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Christchurch crisis shows the progressive potential of state and community action



by Scott Hamilton

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 has 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.

Posted at:

For some background on Venezuela's recent history:



"It is the state, acting in

"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."

Well, if you cherry pick the record of the state in dealing with problems it will inevitably come out looking pretty good. But it should be remembered that the state's resources were taken from us in the first place, and that the state's priorities are, in fact, shockingly bad.

Looking at the government's budget, Vote Defence Force, totalled just over $2,852 million, for the 2010/11 financial year while Vote Emergency Management, covering civil defence and other emergency preparedness was less than $14 million. Obviously, the government budget also covers for hospitals, the fire service and ambulances, which form part of the emergency response when required, but it's telling that the specific budget for natural disasters is 200 times less than that for fighting wars.

It's a sign of the state's priorities that if you fight in Afghanistan you'll be well paid, fed and housed and have your beer subsidised, while scouring the rubble of Christchurch is largely left up to volunteers. So much for "Well-funded and well-prepared Civil Defence teams".

Of course the state has its finer moments (particularly when the TV cameras are rolling), but let's not forget that these are mere moments in a history that is mostly dire and dreadful.

Hi Sam, I said 'the state,

Hi Sam,

I said 'the state, acting in concert with working class communities', not simply 'the state, in all circumstances'. To talk of 'the state' in the abstract is not really to say anything, given the vast differences between the form and actions of different states. Even individual states often have contradictory features. I consider New Zealand's state heath and education systems vital social achievements which have to be defended from the right, which wants to subject them to market forces and privatise them by stealth, but I'm not so keen on some other state-owned institutions - the SIS, for example!

I quite agree with you about taking the money and resources thrown at the war in Afghanistan and putting them into something useful like Civil Defence. I think the way the muscle of Venezuela's army has been used to help deliver social programmes over the last decade is instructive.

"I think the way the muscle

"I think the way the muscle of Venezuela's army has been used to help deliver social programmes over the last decade is instructive."

I haven't been in Venezuela, but usually when an army is used to deliver social programmes it proves itself to be blitheringly incompetent. A friend of mine was in Afghanistan a year or so and asked locals about how the NZ Army was doing in Bamiyan - the general view was "Very good at providing security, absolutely hopeless at aid and reconstruction". No real surprise given they're well trained to do security work, and have almost no idea of running aid and infrastructure projects.

But not all armies are the

But not all armies are the same, just as not all states are the same. Venezuela's armed forces have quite an unusual history, especially in the Latin American context - where the armies of most other countries have tended to step in and get rid of democratically-elected left-leaning governments and set up dictatorships, Venezuela's army has been seen as the guarantor of democracy and a counterweight to the local ruling class. It was the army which led the 1958 revolution that inaugurated modern parliamentary democracy in Venezuela. Chavez became radicalised in the army, partly as a result of the university courses with left-wing lecturers it paid him to take.

There are arguably some progressive features to New Zealand's army - it is probably the most bicultural state institution in the country, for instance - but I'd turn it into the professional wing of a people's militia focused on doing useful things at home, and get rid of its ability to intervene as a subordinate to American and Australian forces in places like Afghanistan and East Timor. If dreams were free...


I've heard people say that

I've heard people say that Christchurch would be a good place to go for work, with all the structual or cosmectic investigation and repair. It's great to see how communities pull together to help those in need, it would be better though if the state had the sensibility to invest less in "security" costs, political fees, middle management salaries and come up with a policy that actually helps New Zealanders directly without wasting more effort into what essentially appears to be, protecting the monarcy! Naturally a fair democratic system needs to be in place, but what is it worth when the resources are being passed in disproportionally sized segments, in ways that most Kiwis are totally unaware of? How many millions went into NZ's own version of homeland security? I get the impression the goverment is spending much more money in creating disasters overseas than dealing with the problems that exist on our own turf.

The phrase "doing useful

The phrase "doing useful things" and the word "militia" seldom belong in the same sentence. If we want a body to do useful things, there's many types of organisations that would be higher on the list than 'militia'.

You seem a bit too keen on

You seem a bit too keen on sweeping generalisations, Sam. Are militia always useless? I doubt whether anyone would contest the usefulness of militia established in New Zealand in the '40s, when Japanese invasion briefly threatened. If New Zealand society were ever taken in an anti-capitalist direction, then it is naive to think there wouldn't be the threat of foreign intervention and also resistance from disaffected sections of the old ruling class. Nearly every progressive revolution in the last century has faced such a backlash. Venezuela has faced CIA coup plots, armed raids across the Colombia border by US-backed mercenaries, and hundreds of murders of peasant activists by latifundio whose land is under threat. No wonder there has been much agitation for the arming of the workers and peasants.

The ideas of Tom Wintringham, the leader of the British military contribution to the Spanish Civil War and later the founder of Britain's World War Two militia, influenced the New Zealand Home Guard in the '40s. They're still interesting today:

"Are militia always

"Are militia always useless?"

Actually I said 'seldom' not 'always'. Though I'm not sure that building a couple of machine gun bunkers in Pukerua Bay was useful, nor am I so sure that, in the event of Japan changing its entire war plan and deciding to invade NZ, the home guard would have turned out to be particularly useful.

And speaking of generalisations, Wintringham was the leader of some of Britain's contribution to the Spanish Civil War. Don't forget dear old George and his mates.

I realise that we are getting

I realise that we are getting pretty hypothetical, but what exactly do you think would have proved 'useful' to stop a Japanese attack on New Zealand?

I assume that the positions at Pukreua Bay were not just there for their own sake, but as part of an extensive coastal defence system including submarine nets, radar stations, and artillery batteries, like the system around Auckland harbour? I don't think the wartime government can be blamed for building such systems, given that Japan had raided Darwin and Sydney with planes and subs.

The Home Guard was supposed to complement the regular forces which weren't off in the Mediterranean under British command (as John A Lee said at the time, they should have been called home). Wintringham's (and Orwell's) point was that it was no use teaching Home Guard units to march around a barracks yard and salute and polish their boots - they had to be units of a guerrilla army which would be mobilised in the event of an invasion. But to be able to fight as guerrillas they had to be trusted to make their own decisions, and they had to be politically sophisticated. The military hierarchy didn't like either idea, which was why Wintringham was eventually blackballed. Quite a few of his innovations seem to have made it into the Home Guard manual produced in New Zealand, though, if the tips on blowing up bridges and other guerrilla tactics are anything to go by! The Guide Platoons, secret units of the regular army which were established in remote areas to wait for Japanese invasion and then initiate a guerrilla war, also suggest that someone was listening to Wintringham.

"I realise that we are

"I realise that we are getting pretty hypothetical,"

Yes I think you are right - if I had time to kill it might be an interesting discussion, but I don't at the mo. BTW I'd have thought the NZ Home Guard were more likely to have been influenced by Yank Levy's writings - Wintringham cites him as the great exponent of guerrilla warfare at the time (in Britain I mean).

I would completely contest

I would completely contest the idea of the usefulness of local militia in response to Japanese militarism in the '40s. For a start I doubt there was any real threat of an invasion - even a brief threat. The Japanese were tied down -  mostly in China - dealing with local militias. Darwin is a fair stretch from New Zealand, and an air raid there is a pretty far cry from an invasion of NZ.

This is the sort of chestnut the RSA brings out everytime someone suggests reducing the NZ armed forces and I'm suprised to see Scott playng the same card. New Zealand never had an extensive network of costal defences. At best there was a small coastal watch and a limited harbour defence system - enough to deter a raider from entering Auckland or Wellington harbour - but never enough to foil an invasion. 

It wasn't needed because Japan didn't have the ability or inclination to invade New Zealand. The home guard was a propaganda initiative - there is no better way for a state to get support for sending troops off to get killed overseas than creating the idea that an invasion is likely. If New Zealand had been seriously worried about Japanese militarism they would have been better off supplying material to the Chinese guerillas instead of starting up militias at home. Better still would have been to challenge the legitimacy of the Japanese state before it started its overseas adventures. But that would have meant one state challenging the right of another to conscript citizens and send them off to be killed. And one thing states have in common is not challenging each others right to do that.

States still play this game. I accept there are progressive aspects to the New Zealand army, and probably the Venezualan military, but both are still playing the game of creating external threats to justify militarism at home. Let's not buy into this.

Joe Buchanan

Responses to disaster



I agree totally with your comments that the state 'has taken our resources from us'-we shouldn't even need state response and aid if all were equitable.

Information more important than regulation?

I have to agree with Scott that building regulations and council-mandated earthquake strengthening made an important contribution last Sat to the lack of fatalities, the minimising of serious injuries, and the speed at which key utilities were repaired. Watch Key foams at the mouth about how "bureaucracy" and "red-tape" have to be kept out of the way of the rebuild, even though of those buildings put up since WW2, it was those built in the wake of the same deregulation of building standards that gave us leaky building syndrome, that have now fallen foul of 'falling into a pile syndrome'.

I do agree that it is important to be clear what we mean when we are talking about 'the state', and not just using it as an 'Emmanual Goldstein', a secular satan, an empty abstraction on which we can blame everything our biases tell us is 'evil'. However, I also think Sam has a point. Many a battered wife will defend her partner's positive attributes (and every human being, no matter how damaged, will have some to defend), while severely understating the damage he is doing. Is maintaining a monopoly on the sanctioned use of violence (which is one of the more concrete libertarian definitions of 'the state') the only way to hold buildings to a high standard?

The late Donella Meadows gives an example of chemical emissions being massively reduced in the USA simply by the embarrassment of having emissions information publicly available. Admittedly, in this example the reporting and collection of the information was mandated by the federal government, but it was the voluntary reporting of the information in local papers - and presumably the subsequent loss of reputation as good neighbours by the emitters - that catalysed the improvement in standards. Not the enforcement of compulsary standards by means of the state - arguably information is more important than regulation.

Those things governments get right must be balanced against those that do harm, and I'd hate to see John Key, Bob Parker and his ilk get the credit for the mostly self-organised work of Ootautahi communities. I'm currently in the process of finding out whether the free flow of  information was similarly a catalyst in the process of self-organisation.

Nga mihi aroha ki ngaa iwi katoa o Waitaha