Hensley: Appalachian Anarchism

Individualism, community, self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and faith are the values of the people of Appalachia. It is in these values that we find an anarchism that has existed in the cities and rural communities for decades. However, most Appalachians don’t refer to it as such. To them, it’s just life. This life, however, is a unique brand of anarchism, much like all things that exist in Appalachia.

Appalachian anarchism is a syncretic thought that combines Christian anarchism with individualist anarchism along with aspects of traditionalist conservatism and agrarianism. It is Christian anarchist in that faith is held dear to Appalachians who let the Bible guide them; despite 70% being unchurched and their native Christianity being decentralized and opposed to religious hierarchy and established churches. It is individualist in its opposition to communism and acceptance of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. It is traditionalist conservative in its views of social issues, being opposed to abortion and supportive of the traditions of the mountains among others. It is agrarian in its support of the back-to-the-land movement’s components; namely smallholding, self-sufficiency, community, and autonomy. All these mix together to create a rugged individualist yet conservative anarchism.

Appalachians live this conservative anarchism everyday. Many spend their whole lives living without government or something close to it. Wallins, Kentucky doesn’t even have a government (as a result of its being demoted from a city to an unincorporated community back in 2010 after failing to elect a mayor in 2008) and Harlan, Kentucky has a mayor who’s a non-presence who most residents don’t even know the name of.

This isn’t mentioning the sheer number of unincorporated communities that dot the Appalachian landscape which have no government yet live peacefully. There are 62 of these little communities in Harlan County alone. The only government presence is the Harlan police and they only seem to patrol the streets of Harlan (though I only lived in Baxter and Wallins so I’m open to corrections). There’s also a post office (though some of these communities don’t have that anymore) and the Harlan County Rescue Squad. Other than Wallins’ volunteer fire department (which one of my cousins volunteers for), that’s as far as government presence goes and those could easily be cooperatives or privatized. These unincorporated communities are small and anarchist and are a key characteristic of Appalachian life (although they do exist elsewhere) and exemplify Appalachian anarchism.

Many people see Appalachia as a hotbed of conservatism but that’s only those who vote and, even then, their personal views are nothing like the views of the candidates they vote for. I know this because of personal experience. My cousin (not the firefighter) supports Trump but could probably be a PETA spokeswoman and is vegan/vegetarian and I have many friends who are conservative but are generally more “leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone” types. If you average the turnout of Kentucky’s 5th district, Tennessee’s first three districts, and Virginia’s 9th district (all of which make up Central Appalachia), you’ll find that only 42% vote. Considering that those that do don’t always agree with their choice, you’ll find that Appalachia as this conservative hotbed is nothing but a myth.

The only thing preventing Appalachians from calling themselves anarchists is that they don’t know what that means. Anarchists forget that the large majority of Americans know nothing about anarchism or the philosophies of Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner, William Greene and Stephen Pearl Andrews, or even Pyotr Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. The few who do associate it with violence. We wrap ourselves in these bubbles and assume everyone knows about anarchism. Progress will never be made by believing this.

Some will assume that Appalachian anarchism can’t be anarchism because of anarchism’s association with labor. It being conservative must make it anti-labor. That is far from the truth. Appalachia has had labor disputes for decades and its people are always on the side of the worker. Bloody Harlan was in 1931 and was a war between coal miners and coal operators among others. There were movies about it and it’s one of the most well-known labor disputes. Harlan even had a protest against Black Jewel last year.

Anarchism is as Appalachian as poke sallet. It is not the progressive kind championed by contemporary anarchists but it is something Appalachians know well and is something anarchists should capitalize on. Appeal to Appalachian values and relate anarchism to places like Wallins and Harlan and explain how it’s not different from their lives now. That’ll expand anarchism to these mountains where it would grow and blossom.

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Dakota Hensley an individualist anarchist and Christian anarchist from Southeast Kentucky. Follow him at @DakotaAHensley.

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