Why were the miners underground?

October 21, 2010

Trish Kahle looks at the reason behind Chile's mining disaster.

WE'VE ALL been following the "heroic rescue" of the miners in Chile, who were brought above ground on October 14 after being trapped in a copper mine since August.

We've been following it whether we want to or not. After all, some of us recognize a very familiar story.

For the last week in particular, we were witness to one of the most disgusting veils ever worn by capitalism, as we heard stories about the families being treated to beauty salon visits (because, presumably, your loved one will only be happy to see you if your hair has recently been dyed and you have a French manicure), about the high spirits of the miners, and the brilliance of the people being sent to rescue them.

Do you know what we haven't heard enough of, if anything? The reason the miners were there in the first place.

Copper has been a blessing and a curse to Chile. It can help explain the United States' interest in overthrowing the government of the left-wing President Salvador Allende in the 1970s, and his subsequent replacement by the fascist dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who at the same time as killing and disappearing tens of thousands of people also bowed to pressures from the United States and the Chicago School economists (read: Milton Friedman and his wannabes) that allowed for the institution of radical "free marketism."

There was nothing "free" about these markets, of course; they were designed to make U.S. telecom tycoons ridiculously wealthy. Chile's majestic landscape has been raped for its resources, and the people of Chile have--by and large--been left out of the enormous wealth that has been created with them.

With less than 1 percent of the world's population and land surface, Chile still provides over 37 percent of the world's copper--and $7.25 billion in revenues each year. At the same time, more than 18.2 percent of Chile's population lives below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate fluctuates between a reported 8.5 percent and 10.23 percent.

This mining "accident" is just another facet of the same problem. Why were the miners nearly half a mile beneath the surface of the earth, searching for metal ore to enrich industry? Why did it take more than two months to get them out? Try as they might to explain these questions with geology or engineering, they will fail. At the end of the day, the only reason to mine copper in unsafe mines at that depth is to make money.

And they have certainly upped the level of pomp and circumstance to show just what a great job they are doing by rescuing those "poor miners," who, despite having spent two months underground, came out clean-shaven, with shirts that looked freshly ironed.

BUT THE coverage has been depoliticized for a reason. If we were to really examine the root causes of the disaster, that would be equivalent to questioning capitalism itself, and the mainstream media cannot engage with that.

Depoliticizing it allows people around the world to call into talk radio programs like the BBC's (infamous) World Have Your Say.

The feelings of sympathy--which in some cases are only a short hop away from solidarity--are channeled into meaningless drivel that is dumbed-down by the center-right moderation, and ends the moment the phone is hung up. It's a way to keep people around the world safely alienated, even though the pain and suffering of the mining industries are known worldwide, both in industrialized and developing countries.

And it keeps the attention off of other destructive aspects of Chile's copper industry, including that copper mining and smelting leads to heavy pollution of streams.

At the same time, it's encouraging that the families have already filed lawsuits against both the corporations and the Chilean government. In addition, the miners have decided to equally share the profits made by this incident, ensuring that none of them ever have to work in the mines again. People around the world have expressed sympathy and concern for the miners, but that isn't enough.

Miners perform some of the most dangerous work in the world. Conditions are--without exception--awful. While miners make fairly good wages while they can work, those wages are eaten up by long-term health problems. And it is no coincidence that areas with heavily concentrated miner populations are some of the poorest in the world.

A high rate of fatalities in the mines, along with lifelong health problems suffered by those who survive--often in rural areas without adequate access to health care--shows how little the mining companies care for the miners. The World Bank advocates the development of mining industries in developing countries as a way to pursue neoliberal economic policies.

The mining industry is the manifestation of class war. In places like Britain, where miners have waged strong and successful strikes in the past, we see the war can be fought both ways. Far too often, it becomes class slaughter by the ruling class against us.

We need to stand with the miners as they fight back against these conditions. We need to fight with them for retraining programs that will allow transition into other industries that are desperately needed: the manufacture of wind turbines, for example.

The miners are not the enemy, as some environmental activists have portrayed them to be; they are another victim, and they must be part of our struggle. We don't want rescues, we want safety regulations that are upped and strictly followed. We want to shut down the coal mines and put the miners to work creating the "green" infrastructure we need to sustain our society.

We must win them to the fight, win them to socialism. And most of all, we must be willing to stand in solidarity with them on the front lines.

First posted at I Can't Believe We Still Have to Protest this Shit.

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