MAC: Mines and Communities


Published by MAC on 2001-05-01


5 February 1999

Dear PW,

Thank you for writing to the World Socialist Web Site. Our articles on last July's massacre carried out by the Indonesian regime on the West Papuan (Irian Jayan) island of Biak did not deal in any detail with the role of the Freeport mining operation.

We simply made the point that after centuries of Dutch colonialism and three decades of Indonesian rule, West Papua has some of the worst social, health and education conditions in the world, despite hosting one of the richest copper and gold mines in the world -- the $40 billion Freeport mine, owned jointly by the Freeport McMoRan company of the US, Rio Tinto of Britain and the Jakarta regime.

Nevertheless, your letter raises some underlying issues about not only the role of Freeport but also that of colonialism and capitalism historically. You suggest that Freeport remained in West Papua to fight the atrocities and corruption of the Indonesian regime, rather than to make profits. In reality, the Freeport consortium entered into a lucrative partnership with the Suharto family and its cronies in order to gain privileged access to the mine's wealth. The company enjoys generous tax concessions, pays its local workforce far less than workers in the US or Britain, and is notorious for toxic wastes that devastate the downstream environment.

Even if some of the executives and senior staff involved, including yourself, approached their work with the best intentions of lifting the living conditions of local people, the objective requirements of corporate profit-making on a global scale dictate the payment of the lowest wages possible and the cutting of all costs, including those for the protection of the health and environment of the local people. In other words, the staggering inequality observed in West Papua--a mining project pumping out billions of dollars in revenue while most of the population lives in terrible poverty--is the necessary outcome of global capitalism. The same can be seen across the border in Papua New Guinea and around the world.

Your letter tends towards the centuries-old argument of the "white man's burden"--that colonial plunder was necessary to wrench the primitive peoples of Asia, Africa and South America into the modern world. Capitalism has certainly done so, but how and at what cost?

In Capital, Karl Marx drew out the central role that colonialism played in the genesis of industrial capitalism. More or less in chronological order, Spain, Portugal, Holland France and Britain employed the most brutal means, including widespread massacres and slave trading, to exploit the labour and resources of their colonial conquests. This, in turn, provided the momentum for the violent transformation of their own urban and rural populations into wage workers. These interconnected processes were, as Marx established, essential for the original, primitive accumulation of industrial capital.

Drawing on contemporary records and accounts, Marx gave a picture of the methods used by the Dutch authorities in the East Indies, now Indonesia. "The history of the colonial administration of Holland--and Holland was the head capitalistic nation of the 17th century--'is one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre and meanness' (Thomas Stamford Raffles, The History of Java, London 1817).

"Nothing is more characteristic than their system of stealing men, to get slaves for Java. The men stealers were trained for this purpose. The thief, the interpreter, and the seller, were the chief agents in this trade, native princes the chief sellers. The young people stolen were thrown into the secret dungeons of Celebes, until they were ready for sending to the slave-ships. An official report says: 'This one town of Macassar, e.g., is full of secret prisons, one more horrible than the other, crammed with unfortunates, victims of greed and tyranny fettered in chains, forcibly torn from their families'" [Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Progess Publishers, Moscow, 1986, page 704].

Marx quoted Raffles, once the British Lieutenant-General in the region, but the British surpassed such cruelties in Africa and the negro trade to the Americas. Liverpool, as Marx put it, "waxed fat" on the slave trade.

Nor were the aboriginal populations of North America or Australia treated any more humanely by British colonialism. Indians and Aborigines were not enslaved; they were massacred and the survivors driven from the land.

It took these means to establish on a global scale what is routinely presented as an "eternal law of nature"--the transformation of the social means of production and subsistence into capital, and the mass of the population into wage-labourers. Capital, as Marx said, came into the world "dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt".

All the while, the barbaric treatment of the native people, often still living in near stone-age conditions, was sanctified by the Christian churches in the name of bringing God and civilisation to the heathen. The missionaries frequently made a unique contribution to these processes by corralling dispossessed native people into settlements where they were ravaged by disease. Today's missionaries may provide rudimentary facilities but they do not challenge the operations of companies such as Freeport. On the contrary, by encouraging the creation of private property rights over land and the introduction of cash crops and other commercial enterprises they facilitate the emergence of an indigenous capitalist layer.

It is true, as you say, that no one can turn back the "hand of time". The people of West Papua can and must be provided with the best that modern science, technology and society have to offer. But this will only be achieved on a truly voluntary, democratic and humane basis by reorganising society as a whole so that human need, not corporate profit, is the guiding principle. That is the basic perspective of socialism.

You equate socialism with the Stalinist regimes that existed in Eastern Europe. These bureaucratically-dominated states were the antithesis of Marxism, based on the suppression of working class democracy, social inequality and a nationalist outlook. Our movement, the Fourth International established by Leon Trotsky, has an unbroken history of struggle against Stalinism. Of course, this question cannot be adequately dealt with in a letter such as this, but if you wish to examine the issue, there is ample material on the World Socialist Web Site.

Yours sincerely,

Mike Head

for the World Socialist Web Site
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