By Paul Robert Gilbert, University of Brighton
Each year in the Autumn, London’s Geological Society hosts ‘FINEX: Exploration Meets the City’ in their well-appointed premises on Piccadilly. Perhaps more than any of the other similar events hosted year-round in the City of London’s livery companies and Chambers of Commerce, FINEX epitomizes the commercialization of geological expertise upon which mineral exploration depends. Partly a matchmaking event for financiers and geologists, FINEX also includes seminars from lawyers who advise on the key ‘political risks’ facing the metals and mining sector, or provide detailed advice on navigating the mineral codes of newly attractive ‘frontier’ jurisdictions. Alongside the networking and the expert briefings, FINEX and events like it always make plenty of time for the spectacle of the investor pitch.
Chief executives from mining ‘juniors’ – small exploration firms with a skeleton staff whose intention is often to sell on to medium or large production-focused miners – will take to the stage in an effort to attract the funds they need to transform their speculative geological finds into financially-productive assets. These performances are overtly coded as masculine and muscular, with speakers introduced via reference to, say, their previous career as an Australian rugby international (in the case of one Republic of Congo-focused exploration firm), or their Cambridge Blue in boxing (this time, the lead on a project in Sierra Leone). Evoking the practice of the colonial-era anthropologists who would often survey and document their fieldsites while looking out ‘from the door of their tents’, these muscular speculators frequently include – alongside financial statements, preliminary drilling reports and commodity price forecasts – images of their drilling camps in ‘the bush’.
On more than one occasion during my fieldwork in London’s mining market (2012-2015), these images of speculators, tents and drilling equipment in ‘the bush’ prompted questions from the audience about whether the firm hired young ‘expat’ geologists from the former White Dominions (Canada, South Africa, Australia), whose mining industries have becoming the proving ground for any potential analyst or consulting geologist worth their salt.
But it is the slow turn away from these older geographies of resource extraction, and the consequent search for new frontiers (driven in part by declining ore bodies and increasingly stringent regulations in established mining jurisdictions) that renders staging posts like FINEX so essential to the generation of extractive industry capitalism. And while there are certain resemblances between the pitches made by mining juniors and those made by the genomic start-up entrepreneurs studied by Kaushik Sunder Rajan, it is not quite as true that ‘hype constitutes the discursive grounds upon which reality unfolds’ for the extractive industry capitalist.
As important as generating hype about your project is effectively differentiating it from other potentially comparable endeavours located in less favourable jurisdictions. As I have argued in my doctoral thesis (Money mines: an ethnography of frontiers, capital and extractive industry in London & Bangladesh), these practices of comparison and differentiation partake in a racialized grammar of evaluation, according to which ‘Europeanization’ signals stability (and the likelihood that a reliable income stream can be extracted from your project), while ‘backwardness’ (or even more explicitly, at one mining industry trade show, ‘Black Africa’) signals a political risk to your future earnings.
Thus, the aforementioned rugby international, in an effort to gather investment funds through self-conscious spectacle, described his project as being in the right Congo (even if, in the process, he himself confused precisely which Congo was depicted in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness):
“Notwithstanding the branding issue of Joseph Conrad writing the Heart of Darkness, Congo is a good place. The Republic of Congo that is – not the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. It’s the good Congo, they have a new mineral code. The DRC, I’m afraid, is a shithole!”
For a geological deposit to be effectively turned into an asset (a resource that generates recurrent earnings), and then capitalized (or valued in terms of these future earnings), investors must be assured that the host jurisdiction in question – as depicted on various political risk indices and ‘policy potential’ rankings – does not pose a threat to those future flows of income.
And precisely because junior mining companies’ pitches can falter on assessments of territorial difference, a ‘corporate foreign policy’ advice and consultancy industry has sprung up around the briefing and matchmaking events hosted in and around the City. Political risk agencies like Oxford Analytica, business school academics like Timothy Fort and Witold Henisz, and international lawyers like Robert Amsterdam have all contributed to the theory and practice of corporate foreign policy.
The geopolitical dimensions of corporate foreign policy primarily concern the structuring of deals to take advantage of Bilateral Investment Treaties between mining companies’ home and host states. The arbitration provisions that these Treaties provide often afford investors the opportunity to sue states for the ‘expropriation’ of their assets – or for the loss of future expected earnings. Indeed, ‘resource nationalism’ – or the threat of expropriation – was considered to be among the greatest risks facing the mining and metals sector for much of the 2011-2015 period. Hence corporate foreign policy lawyers speaking at trade shows would often encourage miners to ensure that they contract with sovereigns, rather than individual regimes or politicians. Only then could the arbitration clauses in various Bilateral Investment Treaties be activated if there was a fear of ‘creeping expropriation’ or ‘excessive offtake’ by host states.
The complement to this geopolitical corporate foreign policy is the practice of corporate diplomacy. As I have argued in a piece for Anthropology in Action, the turn to corporate diplomacy represents a subtle transformation in the mining industry’s approach towards corporate social responsibility (CSR). This turn is, in part, mining capitalism’s response to critique; corporate diplomats are often the first to openly dismiss extractive industry CSR as an ineffective public relations exercise. Instead, as one lawyer suggested to a packed amphitheatre at one of the world’s biggest mining trade shows, which I attended towards the start of my fieldwork,
“Use your CSR programme as a defensive weapon. Housing, healthcare, education, and increasingly environment. Buy-in from the local community is your first line of support against the less significant political clowns.”
In other words, secure your assets ‘upwards’ against interference from sovereign states by structuring your investment under Bilateral Investment Treaties which provide you with arbitration opportunities; protect your flow of revenue ‘from below’ by enrolling local communities into the defence of capital.
Through my on-going research into speculative extractive industry capitalism, and the political risk industry that provides the ‘summarizing metonyms’ through which many investors come to know mining jurisdictions, the open-endedness of ethnographic research has been indispensable – but so too has an engagement with science & technology studies and critical studies of international law. As Laura Bear and her colleagues have recently argued in their Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism, the inequalities and patterns of accumulation associated with capitalism are generated when projects and practices shaped by charisma, race and gender collide with legal and economic valuation techniques. In the process, ‘people, labor, sentiments, plants, animals and life-ways are converted into resources’ for various projects of production and accumulation.
Likewise, it is precisely at the intersection of muscular spectacle, geological expertise, the legal toolkits of corporate foreign policy experts, and techniques of financial valuation, that new resource frontiers are generated for extractive industry capitalism.