Socialist Worker

Blood on the text

by Mike Rosen
Issue No. 1782

'THE TROUBLE with you Socialist Worker types is that you haven't moved on. You talk about capitalism as if we're still in the 1830s - child labour, workers burning themselves out in terrible conditions, press-gangs rounding people up to be killed in foreign wars. And you talk of company directors as if they were old-style bosses getting rich from the toil and blood of the masses.'

It's a speech many of us have heard in the last few years, often coming from any ex-friends and acquaintances seen moving very fast up those places called career ladders and corridors of power. If you happen to visit an industrial heritage site, you might think the speech had a point.

I visited one where you travelled in a train into a copper mine to be told that the miners began work at the age of six or seven and very rarely got beyond the age of 40. But nowadays we're told that we're in high-tech capitalism, e-mailing and texting each other all day long. Utterly different, we might think. E-mailing? Texting? Now, one of the nasty spoilsport questions we old fashioned Socialist Worker types like to ask is, 'What's the material base?'

How are the machines that deliver all this zingy high-speed communication made? What kind of conditions do the people who extract these raw materials live and work in? For the merchants of big new ideas these questions never seem quite so sexy as wild speculations about computers replacing human brains, or texting replacing thought.

But let's not be put off. In our computers and mobile phones there are capacitors and semiconductors. One material that's become essential in the production of these is something called columbite-tantalite, coltan for short. Around 70 percent of the world's coltan comes from Australia.

The rest comes from various countries including Brazil, Canada, and a group made up of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. The mere mention of those last three countries might set off a few alarm bells in your mind. Aren't there several warring groups fighting for domination in the region, you might remember?

The Lord Tebbit approach is to explain this in terms of the natural savagery of the dark peoples. The Tony Blair approach is to say that we're going to do lots of lovely things for those poor people. Meanwhile another minister OKs massive arms sales.

In fact what's going on is something rather akin to those bygone days of the 1830s - child labour, workers burning themselves out in terrible conditions, and press-gangs rounding people up to be killed in foreign wars. And the force that sustains all this is none other than our old friend international capitalism. You know some of the names-Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, Intel.

Others, the makers of the spare parts, like A&M Minerals of the UK, and AVX of South Carolina, are not so high-street familiar. But all of them have got one thing in common - spokesmen who will say that it's impossible to tell whether their Coltan comes from Congo.

'We ask our suppliers if they use coltan from Congo,' says Outi Mikkonen from Nokia, 'and if they say no, we believe it.' With only 10,000 civilians killed so far in the mining and civil wars financed by this trade, this sounds to me like a very principled, whizzy, high-tech view on the matter.

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Sat 12 Jan 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1782
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