Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Lessons from Christchurch

The earthquake that struck Christchurch in the early hours of Saturday shocked and distressed Kiwis, but the human response to the disaster has quickly become a source of pride around the country.

Last Saturday's quake was as strong as the shock that levelled Napier and killed more than two hundred and fifty people in 1931, and yet it failed to take the life of a single Christchurcher. Building and environmental regulations prevented the complete collapse of all but a few large structures, and Civil Defence workers quickly came to the aid of the injured. A network of well-resourced emergency community shelters has kept the many families forced out of their homes warm and well-fed, and thousands of workers have set about repairing broken sewage lines, fissured streets, and other legacies of the quake. Reports from Christchurch have emphasised the speed and efficiency of the response to the disaster.

The successful response to last weekend's quake was not a matter of luck. As the aftermaths of the hurricane that visited New Orleans in 2005 and the earthquake that hit the Italian city of L'Aquila last year showed, the effects of a natural calamity can be made much worse by humans. In New Orleans, hundreds died after waiting days for rescue services and medical aid; in L'Aquila, money set aside for a rebuilding programme disappeared, leaving thousands homeless. In both the United States and Italy, years of government cost-cutting and the farming out of emergency services to the private sector combined with political corruption to produce disastrous human responses to natural disasters.

The response to the disaster in Christchurch has been so successful because it has been spearheaded by strong state services. Well-funded and well-prepared Civil Defence teams were able to go to work within minutes of the quake hitting. Cash and buildings had been set aside so that emergency shelters could be set up quickly. Billions wait in a state-owned disaster fund to pay for repairs to infrastructure and to compensate uninsured homeowners hit by the quake. But it is not only the fact of state support for emergency efforts which has ensured the success of those efforts. Organisations like Civil Defence rely upon a mixture of government-funded employees and volunteers, and they have been greatly boosted, over the last few days, by the willingness of Christchurchers to do their bit to help deal with the effects of the earthquake. Reports from the city describe hundreds of people organising themselves into work teams, then going from street to street clearing rubble and checking on residents. Other locals have given time at emergency shelters, or handed out free food to families left without disposable cash by the quake.

The response to the disaster in Christchurch is a lesson in what the state can achieve when it acts in the interests of vulnerable communities, and draws on the knowledge and muscle of these communities. The political right is fond of denigrating the state by arguing that it is inevitably corrupt and inefficient. For decades, the propagandists of organisations like Act and the Business Roundtable have been telling us that salvation lies in the weakening of the state, the farming out of even emergency services, and the tearing up of laws that limit what we can do to our physical and natural environment. It's unlikely, though, that we'll hear Rodney Hide or Don Brash telling us that the state shouldn't have led the response to the Christchurch quake, or that the absence of tough building regulations and the Environment Management Act would have protected the city better from the quake. They know that such arguments would be widely mocked.

The campaign to protect and rebuild Christchurch which was launched on Saturday is, of course, a response to an exceptional event. What would happen, though, if the combination of bold action by the state and community mobilisation was used to tackle other problems which affect New Zealand? In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Kiwi society faces a series of emergencies which are less spectacular but no less serious than the situation created by last Saturday's quake. More than one hundred and sixty thousand Kiwis are unemployed. According to social scientist Susan St John, one in four of our kids lives in poverty. Real wages and salaries are dipping, as the global recession prompted by the great financial meltdown of 2008 continues.

The Key government includes many retreads from the pro-market National administrations of the 1990s, and naturally refuses to believe that state intervention can help solve economic problems. Key has been busying trying to rein in spending by the state, by laying off public sector employees and cutting government services. At the same time that he does this, Key is using public money to bail out wealthy investors in South Canterbury Finance, one of the numerous private sector institutions which has been brought down by greedy speculation over the past couple of years. In New Zealand and in most other countries of the West, the public sector is being asked to pay for the sins of the private sector, and in particular of the financial sector. The result will be a deepening of the recession, as the most successful part of the economy is weakened. Laid-off public sector workers will spend less money, cutting demand for the products and services of the private sector and leading to new job cuts there.

If we look overseas, though, we can find examples of state-led community action to tackle problems like poverty and unemployment and defy the global recession. Over the past decade in Venezuela the state has moved from the margins to the centre of economic and social life, as the government led by Hugo Chavez has enlisted millions of its working class and peasant supporters in massive campaigns to improve the economy, health and education services, and the environment. Chavez has created a series of 'Misiones' to replace the old, bureaucratic institutions of the state and work closely with community-based, democratically-elected organisations. Money earned by Venezuela's oil exports has been diverted to the Misiones, and used to pay for new schools, hospitals, and community centres built with help from volunteer labour. After Venezuelan employers and foreign capitalists caused an economic crisis which saw hundreds of factories closed down in 2003-2004, workers were encouraged to occupy the factories and run them without help from the old bosses, in collaboration with the state and local communities. Many other factories have been nationalised under workers' control in the last couple of years. Land which had been left idle by foreign speculators has been seized by the government and distributed to peasants and to indigenous peoples, who have been given grants to help them farm it. Instead of supplying footsoldiers for American and European wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Venezuela has sent its army into the streets and fields, to help build schools and bring in harvests. The government has set up a chain of supermarkets that offers food and other essentials at subsidised prices.

Venezuela remains a poor country with many social problems, but it has made impressive progress in recent years. New hospitals and health programmes have lowered infant mortality rates by 14% since the late '90s. Adult illiteracy has been reduced from 20% to 5% of the population, thanks to the efforts of the education-oriented Misione Robinson. More than one hundred and fity thousand city dwellers have become legal home-owners for the first time. The economy is growing despite the global recession. Chavez's government has repeatedly been re-elected, and his policies have been emulated in several other countries, including Bolivia and Ecuador. In a much less spectacular, much more partial way, the experience of Australia in recent years also shows the power of state intervention to stave off recession. When the world economy went into crisis late in 2008, Australia's Kevin Rudd was the only Western leader who refused to react by cutting state spending. Rudd is not a socialist like Chavez, but he did realise that aggressive state action was the way to avoid mass unemployment, widespread mortgage foreclosures, and an angry electorate. While the Key government was preparing to lay off public sector workers and cut education and health services, Rudd launched a stimulus programme that involved significant increases in government spending. Rudd kept Australia's construction industry afloat, for example, by paying for every school in the country to raise a new building or expand an old one. Because of the twenty-eight billion dollars Rudd pumped into the economy, Australia was the only Western country which avoided going into recession in 2009.

Rudd's policies angered Australia's business community, which wanted to use the global economic crisis as an excuse to cut the size of the welfare state and attack trade unions. When Rudd proposed a new 'superprofits tax' on big mining companies at the beginning of this year the Australian capitalist class went into a frenzy, calling him a 'mini-Chavez' and spending millions on ads attacking Labor. Party insiders became alarmed, and deposed Rudd for the more malleable Julia Gillard. But many Aussies credit Rudd's policies with keeping them in their jobs and homes, and the former Prime Minister overshadowed his usurper during Australia's recent election campaign.

The global financial crisis of 2008 and the recession it bred have shown the idiocy of leaving the welfare of human societies to the mercy of chaotic and irrational global markets. It is the state, acting in concert with working class communities, which can provide the resources and planning necessary to deal not just with exceptional events like the Christchurch earthquake, but also with less spectacular disasters like poverty.


Anonymous Keri Hulme said...

Can I only add, Maps, a heartfelt AE!

6:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This anarchist organisation has come out hard against government spending money to help Chch
they say it's every man for himself and that people have noone to blame for the earthquake...

6:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well anarchists are dicks then aren't they

7:26 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, yes, yes. Government and intervention by people via the state is essential. And people assist free of charge in many cases (students and many others). And time sharing. Of course they would vilify Rudd or anyone who seemed remotely like a Chavez or anyone trying to better the nation at the expense of Big Money.

People helping each other, taking control of the own lives. The state built by the people is there to help also. Capitalism cannot exist sans people (workers and consumers) or good governments.

10:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon's link to an "anarchist organisation" is wrong. The claim was made by the Libertarianz party who are far-right neoliberal nutjobs.

They are not anarchists - get your facts right.

anarchist's are in fact organinsing on-the-ground support as fits there ethos of mutual aid and community support.

11:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

peter cresswell the libertarian blogger is defending looters are misunderstood 'vandals'. what a pillock. libertarians have no answers in a situation like this.

11:06 am  
Anonymous herb said...

'anarchist's [sic] are in fact organinsing on-the-ground support as fits there [sic] ethos of mutual aid and community support.'

Heh. Maybe they could throw in some of those adult literacy classes Hugo has introduced in Venezuela?

11:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

are you always such a fucking dick Herb? Or is this just your online personna?

11:36 am  
Anonymous Edward said...

hear hear Maps! Brilliant post, the sentiment of which I couldn't agree with more. Especially the noting of Australia's recent performance and Venezuela's evolving socialism. While I am definitely not a fan of the current government, I am thankful that NZ still has a ghost enough of socialism leanings to help out ChCh in such a way.

I cannot imagine the super-duper business round table of extraordinary rich white men with their powers of inequality, social ignorance, and a hard-on for neo-liberal finance flying down there to save the day. After all, what is it they actually do? The minimal governance and zero regulations they would love to see would have seen no government response and the collapse of many more buildings without that 'pesky red tape' of building and environmental regulation.

As someone who's had to work first hand with the results of neo-liberal, 'I don't need the nanny state telling me what to do' sentiment (I can think of people trying to purposefully destroy archaeological sites to avoid 'red tape', people refusing advice and building next to floods and unstable land only to find their house uninhabitable in years to come, and people building first and finding out they #ucked up later), I can say it's as hollow and idiotic as it appears.

We are lucky there's enough money to help out the public after the private sectors greed cost us so much.

12:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well what is the difference between a libertarian and an anarchist. Does one like the state more? Will anarchists refuse state aid out of principle?

1:41 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

They won't refuse the dole.

2:37 pm  
Anonymous Lew said...

The difference between anarchists and libertarians is that libertarians believe in state monopoly on force; that is -- police and armed forces. That's a fairly crucial distinction.


2:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So in an anarchist society I could start my own army with some friends and this would be okay?

That makes sense.

3:42 pm  
Blogger btraven said...

Mervyn Thompson, who ironically spent a good portion of his working life in Christchurch and died there, used to talk about writing a play contrasting the way in which NZ's Tory coalition government of the early 1930s could immediately set about rebuilding Napier after the 1931 earthquake but felt it could not -- and should not -- do anything at all about the Depression's human rubble.

4:01 pm  
Blogger Leigh Christina Russell said...

Hello there, an interesting and thought-provoking post. Just for the record Poland also avoided the recession: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-one-eu-nation-to-avoid-09-recession-was-2010-01-28

Regarding the woes of national financial banks and investment agencies Canada survived remarkably well - due to a strictly regulated market. http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/30/worthwhile-canadian-example/

Well thought out regulations certainly can benefit us all.

4:06 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

The NACTs have ulterior motives which are nowadays pretty overt. Make the workers pay. Its recycling workers s/v here MAPS not bosses profits. It's their state.
The NACTS bailed out their speculator mates at SCF and now ram home the National Interest Disaster game show which will see them romp home to the next election flanked by that poncy gameshow host and slumming Minsters of Geowhatzit.
Rudd and Chavez can only redistribute wealth and pretend its socialism because their economies are pumping out oil and mineral exports for China. As soon as the Chinese are able to monopolise these sectors and drive down prices then the bit of tax revenue tricked down will stop.
The other side of the class line is that ChCh is a working class city and we see a lift in consciousness because people are forced into self-help. The NACTs know that if they don't come to the aid of uninsured homeowners after those same subprime poor are being taxed to pay off the 21century squatters, they will be exposed for the rich, white, fat hypocrital insider traders that they are.

10:35 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I'm pleased that this post doesn't seem like it's drawing too long a bow. I have noticed that some New Zealanders tend to think of Third World countries like Venezuela as existing on another, fundamentally incommensurable planet, and that they are thus reluctant to see any aspect of their own society and experiences parralleled there.

It's interested to hear about Mervyn Thompson's unrealised play. Sometimes when I hear members of the current government speak I think we're back in the early thirties, before even the more sensible capitalists realised that Keynes had some good ideas, and that balancing the books with savage cuts to the public sector was no way to beat a recession. Paula Bennett, for instance, had a very silly letter in our local newspaper last year in which she told us all how sorry she was about unemployment, then went on to proclaim that government 'can't do anything' to ameliorate and reverse recessions and their side effects. Has the woman no sense of history? Has she never heard of the first Labour government here, the New Deal in the US, Rudd's stimulus package?

3:42 am  
Blogger maps said...

Dave wrote:

'Rudd and Chavez can only redistribute wealth and pretend its socialism because their economies are pumping out oil and mineral exports for China.'

I don't think Rudd ever claimed to be a socialist, even in the loosest sense of the word. I know China is a big customer for Australia's mining sector, but doesn't Venezuela still send most of its oil to the US? I'm not sure if it sends any oil to China, though the idea has been broached.

I do think Venezuela's government has gone beyond just redistributing wealth by channeling oil revenue into social projects. At the very least, we can say Venezuela is working quite hard to diminish its dependance on the export of a single raw material by developing an internal market through the substituting local products (food grown on land previously left idle by the latifundia, for example) for imports. This is classic postwar social democratic stuff, but still vastly preferable to the neo-liberalism what laid waste to the country in the late '80s and '90s.

It is also true that Venezuela's government has nationalised quite significant parts of the economy, and that it has a policy of 'endogamous development' that is perhaps seeing elements of economic planning replacing the anarchy of market forces.

It would be interesting to have a discussion about exactly what conditions would have to exist in Venezuela in order for us to define it as a post-capitalist or socialist (the terms don't necessarily cover the same territory!) society.

3:56 am  
Anonymous The Big Dog said...

Kia ora to this post Scott,

A good piece, particularly the conclusion. You ignore, however, the role of greedy, right-wing unions in the Ruddster's demise. The lack of solidarity too many workers show when they join the capitalist class is a serious issue.

10:47 am  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

I use the term socialism to encompass those Social Democratic parties like Aussie Labor as well as the PSUV in Venezuela. Helen Clark was/is a member of the second international. Marx had about 15 varieties including fuedal socialism.
If a small, weak imperialism like Australia is now under the shadow of China, what does that say for the Bolivarians, or the little Kiwi milkpowder republic?
One's view of the world has to undergo a seismic shift in the light of the phenomenal rise of China as a new imperialist power. Chavez has joined with Hu Jintao in his 5th International. I think he sees 21 century socialism as a marriage of Bolivarian, Chinese and Cuban 'socialism' "walking together".
Of course it will be the Chinese workers who have the last say on this.

11:20 am  
Blogger maps said...

I noticed from a recent leaflet that your thought has undergone what we might call a 'Chinese turn' Dave. It'd be interesting to see a longer text that explained in detail why you think China is now on its way to becoming the world's pre-eminent imperialist power, and why you think New Zealand is now a semi-colony of China or something similar.

The fact remains that economic relations between Venezuela and China are relatively slight. Venezuela's oil goes mostly to the US. I think that Venezuela and other Latin American countries like the US see China as a future potential economic counterbalance to the US, because it might be a rival destination for exports.

2:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article right up until you started getting a hard on for Chavez. I don't know how people can still be so praising of that ugly dictator, or think a country like Venezuala holds lessons for developed countries like NZ. The problems are very different. I've spent quite a bit of time in the region and I can assure you the picture is not so rosy on the ground.

2:22 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I think Chavez is quite open about being ugly - he jokes about it all the time. Not everyone can look like Che Guevara! But is he a dictator? I don't think anyone disputes his repeated election victories. My analysis of the background and early years of the Bolivarian revolution is here:

6:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Danyl Strype a well known and popular anarchist in the South Island is establishing an anarchist relief operation which can act as a pole of opposition to the operation of the bourgeois state. Strypey has much mana and can use the relief operation to show that anarchism is an alternative to the state. The anarchist community will rally around him.

1:09 am  
Anonymous sack mayor bob! said...

What can we say about a city whose administration is willing to spend millions (while refusing to disclose the exact sum) on an annual, live-televised, open-air mass entertainment for school leavers (an otherwise laudable endeavor), but is unable for three months to remove snow and ice from streets and roofs, leading to the flooding of 31,000 flats, while on the streets hundreds of pedestrians suffered physical injuries? Why is the per-kilometer cost of the city’s first, as yet uncompleted ring road so much higher than similar highway projects in other parts of the world? Should another superhighway (the planned Western High-Speed Diameter) be built along the borders of a nature reserve? Can the city’s ecology sustain 1.7 million automobiles and the 80% of total air pollution they cause? What considerations of efficiency dictated that the world’s once-longest tram network should be partly destroyed to make way for endless traffic jams? (The city had 1022 kilometers of tramlines in 1988, but in 2010 this figure has dropped to 500 kilometers.) What are we to make of a construction boom borne on the backs of rightless, poorly paid migrant laborers, who are also rewarded for their efforts with endless harassment by police and violence at the hands of neo-Nazis? Can most of the city’s extensive inner-city factory spaces be successfully converted into art galleries, wine bars, and loft housing (that is, into a kind of business-class aesthetic nature reserve)? Should all industry be banished to the far suburbs so as not to disturb the idyll of office workers, shoppers, tourists, and affluent art lovers?

1:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris Trotter gets cosmic

4:05 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

We havent turned to China, China has turned imperialist.

China is still no 2 in V but moving rapidly.

You can see our analysis of China on redrave.

12:22 am  
Anonymous markus said...

Brilliant post, Scott. I've also just discovered your really interesting PhD-derived pieces on E P Thompson. I took history through to Honours-level in the 1990s and certainly came across the great E P. Your pieces are beautifully written and absolutely fascinating. I've always been interested in the British Marxist historians and the history of the UK Left in general. Look forward to reading the book.

1:20 am  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks for your kind words Markus: I I have passed them on to Edward's widow, Dorothy, who is of course a significant historian and a significant political figure in her own right. I think that she, and other people who worked closely with Edward, are very encouraged to see people who were too young to know the man personally finding his work enjoyable and instructive.

1:14 am  
Blogger peterquixote said...

Politically, what we get from the earthquake is Bob Parker and the return of the Corporate City Society.
Even redneck ACT people like me wanted rid of Parker.
Look forward to concrete slab third story flats for the poor people in the four avenues, closure of streets, no view, no sun, no fun, just gay Bob and his visions.

8:27 pm  
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11:40 pm  

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