Americans like to talk a good deal about their twin-commitments to both capitalism and democracy, but the relationship between the two systems is, shall we say, fraught with tension. Democracy tries to remind capitalism about the importance of freedom and individual human rights, but, like an anti-domestic violence group trying to lecture the NFL about the importance of respecting women, its success rate is mixed, to say the least. The resulting conflict between corporate profit and human flourishing has burned with the intensity of a coal fire throughout U.S. history — which brings us to Don Blankenship.
Blankenship is the former CEO of Massey Energy, which was one of the country’s biggest coal extractors before Alpha Natural Resources bought it out in 2012. He’s the mustachioed poster-boy for the way capitalism can undermine human rights. Indeed, even when it comes to ignominious plutocrats, Blankenship has all the redeemable qualities of a hacked-up, charcoal colored, black lung induced phlegm wad. He was recently indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to violate federal mine safety regulations and making false claims to the Securities and Exchange Commission — among other counts.
Blankenship’s blatant disregard for mine safety resulted in the death of 29 coal miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, when explosions ripped through the poorly ventilated West Virginia mine causing the worst mining disaster in 40 years. You can read a list of the miners’ names here. An independent investigation found that the miners’ deaths were the result of Blankenship’s flouting of mandatory safety regulations in order to produce more coal and make more money.
Yes-sir-ee-Bob, Don Blankenship is a slimeball, but even among slimeballs, his revolting viscosity stands out. Mother Jones has the breakdown of the most vile allegations to come out of his indictment, in which Blankenship manages to make Montgomery Burns look like “Daddy” Warbucks. Some choice highlights include the following: the Upper Big Branch mine averaged about one safety violation a day; Massey had a secret code used to alert employees to cover up safety violations when Federal inspectors were snooping about; and, worst of all, Blankenship thought that the mine’s lousy ventilation wasn’t a problem — until the mine blew up, of course. You can read the rest of the stomach-churning allegations if you’re so inclined, but suffice to say that Blankenship, whom Rolling Stone dubbed the “Dark Lord of Coal Country,” put profits over human safety at every turn, demonstrating why the idea of “self-regulating” big business is a sick joke that far too many Americans nonetheless still take seriously.
But the fact that so many people still believe that big business shouldn’t be regulated — that the “free market” will create some kind of balance between capitalism and individual rights — is particularly depressing given that disasters like this have happened in the past, with precisely the same awful consequences. Perhaps the most notorious industrial disaster in U.S. history was the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which occurred in the heart of New York City’s unregulated garment district.
The Triangle Waist Company was a classic sweatshop: its mostly immigrant female employees labored long hours for pittance wages amidst appalling working conditions. In an echo of the current craze for outsourcing and sub-contracting in order to extract dirt-cheap labor, factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris subcontracted their garment work to sleazy middle-men who pocketed a portion of the workers’ profits, and Blanck and Harris allegedly didn’t know how much the women were paid or even how many were working in the factory at any given time. Oh, and then there were the conditions. The ramshackle, multi-story factory building was poorly ventilated (sound familiar?) and clogged with piles of lint, debris, and highly combustible cloth. The fire escapes were also woefully inadequate. Moreover, the jerks who owned the place had their foremen barricade the doors in order to keep the workers from taking breaks. The building was a fire trap, and trap a fire it did.
On March 25, 1911, smoke began spewing from one of the factory’s many top-floor rag bins, and, in a span of a few minutes, a fire spread, trapping the workers. With the doors locked, the women panicked. Some of them fled down the skeletal, rusted fire-escape, which collapsed under their weight, sending dozens to their deaths. Other workers had no choice but to jump from the ninth-floor windows: they chose being smashed to death on New York’s concrete sidewalks over being immolated in the inferno Hell of their workplace. Out of the 500 Triangle Factory workers, 146 of them — most of whom were recently arrived Italian and Jewish immigrants — died in the fire. You can read a list of their names here. Many others were severely injured. The factory owners went to trial but escaped conviction, only to open up another Triangle Shirtwaist firetrap a few weeks later.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a pivotal moment in U.S. labor history, as it resulted in several key industrial reforms geared towards improving the conditions and rights of workers. The fire led to the transformation of New York’s labor code into one of the most progressive in the nation, and spurred stringent new fire-safety laws that served as models for the rest of the country. Moreover, the tragedy emboldened the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) to further establish standards for the industry and monitor factories to try to ensure that workers’ could be assured some levels of health and safety on the shop floors.
But the most important legacy of the Triangle Fire was what it revealed in the charred bodies of 146 young women: for many people, the single-minded, utterly ruthless pursuit of profit results not in life, liberty, and happiness, but repression, sickness, misery, and death. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred in the early part of the Progressive Era, which the political influence of big business ensured rampant inequality and a major imbalance in power-relations between employers and employees (sound familiar?). Such an imbalance proved quite deadly, as the Triangle Fire demonstrated, but many Americans still haven’t learned from history that when any single group is granted total power over another, it WILL abuse that power. That includes capitalists, who, if given the leeway and cultural approval, won’t hesitate to value money over human life — regardless of whether it’s 1911 or 2010.
Much like the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Don Blankenship didn’t give a damn about the lives of the people who died as a result of his greed: he’s the living embodiment of how capitalism, if left to its own devices, is incompatible both with democracy and individual rights. As Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodall notes in his devastating profile of the coal baron, “Blankenship has never hidden the fact that, when it comes to mining coal, he’ll do whatever it takes to make a buck.” Like the worst industrialists of Gilded Age America, Blankenship is a Social Darwinist. Capitalism is ‘like a jungle, where a jungle is survival of the fittest,'” he once told a documentary filmmaker, “‘Unions, communities, people — everybody’s gonna have to learn to accept that in the United States you have a capitalist society, and that capitalism, from a business standpoint, is survival of the most productive.'” Ever the unabashed right-wing asshat, Blankenship has spent decades obliterating West Virginia mountaintops and fouling the air and waterways with his coal fumes and coal slurry. And he thinks that’s just fine — because freedom.
Blankenship’s naked disregard for workers’ lives or the health of the natural environment demonstrates the importance of bringing back a little-appreciated historical subject: industrial democracy. Historian Richard Greenwald writes that industrial democracy was, “an effort to square free market capitalism with democracy to provide a fair and just workplace.”* Economic justice was a key element of industrial democracy, and it was a major ideological force for Progressive Era reformers who sought to reconcile the dynamism of the marketplace with the recognition that the pursuit of profits should never overshadow the basic rights of human beings to flourish as free individuals. And being a free individual requires the right to have a say in your own working conditions. The 29 miners that died thanks to Don Blankenship’s greed didn’t have that say, and neither did those 146 Triangle Shirtwaist workers.
Capitalism without democracy is tyranny, and the existence of ogres like Don Blankenship should remind us all that industrial democracy, whether in the coal fields or Amazon.com warehouses, remains a vital necessity in twenty-first century America. Contrary to conservative claims that capitalism = freedom, there is no freedom in being utterly beholden to a powerful interest against whom you have no recourse to protest injustice. When you are forced to accede to the will of someone else; when your very livelihood depends on subjecting your health and your family’s lives to the machinations of dollar-crazed, megalomaniacal plutocrats, then you are not free. And don’t tell me that coal miners can just move to another mine, because any other mine will be operating along the same right-wing ideological fuel as the Massey Energy death pit.
The idea that a private interest has the right to completely dominate another person’s life and their environment is not a natural law, it’s a political belief, and as such, it can be — should be — challenged in the marketplace of ideas. Only then can America ever really move towards maintaining a workable balance between capitalism and democracy. Oh, and one more thing: F@#k you, Don Blankenship.
* See Richard Greenwald, The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 3.