8 June 2012
In my book Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to formulate my theses in the greatest possible generality (Russell’s influence was at work here, since he often urged formulations of the greatest possible generality), and, to this end, I did not loosely write in terms of states or nations or countries, but chose to write instead in terms “political entities.”
From the glossary appended to the same work, here is the definition that I gave for political entities:
Any actor whatever engaged in political activity. Political entities include, but are not limited to, individual persons (under the aspect of homo politicus, i.e., political man), interest groups, peoples, city-states, nation-states, and republics. The demarcation between political entities and economic entities (q.v.) is in no sense fixed, as many entities are both political and economic actors. An NGO (q.v.) is a political entity, though it is no kind of state, which latter may well be the paradigmatic political entity. And the nation-state (q.v.), in so far as it engages in quasi-economic activity (q.v.), is both a political and an economic actor.
When I opened my book with a discussion of the nation-state, I tried to be clear that while the nation-state is the central political fact of our time, it is only one political entity among others, and just as other political entities were central to the world system prior to the advent of the nation-state, so too other political entities will someday supersede the nation-state. But don’t expect it to happen soon, or in your lifetime. These things move at a glacial pace, and are only apparent in hindsight to the historian; they are hidden from our view by the onrushing events of the present.
Another way to formulate the preeminence of the nation-state in the contemporary global system is to say that it is the indispensable political entity of our time. I thought of this formulation a few days ago when I was writing The Radicalization of Miners in Andean South America. I was re-reading the Pulacayo Theses and came across this formulation early in the very first item:
1. The proletariat, in Bolivia as in other countries, constitutes the revolutionary social class par excellence. The mineworkers, the most advanced and the most combative section of this country’s proletariat, determine the direction of the FSTMB’s struggle.
And in the original Spanish:
1.- El proletariado, aún en Bolivia, constituye la clase social revolucionaria por excelencia. Los trabajadores de las minas, el sector más avanzado y combativo del proletariado nacional, define el sentido de lucha de la FSTMB.
Note: this may sound a bit slow on my part (sometimes I can be rather dense), but when I was studying this a few days ago I hadn’t even thought to search for an English language translation, but I found one today at the Permanent Revolution website, and that is the English language version that I have given above. I had rendered this as, “The proletariat, in Bolivia as in other countries, constitutes the indispensable revolutionary social class.”
This is boilerplate Marxist doctrine: the proletariat is the revolutionary class, and will be the force that expropriates the expropriators, though it may have to be prodded into action by revolutionary cadres of bourgeois intellectuals converted to the revolutionary cause. While such claims become tiresome when repeated rote by doctrinaire believers, placed in a larger and more general context of political entities it becomes interesting.
In my definition of political entities quoted above I didn’t even think to mention social classes (though I did mention interest groups, which aren’t quite exactly the same thing), though I have an out because I did specify that my list was not exhaustive. A social class like the proletariat must be counted among the political entities that have played a central role in history. Among various political systems, different political entities can serve as the indispensable political entity of that particular system — the conditio sine qua non of a given form of political thought.
Thus it is that, in the world today, the nation-state is the indispensable political entity; for the Marxist, the proletariat — a class — is the indispensable political entity; in the Hellenistic world of antiquity, the city-state was the indispensable political entity, and it is to be noted that Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics both address the political structure of a city-state. One of the interesting things about feudal systems, whether found in the West or elsewhere in the world, is that no one particular class is indispensable. In feudalism, each class has its role that is indispensable to the social whole; it is the class system itself that is the indispensable political entity — which makes feudalism a kind of meta-Marxism.
There are so many different kinds of entity that could serve as the indispensable political entity for a political system that it is almost surreal and reminds one of Comte de Lautreamont’s wildly disparate grouping of the umbrella and the sewing machine on a dissecting table, or of Latourian Litanies.
What else? What next? What might be (or become) an indispensable political entity? This obviously suggests a negative formulation: what could not serve as an indispensable political entity? I do not think that there is any adequate system of political philosophy yet formulated that can even give us a clue as to how to begin to answer this question. Where do we set limits, and why?
The nation-state is a geographical entity tied to a legal and an economic regime; the proletariat is a social class tied to a revolutionary idea; feudal systems are social structures that apportion classes within a society but are not identical to any one class or class interest; the city-state is an urban entity. Contemporary ideas of urban planning might be said to be converging upon the city as the indispensable political entity, but this is a very different sense of urbanism than the urbanism of ancient city-states. Other examples might be the Caesaropapism of the Byzantine Empire, the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, or possibly a mythological time of the foundation of a political order, to which all political structures are made to refer. Not only is there nothing essentially in common between these indispensable political entities; there is not even any kind of discernible family resemblance between these diverse objects representing the centralization of political power.
This ought to a lesson to us in terms of thinking that political development has ended or reached a dead end (the “end of history” thesis). I’ve addressed this aspect of the “end of history” thesis from a related angle not long ago in Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, where I argued that Gödel’s own interpretation of incompleteness results points to ongoing intellectual development.
It seems odd to even have to say it, but the incredible, overwhelming inertia of unimaginative political thought forces us to repeat the fact that human political thought is still in its infancy and has yet to even reach a point at which complex and difficult problems can be intelligently and rationally discussed. Almost all political thought to date has consisted of a kind of political theology that engages in special pleading for some kind of pre-determined end. Until we get past this point, we will not yet see the first glimmerings of the maturity of our political thought.
When we have, as a species, at least glimpsed the possibility of mature political thought, we will be able to systematically lay out the limits as to what can and what cannot serve as the indispensable political entity of a political system. We are not yet in a position to do so.
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Mining is the paradigmatic resource-extraction industry. For the miners themselves, mining has always been dirty, dangerous, and difficult. Technological improvements have made mining slightly less dangerous than it was, but it is still a dangerous activity, as even today miners continue to be trapped underground in mining accidents that capture the world’s attention. Technology has also allowed mining to become a Brobdingnagian industry, scaled up to a seemingly inhuman enormity, leveling entire mountains and permanently altering landscapes.
Mining has often been the only industry to operate in relatively isolated areas — one must mine where the resources are, which means creating an industrial infrastructure in the middle of the wilderness, hiring locals as miners who may have never before worked in any industrial occupation, and transporting the extracted minerals to distant markets, which also means a transportation network. I tried to make this point in my post on Appalachia and American Civilization, where I wrote:
When the Industrial Revolution came to Appalachia, it came in the form of mining. The furnaces of the Industrial Revolution needed coal, and coal was there to be mined. So while earlier industries bypassed isolated Appalachia, the need for coal drove the industrial development of the region. And after a long history of poverty, the mining jobs were welcome.
What was true of isolated Appalachia has been true to many isolated regions of the world that have been discovered to possess mineral wealth. To all these regions, the Industrial Revolution arrived in the form of mining. Of Appalachian mining I also wrote:
Industrial scale mining requires a major capital investment, and this guaranteed that the industries involved in developing coal mining in the region would be very large companies with major capital resources. And the nature of mining guaranteed that the labor involved is difficult and dangerous in the extreme. Miners live an unenviable life. The harshness of the life of the average miner and the capital required by an industry to develop large scale coal mining virtually guaranteed a profound disconnect between management and labor in Appalachia’s coal mining industry.
The relative isolation of many mineral rich regions has meant that there was little in the way of local capital available to develop the resource extraction industries that could be supported by the minerals; this in turn means that the capital and the expertise must come from outside. When the investment and the expertise all comes from outside, that leaves only the most menial and difficult jobs for the local labor force, which, before the arrival of the mining industry, may never have been employed in any industrial occupation, never have punched a time clock, never have worked for wage labor, and never before have seen what industrialized civilization looks like.
In other words, the typical worker that gets recruited to be a miner goes more-or-less directly from subsistence farming in an agriculturally marginal area, probably will little or no formal education, into industrial wage labor. For these individuals, the industrial revolution is experienced personally as a personal revolution (a micro-temporal revolution). This change is so radical (and in most societies is played out over decades or more) one cannot be surprised that those who experience this radical change are themselves radicalized. The workers are first radicalized by their work, in so far as the change from isolated subsistence agriculturalism to industrialization constitutes a radical change in way of life; an individual open to one radical change is likely to be open to another radical change, and another after that. This is one course (inter alia) of political instability.
This process of radicalization through radical change in life — social change experienced directly as personal change — has a long history in Andean South America, and it began in Potosí, where the Spanish found a mountain literally made of silver. The system of colonial overlords overseeing vast numbers of peasant laborers — the model of development that the Spanish imposed throughout Spanish America — was iterated on an industrial scale in Potosí. The city is now a UNESCO Heritage site, which the organization describes as follows:
“Potosí is the one example par excellence of a major silver mine in modern times. The city and the region conserve spectacular traces of this activity: the industrial infrastructure comprised 22 lagunas or reservoirs, from which a forced flow of water produce the hydraulic power to activate the 140 ingenios or mills to grind silver ore. The ground ore was then amalgamated with mercury in refractory earthen kilns called huayras or guayras. It was then moulded into bars and stamped with the mark of the Royal Mint. From the mine to the Royal Mint, the whole production chain is conserved, along with dams, aqueducts, milling centres and kilns. Production continued until the 18th century, slowing down only after the country’s independence in 1825.”
It was primarily the silver from Potosí that filled the Spanish treasure ships that each year brought the wealth of the New World to the Old World, and it was the same massive influx of silver into the Spanish economy that caused one of the first ruinous episodes of hyperinflation in human history, more or less marginalizing the Spanish economy in Europe until the twentieth century.
Potosí is in what is now Bolivia, and Bolivia continues to have a remarkable history of miner-led strikes and social struggles. Moreover, since miners have access to dynamite, these struggles often become violent and deadly. One revolt by Bolivian miners has been called a revolution (cf. 60 years since the 1952 Bolivian revolution), and the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB) continues to be a force in Bolivian politics (cf., e.g., Bolivian miners reject foreign investors).
Before the miner-led 1952 revolution, radical leaders of the FSTMB in 1946 formulated the “Pulacayo Theses” (“Las Tesis de Pulacayo”), which is a remarkable document by any measure — radical in conception, sweeping in scope, and detailed in its provisions. The third of these theses is this:
Bolivia pese ha ser país atrasado sólo es un eslabón de la cadena capitalista mundial. Las particularidades nacionales representan en sí una combinación de los rasgos fundamentales de la economía mundial.
Bolivia despite being backward country has only one link in the global capitalist chain. National peculiarities represent an original combination of the fundamental features of the global economy.
This is precisely the point I have tried to make, and which is implicit in my book Political Economy of Globalization: resource extraction industries, and particularly those that visit upon their host countries the “resource curse,” are not the outgrowth of broadly-based economic development. In the words of the Pulacayo Theses, such extraction points are linked to the global economy at only one point. This is a fragile link to the main body of industrial-technological civilization, and a vulnerable link.
Many strikes by miners, not only in Bolivia but all over the world, have been epic in proportion, dragging on for years and involving thousands (even in the heart of the industrialized world, as in the UK miners’ strike of 1984–1985). Some of these strikes have been more like miniature civil wars than industrial actions. Recently Peru has seen violent and deadly conflicts over mining (c.f., Peru anti-mining protest leader arrested near Cusco). In Peru, as in Bolivia, mining is big business. It is, in fact, again like Bolivia, the most obvious way in which the global economy is connected to Peru.
Peru is the second largest producer of copper in the world and the sixth largest producer of gold. Global mining companies have invested billions in the extraction of these minerals, and are set to invest more. The Peruvian economy is among the most dynamically growing in Latin America at present, and it seems set to join Brazil and Chile as a stable democratic nation-state in which the quality of lives of the citizens gradually yet predictably improves. This is something like a miracle if we recall the state of affairs in Peru during the worst of the Sendero Luminoso years (though the group is still in existence and even regularly updates a website — and there is also the “Committee to Support the Revolution in Peru” based in well-heeled Berkeley, California).
Mining is a crucial component of the economic and industrial growth of Peru. Multinationals Xstrata and Newmont have enormous operations in the country, as does the Peruvian industrial concern Buenaventura. Newmont is considering an investment of nearly five billion USD in a copper and gold mining project. But as the investment grows and the industry grows, the tension grows with it. Whether or not the institutions of Peruvian society are now strong enough to contain these tensions and channel them constructively into political activity is yet to be see. It will not be easy.
Of course, Peru is not Bolivia, and vice versa. Bolivia never experienced anything like the level of violence and brutality of the Sendero Luminoso campaign in Peru, and Peru has not experienced the level of political instability that has characterized Bolivia’s history. Peru’s capital, Lima, was the City of Kings, and the center of Spanish administration in the New World. In contrast, even though Potosí was the source of legendary wealth, and once the largest city in the Western Hemisphere because of the silver mining, it was always on the periphery politically. Thus in Spanish America, Peru was related to Bolivia as center to periphery.
Nevertheless, there is something to be learned, and learning here is the crucial term. The resource extraction industries have made the same egregious mistakes with such predictable regularity, and resulting in the same predictable regularity of popular action in opposition, that I suspect that all parties to this wearisome political cycle are guilty of a near total absence of creative thinking on the problem. In circumstances like this, it can honestly be said that we need a revolution — but a revolution in the way of doing business, including the ordinary business of life.
Something needs to be done about the shallow industrial base of those places in the world where the global economy has a footprint of a single point. Local capital and local expertise need to join local labor, or the effort is manifestly unsustainable.
Local communities need to adjust their expectations and their way of life just as much as businesses need to adjust their way of doing business. Even if the way of life has not changed in thousands of years, it is changing now, and whether it is minerals or tourists or something else, the old ways are being crowded out as industrial-technological civilization continues its relentless expansion. Modernization isn’t just a good idea, it is the only way the these traditional communities will survive — admittedly, at some cost to tradition, but when the alternative is annihilation and extinction, change would seem to be preferable.
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