Mining has always been expensive and weird

One of the questions that I want to answer with this thesis is how (or really, whether) the political category of critical minerals” differs from prior resource policies by governments/nation-states. The phrasing critical mineral” is a modern phenomenon situated in the interwar years of the 20th century, but is making a list of Important Rocks and stockpiling tungsten an inherently modern phenomenon? Did medieval kings have Important Rock lists?1(#fn1)

These questions led me to reading about the economics of medieval mining. My hypothesis is the category of critical minerals” can’t be understood solely in terms of changes in the nation-state. It also emerges amidst changes in the market—commodity trading and futures are a 19th century phenomenon that seem kind of important to thinking about critical minerals”, but are pretty absent from critical mineral history literatureWhy not, I guess(#fn2) So how did mining work before capitalism—or maybe more relevant to my question, how did mining become capitalist?

Probably the most interesting papers found in my search for a better grasp of pre-capitalist mining were by Jeannette Graulau, who situates her history of silver mining in feudal Europe3(#fn3) in a critique of dominant Marxist analyses of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. (The main thing to know here is basically, Marx and a lot of people who’ve built on his ideas kind of oversimplified the dynamics of feudal mining, focusing more on agriculture for better or worse.)

One part of her argument comes from the fact that mining produced a novel property relation: the mining claim. Mining claims did not have the same strictures of vassalage seen in agrarian contracts and they typically were not claims for tenancy–while agrarian peasants might live on the land they farmed, miners might live in a free mining city” (a title granted to communities of miners by lords). Miners still had to pay rents and some percentage of profits from ore to lords but they certainly had more spatial mobility than farmers.

From the mining claim followed the mining share, distributed by the mining corporation—associations of people (possibly free miners?) with the financial capital to pay for the fixed capital of mining and smelting technologies without which mining couldn’t happen. This is an important detail, I think: while farming is absolutely very hard work, it is technically possible to grow stuff without highly advanced tools. This is often not true for synthesizing pure ore from mineral deposits! Smelting is a whole complicated thing, and not necessarily a thing a feudal lord knew much about or had money to finance. Enter the mine corporation and their shares, which Graulau writes to the extent that shares represent surpluses, they are the best evidence that capital took over the process of transforming feudal land into mining land.” The landlord may have owned the land on which the mine operates, but shareholders technically owned the mine, and the landlord ended up in the position of protecting the mine corporation’s property rights to preserve the profits they get from contracting the mining claim. Anyone who’s familiar with the concept of mineral rights today recognizes what’s happening here.

As mentioned in the footnotes, since Graulau’s specific example of silver mining is somewhat complicated by its relationship to coinage there are aspects of this that don’t fully apply: namely, the transformations she describes emerge in part from a silver mining boom starting in the tenth century.4(#fn4) It’s not clear whether iron miners or mercury miners had the same level of agency or whether those mines lent themselves to the securitization seen with silver mine shares. But I still think Graulau’s research is relevant. One, it illustrates an important relationship between extraction and securitization. Two, it indicates that property relations in mining under capitalism are super-old and have been super-weird for a long time.

  1. One part of answering this question has to do with what distinction we want to make between mining to produce coinage and mining to produce commodities; I am still thinking about this question a lot but it’s probably a separate blog post but I’m setting it aside for now. ↩︎

  2. Another historical event of the interwar era that seems sort of important but only really gets like a paragraph in the big commonly cited critical mineral histories: nationalization and expropriation of mines! Seems like that would be a pretty big deal! ↩︎

  3. Silver, of course, is a fraught example relative to the modern critical mineral insofar as we’re back to the distinction between coinage metals and industrial” metals; I think some of Graulau’s observations still generalize. ↩︎

  4. Could we go so far as to say Charlemagne made silver a critical mineral”? Kind of maybe, but this comparison still feels wobbly to me. ↩︎

December 1, 2022