By John Ripton
At 18, I left the central Maine tannery town where I grew up seeking education and opportunity. Already, back in the late 1960s, the town’s economy and its people’s welfare were far secondary to the tannery’s profits. Boxcars of Argentine and Australian cowhides had displaced hides from America’s Western states. Soon trailer trucks would replace the freight trains and in another decade or so the tracks themselves would be pulled up.
Now automation has displaced workers who once gave back benefits and wage increases and voted down unionization bids because the factory threatened to move elsewhere. These conditions guaranteed substandard paychecks and poor health care. The town hospital became a nursing home. My hometown imploded economically and hitchhiking home in the late 1960s and early 1970s I could measure the town’s economic decline by the number of houses falling to the ground.
Last year I read that the town was assuming responsibility for cleaning the river that the tannery polluted for decades. It was an agreement that the tannery’s attorneys wrested from the town in exchange for keeping the relative few jobs remaining.
My childhood home, too, fell into its granite cellar in the 1990s. My parents and brothers and sisters — like so many others I knew — left the town to find jobs in other places. Still others remained behind and their children often moved into doublewides or tried to keep up with basic repairs to old family houses. The cost of living, meanwhile, did not keep up with wages. Many of my old friends barely got by, preoccupied with making ends meet.
Yes, a few rural towns like Millinocket with its booming, unionized paper mills managed a bit longer as middle class working communities with good schools, but eventually they too lost out to technological advances, resource depletion and lower-wage competition. Poverty and drugs were not far behind. Life at the periphery of the global economy remains a struggle today.
Of course my town has always been at the edge of the global economy. Much of rural Maine is. Economic woes affected significant sectors of Maine’s urban economy as well. Illicit drug labs opened up across the state, especially in poorer counties like Washington County and Somerset County, where I grew up. Some of my friends’ children became addicted to opioids and alcohol. Many homeless and drug-addicted youths migrated to the streets and shelters of Portland and other Maine cities. Eventually, drug dealers from Massachusetts and New York drug gangs became suppliers of heroin to urban and rural Maine.
Long decades of economic disintegration have political consequences too. The breakdown of the 2016 presidential election by Maine’s counties clearly demonstrates that those most hurt by globalization voted for Donald Trump (https://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/maine/). Meanwhile unscrupulous business and political leaders amassed fortunes in off-shore shelters, manipulating legal restrictions and profiting from pitting lower-wage workers in Asia against higher-wage workers in Maine.
Yet, as you look around the world and critically assess the impact of corporate-driven globalization on Maine’s logging, textile, tanning, agriculture, fishing, shoe assembly and other industries, it is easy to see that people in rural Maine often have more in common with immigrants from remote parts of the globe than they do with owners of the corporate chain stores where they shop. At the same time, corporate owners may spend half of the year on an island or peninsula on the Maine coast, not far from — and often in the same — communities where struggling fishermen and displaced paper mill workers lose income because banks and manufacturers have seldom reinvested in their lives and communities.
Today, wind and solar power, kelp and fish farming, craft beers and other handmade products, farm-to-table restaurants and farmers markets are generating local income and revitalizing some communities. And much more can and needs to be done. But I cannot help wondering how much further along these promising initiatives would be if the newest infrastructure — the internet — had been equally available to rural and working people in Maine two or three decades ago. Instead, digital technology constructed a global economy in which the most educated and powerful concentrated wealth while ordinary working people in this state negotiated the wreckage of families and communities that corporations often left behind.
Ultimately we must ask ourselves, do walls or trade wars address the political distortions that enable the richest among us to maintain the current distribution of wealth? Do tax breaks for the wealthiest ensure investment in poorer communities? Who will ultimately pay for the deficit caused by the massive tax cuts favoring the corporate elite? Will weakening the social safety net and environmental regulations be good for working people and communities in Maine? Or are populist promises so much propaganda masking the real need for social and political policies aimed at sustained development of our communities at the periphery of the global economy?
John Ripton lives in Cape Porpoise. He contributes essays and articles on politics and history to newspapers, magazines and journals. He recently completed a book-length manuscript, “Capitalism, Democracy and Authoritarianism in the 21st Century.” He can be reached at [email protected]