Middle-Class Politics and the Neoliberalization of Copper Mining in Pinochet-era Chile
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Whitaker, Georgia Claire
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CitationWhitaker, Georgia Claire. 2021. Middle-Class Politics and the Neoliberalization of Copper Mining in Pinochet-era Chile. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation analyzes the development of labor relations and class politics in Chile’s large-scale copper industry between the 1970s and 1990s. It follows a generation of copper miners who fought to bring the copper sector under state control, and then battled with state officials, foreign companies, and their own union leaders over the meaning of national ownership and belonging. Copper was twentieth-century Chile’s most important resource. While the Unidad Popular (1970-1973) and the military dictatorship (1973-1990) saw nationalization as a way to fund the government’s agenda, miners believed that nationalization should first and foremost reward those who labored in the mines.
Bridging labor, economic, and political history, as well as memory studies, this dissertation argues that copper workers used their employment as a defensive shield against the political and economic transformations unfolding on a national scale, first under socialism and then under authoritarianism. Miners’ behavior offers a revealing window onto larger processes of economic development and class formation occurring on a national and regional level during the Cold War. Copper workers’ values – of hard work, of mastery of natural resources, of independence – connect them to a social class, formed from state investment at mid-century and threatened first by la vía chilena and later by neoliberal modernizations. The neoliberal state outsourced labor relations, replaced skilled human labor with technological innovation, and buoyed a new middle class of self-employed entrepreneurs involved in computing, importing-exporting, telecommunications, and other services. The growing awareness among the mid-century middle class that they were privileged, and that their privilege could be taken away, was essential to miners’ attitudes and activism. In debates and protests, miners sought protection against a working class calling for the very same rights and privileges that they had so recently and precariously won.
As the first part of this dissertation documents, miners influenced, and also suffered the influence of, the dictatorship. While copper unions prioritized the recovery of salary bonuses and benefits, the military regime remade the system of labor. The dictatorship rewrote the country’s labor code, dissolved unions, and outsourced labor relations to private contracting agencies. In the copper mines, labor became more individualistic and precarious. The social identity of mining changed as mining camps, long the center of life in the rural north, closed. This project illustrates the accommodationist tendencies of some copper workers, but it also shows that even those most privileged of Chile’s laborers were hurt by neoliberalization.
The dissertation’s second part explains why so many of the junta’s neoliberal reforms survived the transition to democracy. Neoliberalism’s staying power derived from international capital’s hold on the Chilean economy as well as from the domestic actors who entered into a Faustian bargain with the dictatorship in order to secure its end. In the mid-1980s, old political parties and hierarchies reemerged to negotiate Chile’s “democratic return.” Popular critiques of economic inequality produced the conditions necessary for the political opening, but they were subordinated to electoral democracy. Although the composition of the middle classes changed over the course of military rule, “those in the middle” remain central to the enduring myth of Chilean exceptionalism.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37368404
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