Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Chile Leads the Way?

The successful rescue of the trapped Chilean miners generated a most extraordinarily rich set of messages: technical, political-economic, historical, ideological, symbolic and simply dramatic. No one who watched TV coverage of the first breakthrough of the pilot shaft or the emergence of the first rescued miner from the Phoenix capsule could fail to be moved by stoic calm of the trapped miners nor the joy of the waiting relatives. The technical message is not unlike that of the first moon landing, that our technology, when applied with sufficient dedication and resolve can overcome the most extreme hostile environments.

The political-economic message is profoundly appropriate to our current world situation, namely that there's still a vital role for the State and that market forces mustn't be allowed always to prevail. It surely must have been more cost-effective for the mine's owners not even to search for those trapped by the collapse and simply to pay compensation to their relatives, but to my knowledge this was never even considered (the rescue costs will probably bankrupt the company). Circumstances created a human solidarity that overrode all considerations of price, a reminder that's particularly poignant in Chile, which under General Pinochet became a testbed for heartless Chicago-school monetarism. That the miners survived those first horrible foodless, lightless 17 days, and then 50 days of anguished waiting for the drilling to complete is also a remarkable tribute to their discipline and solidarity, a nostalgic reminder for us in de-industrialised Britain.

But of course there has to be a downside, and that's the religious aspect. The BBC 24 reporters covering the events were almost salivating over miner Sepulveda's talk about "meeting God and the Devil" in the mine, tripping over themselves to inform us that the miners in this part of Chile are deeply pious - in other words, eager to drown out all those truly positive messages with a superstitious narrative of divine intervention and miracles. This sort of creepy BBC God-bothering seems to me to be on the increase recently, though I suspect its underlying rationale is merely opportunistic tabloid sensationalism rather than any concerted attack on the secular status of the corporation.

Even so it's hard for me to shake off a feeling that this heroic rescue might mark a turning point back toward social-democratic sanity, and emergence from  a dark epoch that was inaugurated also in Chile by the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende's government.

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