Digging Out of Darkness: Labor, Capital, and the Chilean State in the Age of Mass Society

Pavilack, Jody. Mining for the Nation: The Politics of Chile’s Coal Communities from the Popular Front to the Cold War. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

When Chile granted literate men over the age of 21 the right to vote in 1925, a new era marked by the rise of mass society had begun.[1] Similar to processes unfolding around the world, the enfranchisement of progressively-larger swaths of Chile’s population in the early-twentieth century upended traditional politics and undermined the economic status quo. Jody Pavilack’s Mining for the Nation explores the politics of Chile’s southern coal communities to understand how this process – sometimes peaceful, often bloody – set the tone for more than a half-century of conflict between labor and capital, culminating in the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Pavilack takes the reader to the 1930s and 1940s, when Allied powers were battling fascism in Europe and the promise of cooperation between Soviet communism and U.S. capitalism still seemed viable. While utopic in hindsight, the idea of “an alliance of the proletariat and the progressive bourgeoisie, with the impartial mediation of an interventionist state,” led miners to support the formation of a Chilean Popular Front, through which they hoped to negotiate better working and living conditions needed to maintain the economically-important production of Chilean coal (Pavilack 2011: 7). Yet far from the “myth of smooth, peaceful Chilean democracy up to 1973,” Pavilack argues that this period was eventually marked by escalating conflicts and the increasing radicalization of labor, capital, and state actors (Pavilack: 339).

Initially constrained by the patriotic fervor accompanying World War II and the Allied struggle against global fascism, coal miners held out hope that company officials would negotiate with workers in good faith. As the title of the monograph suggests, miners felt they were performing a patriotic duty for the nation and were willing to suffer personally to aid the global war effort. As Pavilack says, early successes by Chilean communist and allied parties gave rise to the illusion that workers would have “greater opportunities to pursue their interests, direct their own lives, and perhaps even to influence the country and the world” (Pavilack: 6). They would use their “powerful bargaining position, with their capacity to halt coal production” to ensure respect for the working classes and exert influence on society (Pavilack: 164).

Police bullets shattered this dream on October 1942, when the Coal Mining Company of Lota called on Chile’s Carabineros to break up a union assembly, killing three and wounding scores. With labor leader Carlos Silva’s death, a window of opportunity was shut. Not only were workers outraged by the company’s actions, state officials also felt that mining executives’ “refusal to compromise made it more difficult for the government to keep the peace and maintain law and order” (Pavilack: 137). More than just a labor dispute, the 1942 shootings in Lota revealed that “a battle was being waged between the bosses’ control of their workers and the state’s jurisdiction over its citizens” (Pavilack: 171). The willingness of company officers to use deadly force to break up a routine, legal union meeting highlights how threatened companies felt by organized labor and the rising importance of the masses in modern politics.

In light of all this, Pavilack asks the central question, “how did ownership of property translate into authority over citizen workers” (Pavilack: 153)? While this monograph does a masterful job of providing an explanation, it would have been interesting to see what connections the author could make to Chile’s lesser-known national hero, Diego Portales, who wrote in 1832 that the country social order has always been maintained “por el peso de la noche.”[2] More than a century before Chile’s government cracked down on coal miners in Lota, its political and economic elite already knew that their strength came from ruling in the dark.

NOTES
[1] Before 1925, only property-holding, literate men were allowed to vote. Literate women gained suffrage in local election in 1934 and were allowed to vote in national elections in 1949. Limitations on voting were removed for men and women in 1970. [2] Letter from Diego Portales to President Joaquín Tocornal, July 16, 1832, reproduced from author’s personal notes.

N. H. Gill, 2017

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