The Future of the Left, and a Tribute to Fernando Coronil

Posted in Uncategorized on August 29th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

originally published at Facile Gestures

Last week, the world lost yet another incredible scholar far too soon. Fernando Coronil was more than an anthropologist: he married ethnography with Marxism and magical realism in an incomparable way. I was lucky enough to have a history of anthropological theory course with him my first semester of graduate school. Although I didn’t always see it that way at the time, in conversations we had over the next years I realized what a tremendous scholar Fernando was and the passion with which he saw the world. I’m not going to try to write an obituary — you should read Gary Wilder’s beautiful sentiments instead — but I do want to honor Fernando by discussing his last essay here.

It’s a contribution (includes PDF) to a series of books about Possible Futures, and it evokes some inspirational but also disheartening sentiments. Through an assessment of leftward movements in Latin America, Fernando analyzed the meaning of such a shift to the left and what possibilities it opens up for our ideas about the future. In the spirit of Fernando’s love of discussion and critique, I hope by summarizing his main points I will provide a small but vibrant forum for a conversation about the future of the left.

First, it’s important to highlight that the “left” is no more a static, bounded notion than “culture,” “women,” or “activism.” Fernando described it as “a fluid sign to identify actions directed toward universal equality and well-being and thus toward forms of political life without which these goals cannot be achieved, including democracy, diversity, justice, and freedom” (233). The “left” is always situated in and changing with time and space; there can be multiple “lefts” at a time. These “lefts” challenge the dominance of a Western narrative about capitalism and development because they suggest that capitalism isn’t always the best ensurer of justice and equality for all. A thriving democracy, in which all people have an equal say in what is best, will bring about the well-being that we desire.

This conception of the “left” posits what I see as two important points. The first is that the “left,” in whatever form it is realized, is more interested in the well-being of populations than is the “right,” in whatever form it takes. The second is that democracy is not a means to end but is the end in itself. The ideal of democracy is not flawed in itself (much like the ideal of communism, perhaps?) but it has been manifested falsely in the service of capitalism. If the “left” can successfully appropriate democracy from capitalism, then theoretically, “left” and “democracy” may begin to coincide and work as a political system. Democracy would serve as the mechanism of equality in such a world.

If this “left” recognizes the problems capitalism has imposed on democracy — which Fernando claimed leftward movements in Latin America did — then this leftward shift opens up a significant and legitimate space through which to challenge the power of global capitalism. But, as Fernando wrote, this critique of capitalism paradoxically accepts the necessity of capitalism for the time being. The future, while it is imagined as a “better place,” offers no more concrete suggestion than riding the tides of capitalism until things can change. We don’t know what the particularities of the future will look like: “there is a pervasive uncertainty with respect to the specific form of the ideal future. While there is an intense desire to change the nation, it is not clear what to desire — what are realistic aspirations, how to connect desire and reality” (234).

We know that the future won’t be capitalism. But what feasible options do we have for the here and now to get to that point? How can we work toward the future if we aren’t sure what the future looks like? Furthermore, how do we keep our faith in the “left” and democracy and social equality if we don’t know how to put all three together in the name of well-being for all? And how long must we remain in the rut of capitalism until that future arrives?

I want to bring up two final points of contention. The first is in Fernando’s faith in democracy. For a long time I have wondered if there is a way to make democracy work. I still don’t know the answer, but I was surprised that Fernando was so convinced — are you?

Secondly, Fernando seemed to think that the interests and goals of the “left” will triumph someday. This is absolutely not to say that the Left will become the new form of hegemony, as global capitalism is now, but that concern for equality and well-being will win out over amassing wealth in the hands of the few. But nowhere did he make a suggestion about reconciliation between “left” and “right” in the name of equality. I’ve always had the idea that we need to come together in some capacity in order to create a better political system. Does a shift leftward exclude the people who previously excluded the left? Or is a reconciliation between left and right assumed in the recreation of democracy?

I imagine that Fernando left some of these questions unanswered — I think he wrote to provoke debate as much as to make a contribution to scholarship. And there certainly isn’t only one answer. So, in memory of Fernando and from all we learned from him, I end this post with his words:

“Politics will remain a battle of desires waged on an uneven terrain. But as long as people find themselves without a safe and dignified home in the world, utopian dreams will continue to proliferate, energizing struggles to build a world made of many worlds, where people can dream their futures without fear of waking up.” (264)

Giving Thanks for Letter Writing Campaigns

Posted in Uncategorized on November 20th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I’m typically not too taken by letter writing campaigns. However, I was recently sent an email asking for urgent action against the proposed surface mine that would affect Blair Mountain, where the largest uprising in US labor history took place in 1921. If you have the time to print, sign, and send the form letter linked here or even write your own in the next few days (to be received by November 26), hopefully the WV Department of Environmental Protection will receive enough letters to think twice about issuing this permit.

Blair Mountain - from

The Aracoma Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, is currently applying for a 554-acre surface mining permit that borders and intrudes into a section of the Blair Mountain battlefield. The application is in the public comment period, letters must be received by November 26th, and Friends of Blair Mountain is asking for your help in generating letters.

The group is pursuing a multi-faceted strategy in stopping this permit from being approved, and yall’s voices are essential. Below is all the information you’ll need to write a strong letter against this application being approved. Letters must be received no later than November 26, 2010.

Four main points:

–       Blair Mountain battlefield, site of second largest insurrection in US history, is a major part of American culture.

–       The Pine Fork surface mine would negatively impact both the battlefield and the viewshed area of the battlefield, both of which are protected due to the battlefield being eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

–       The area has not had any archaeological investigations undertaken, and has a high potential for containing significant archaeological resources. A full archaeological survey is needed to assess the extent of archaeological resources in the surface mine permit area.

–       With all the other mines in the area, the overall cumulative impact on the Blair Mountain battlefield and surrounding landscape would be severe.  Because the topography is integral to understanding the combatant’s movements, it is an archaeological ‘artifact’ in itself and should be protected.

Personal letters are always better, with your own perspective and reasons why you disagree with the permit being issued. But we know that time is limited, and writing letters can be a pain. For those who would rather send a form letter they can print out and sign, then click here.

Letters must include the applicant’s name (Aracoma Coal Company, Inc.) and the application number (S-5035-08). See example here. Letters must arrive no later than Nov. 26, 2010, and should be sent to:

Permit Supervisor

WV DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation

1101 George Kostas Dr.

Logan, WV 25601

Like I said, I’m typically a bit cynical about letter writing, but this site is tremendously important both in terms of historical memory and in its archaeological potential. Anything that can be done to protect Blair Mountain should be, and if letter writing is where we start, I think it’s frankly stupid not to contribute.

Here’s a segment from my paper on WV labor history discussing the Battle of Blair Mountain:

At the beginning of 1921, Sid Hatfield (the pro-union chief of police in Matewan, WV) and fifteen others were tried for the murder of Albert Felts in the Matewan Massacre, but a union-friendly jury acquitted all of them (Corbin 215); the only way the Baldwin-Felts men could see to get revenge was to take matters into their own hands, and, on August 1 of that year, two Baldwin-Felts guards gunned down the unarmed Hatfield on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse (Batteau 112). What Batteau refers to as “the murder of this hero” (113) set off a string of protests in the miners’ camps in Mingo County, and armed miners began marching toward Blair Mountain, south of the state capital of Charleston. Estimates of the numbers of armed miners range from 5,000 to 20,000: Batteau suggests 10,000 (113), while Corbin increases this to between 15,000 and 20,000 (219). The previously mentioned blending of class and racial consciousness played out here among the “estimated 2,000 black miners, mainly union men from the Kanawha-New River Field” (Trotter 112) who marched on Blair Mountain.

The march to Blair Mountain was directed in large part toward Don Chafin, the sheriff of Logan County whose vehement anti-union activities, including commanding the army pitted against the miners at Blair Mountain, had earned him the ire of miners throughout the state. Chafin’s army was equipped with machine guns and bomber planes, as well as over 2,000 men. Yet the miners were not only organized across racial lines, they came together as disparate communities to form one, united group: “Exploitation, oppression, and injustice had created a common identity and solidarity among the miners, and their geographic mobility had turned the hundreds of seemingly isolated company towns into a single gigantic community,” writes Corbin (219). It was this mass combined with the complete secrecy about organization and leadership that allowed the miners to hold off Chafin’s army in a week-long fight to ascend Blair Mountain (Corbin 221). At the point that the miners were preparing to descend the mountain to Mingo and Logan Counties, the federal government was finally convinced to act, and President Harding ordered an additional 2,500 troops plus machine guns, bombs, and bomber planes to the region, and the miners were forced to surrender (Corbin 224). Though bombs were dropped, there were only around 100 deaths (Trotter 112) in what has been termed the largest armed labor uprising in United States history. Chafin kept his power, and the union was defeated, but this event remains one of the most significant moments in this country’s labor history.

Miners from all races and ethnicities as well as from widely unconnected geographic locations were able to come together to fight the dominant power, and the fact that they were unable to win simply proves the entrenchedness of the coal operators’ power structure, which has grown since the 1920s. In all the accounts I have encountered, writers insist on the sobriety and seriousness of the miners – this was not simply moonshinin’, guntotin’ rednecks’ attempt to fight the law, it was a highly organized battle that had a clear goal, and its fighters were outgunned and overpowered. Because the coal operators won, they were the ones who established how the story of Blair Mountain was retold and later how easily it was forgotten. Even today, coal owners would rather West Virginians forget this part of our history, because, without this event in our minds, it is easier to exploit the state and its people for coal – if we do not truly understand our own history, we have no real inspiration to stand up to coal companies today.

Please do show your support for the protection of this site. Thanks in advance to all of you who take the time to do this.


Posted in Uncategorized on October 3rd, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I know it has been a long time since my last post, but sometimes life just gets in the way, especially when starting a new semester. I’ve been having some amazing experiences teaching and I’m doing some exciting research that I’ll be chronicling soon, but I’d first like to write a small tribute to someone special whose life was cut tragically short in a biking accident.

Andrew Wolf was someone who I crossed paths with at all different times throughout college in Washington, D.C. From working at the library to having anthropology classes together to dating my best friend, Andrew’s smiling face was often present in my day to day activities. His dedication to social justice was truly inspirational, and the last time I saw him here in Brooklyn, he was preparing for a bike tour through Canada with the Otesha Project to educate young people about sustainability. While others have written better, more eloquent memories of Andrew’s passion and love than I can, I just want to take a moment here to step back and reflect on the influence Andrew had on my life. After we lose someone close to us, I think it’s easy to say we only remember the good things – but I truly only have positive memories of Andrew, which in itself pays tribute to the sort of person he was. Thinking back on my friendship with him reminds me how important it is to keep going, that only through commitment to what we’re passionate about and through passing that commitment on to others can we make change happen.

The community I shared with Andrew is now spread across the globe, and it’s difficult to deal with these times when we can’t all be together. The ways we touch and inspire each other come in many different forms, from near and far, and sometimes it’s good just to remind one another how much that means. I wish I could find the words to thank everyone who has shown me compassion in the past few weeks.

If you’ll be in D.C. next week, American University is holding a memorial service for Andrew on Tuesday, October 12 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in the Kay Spiritual Life Center. His family has set up a memorial fund as well.

Thank you, Andrew, for being part of my life.

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