Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

By Steven Stoll

Finished reading on February 20, 2018

Stoll writes a winding narrative history of the land, policy, and people of the US highlands. It could certainly use some tightening; the book mirrors the land in the way it runs in confusing circles. That being said, it is worth reading. Below are some of the notes I had reading through the book (it’s frustrating that goodreads does not support bullet point lists):

Like many interesting ideas, this one is obvious once it is pointed out: a transition into capitalism occurs when people pursue money as their primary source of subsistence as opposed to using it as a supplement to that which they create themselves.

The discussion of Hamilton is quite interesting – the quotes from Federalist 13 used to demonstrate the power of money in creating and enforcing territorial boundaries are striking:

Civil power, properly organized and exerted, is capable of diffusing its force to a very great extent; and can, in a manner, reproduce itself in every part of a great empire by a judicious arrangement of subordinate institutions

One important note is that while Hamilton aimed to disrupt the barter economy and transition it into part of the capital (and therefore civic) enterprise, he did not wish to sever the people from the land that sustained them. Joint-stock corporations chartered by Virginia and later West Virginia had no such restraint. One point stressed repeatedly is that those who profit from the land are not of it; they are instead planters, capitalists, and financiers. Their work breaks the bond between the people who are of the land by destroying the commons.

Fleeting remarks about the huge transformation caused by war waged between Union and Confederacy; Stoll suggests that the damage caused by it paved the way for the rending of people from land.

The language used throughout is one where the capitalist system is (rightly and thoroughly) criticized. In later chapters, he presents some mock legislation enshrining smallholder’s rights. Perhaps to most salient and obvious thing that could be done is the strict control/restriction of absentee landholding. Throughout the book he writes at length about the shadow system of property and deeds that lives alongside the legal one; the shadow system is often much more detailed though its documentation is sparse and not backed by the state.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the book is the consistent romanticization of the poverty of smallholding. It is a bit unclear what peoples’ living conditions were. Stoll makes a number of oblique references to their conditions but ultimately hand-waves away any seriously crushing poverty.

There are important and real critique of modern “development” thinking. This quote in particular stuck out to me:

Nonetheless, most development thought insists that the poor and hungry of the world -- people who took care of most of their own needs by farming and trading in once robust environments -- will be saved by somewhat different versions of the same thinking that made them poor in the first place.
★★★★☆