History Feature: How is Vermont like a ‘Third World’ country?



First in a series of historical features, leading up to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the ISE, coming soon in 2024.

By  Brian Tokar

Along with Murray Bookchin’s increasingly prolific output at the time, one of the many influential writings during the first decade of the ISE was a pamphlet by Lee Webb, then a faculty member at Goddard College, titled “Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Vermont.” This concise ten-page pamphlet, first published in 1971, sparked an important critical conversation that lasted well over a decade in Vermont and beyond. It even inspired what may have been Vermont’s first political music video, for a calypso-tinged song by the Brattleboro-based mime and music troupe Gould & Stearns titled, “Vermont is a Third World Country (And the People Don’t Know)”! The pamphlet is available here in electronic form for the first time.

Lee Webb’s core thesis is summarized concisely in his first two paragraphs:

    “… The poverty of Vermont can probably be best understood in terms of those economic relationships which typify American capitalism’s exploitation of the Third World.

    “Vermont is a colony of American capitalism in the same way as the nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Though the intensity of the colonial relationship is less for Vermont, the essential dynamic is similar.”

For a contemporary Vermont reader, it is striking just how much has changed since then, but also how much remains essentially the same. Vermont’s financial system and most economically productive assets are still largely owned by powerful out of state corporate interests, even as the character of the Vermont economy has changed rather substantially.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 1971 and today is how much the Vermont economy was anchored in its manufacturing sector, which Webb describes as the economy’s “foundation.” Over the next two decades, however, the vast majority of the mid-sized machine tool manufacturers that had been the centerpiece of the industrial economy would close, leaving highly depressed economies in once-thriving towns like Springfield, mainly along the Connecticut River. General Electric still makes aircraft parts in Rutland, but its long-reviled Gatling gun plant in Burlington, once Vermont’s sole manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction, is now long gone. Interestingly, its former location on Lakeside Avenue is now the headquarters of Vermont’s unique energy efficiency utility, Efficiency Vermont, a rare swords-to-plowshares story in these times.

IBM’s computer chip plant in Essex Junction was sold a decade ago to the Global Foundries corporation, which originated in the United Arab Emirates and has recently announced major layoffs in Vermont, even as the Biden administration is seeking to bring more computer chip production back to the US. Another historically important Vermont company, Fairbanks Scales, which invented the platform scale for weighing crops – and eventually trucks and other heavy equipment – back in the 1830s, is now national in scope with its largest manufacturing plant in Mississippi and only ten of 136 managerial and technical employees listed as still located in Vermont (according to Signal Hire). Major transnational timber companies have mostly left the state, most recently Champion Paper, which sold its holdings to the state in 1999 following a grassroots campaign that halted their plan to treat their once-massive landholdings with herbicides that favor the growth of conifers over deciduous seedlings.

Vermont’s renowned dairy farms have also experienced much upheaval since the 1970s. When Lee Webb was writing, the number of dairy farms here had fallen to under 5000, from a reported 20,000 in the 1950s. By 2012 the number fell to under 1000 and the most recent figure is well under 600. Vermont’s dairy farmers have experienced the rapid loss and consolidation of companies they are able to sell milk to and survived repeated free-falls in milk prices relative to the cost of living. In 1971, according to Webb, farmers were getting 12 cents per quart for milk that cost 32 cents in local stores. Today, farmers are paid by the hundredweight, i.e. per 100 pounds that they sell to distributors and processors. At current prices, farmers receive 35 cents or less for a quart of milk that sells for around a dollar. But we know that the overall cost of living has multiplied more than twice as fast: a 1971 dollar is worth more than $7 today, and milk is typically priced below cost by large supermarket chains seeking to attract customers to their stores. The size of most Vermont dairy herds has grown 10 to 20-fold since the mid-20th century with the rise of increasingly mechanized equipment, and in response to the falling real price of milk. Today, even many farmers who switched to organic production to stay afloat and keep their herd sizes more modest are struggling under the pressures of rising corporate consolidation and downward pressure on prices from larger Western dairies.

Corporate concentration in other sectors, such as utilities and banking, has accelerated at a comparable pace. In 1972, Vermont had two large utilities, CVPS in southern Vermont and Green Mountain Power (GMP) in the north, along with several mid-sized co-ops and municipally owned utilities that are still thriving today. CVPS was mainly owned by large New York banking firms, while GMP’s ownership was more difficult to identify. After the First National Bank of Jersey City, its other owners were hiding behind PO Box addresses in various New York locations. By the time GMP bought CVPS in 2012, GMP was owned by a consortium of Canadian holding companies, both public and private, doing business as Énergir, but just a few years ago all the public shares were bought by the largest private shareholder with the consent of Vermont regulators. Both GMP and Vermont Gas (VGS) now claim the Canadian pipeline giant, Enbridge, as by far their largest shareholder. Banking consolidation has grown at a perhaps even more dizzying pace, with the names on Vermont’s banks ever-changing, and corporate bank owners, including Canada’s TD (formerly Toronto Dominion) Bank, increasingly distant from their Vermont branches.

One surprising omission from Lee Webb’s pamphlet is the long-dominant role of real estate speculation in the Vermont economy, a problem that harkens back to the days of Ethan and Ira Allen in the 18th century. Webb does address the problem of out-of-state ownership of major ski resorts like Stratton Mt. and Stowe, but during the 2007-08 financial crisis, Vermonters were stunned to discover that Stowe was then owned by one of the leading culprits in that meltdown, the AIG insurance empire. Stratton and several others have been bought out in recent years by national ski operators such as the owners of the Vail, Colorado resort. But the steady influx of affluent individual landowners from down-country has had an even more severe impact. On the heels of the now-discredited UVM-based eugenics campaign of the 1920s – which led to the sterilization of countless Indigenous Abenaki families and others then deemed “undesireable” – state officials began a renewed push to market Vermont real estate to wealthy New Englanders and New Yorkers.

That pattern continues today, with several tens of thousands of relatively affluent (for the most part) “Covid refugees” having relocated here over the past three years, driving housing costs far beyond what is affordable for most Vermonters, and precipitating what is now widely acknowledged as a statewide housing crisis. While the influx of new residents during the 1960s-70s era “back to the land” movement is seen largely in positive terms – and was central to the founding of the ISE, food co-ops, the organic farming movement and other progressive and radical institutions – those who settled here permanently after most of the communes had dissolved tended to be more well-off than those who were unable to stay. While homesteading in Vermont continues to have a far more progressive political character than in many other parts of the country (the other end of the spectrum is described in Ryan Edgar’s recent Harbinger article) its racial and class dynamics remain more troubling than most Vermonters are ready to admit. Still, there is reason for hope that new initiatives, including new land-sharing models and the community-building work of Cooperation Vermont, based in Marshfield, may finally begin to overturn the pattern of quasi-colonial relationships to the land and absentee ownership of the productive economy that many Vermonters have accepted as the norm for far too long.

Brian Tokar’s most recent book is Climate Justice and Community Renewal: Resistance and Grassroots Solutions, an international collection co-edited with Tamra Gilbertson.