopeless poverty, its tent cities and homeless beggars, its devastating opioid crisis was all by design; that every feature which we might call a bug, is really not an oversight or a miscalculation, but exactly what a group of men thought would be the ideal outcome for us, some four decades ago? What if I told you that they were not so much concerned with building a society as its opposite–ensuring that no work towards a common sense of society would hold together, and that every effort toward a collective good would fall away as hopeless and irrelevant? What if I told you that all of their efforts were bent toward ensuring the ultimate failure of the public government as a force for collective good, and the success of the private individual, not for public good, but for private gain and ascendancy was the only thing they valued? And what if I told you that they have largely succeeded?”
From the mid-1980s through the end of 2016, the Democratic elite has consistently held onto a set of economic beliefs that we may broadly term neoliberal. But the economy created by this economic ideology — and the ensuing crises — is a major reason why Hillary Clinton lost to Trump. Now the Democratic party is completely out of power in all three branches of government. At the state level, its minority position is even worse. The Democratic party is ‘in the wilderness’ as they say; and it’s precisely because of their refusal to reject neoliberal orthodoxy. This failure cannot be overstated. It has been a catastrophe.
So for those who care about such things, two questions immediately arise: What is neoliberalism? And what are the alternatives?
First, what is neoliberalism?
The term we are looking for—neoliberalism — dates decades before Reagan quipped about government being the problem. It’s an ideology that embraces laissez-faire capitalism where ever possible, and naturally it is also opposed to anything government-wise that would hinder the exercise of the free market (hence ‘liberal’). It was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum to them as nazism and communism. They hated it.
Hayek who was an economist who saw himself in the model of Adam Smith, part number cruncher, part moralist, outlined his thoughts in a now infamous tome, The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944. He argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read and influenced many thinkers on the right. Among them, a Virginia economist named James Buchanan, a University of Chicago School economist named Milton Friedman, and a billionaire named Charles Koch.
In 1947, Hayek founded an organization, the first of many, that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations. Buchanan, Friedman and Koch all belonged to the Mont Pelerin Society. According to George Monbiot, “The movement’s rich backers funded a series of think tanks which would refine and promote the ideology.” Many are familiar names today: The American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia where neoliberalism found fertile ground.
In Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean writes of James Buchanan’s time at the University of Virginia and the formation of his thought with regard to neoliberalism. He didn’t just tout the benefits of competition and laissez-faire capitalism, which was Hayek’s riff. Buchanan’s distinctive mission was to make a case against government, against the very concept of a ‘public sector’ or ‘public good.’ Like Hayek he feared what he called collectivism, and saw it along a spectrum starting with elements of Democracy, like student organizations and trade unions, federal regulatory agencies and ending with communism. His basic idea was that people had been wrong to think of political actors in a Democracy as concerned with the common good or the public interest. According to Buchanan’s way of looking at things, everyone was a self-interested actor seeking their own advantage. Politicians merely went through the motions of supporting the public good in order to get elected. He said we should think of politicians, elected officials, as seeking their own self-interest in re-election. That’s why they’ll make multiple costly promises to multiple constituencies, because they won’t have to pay for it, themselves. After all, the high-priced programs they devised were paid for by taxes wrested from “defenseless” citizens, who were given little or no effective choice in the matter. Buchanan thought of it as licensed theft, reinforced by the steep gradations in income-tax rates.
Initially, Buchanan thought that people of good will could come to something close to unanimity on the basic rules of how to govern our society, on things like taxation and government spending and so forth. But, according to MacLean, speaking in a 2017 Slate interview, “by the mid-1970s, he [Buchanan] concluded that that was impossible, and that there was no way that poor people would ever agree … there was no way that people who were not wealthy, who were not large property owners, would agree to the kind of rules he was proposing. Out of this meditation, he produced a very dark work called The Limits of Liberty. According to MacLean, “He actually said [in that work] that the only hope for true market freedom might be through despotism.”
Buchanan was honest, at any rate. He knew that given sufficient information, poor people would not vote to reduce minimum wage, or pass tax cuts for the wealthiest while they themselves went without healthcare.
As it happens, this ‘freedom’ that neoliberalism offers, which sounds beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for those who already have funds, but not for those who do not. It is the freedom to demand the cheapest labor, and the most open markets, regardless of the livability of the wages paid or the expense of eking out a minimal existence. It is freedom with absolutely zero recognition for what is referred to as the commons: our public airwaves, water ways, roads and parks; or more broadly the common good: a recognition that everyone needs to be able to survive with a roof over their head, with decent food, healthcare and an education. Yet, the ideology has taken hold; and not just a little bit, with a vengeance.
During the 1970s, rightwing academics and economists were not the only people interested in dismantling the notion of a ‘public good.’ During the 1960s and 1970s, when there was so much activism occurring on the streets and on the college campuses, there was deep concern among the elites and power brokers. Large parts of the population—which had been passive, apathetic, obedient—tried to enter the political arena in one or another way to press their interests and concerns. They were called “special interests” by the elite who had always considered their own interests the norm. What was meant by the term ‘special interest’ was essentially a euphemism for the remainder of the national population who had heretofore been unrepresented or under-represented.
Two influential documents came out during that period, right in the middle of the turbulent ’70s from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both influential, and both concerned with the same phenomena. One of them, at the left end, was by the Trilateral Commission—The Crisis of Democracy, a Trilateral Commission report. In it, Samuel Huntington of Harvard worried that too many parties were pulling Democracy asunder. ‘Special interest’ were overtaxing the system, he argued. The report concluded that in the United States the problems of governance “stem from an excess of democracy”…What a marvelous phrase: “an excess of democracy”! The report advocates “restor[ing] the prestige and authority of central government institutions.” Presumably by limiting the influence of the ‘special interests’, which is to say the rest of the national population who did not happen to be the elite. The report also concluded “the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young” the schools, the universities, churches, were not doing their job properly. There was insufficient obedience. That was the U.S. liberal’s take on the effort of youth to expand their own voting rights, minority’s civil rights, feminist rights, etc., and to limit the ability of the prevailing military establishment from sending them to die in a dubious war.
On the right side of the political spectrum, you have folks like Lewis Powell Jr., who wrote the influential document, the Powell Memorandum, which wasn’t as well-known, but came out at the same time. Powell produced a confidential memorandum for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was based in part on his reaction to the work of activist Ralph Nader, whose 1965 exposé on General Motors, Unsafe at Any Speed, put a focus on the auto industry putting profit ahead of safety, which triggered the American consumer movement. Powell saw it as an undermining of Americans’ faith in enterprise and another step in the slippery slope toward dreaded socialism. That’s right, once again, the idea that the ‘population’ was looking out for itself was a problem. Democracy, itself, was a problem. It had become ‘excessive’! His memo called for corporate America to become more aggressive in molding society’s thinking about business, government, politics and law in the U.S.
This worrying about excessive democracy, fear of a new kind of collectivism that would slow the march of business formed the ideological back drop for the economic implosion of the late 1970s. War spending, the baby boom coming of age, and the oil shocks created serious inflation. Profits declined and big business mobilized against labor. The first wave of de-industrialization hit manufacturing.
One of the countries feeling the effects was Chile. In the early 1970s, it experienced chronic inflation, reaching highs of 140 percent per annum, in part forced by the US government’s antipathy to socialist President Salvador Allende. The CIA-director at the time, Richard Helms met with President Richard Nixon and discussed the situation in Chile and Helms was told to “Make the economy scream.” Helms did, indeed, make the economy “scream.” He also used the CIA to help over throw Allende and install Augusto Pinochet in 1973. At that point, Chile became the proverbial tabla rasa for neoliberal economic policy. It was the opportunity Milton Friedman and James Buchanan had been waiting for—a chance to implement a rigorous neoliberal economic system.
What did the economics of neoliberalism entail? Reduction of top marginal tax rates, the ‘liberalization’ of trade, privatization of government services, and deregulation. They made the central bank independent, cut tariffs, privatized the state-controlled pension system, state industries, and banks, and slashed taxes. Labor unions were banned, and social security and health care were both privatized. Pinochet’s stated aim was to “make Chile not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs.” On a week-long visit in 1980, Buchanan gave formal lectures to “top representatives of a governing elite that melded the military and the corporate world.” His books were translated, and helped restructure Chile’s economy.
Soon the holy mantra of “deregulation, free trade and privatization” became the so-called ‘Washington Consensus.’ For power seeking folks these were sensible policies to carry out and other global headquarters to embrace and promote, and the policies were pushed on other countries via global institutions like the International Monetary Fund. The upshot of such policies, as the historical sociologist Greta Krippner notes, was to shift many aspects of managing the economy from government to Wall Street, and to financiers, generally.
Politically, neoliberalism was associated with a weakened regulatory state, the dismantling of the welfare state and a strong disapproval of any collective activity that sought to define meaning or goals outside of a market orientation. But, as was the case in Chile, to effect this change against the working poor, you needed a strong authoritarian government—you couldn’t really do it with an ‘excess of democracy.’ In short, you needed to ensure that there was no ‘excess of democracy.’ Hayek remarked on a visit to Chile, which had become a virtual laboratory for neoliberalism– “my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism.”
James Buchanan went further. He advised the Pinochet junta in Chile on how to craft their constitution. This document was later called a “constitution of locks and bolts,” and was designed in part as a neoliberal blue print for economic reform and a political document of rigid control. Economically, it required a balanced budget and a pay as you go clause, emulating Harry Byrd’s method of balancing the budget in Virginia. Social security was privatized and retirement accounts were effectively handed over to two banks, BHC Group and Cruzat-Larrain; both of whom had close ties to the Pinochet regime. Politically, Chile was essentially gerrymandered into districts to ensure right wing upper class control. They also disallowed changes to any of their provisions so that the majority couldn’t make its will felt in the political system, unless it was a huge supermajority. Union leaders were not allowed to belong to political parties. It barred advocating ‘class conflict’ and anyone deemed ‘antifamily’ or ‘Marxist’ could be sent into exile, without access to an appeal. It institutionalized the power of the military over the civilian government for decades, with Pinochet at the helm.
The rigid constitution was duly enforced by a vicious military engagement. Politically, in Chile, the rise of neoliberalism was accompanied by a reign of terror against unions, leftists and anything or anyone smacking of a ‘collectivists’ mentality. The Pinochet regime left over 3,000 dead or missing, tortured tens of thousands of prisoners, and drove an estimated 200,000 Chileans into exile. Buchanan appeared proud of his Chilean constitution, nevertheless. According to MacLean, his allies in the Mont Pelerin society adulated him and they set up their next regional meetings in the Chilean city of Vina del Mar. Breakout sessions included such intoxicating titles as “Social Security: A Road to Socialism?”, “Education: Government or Personal Responsibility” and finally, a session presented by Buchanan himself: “Democracy: Limited or Unlimited?”
Of course, the limitations on Democracy that Buchanan had built into the Chilean constitution were no impediment to Pinochet enriching himself. Quite the opposite, the rigged rules allowed the dictator to establish over 125 separate accounts under false names in seven different countries “to stash what became an illicit fortune of at least 15 million…Two years later, after these exposures, James Buchanan ended his memoirs with the words, “Literally, I have no regrets.”
What happened in Chile was not synonymous with the U.S. experience at that time, much as Buchanan or Hayek might have desired it. The beginnings of neoliberal economics here did not lead to a dictatorship in the U.S., both parties still operated within the orbit of a nominal Democracy. But the recession of the late 70s shifted the Overton window considerably. Keynesian economics were soundly rejected and Nixon’s old saw, ‘we are all Keynesians now,’ no longer obtained. That enabled neoliberal political operatives, who were organizing within the Democratic Party to push out the old New Dealers. The Democratic “Watergate Babies” elected after Nixon’s downfall were largely neoliberals, and proved amenable to deregulation and abandoning anti-trust efforts.
Additionally, hard-line conservatives had been hazed out of power since 1932, but had been carefully organizing and building their strength ever since with academics like Friedman and Buchanan working in the background. The stagflation of the late 70s allowed them to seize the moment, finally electing one of their own to the presidency: Ronald Reagan. The three succeeding Republican terms finally cemented the idea among the Democratic elite that the party would simply have to submit to neoliberalism to be able to compete.
Thus, effectively, both parties conspired to break the New Deal. When a Democrat was finally elected in 1992, it was Bill Clinton who led by introducing his infamous neoliberal third way, harping on the value of ‘free’ markets, trade at any costs (NAFTA), and dismantling the welfare system (TRAPP), and, in general, mouthing all the platitudes of the neoliberal orthodoxy, especially gutting Federal banking regulation (repealing Glass-Steagall). Much of the old Democratic base like labor unions were ignored or taken for granted. Instead, the financiers of Goldman Sachs and Wall Street held sway. Think Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.
But financial deregulation dramatically increased financial sector size and instability. Contrary to prophets of the self-regulating market, an unregulated Wall Street quickly created an escalating series of financial crises, requiring expensive government bailouts. Less than a decade after Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall, the worst financial panic since 1929 struck, leading to the calamitous recession of 2008.
Yet, the Democratic elite operated as if nothing had changed. Even when they took back the White House, there was no broad effort to hold anyone accountable for the billions of lost funds. Not one person has gone to jail, yet millions lost their life’s savings. What meager efforts there were to reinvigorate the wall between saving institutions and investment banks recently folded thanks to an effort by both parties.
As noted earlier, from the late 1980s to 2016, the Democratic elite has consistently held onto their neoliberal concepts and it has been a catastrophe.
So what are the alternatives to neoliberalism? What’s the remedy?
In a nutshell, more Democracy, not less. We already have the tools necessary to provide for a reasonable compromise between a centrally managed economy and a capitalist free for all—and people overwhelmingly want it. Margaret Thatcher, the famous British iron lady of the right, once declared there were no alternatives to neoliberalism. Frankly, it’s ironic that an ‘ideology’ of ‘free choice’ would suggest there are no other choices. In truth, there are lots of other choices and alternatives, almost all of them better than raw neoliberal orthodoxy, and, an ancillary benefit: they actually work in the real world. See most of Western Europe with their social safety nets, and the Scandinavian countries, all of whom offer greater social cohesion and security than that provided by the United States.
In order to get there, certain neoliberal orthodoxies need to be rejected. Markets and market like logic cannot continue to be the only precept by which to rule our government. This is a kind of fever dream of the right. Markets are man-made, man-controlled phenomena. They don’t occur naturally. They are constructed through law and practices, and thus can be changed, or marginalized, or simply ignored. Governments precede markets, just as labor is prior to, and independent of capital, as Lincoln noted over a hundred years ago. Markets are the outcome of governmental rules, just as capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.
Democrats need to keep that wisdom in mind. Their rejection of Bernie Sanders and the undemocratic method by which they choose to maintain their power suggests that some of them might sympathize with the market oriented authoritarian academics of the right, like Buchanan or Hayek. Now that is a sad spectacle for the casual political observer which will only serve to further alienate young voters who are seeking an economics of the left that would actually fight for a sane healthcare system, decent minimum wage, and affordable education. In short, it’s a politically stupid move. Oh, and it is also, incidentally, petty and unethical.
There should be some agreement that Democratic policies are not just technical adjustments or tweaked enhancements to a market based approach. Politically, they should declare that healthcare is a right. Education is a right. Being able to shelter and feed yourself is a right. It’s the government’s responsibility—our responsibility— to enshrine those rights. It is what we fundamentally mean by a common public good. The business of government is not business, but rather, it is in protecting our rights; toward that end, providing public services that are broadly beneficial without regard to religion, race, gender or class. The business of government is not to provide market efficiencies, or business opportunities, or to ensure that Wall Street gets a decent cut. We can debate the necessary level of government engagement, but the Democrats should reject any idea that only a market context will determine who gets educated, fed and sheltered, and who does not; who gets to live with decent healthcare and who must accept death because market efficiencies have determined that their continued survival did not properly balance a ledger sheet. Furthermore, the austerity that neoliberalism enforces is largely unneeded; the problem isn’t scarcity, per se. It’s distribution—and to do that fairly requires more Democracy, not less.
A recent study showed that it would cost $175 billion to alleviate poverty across the world. That’s about 1/6th of the current Pentagon budget. The Trump administration will propose a military budget of $716 billion alone for 2019, yet we can’t adequately fund healthcare for our citizens, we can’t house all our citizens or feed them? We are one of the richest countries on Earth, yet our Democracy cannot manage to adequately pay teachers, cannot manage to mandate a minimum wage that doesn’t consign vast swaths of our population to a class designated as the ‘working poor’? Can’t provide clean water to Flint? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to refer to ourselves as serfs, our condition as serfdom? Hayek’s foundational work sounded an alarm against collectivism and warned of Western individuals becoming ‘serfs’ to a centrally planned economy, yet without some plan, some social safety net or notion of a public good, individuals become unwilling servants of faceless corporate entities more closely resembling Dicken’s England than a modern Western state. Hayek’s future is here; we are no longer on the road to serfdom, we have already arrived.
By Jack Johnson