In the late 19th century, the Congo was ripped open for its large rubber resources to satisfy capitalism’s new found demand for tires, leading to the death of millions of Africans. The horrors of the Congo are well known. Pictures of mutilation and death appear frequently in the lectures of academics who demand the need to create a more humanitarian capitalism. Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ appears on many school syllabuses. But despite literary suggestions of a problem found within the human heart, the truth is the problem was to be found in a new epoch of history that continues to this day: the epoch of imperialist capitalism.
It is no longer rubber being craved so viciously in the Congo. With the emergence and rapid expanse of the digital world, the profit hungry networks of Chinese mining companies as well as American and Japanese tech companies have cast their gaze on the Congo’s cobalt deposits, which are so desperately needed for lithium-batteries to power smartphones, laptops and electric cars. As of 2016, 60% of the world’s Cobalt came from the Congo at the expense of the lungs, legs, and lives of the Congolese proletariat.
An estimated 100,000 Congolese workers are underground mining with simple tools and few safety regulations. In 2012 UNICEF estimated that 40,000 children were involved in the mining in the south. Children are not just in the mines. Many are involved in the washing of collected ores in local rivers being paid on average 1 USD a day.
In 2016 up to 25% of the Congo’s cobalt came from “artisanal” mines.1 These mines are not owned by big Chinese companies, such as Congo DongFang International Mining, but are makeshift mines by local diggers. They in turn sell their ore findings to Chinese mining companies. Nonetheless, artisanal mining is on the rise, with many companies favouring to buy artisanal ore due to its cheap price without the necessity to ensure steady salaries or safety costs.
The conditions in these “artisanal” mines are horrifying. With little to no safety equipment or procedures, the threat of collapse, toxic fumes, and underground fires are high and frequent. It is not uncommon for many miners to be injured or killed in a single accident. In one notable case in September 2015, thirteen cobalt miners died when a dirt tunnel collapsed in Mabaya, near the Zambia border. In another case, 16 diggers were killed by landslides in Kawama, followed months later by the deaths of 15 diggers in an underground fire in Kolwezi. One local inspector claimed he had personally pulled 36 bodies from local artisanal mines in the past several years.2 Despite the risks, the ‘free’ workers find themselves working in such conditions for two to three dollars a day in a world demanding cobalt for the tech-economy, often sleeping in the mines between shifts.
The physical threat of cobalt mining does not end in the makeshift tunnels. The environmental devastation has long ranging health effects on the local population. Workers and their families working in or living near mining areas have been found to have urinary concentrations of cobalt that were 43 times as high as that of a control group, lead levels five times as high, and cadmium and uranium levels four times as high. The levels were even higher in children.3 Mining regions are seeing a prevalence of birth defects previously rare or non-existent in the area. Diseases such as holoprosencephaly and mermaid syndrome are appearing on the soot-covered stage in these communities ravaged by global capital’s bitter and desperate search for profits.
Despite the warm-sounding yet feeble responses by Apple, Samsung, BMW, or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who claimed, “We work closely with our suppliers to ensure they meet our standards and conduct a number of audits every year to ensure our manufacturing partners are in compliance with our policies”.4 The truth is the bourgeoisie finds itself with an unsortable tension between class ideology and class interest. As Lukacs wrote, “The whole existence of the bourgeoisie and its culture is plunged into the most terrible crisis… utter sterility of an ideology divorced from life, of a more or less conscious attempt at forgery… a cynicism no less terribly jejune lives on in the world-historical irrelevances and nullities of its own existence and concerns itself only with the defence of that existence and with its own naked self-interest”.5 Its cries of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ are nothing but the freedom to exploit and the justice of their exploitation. It desperately avoids the fact that the barbarism of the world is due to their own economic order.
Much of the mined cobalt makes its way from the Congo to China. In 2016 about 90 percent of China’s cobalt originates in Congo, where Chinese firms dominate the mining industry.6 From here the misery is hoisted upon the Chinese worker. Manufacturing smartphones and electric cars in smog filled cities for low wages. In March 2018 China’s capitalist appetite in cobalt was reaffirmed when GEM, a Chinese battery maker, said it would acquire a third of the cobalt shipped by Glencore, the world’s biggest producer of the metal, between 2018 and 2020—equivalent to almost half of the world’s 110,000-tonne production in 2017.7 This goes hand in hand with the increase in demand for electric cars, which typically requires 5-10 kilograms of cobalt compared to smartphones 5-10 grams.
Despite the overflowing champagne cellars of the Chinese bourgeoisie and their loyal bureaucrats, the exploitation of the Congolese proletariat is only collected in crumbs by the Chinese worker, crumbs which are covered in manufacturing soot. Graphite, another mineral necessary to produce lithium-batteries, is notorious for devastating pollution in the areas where it is used in the manufacturing process, contaminating local water supplies and clouding the air with toxic dust covering the local crops. The reason for this misery placed on the Chinese working class is simple. The manufacturing method used in China is cheaper than the one used in other countries, where the graphite is purified by ‘baking’.8 Beyond the pollution Chinese workers continue to suffer low wages. It is not so distant in the past, that due to low and even unpaid wages, the Chinese proletariat declared their suffering and antagonism to the bourgeois order in the strike wave of 2014. From all corners of the earth, the imperialist world system sows misery, as a bloodsucking class of exploiters in competition with each other attempts to find profits which seeps through their fingers like sand. All across the global the bourgeois system is panicked and plunging humanity into barbarism to increase the mass of their profits in the face of the inexorable decline in rate of profit.
The increasing dominance of Chinese imperialism in Africa has not gone unnoticed and unchallenged by other poles of imperialism. With China quickly outpacing the US with regard to trade in Africa, the US has fallen back on its overwhelming military strength. As noted “In place of long-term economic investment, diplomacy and political partnership, the US is using its overwhelming military superiority to encroach on Africa under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’. But the real purpose for increasing US military strength in Africa is about securing strategic economic interests cheaply, using military power as opposed to committing financial investment in the way that China is doing”.9 Compared with China’s one naval base in the Horn of Africa the US retains military bases in 49 out 54 African countries.10
The increase in militarism corresponding with imperialist economic competition is that of one shoe falling after another. As Bukharin understood, it is inherent to the logic of the world imperialist system. With the immense concentration and centralization of capital in its imperialist epoch the birth of massive state-capitalist trusts were born. With competition in the “national” economy on the decline, capitalist competition is to be played out on the international arena among massive centralized trusts tied intricately to the state. As he stated clearly in ‘Imperialism and the World Economy’ “the struggle between state capitalist trusts is decided in the first place be the relation between their military forces, for the military power of the country is the last resort of the struggling ‘national’ groups of capitalists”.11 Thus, in all arenas of imperialist competition lies the threat of war between competing states. It is only through a Marxist lens that the continuous regional wars which have been so devastating to the working class can be understood.
While this short text is primarily focused on imperialism in the Congo and the misery of the Congolese workers, it cannot be forgotten that the imperialist system is the threatening shadow behind every worker. The fierce competition of the capitalist class has caused the horrendous conditions of the Congolese miners, the polluted air of the Chinese manufacturing towns, and the malicious austerity in the Western world. It is the ruling class’s own order which has caused regional wars to erupt all over the globe, leading to the loss of the lives of so many workers. It is only the exploited class which can end this barbarous system by uniting its struggles as a class and by taking up the historic task before it. The unification of the class is the role of the communist party. It is only a party that can properly take the full thread of the working classes history and sow it into a programme that projects into the future communist society. The construction of this international party remains the foremost task of revolutionaries today.
- 1Frankle, Todd. “The Cobalt Pipeline” Washington Post , 30 Sept. 2016, washingtonpost.com. Accessed 10 April 2018.
- 5Lukacs, Georg. “History and Class Consciousness” Marxist Internet Archive. 1919-1923. marxists.org. Accessed 11 April 2018.
- 6Todd. “The Cobalt Pipeline” Washington Post
- 7What if China Corners the Cobalt Market, Economist. 24 March, 2018. media.economist.com. Accessed 11 April 2018.
- 8Whoriskey, Peter. “In Your Phone, In Their Air”. Washington Post, 2 Oct, 2016. washingtonpost.com . Accessed April 11.
- 9Ergosum. “the Hidden Scramble for Africa's Resources”, Leftcom. 7 Nov , 2017. leftcom.org. Access 10 April 2018.
- 10Ergosum. “China Openly Declares It’s Imperialist ambitions”. Leftcom. 3 Nov, 2017. leftcom.org. Accessed 10 April, 2018.
- 11Bukharin, Nikolai. “Imperialism and the World Economy”. Marxist Internet Archive. 1915-19-17. marxists.org. Accessed 12 April, 2018.