Image Credit: Grégory Tonon
Image Credit: Grégory Tonon

The coal industry of West Virginia had found themselves in a crisis. Coal had become unimportant to the economics of West Virginia. Well, that really wasn’t the crisis; exports could take care of that. The real crisis was that the people living near their operations were starting to know just how unimportant the industry really was. While the industry was only responsible for employing around 5% of the state’s workers and generating 7% of West Verginia’s gross state product, they needed people to think their industry held colossal importance to assuage public pressure for stricter regulation. So industry leaders met with a corporate intelligence company in Shanghai, China to create the “Friends of Coal” campaign. The goal of the campaign was make their industry artificially important so as to scare away the specter of being forced to actually comply with established laws.

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Last I wrote, I discussed how Otherism can be defined as the exclusion of a person based on a perceived deviation from an acceptable norm. Otherism is the engine that drives all of the hate, bigotry, and malice that humanity has ever and will ever produce.

But Otherism presents an intrinsic problem to human groups. As soon as a group of people lay down the boundaries of what thoughts and behaviors distinguish the in-group from the other, they must find a way of enforcing this boundary. This is done by way of a social hegemony; a set of written and unwritten rules held in the collective conscious that must be obeyed. Violating these rules would mean that an individual may face exile from the group and lose all of the benefits that belonging to that group entails.

This all may sound like the incessant drone of some bespectacled anthropologist surrounded by dust covered tomes in his dingy, basement office. However, we see the effect of this social enforcement every day. Take an adult visibly picking their nose in a restaurant. That individual will likely draw public ire and risks being asked to leave the restaurant for violating the social hegemony that governs that social space. A two-year-old picking their nose, on the other hand, would likely not be seen as a violation. This is the nature of the socially constructed hegemony.

While social hegemony in and of itself is not necessarily negative, its generation can have wide reaching consequences if defined by those with ulterior motives. Recently, industries have learned that they can short circuit these social processes for their own financial gain.

The targeted generation of these hegemonies is a tactic that has been used by industries all over the world to protect their economic prospects at the cost of transparency and public safety. For instance, the formation of the “Friends of Coal” campaign in West Virginia, mentioned earlier, was in response to mounting pressure on local governments from the public to actually enforce weight limits on coal trucks making their way out of the mountain top removal coal sites. Industry ignoring these limits had led to the deaths of several people as overweight, speeding coal trucks tipped over on winding mountain roads causing collisions with residents.

But following the established law is just so darn inconvenient. So the coal industry created the “Friends of Coal” campaign to convince people that without the coal industry, West Virginia would be indistinguishable from some God forsaken wasteland in the middle of a lawless hinterland. If the public felt the industry was their one and only savior, no one would dare question the industry’s practices. The trick was to appear as a grass roots campaign by put bumper stickers on the backs of West Virginian’s minivans, contracting local celebrities to sing the praises of the industry, and having “everyday people” (read: actors) hand out buttons and can cozies at high school football games. It was one of the first times that an industry had ever deliberately engineered a social movement for the sake of their own checkbooks. So unique was it that social researchers gave in the moniker of an “Astro-turf Movement”: something that looks genuine from afar, but upon closer inspection is only synthetic.

The idea that was concocted in that Shanghai conference room was to use the historic importance of the coal industry to create and enforce an artificial social hegemony to their own benefit. After all, who would question the environmental and public health catastrophes that the industry had wrought upon their state if everyone was (falsely) convinced that the industry was of the utmost importance?

This tactic was so successful that it was picked up and used in other regions of the world to enforce an artificial social consensus that was only to the benefit of a select few. The petroleum industry in Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and elsewhere readily synthesizes the appearance that immense poverty and joblessness would follow any law or ordinance that might inconvenience them. Recent bills passing through both the Texas and Oklahoma governments would take power to regulate oil and gas activities away from local municipalities and place it solely in the hands of the state legislature where the industry can exert more direct control over legislation. The nuclear industry in Japan and France has continually generated this type of social importance to enable them to shrug off accidents and secure their finances in the midst of societal change.

This is the power of industry learning to pervert social processes. Often they insist that they want to work with citizens to make sure that everyone is safe and happy. Unfortunately, their definition of every one is often limited to investors and members of their board. The rest of “everyone” is left to pick up the pieces of a broken environment, broken infrastructure, and broken communities that extractive industries leave after they are done with an area.

This power to pervert the face of reality has become a tactic employed by industries across the globe as a means of distorting the true impact they have and to secure their financial security in the face of increasing criticism. The publication of inflated economic impact statements; charging protestors as terrorists; the use of local celebrities to push decidedly false narratives; convincing the FBI to pay unannounced visits to the homes of critics. These are all part of the modern tool kit for ensuring that your multi-billion dollar corporation can profit without worry for laws, regulations, public criticism, or common human decency.

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It is the new age of industry. We are not in the business of selling you goods. We are in the business of selling you a particular brand of reality. One that benefits us and cares not for you. But we want you to think that we care. Because if we have that, we can do anything we want. Your willing consent is more valuable to us than any bit of oil or coal that we can scrounge out of the chunk of earth you so inconveniently call home.

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