FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Digging Deeper

The 10-week-long captivity-turned-spectacle of 33 Chilean miners has seized the attention of audiences from Asia, to Latin America, to the United States. “It was reality TV at its best,” proclaimed one CNN reporter. Another observed that, “overall, people feel really connected to this story.”

As caring cosmopolitans, we ought to feel connected. Global media outlets have promoted this feeling by offering narratives of cosmopolitan solidarity and hope. You’ve likely been moved by the “perseverance” and “courage” of the miners and their families as well as the “heroism” and “determination” of the international team of rescuers. If you are American, Swiss, or German, you might have taken pride in knowing that many of the rescuers and rescue technologies came from your country.

If you read these stories carefully, however, you will find hints of a darker reality that remains, literally and figuratively, buried underground.

For instance, you will find statements expressing ongoing frustration about working and safety conditions, including at least one miner’s observation, now corroborated, that San Jose’s owner consistently violated national and international safety codes. Other statements, along with moving stories about the miners’ lives, reveal more general hardships and dangers associated with the low-cost extraction and worldwide distribution of valuable raw materials from the bowels of the earth.

Excavating a Systemic Problem

Empresa Minera San Esteban, the owner of San Jose, is not an outlying offender. Nor are the “small mining companies” that Pinera, the Chilean President, cited as culpable parties. Labor organizations have highlighted the extent to which unsafe conditions in mines are an industry-wide effect of intense competition. As the global market price of raw materials decreases, the quest for cheaper labor and lower production costs intensifies. In deference to mining companies’ profit-seeing prerogatives, governments cripple labor union organization and neglect regulatory responsibilities.

It is worth mentioning that the feel-good connections marketed by reality-TV depend upon an utterly fortuitous circumstance: the San Jose mine collapsed in a way that allowed the miners to survive for weeks until the rescue drill arrived. Since coal mining emerged as the engine of industrialization centuries ago, most miners in similar situations have not been so lucky. Recent fatal disasters from China to Appalachia should remind us of mining’s mortal dangers. Twenty-nine miners were buried in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine collapse earlier this April. Just two days after the heroic rescue in Chile, a gold mine in Ecuador collapsed, trapping four miners.

Repeated fatal mine disasters indicate an international-historical context of less-than-human connections: profit-seeking superexploitation, patterns of life-threatening working conditions, and uneven exchanges.

The San Jose mine is one example, one site, among countless others. Highly profitable, cost-reducing neglect and labor union subordination functions as a powerful market force. It draws extractors of raw materials to sites like San Jose all over the world.

Like its competitors, Empresa Minera San Esteban lowers production costs by taking advantage this neglect: they build structurally unsound shafts without escape routes and hire older miners whom larger companies have refused to employ and who are willing to risk their lives in exchange for the opportunity to work. Driven in part by the global demand for cheaper minerals and fuels, including our own need for drinking water (copper pipes) and heat (coal), mining companies seek ways to extract raw materials more and more cheaply.

The profitable precariousness built into San Jose recalls a largely abandoned narrative of global connections developed by theorists of underdevelopment and “dependency.” According to this narrative, imperialist expansion produced a division of labor in which elites could systematically exploit the inhabitants of peripheral spaces in order to extract raw materials for sale to manufacturers in the world’s industrial “core.” Coffee, sugar, minerals, and fossil fuels connect producers and consumers not as free-traders, but as hierarchically organized subjects.

Blood for Coal and Copper: The Darker Side of the Neoliberal Revolution

Stories of historical dependency unsettle the narratives of high-tech heroism at San Jose. Take, for instance, the roles of Layne Christensen Company and its affiliate, Geotec Boyles Brothers, the U.S.-based companies praised for the successful made-for-TV “Plan B” rescue operation. These international heroes were drawn to Chile by the very same profitable neglect of workers’ well being that led to the collapse of the San Jose mine.

Christensen and Boyles Brothers expanded their operations in Mexico and South America in the 1970s to take advantage of Latin America’s emerging mining “boom.” In Chile, democratically elected President Salvador Allende attempted to regulate this explosion by nationalizing the mining industry in 1970, protecting his country’s workforce from the worst forms of corporate exploitation. The move forced Boyles Brothers to leave the country. When Allende died in the CIA-sponsored military coup of 1973, however, his authoritarian successor, General Augusto Pinochet, re-privatized the industry and successfully encouraged companies like Christensen and Boyles to re-invest.

Envisioning opportunity in authoritarian Chile, Christensen bought a majority share in Boyles Brothers in 1975. As the company put it, the merge was “a perfect marriage between the manufacturer and the contractor.” The relationship solidified connections between the manufacturing core (Christensen) and peripheral practices of “testing” and deregulated exploitation of people and resources (Boyles and Latin American mining companies). Specializing in sophisticated mining equipment for the extraction of minerals, Layne Christiansen has now expanded its lucrative connections with affiliates all over Latin American and Africa.

As in most other countries during the neoliberal revolution, privatization and deregulation became standard practice in post-coup Chile. In addition to the weakening of labor union power and the correlative neglect of safety standards, the privatization of social security in 1980 prevented Chilean workers from retiring. The aging workforce at San Jose is in many ways a legacy of the dictator’s adherence to global, neoliberal principles.

We are all connected to Chile as subjects of this neoliberal order. The copper in your drinking-water pipes is a product of the deregulated extraction of raw materials. Pinochet’s violent seizure of power and the deregulation that followed facilitated these profitably unsafe practices. For much of Chile’s history, the country depended on cheap copper exports to fuel its economy. Thus, our connection to Chilean miners, like our connection to coal miners in Appalachia, is one of dependence. Historical neglect of miners’ safety helps companies produce the cheap goods that we enjoy. From pipes to energy, the disastrous events in Chile and West Virginia are closer to home than reality-TV would make us believe.

Anthony Pahnke is an affiliated researcher with UNESP (Universidade Estadual Paulista/Brazil) currently residing in Brazil and completing his doctoral research on agrarian politics.

Mark N. Hoffman is a lecturer and researcher in Political Science at the University of Minnesota. They can be reached at arpahnke@yahoo.com and hoffm402@umn.edu

More articles by:

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail