“Freedom Industries” and the Freedom of Industries.

Apparently, when most people in my area think about West Virginia, they remember some incident involving a traffic jam. I mostly remember news stories about the trials and tribulations of the people involved in mining the coal that powers our electronic lives: their labor struggles, and the safety disasters which necessitate their struggles. The latest from West Virginia is a chemical spill that affects the drinking water of 100,000 to 300,000 people in the area of Kanawha, WV.

In the midst of this calamity and the human suffering it has unleashed, there is something almost poetic in its sublime rightness: the company responsible is named “Freedom Industries.” Is there any doubt as to what kind of freedom the company’s founders had in mind? If so, this incident is instructive.

Environmental regulators in the state found that the chemical company took “no spill containment measures” to stem the leak, according to the Charleston Gazette.

Regulators say the company violated the Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act, the Gazette reported. 

State regulators said Friday that the company never told them of the leak, and found out only after residents complained of a strange smell, according to the State Journal.

Health, safety, and environmental regulations, we are often told, are infringements on freedom. They burden job creators with red tape that holds them back from their glorious pursuit of enlightened self-interest. Under the regime of this freedom, taking no measures to contain spills would be a perfectly legitimate business decision, and there would by no “acts” regulating pollution to violate. Anyone affected by the outcomes of any accidents which result will have recourse to lawsuits to resolve the issue; depending on how serious you are about freedom, it might be resolved by a privately hired arbiter! No conflict of interest, no distortion of justice from unequal wealth, could be imagined here.

Experts say there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days. People across the nine counties were told not to wash their clothes in water affected, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

Even as the National Guard made plans to mobilize at an air base at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, many people — told to refrain from using tap water — weren’t waiting for outside help.

The “National Guard,” eh, comrade? That sounds like some kind of collectivist use of government force. The inappropriate kind, that is, the kind not applied to bombing people in foreign countries and suppressing the poor. Using collectivist government force to help people? When did I agree to pay for these peoples’ water? There are much freer alternatives, after all: perhaps the people affected could have had a bit more foresight and individually purchased various forms of insurance and personal countermeasures to pay for disaster recovery. I can foresee no problems with them being able to afford this, once the government stops sucking them dry with taxes. Private disaster relief companies will provide much more efficient responses than the bloated government.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey warned residents about price gouging on water, ice and other items, calling it “just plain wrong” to inflate prices and encouraging those who have seen such practices to report them to his office’s consumer-protection division.

Who let this Marxist radical into office? Doesn’t he understand the clear benefits of so-called “price gouging,” that is, the market at work? It is the most efficient way of rationing now-scarce resources. Those who cannot afford the new, fairer price of water can presumably just “economize” on their daily basic needs. Perhaps in the future they will have the foresight to devote more of their generous disposable income to stockpiling bottled water. In any case, the higher prices are sure to attract more intrepid suppliers, somehow, at some point. There’s no need for the jackbooted thugs of the “National Guard” to interfere, spending your tax dollars to provide the biological necessities of human life.

To step back from vitriolic polemic, there’s one other thing I think of when someone mentions West Virginia: its long history of labor struggle. With “freedom” like this increasingly on offer, I have a feeling that state might someday shock the country in the best possible way.

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Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This past Sunday marked the 101st anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory. This incident had, before the September 11th terror attack on the World Trade Center, the dubious distinction of being the worst fire-related workplace disaster in New York City history. The level of qualification present is an important element of its description, as there have been worse incidents of loss of life, in New York City, in fires, and in labor disasters generally. Despite this, the Triangle fire holds an iconic place in the history of labor relations and progressive politics.

In the standard narrative, the Triangle fire was the result of the unsafe working conditions and inhumane policies maintained at workplaces in the heyday of laissez-faire capitalism in the United States. The tragedy of its hundreds of deaths started a reform movement in government to create workplace safety regulations with teeth, resulting in the relatively safe working conditions we enjoy today. More complete treatments mention the strikes and protests by the labor movement leading up to the fire, and Tammany Hall’s obstructions and corruption. What comes out of this narrative is the clear message that the Triangle fire is why we have workplace safety regulations and that the government is exercising proper authority in enforcing them.

It is thus a cornerstone of the American liberal stance favoring state intervention, a stance which only makes sense in context of the American conception of an antagonistic political divide between government and private industry. It is used as a “teaching moment” in political discourse, an origin story for the state regulatory apparatus. In this, the standard narrative obscures the picture of how capitalism and the state interacted in the lead-up to the Triangle fire, and the role of mass action and organized labor. A fuller understanding of the meaning of the Triangle fire in both history and politics can only come from looking at it in the context of mass action and public outcry for reform. Moreover, contrasting the Triangle fire with other, similar disasters which have not become historical icons reveals the importance of that context: it turned the Triangle fire into a “spectacle of justice.” This term denotes a process by which public understanding of an event is heightened through a dramatic spectacle, which plays out in the public theater of mass protest actions and criminal trials, surrounding a claim of societal injury which must be rectified. In other words, what is it critical to understand about the Triangle fire is how prior mass action against the conditions that made the fire possible “set the stage” on which the fire became a highly visible offense against society, inciting mass public outrage and desire for change, which in turn forced or enticed power elites to create a just outcome in order to quell the public’s anger, a success which those power elites appropriated. Continue reading