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Dame Rebecca and the Seven Dwarfs: Exploiting history

23 October 2010

The theory of the European invaders of the New World (insofar as they had a theory) was that they were conferring benefits on the native populations by inviting them to participate in international trade, and there they might have claimed to be genuine economic benefactors. But unfortunately they also felt compelled to confiscate both the accumulated wealth of the native populations and their natural resources, so far as these were mineral. This is not altogether the plain peculation that it appears, for they had an ingenuous belief that, as the native populations had no monetary system, these were wasted on them, and they were doing the only sensible thing if they took the minerals away and put them to useful purposes. It has to be remarked that these predators were actually conferring a huge benefit on another part of the world, on the Old World, by relieving its currency famine. This is not a moral universe.

Rebecca West (Survivors in Mexico, 2003)

Photo of Rebecca West, Jezebel.com

Dame Rebecca (1893-1982) only “discovered” Mexico in her mid-70s, only as a by-product of her role as a chronicler and participant in European history (she had an assignment with the New Yorker Magazine to profile Esteban (Sacha)Volkov, Leon Trotsky’s grandson). For various reasons (he husband’s declining health and death, her own increasing debility and — perhaps  overwhelmed by the task of making sense of the “many Mexicos” she encountered) the book was never finished.

What we have, stitched together from several incomplete drafts, is rooted in West’s immersion in the Old World, as a writer, journalist, a scholar of European history (especially of the European middle ages), and polemicist.

Surviving Mexico often repeats thematic discussions in slightly different contexts.  In some ways, it’s like reading a blog… but a blog by a genius who returns to the same themes over and over, whatever the context.  Mining — exploitation in both the literal and figurative sense — is one theme.  Elsewhere in the book from the quote above,  she mentions in passing that  “Old World” miners in the late Middle Ages (the same time as the Conquest) were a highly respected independent social class.   West didn’t mention it, but there’s a hint of the medieval attitude toward miners as magical, mystical beings who could draw wealth from isolated places under the ground lingering in our modernized, sanitized European folk tales:  think of those Central European miners Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy and Sleepy.

Perhaps she would have noticed, had she finished the work, that the discovery of mineral resources in the “New World” — “relieving the currency famine” of the Old — knocked the European miners off their pedestals as masters of a skilled art, reducing them to a rural proletariat. Even with the higher costs of transportation, there was no way the free miners of the Holy Roman Empire could compete against the peons and slave labor of the Americas.  “This is not a moral universe,” as she rightly said.

A not moral universe still very much with us, although the “Old and New Worlds” have undergone a tectonic cultural shift to “North and South”.  It’¿s great that 33 Chilean miners are suddenly celebrated as heroes, but the four Ecuadorian miners given up for dead with nary a word in the press, are completely overlooked.  As it is, we seldom think of miners, unless — as News of the Restless notes, we want to preserve some fantasy of a moral universe.

If Franklin Lobos had died in the San Jose mine, would we care? Other than as a former pro-soccer player, would it even have been newsworthy? Lobos seems to hold some of the mysticism of the old Holy Roman Empire miners, in seeing the mine as a living thing, but — with West — accepting the immorality of the universe, or at least the masters of it:

… “The mine didn’t want to take us, the the mine wanted us alive, because we weren’t the bad guys, we were victims of the businessmen who made millions and didn’t think of the suffering of the poor people,” says Lobos, who had been at work in the San José mine for four months at the time of the accident.

… Lobos might as well point the finger at capitalism itself; it made the disaster inevitable. Not so much the cave-in, which could have happened anywhere to anyone, as the inability of the miners to free themselves; recall that there were no escape races in place for the San José miners to use. The mine owners were so fixated on profit that they skimped on safety.

Sabina (who deserves your votes as Canada’s Best Feminist Blog) takes to task those who — like the Conquistadors — are of the ingenious belief that THEY are doing a favor by taking away the mineral resources.  After taking the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger to task for his ridiculous assertion that the rescue somehow proves the modern version of the Conquistador’s ingenious belief system, she quotes, among other, William K. Black’s response to Henninger (from Huffington Post):

… the miners wouldn’t have had to be rescued but for the perverse incentives of that unregulated capitalism inherently produces …

Once the mine shaft collapsed in Chile, the private mining company declared that it not only could not pay to rescue the miners — it could not even pay their wages. The private company threatened to file for bankruptcy. The rescue was paid for by the State-owned mine (i.e., the Chilean government had to bail out the private mine owner to the tune of an estimated rescue cost of $10 to $20 million in order to rescue the miners). A $25 ladder apparently would have prevented the tragedy, but the private owners’ profit motive led them to avoid that expense. The Chilean mine had gold and copper ore. Both of those minerals are selling for record prices. This makes the private mining company’s failure to provide another exit and a ladder all the more outrageous. Where did the profits go?…

The profits are relieving the “currency famine” of today’s empires and emperors… the sense still being that today’s “native populations” can’t or won’t have any use for those profits (something even so-called “progressives” like Matt Yglesias seem to believe about natural resources — especially mineral ones — from this part of the globe).

Here in Mexico, as elsewhere, our miners  have been losing ground  in their struggle since the Revolution to achieve at least a modicum of the status enjoyed by their medieval European forebears, as labor unions and laborers face competition not only from the new peons of the world in places like China but from a state beholden to “these predators” who put the minerals to “good use”.  Our mines are still sending out the profits though.  But, perhaps the frightfully  intelligent Rebecca West was right that resource exploitation and being dragged into the global economy was to the ultimate benefit of the Mexicans.   Not that minerals are the only resource.

West’s drafts only touch on Mexican agriculture — coffee and chocolate (more as a metaphor than as items of commerce) and maize — in passing.  Writing in the late 1960s and 70s, it may not have occurred to her that a new commodity from Mexico might come to be seen as  “conferring a huge benefit on another part of the world, on the Old World, by relieving its currency famine.”   Or at least, lusted after, much as Cortés and company “lusted for gold like pigs” (to quote one Aztec observer).  Inca Kola News unearths a fascinating example of competing commodity exports:

(Reuters) – Mining firms have shuttered a handful of exploration projects in remote areas of Mexico as the industry grapples with threats from drug cartels and rising security costs, Mexico’s mining chamber said on Thursday.

Cartels are threatening mining operations not just in the violent corridor along the U.S.-Mexico border but in isolated, mountainous regions in other parts of Mexico, where traffickers grow marijuana and heroin poppies, the chamber said…

What’s fascinating about this conundrum — resource exploiter v resource exploiter — is less in the problem of defining which of the two interests (if either) are a “moral” industry , but in how much the narcotics growers fit very nicely into the whole historical framework.  Or subvert it.

If one believes that narcotics “enslave” the user then we need to ask if we are seeing a repeat of history, in which labor from the exploited South (the New World) is degrading the North (the Old World), or is this “Montezuma’s Revenge” on the labor front — the “native population” degrading the Conquistadors?

First off, just in passing, West mentions that the medieval belief was that mining minerals created more minerals, much as farming creates more crops.  And, at the time she was writing, the idea of a resource scarcity (at least for the “haves” — her “Old World”, my “North”) wasn’t a consideration.  Now, with genuine concern, even among the “haves” (especially among the haves) what does it mean that a renewable resource — which is basically a luxury item — is driving away a resource industry that is not renewable, but is no longer considered a luxury?  Is it in Mexico’s interest to control what resources are made available to the “predators”, or are we now the “predators” although not conferring benefits on the “old world,” reaping benefits FROM the “old world”.

West’s discussion of the New World minerals talks about the massive economic changes wrought in Europe as a result of more currency in circulation — new wealth destroyed the old system and the old wealthy classes, something she saw as ultimately beneficial.   The narco-wealth here is bringing in money we never had before, perhaps creating new wealth, too.  Will “having  been “invited into world trade” prove ultimately beneficial to Mexico and the “south”?

Or… as I suspect, the control of narcotics is in the hands of the same people (well, not the same individuals — one hopes — but the same groups of people from the same parts of the planet) who control the mineral wealth.

The Aztec calendar is a cyclical one, with history repeating, but with infinite variations on a theme.  It makes, over the course of time, for a predictable, but not a moral universe.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 October 2010 9:09 am

    Wow Richard… A lot to ponder after reading Mexfiles today. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Thank you for a great editorial.

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