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.
For some background on Venezuela's recent history: