On December 28 1908, the city of Messina in Sicily (not to be confused with Messina in South Africa, now drastically transformed to Mosina in a truly empowering move for everybody) suffered an earthquake which seems to have been a humdinger. Messina was Sicily’s second city, a venerable pile of the stone buildings of which the Italians were then fond. Unfortunately, there were Berlusconis in those days too, and so most of those buildings were held together with substandard mortar, and so they fell down into picturesque piles of heavy stone blocks intermittently stained with blood and entrails. The earthquake happened at night, so most people felt safe under stone coverings. Most of the population, some 100 000 people, were killed.
Well, the Italian government swept into action as well you may imagine. The first thing they did concerned the man who trudged out of the ruins to find a working telegraph and report that the city had fallen down. They fired him for spreading alarm and despondency. But then unfortunately the Russian Navy Mediterranean Squadron came in to Messina for a spot of fun and fornication, and instead found a big heap of stinking broken stone. So the word got out, and the government could no longer cover up.
Their first act in the crisis was to declare an illegal state of siege enabling the Italian Army to shoot looters, or anyone looking at them funny, on sight. The Italian press, who had no correspondents in Messina and no intention of sending any, supported this with stories about looters murdering survivors to steal their jewelry. (As usual, looters only attack rich people, at least in the press.) Just what the survivors of Messina needed — a bunch of trigger-happy squaddies sauntering about the streets gunning down people trying to clear the ruins. Luckily for the people of Messina there were virtually no soldiers, who had been crushed when their splendid stone barracks fell on them, but this was duly remedied.
Then, of course, came aid. Not. Within mere weeks, the plans for the distribution of aid were drawn up. These insisted that no aid should go to poor people. Such aid might encourage them to stay poor. Perhaps the Italian Government was afraid that other Italian towns might demand their own earthquakes if any destitute survivors of the Messina quake were assisted. Unless you could prove that you had somethin’, you wasn’t gonna get nuttin’.
OK, that’s Liberalism in action. By 1922 — fourteen years after the city was levelled — the rate of housing replacement was under 200 houses a year. But then the gung-ho, can-do Fascists took over. Fifteen years later, Mussolini visited the city and discovered that bugger-all had been done and the inhabitants were mostly living in crappy wooden shacks. Well, he issued orders to himself to do something about it, but then he forgot. Eight years after that he was hanging upside down from a garage roof, one of the very rare occasions when a politician gets exactly what he deserves.
Meanwhile, unfortunately, the US Army had been nervous about invading Sicily for fear that the Italians might shoot back, so cut a deal with Lucky Luciano, boss of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, to get the gangsters on their side. In return for this the Yanks handed Sicilian administration over to these fine allies. Unsurprisingly, by 1958, on the fiftieth anniversary of the earthquake, 10 000 inhabitants of Messina were still living in those same wooden shacks. (Most of the above is lifted from R J B Bosworth’s Mussolini’s Italy, although readers must not doubt the Creator’s omniscience.)
Governments often do very little for their people. However, in case of a major natural disaster, it’s usually sensible for governments to do at least something even if not enough. The trouble is, like the Italian Liberals, governments fear that doing something will encourage the people to ask for even more. So sometimes it seems better to do bugger-all than to do anything, especially if those people are not going to vote for you anyway — and especially not if they’re dead.
Recently they had a little cyclone out in the Indian Ocean. But it didn’t stay in the ocean, the darn thing whooshed up northwards and hit the Burmese coast. The winds blew down the buildings, the low-pressure pocket raised the ocean so it surged up and flooded the river delta, the rain soaked down the people trapped in the open. Tens of thousands of people drowned immediately. They were the poor, living in flimsy accommodation on low-lying unfashionable land, the kind of people who used to get drowned every year in Alexandra when the Jukskei overflowed. (Then the bad, bad government moved people off the Jukskei river floodplain, a crime worse than any committed by apartheid if you believe the newspapers.)
OK, the Burmese government are not angels. They’re called the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which is every bit as bad as it sounds and maybe a trifle worse. They’re basically the same military junta who’ve been in power since General Ne Win seized control in the 1940s. They’re into detention without trial, forced labour and persecuting minorities. Oh, and they’re in cahoots with multinational oil, logging and hospitality companies. So that makes everything all right.
Anyway, it would not surprise the Creator if the Burmese government has not been busting its arse to help the suffering victims of the cyclone. However, the West, which forever claims to be Father Christmas, has not exactly been breaking records either. One remembers that when the tsunami hit Indonesia in 2005, the pictures were in all the papers. Admittedly, most of the pictures were of “miraculously-saved” Western tourists wearing bikinis, but at least hanging below the pictures were stories about how Indonesia needed help. Indonesia was even given a bit of help, although not nearly as much as people promised.
Burma, however, is not the Right Kind Of Country. Because they’re a nasty dictatorship, the West could be sure that few people were going to march for Burma Aid. (Anyway, nobody can decide whether to call the place Burma or Myanmar.) So there was no pressure. So the first thing the West did was to explain that they couldn’t give Burma any aid because the Burmese were too oppressive to allow it in. Then a few planes landed at Rangoon (or is it Yangon?) airport and offloaded supplies. Strange to say, no Burmese police arrived to beat up the pilots, offloaders or whatever.
There does seem to have been a problem because the Burmese government suspect the intentions of those Western non-governmental organisations which work closely with Western governments and secret services to bring about “regime change”. How very nasty of the Burmese. Why not open your heart to people who may be spooks or friends of spooks? Why not, indeed. But, basically, the Burmese suspicion, itself well-justified, was used as a pretext for doing incredibly little. (Oddly enough the Chinese government sent oodles of aid and had no difficulty getting it in. Maybe this is because, again oddly, the Chinese don’t devote much energy to using human misery as an excuse for political gain.)
Oh — the West did come up with a few more good ideas. The Burmese were having a constitutional referendum at the time. The West suggested that the referendum be stopped before they sent aid. Way to go, Westerners, to persuade the Burmese that you aren’t interested in meddling in their internal affairs. Later, the UN suggested that before any loads of aid were sent the Burmese should establish “air and land corridors” through their territory. It isn’t clear if the UN was proposing that these “corridors” should be patrolled by NATO troops or declared “no-fly zones”, but in any case this is the language of military imperialism which we can remember from the Iraq debacle.
So the West’s performance in Burma, whatever the Burmese have been doing (and like the inhabitants of Messina, the Burmese are not considered interesting enough to feature in media reports) has been really, really shitty.
And so downhill to history repeating itself, the Szechuan earthquake. Like Messina, the earth shakes, the houses fall down, people are squashed. Szechuan is nice and hilly and damp, so the earth shakes and the mud slides down and buries the villages. Back where we started, with deaths up there approaching 100 000. Except that instead of waking up, shouting “Fuck off!” at the complainant and turning over and going back to sleep, as the Italian government did in 1908, the Chinese government in 2008 mobilises every medical and rescue team it can find, together with the People’s Liberation Army, and sends them flying, driving or just marching off to Szechuan under orders to help everybody.
Again, the Chinese government is not especially beloved of the Creator. It’s an oligarchy which has helped turn China into a well-run state with the fastest-growing economy in the world, also known as a totalitarian ecological cesspool. It has sold out many of the principles of the Chinese Communist Party which were so admired by leftists who had never been to China, and which brought us such triumphs as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But, OK, many of those principles, such as egalitarianism (if you weren’t Mao or one of his oligarchy, in which case you got a truckload of watermelons and all the bimboes you could fondle) are worth preserving. In fact, this is probably why the West constantly tells us (especially us in Africa) that the Chinese are evil thieving little yellow bastards governed by a bunch of murdering scum. (Who are, however, good for business.)
One thing, though, about the Chinese government: it believes in its own accomplishments and wants to preserve them. So when things go bad, the government takes action. First because if you don’t take action nothing much will get done and the problem will fester. Second because if you don’t take action people lose faith in you and therefore won’t support you when you need the support. Doing nothing is bad for business, bad for social cohesion, bad for your image. But it is an amazingly easy thing to do, nothing. So we are impressed when the Chinese government does what the Italians didn’t do in 1908, or what the Soviets didn’t do in 1988 when Armenia fell to the ground.
We are particularly impressed, perhaps, because of New Orleans. We remember the hurricane which hit that city. Much like the way the cyclone hit the Burmese coast, it was anticipated. Much like that cyclone, Hurricane Katrina’s victims were predominantly poor people. This was because the US government did not arrange an evacuation of New Orleans although they could have; they chose simply to tell people to get out if they could. Many could not.
Now, the New Orleans city government stuffed up. The Louisiana state government dropped the ball. This is not flabbergasting, because the Southern U.S. local government system is among the poorest, crummiest, most incompetently corrupt ones in the whole country — which is saying something. So calamity struck, the levees broke, the town drowned, the people staggered through the rising waters to safety on high ground under the watching TV cameras. That was the big difference between New Orleans and Messina; nobody could deny what was happening.
But the same lies were made up about looters.
The same line was pursued about giving the place money would only encourage the poor.
The same total absence of aid was pursued. (The excuse was that the military couldn’t help because all their equipment was in Iraq. Supposedly the richest, most powerful country in the world doesn’t have emergency services worth a potfull of piss. Anybody really believe that? The Creator doesn’t.)
The same concern, however, to ensure that rich people made a bundle of money out of the disaster. (Check out Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine for details, although she doesn’t mention Messina.)
What we have here is a simple difference between a government which is concerned that if it doesn’t help its people it will end up in trouble, and a government which doesn’t care about its people and hence has no desire to waste money on them. This isn’t necessarily the difference between socialism and capitalism. Socialist states have often been every bit as callous and unconcerned as the Italians or the Americans (or as the West in its response to Burma, refuting all that garbage about humanitarian intervention in one effortless sweep).
But the neoliberal brand of capitalism leads to vicious, brutal, uncaring and incompetent government, which is what we should all be afraid of, and we have to get rid of it, somehow.