It is not that the sacred market cannot pay workers better, but rather that it is not convenient. A person in a state of need (tied to debt or poverty) is a modern, docile, manipulable, functional slave. Just like the indebted countries—the indebted poor, not the indebted rich.
Why do peasant farmers in Colombia, responsible for the production of almost 80% of the world cocaine market, earn $1,000 a year while just a kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of cocaine sells for $150,000 in the United States? The dogmatic response is one of the biggest scams in the capitalist world that is repeated in other areas, from agriculture and industry to the professional sphere: Wages respond to “the law of supply and demand.”
If wages in any production chain were dictated solely by this law, the toughest jobs at the bottom of the pyramid (where the labor supply is less than at higher levels) or specialists in the academic or scientific elites would be by far the best-paid positions. The reason lies in the same pyramid of power, justified by a plethora of propaganda and excuses that emanate from the micro class in power and are reproduced in its functional links, from managers, assistant managers, public relations experts, communicators, propagandists, politicians, mercenaries, butlers, laborers, and mendicants. All fossilized in institutions (governments, congresses, the media, schools, universities, churches, clubs, armies, police) that guarantee the sacredness of private property as if the existence of a palace and a shack were the demonstration of the universality of this right.
Apart from the capitalist reason that always presses for cost reduction below and profit maximization above, there is a need to keep marginal groups in a state of perpetual production through necessity, such as indebtedness or poverty itself. This perpetual state of deprivation dehumanizes to the point of instructing the slave to become a slaveholder as a reward for his own sacrifice, something that the lucky 0.1% achieve and are later featured on magazine covers and in parental lessons to their young children—not because all parents buy into this historical fiction, but because they must prepare their children to survive in a dehumanized world.
If these semi-slave workers in Colombia had higher wages and better living conditions, they would probably educate themselves and migrate to other sectors of production and services―the same illegality that makes the product expensive also makes the producers cheap.
The same happens (just to give one more example) with slave labor in different regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In many cases, the unpaid slaves of the 19th century were better fed and less poisoned than today’s African workers, from the cobalt mines of Congo to the mountains of electronic waste in Ghana and Tanzania, or the native loggers of Mozambique, with whom I lived in the 90s. Undoubtedly, in the 19th century the social difference between slaves and their masters, although obscene, was not as great as that which exists today between the producers (called free men and women) and the masters of transnational corporations.
As British professor Siddharth Kara put it in his recent book Cobalt Red (2023), today hundreds of thousands of Congolese and tens of thousands of children are subjected to the worst forms of slavery known to extract cobalt with a shovel or with their naked hands. For a salary of $7 a day when they are lucky (and $2 when it is a normal day) these men, women, and children develop different diseases due to the fact that cobalt is toxic just in contact with the skin. Without considering that those $7 barely allow a family to eat insufficiently, while the long and painful work prevents their children from going to school or having a decent childhood.
Cobalt is essential for the rechargeable batteries of phones, computers, and cars around the world, and 75% of it is extracted from Congo, a country that not only has one of the worst records for imperialist killings but also for brutal dictatorships following the assassination of the great Patrice Lumumba by the Belgian businessmen in complicity with the CIA. How could it be otherwise? All in the name of the noble defense of capital, private property (of the rich), and the progress of developed countries―in the name of civilization.
Currently, the first beneficiaries of this new violation of Congo are corporations such as Apple, Tesla, Samsung, and Chinese investors who realized the big business more than a decade ago. Then follow global consumers, who are mostly unaware or prefer to ignore the existence of modern slaves. The first to lose are the hundreds of thousands of Congolese slaves and the global ecosystem, since, for this mining activity to occur, large areas of natural forests have been eliminated and continue to be eliminated―the classic externalities that never enter the equation of any successful business.
The mere fact that artisanal mining is illegal, as is cocaine production, is irrelevant. For the purposes of this analysis, we must ask ourselves again the same question from the beginning: If Congolese slaves are essential in the cobalt trade chain and are essential to the functioning of our digital world, why are their wages below the minimum conditions of survival and their rights below the rights of the slaves of past centuries?
Because dehumanization is a round business: the dehumanization of producers and dehumanization of consumers. And then they are scared that artificial intelligence will one day take over the world? Isn’t it a First World panic, as is the idea that they will stop being parasitic empires? What is the difference for a modern slave, even for the global middle class, between being dominated by robots or continuing to be dominated and exploited by the usual human elites?
It will be necessary to return to the same explanation: Maintaining a mass population in a state of need is essential to maintain power at the top of the pyramid. Every once in a while this brutality meets some legal limit, the product of years of social activism, but these limits are not part of the logic that governs the world. They exist because not everyone has forgotten that there is something called human dignity that, not by mere coincidence, always has to fight against the immeasurable powers (economic, political, and media) of those above—and with the complicity, indifference, or amnesia of not a few of those below.
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