Mining and modern capitalism: Lewis Mumford



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Mining and modern capitalism

More closely than any other industry, mining was bound up with the first development of modern capitalism. By the sixteenth century it had definitely set the pattern for capitalist exploitation.

When mining was undertaken by free men in the fourteenth century in Germany the working of the mine was a simple partnership on a share basis. The miners themselves were often ne’er-do-wells and bankrupts who had seen better days. Partly abetted no doubt by this very application of free labor, there was a rapid advancement in technique in the German mines: by the sixteenth century those in Saxony led Europe, and German miners were imported into other countries, like England, to improve their practices.

The deepening of the mines, the extension of the operations to new fields, the application of complicated machinery for pumping water, hauling ore, and ventilating the mine, and the further appliccation of waterpower to work the bellow in the new furnaces – all these improvements called for more capital than the original workers possessed. This led to the admission of partners who contributed money instead of work: absentee ownership: and this in turn led to a gradual expropriation of the owner-workers and the reduction of their share of the profits to the status of mere wages. This capitalistic development was further stimulated by reckless speculation in mining shares which took place as early as the fifteenth century: the local landlords and the merchants in the nearer cities eagerly followed this new gamble. If the mining industry in Dr. Bauer’s day showed many of the modern improvements in industrial organization – the triple shift, the eight hour day, the existence of guilds in the various metallurgical industries for social intercourse, charitable self-help and insurance – it also showed, as the result of capitalist pressure, the characteristic features of nineteenth century industry throughout the world: the division of classes, the use of the strike as a weapon of defence, the bitter class war, and finally the extinction of the guilds’ power by a combination of mine-owners and the feudal nobility during the so-called Peasant’s War of 1525.

The result of that conflict was to abolish the cooperative guild basis of the mining industry, which had characterized its technical resurrection in Germany, and to place it on a free basis – that is, a basis of untrammeled acquisitiveness and class domination by the shareholders and directors, no longer bound to respect any of the humane regulations that had been developed by medieval society as measures of social protetction. Even the serf had the safeguardof custom and the elementary security of the land itself: the miner and the iron-worker at the furnace was a free – that is, unprotected – worker: the forerurnner of the disinherited wage-workerof the nineteenth centurty. The most fundamental industry of the machine technics had known only for a moment in its history the sanctions and protections and humanities of the guild system: it stepped almost directly from the inhuman expoloitation of chattel slaveryto the hardly less inhuman exploitation of wage slavery. And wherever it went, the degradation of the worker followed.

But in still another way mining was an important agent of capitalism. The great need of commercial enterprise in the fifteenth century was for a sound but expansible currency, and for capital to provide the necessary capital goods – boats, mills, mine-shafts, docks, cranes – for industry. The mines of Europe began to supply this need even before the mines of Mexico and Peru. Sombart calculates that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries German mining earned as much in ten years as trade in the old style was able to accomplish in a hundred. As two of the greatest fortunes of modern times have been founded upon monopolies of petroleum and aluminum, so the great fortune of the Fuggers in the sixteenth century was founded upon the silver and lead mines of Styria and the Tyrol and Spain. The heaping up of such fortunes was part of a cycle we have witnessed with appropriate changes in our own time.

First: improvements in the technique of warfare, especially the rapid growth of the artilleryarm, increased the consumption of iron: this led to new demands upon the mine. In order to finance the ever more costly equipment and maintenance of the new paid soldiery, the rulers of Europe had recourse to the financier. As security for the loan, the lender took over the royal mines. The development of the mines themselves then became a respectable avenue of financial enterprise, with returns that compared favorably with the usurious and generally unpayable interest. Spurred by the unpaid notes, the rulers were in turn driven to new conquests or to the exploitation of remote territories: and so the cycle began over again. War, mechanization, mining, and finance played into each other’s hands. Mining was the key industry that furnished the sinews of war and increased the metallic contents of the original capital hoard, the war-chest; on the other hand, it furthered the industrialization of arms, and enriched the financier by both processes. The uncertainty of both warfare and mining increased the possibilities for speculative gains: this provided a rich broth for the bacteria of finance to thrive in.

Finally, it is possible that the animus of the miner had still another effect on the development of capitalism. This was in the notion that economic value had a relation to the quantity of brute work done and to the scarcity of the product: in the calculus of cost, these emerged as the principal elements. The rarity of gold, rubies, diamonds: the gross work that must be done to get iron out of the earth and ready for the rolling mill – these tended to be the criteria of economic value all through this civilization. But real values do not derive from either rarity or crude manpower. It is not rarity that gives the air its power to sustain life, nor is it the human work done that gives milk or bananas their nourishment. In comparison with the effects of chemical action and the sun’s rays the human contribution is a small one. Genuine value lies in the power to sustain or enrich life: a glass bead may be more valuable than a diamond, a deal table more valuable esthetically than the most tortuously carved one, and the juice of a lemon may be more valuable on a long ocean voyage than a hundred pounds of meat without it. The value lies directly in the life-function: not in its origin, its rarity, or in the work done by human agents. The miner’s notion of value, like the financier’s, tends to be a purely abstract and quantitative one. Does the defect arise out of the fact that every other type of primitive environment contains food, something that may be immediately translated into life – game, berries, mushrooms, maple-sap, nuts, sheep, corn, fish – while the miner’s environment alone is – salt and saccharin aside – not only completely inorganic but completely inedible? The miner works, not for love or for nourishment, but to ‘make his pile.’ The classic curse of Midas became perhaps the dominant characteristic of the modern machine: whatever it touched was turned to gold and iron, and the machine was permitted to exist only where gold and iron could serve as foundation.

Agricola (G. Bauer) De re metallica 1556

Werner Sombart Krieg und Kapitalismus 1913

uit: Lewis MumfordTechnics and Civilization, 1934 Chapter II Agents of Mechanization

zie ook: De Re Metallica

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