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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Miracle in Chile: Capitalism or Community?

In our overheated political environment, it was inevitable that someone would come forward with the assertion that one political ideology or another made the celebrated rescue of the Chilean miners possible. So here’s an excerpt from “Capitalism Saved the Miners: The profit = innovation dynamic was everywhere at the mine rescue site” by Daniel Henninger, an editor/columnist at the Wall Street Journal and Fox News contributor (video clip here):

It needs to be said. The rescue of the Chilean miners is a smashing victory for free-market capitalism.
Amid the boundless human joy of the miners’ liberation, it may seem churlish to make such a claim. It is churlish. These are churlish times, and the stakes are high.
In the United States, with 9.6% unemployment, a notably angry electorate will go to the polls shortly and dump one political party in favor of the other, on which no love is lost. The president of the U.S. is campaigning across the country making this statement at nearly every stop:
“The basic idea is that if we put our blind faith in the market and we let corporations do whatever they want and we leave everybody else to fend for themselves, then America somehow automatically is going to grow and prosper.”
Uh, yeah. That’s a caricature of the basic idea, but basically that’s right. Ask the miners.
If those miners had been trapped a half-mile down like this 25 years ago anywhere on earth, they would be dead. What happened over the past 25 years that meant the difference between life and death for those men?
Short answer: the Center Rock drill bit.
This is the miracle bit that drilled down to the trapped miners. Center Rock Inc. is a private company in Berlin, Pa. It has 74 employees. The drill’s rig came from Schramm Inc. in West Chester, Pa. Seeing the disaster, Center Rock’s president, Brandon Fisher, called the Chileans to offer his drill. Chile accepted. The miners are alive.
Longer answer: The Center Rock drill, heretofore not featured on websites like Engadget or Gizmodo, is in fact a piece of tough technology developed by a small company in it for the money, for profit. That’s why they innovated down-the-hole hammer drilling. If they make money, they can do more innovation.
This profit = innovation dynamic was everywhere at that Chilean mine. The high-strength cable winding around the big wheel atop that simple rig is from Germany. Japan supplied the super-flexible, fiber-optic communications cable that linked the miners to the world above.
A remarkable Sept. 30 story about all this by the Journal’s Matt Moffett was a compendium of astonishing things that showed up in the Atacama Desert from the distant corners of capitalism.

Henninger goes on, extolling the marvels of free trade and innovative capitalism, Samsung cellphones and anti-bacterial socks, adding “…Without this system running in the background, without the year-over-year progress embedded in these capitalist innovations, those trapped miners would be dead.” He shoehorns in the requisite digs at the Obama administration tax, regulation and trade policies, which he sees as an obstruction to the life-saving miracles of the unfettered market.
Henninger’s bloodless, technocratic interpretation of a richly-human story as “a triumph of market capitalism” is amplified in another WSJ video, featuring additional gush about the leadership of Chile’s right-center President Pinera in the rescue effort.
Nice try, but no sale. After acknowledging that, well, yes, market capitalism does facilitate manufacture of great drill bits, socks and life-saving products (as well as shoddy, wasteful and dangerous products), and OK, President Sebastian Pinera is a charismatic guy who didn’t screw up the rescue, the hard evidence for calling the rescue “a smashing victory for free market capitalism,” thins considerably.
The spirit that kept the miners alive for 69 days has deeper roots in the miners’ faith and remarkable solidarity, strengthened by their families, community and union, CONFEMIN. That was also the source of the strength that drove the unflagging determination of the rescue team.
Indeed, the resurfacing workers pointedly called for stronger safety regulations to protect them and all Chilean miners from further disasters. As the second miner out of the shaft, Mario Sepulveda, put it, “This country has to understand that changes must be made.” Moreover, unions have always lead the drive for mine safety reforms in Chile and all nations, usually against the obstruction of conservative parties.
Some observers believe that Chile’s economy is overly-dependent on extractive industries in general. As Chilean academic Maria Ester Feres, director of the Central University of Chile’s centre on labour relations, research and advice, explains, “The joy over the near-epic rescue that has been the result of the strength and wisdom of the miners of Atacama makes it necessary for us not to forget that situations like this one are absolutely avoidable.”
As for President Pinera’s leadership, what politician wouldn’t be on-site for the duration of the rescue, with the possible exception of Rand “Accidents Happen” Paul, current darling of the libertarian right? Credit President Pinera with projecting a compassionate spirit, as did George Bush in the immediate wake of 9-11. Pinera seems to have found a little pro-regulation religion as a result of the miners rescue and the new national focus on mine safety, according to this report from the IPS-Inter Press Service:

The president also announced the creation of a mining superintendency to regulate and enforce safety standards, a restructuring of the National Geology and Mining Service, increased funds for inspections, and the establishment of another advisory committee, to review mining safety regulations.

Pinera’s proposed reforms have already been criticized by union supporters as inadequate and lacking in substance. Drill bit innovations notwithstanding, meaningful safety reforms to protect miners have always come from two sources: negative publicity following disasters and union advocacy. Mine safety reform is more often obstructed by the legislative champions of unregulated markets.
For a more credible take on the rescue, consider this excerpt from Chris Matthews’ eloquent editorial on the topic on MSNBC’s Hardball (video here):

Down 2,000 feet in the ground a group of 33 men not only survived for 69 days but prevailed. What a story of human faith, hope, charity and community.
I know that last word drives people on the right crazy. Theirs is the popular notion of every man for himself, grab what you can, screw the masses, cash out of the government, go it alone, the whole cowboy catechism.
But how would those miners have survived – the 33 of them – and their loved ones living above – if they’d behaved like that, with the attitude of “every man for himself?”
This is, above all, and deep down there in the mine, about being all in this together. It’s about mutual reliance, and, relying on others not just do their jobs, but come through in the clutch. Somebody had to get food and medicine down to these guys and somebody did. Somebody had to drill that hole down to get them and somebody did. And all the time the guys down there – those 33 human souls – kept the faith.
“I was with God and I was with the devil,” one of the first guys out said. “They both fought for me. God won.”
So, in his way, did man. The group of miners stuck down a half-mile into the earth organized themselves. They had one guy in charge, another the spiritual leader, still another working on health, still another the director of entertainment….

In stark contrast to the spirit on display in Chile, Matthews cites the less inspiring political moment in the U.S.: “This coming election now looks to be a process very different. What it promises to be is a huge number of Americans withdrawing their confidence in the ability to work together, to have faith in each other to build a common community. It’s headed toward being something quite un-American: a statement that we are “not” in this together.”
An interesting point, which may help explain why the Chilean miners rescue made for such riveting television in the U.S. People all over the world prayed for the miners and celebrated their rescue with cheers and tears. But in the U.S., we were particularly inspired by the powerful spirit of concern for the workers throughout Chilean society, so absent in the right-wing movement that threatens to win control of congress. The challenge now is to generate some of that spirit in Democratic GOTV.

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