Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti - An Un-natural Disaster

From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog:

The earthquake in Haiti and similar misfortunes are presented as unavoidable natural disasters. To some extent, this is true. But it ignores the consequences of the deliberate pursuit of profit at the expense of environmental protection. It is not a coincidence that the number of victims of recent disasters such as the Asian tsunami and the Katrina hurricane and now Haiti are clearly related to the degree of their poverty.

The reality with earthquakes is they kill only if we let them. They are inevitable, but the death toll is not.

It is collapsing buildings that take lives, not tremors in the ground. Throughout the animal kingdom, creatures have adapted to survive in their surroundings, but in our environment, where earthquakes are a fact of life, though nature challenges us to do something to protect ourselves, capitalism compels us to surrender safety to monetary profits and savings. No matter how severe earthquakes are, if buildings were properly built in the first place, then the vast majority of people would survive. This does not happen under capitalism, particularly in poorer countries, since the unavoidable pressure to make and save money affects what does, or more importantly, does not happen. There are pressures to build quickly and slapdashly to meet housing needs by landless labourers forced by poverty to find work in urban areas; inferior materials and construction methods are used in accordance with market forces, with poor people getting poorly-built homes; building inspectors are persuaded by politicians or back-handers to ignore breaches of rules so that businesses get the cheap employees they want and workers get hovels they can afford; landowners lobby governments, hand over party "donations" or resort to simple bribery to have new housing built on their land, even if it is unsuitable or downright dangerous. With, moneyless, socialism human needs and safety come second to nothing.

Though seismologists don't know precisely where or when earthquakes may strike, general areas of risk are identifiable. In a socialist society, how we respond to this information would be very different. There would be far greater freedom for those in danger to move to safer areas—action under capitalism that can involve huge financial losses from writing off unsafe homes, shifting businesses to where workers then live, adapting that region's infrastructure to aid in exploiting the new workforce etc. And those who, for whatever reason, chose to reside in seismic zones, they would then have access to the best buildings capable of withstanding the most powerful of quakes. Although Japanese and Californian architects have designed “active buildings”, some on top of massive rubber shock absorbers or with computerised counterbalancing systems that identify and counteract seismic shocks, what's the likelihood of such sophisticated technology being used under capitalism on multi-storey dwellings in poverty-stricken areas for workers on subsistence wages? Using superior designs, building methods and materials, there is no reason why populated areas should suffer any loss of life or major disruption after experiencing very powerful quakes.

The surviving victims of the disaster in Haiti need food, fresh water, clothing, medication and many other items. Some of those needs are being met, but not nearly enough. Governments of the richer countries have offered niggardly help. Ordinary citizens, appalled by the extent of the tragedy as revealed by the media, have responded generously to appeals by the charities.In times of natural disasters volunteers are never lacking, nor slow to offer assistance, whether practical or monetary.Humans are endowed with the ability to sympathise and empathise with their fellow humans. Humans derive great pleasure from doing good, are at their best when faced with the worst and will go to extraordinary lengths to help alleviate the suffering of others.

Most natural dangers are well known and socialism would not need to leave communities exposed to them. This would avoid many disasters. Also, contingency plans would exist throughout the regions and at a world level for the relief of any catastrophe. Emergency supplies of food, clean water, medical supplies would be maintained at strategic points whilst machinery, equipment and helpers would be moved quickly to the area of crisis. The present appeals for money are a pathetic substitute for the availability of real resources and the freedom that communities in socialism would have to immediately use them.

We have access to more comprehensive information and news coverage about world disasters than any previous generation of humans, and yet it appears that people don't feel driven to bring about an end to such catastrophes. It seems our society has been influenced to believe that nothing can be done. That big death tolls from quakes, volcanoes or droughts are inevitable. What efforts do the media make to change this, by explaining both capitalism's culpability and socialism's solutions? If people don't understand, then all there will be are yet more channel-changing "Not-another-disaster. There's-nothing-I-can-do " indifference.

Alan Johnstone

Added Note:

Well worth a read is an article from Rosa Luxemburg about a volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Martinique in 1902.

Utterly perverse (2000)

Theatre Review from the March 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Widowers' Houses. National Theatre Company

My affection for the theatre is such that I rarely feel moved to walk out, and on those occasions when the thought crosses my mind I invariably quickly conclude that things can only get better. Not unusually my optimism is rewarded, and they do. But a couple of weeks ago I achieved a first. Not only did I want to talk out, but I wanted to do so whilst shouting abuse at the director. Indeed had I been on my own I think I might have done so.

The occasion for this singular experience was a National Theatre production of Bernard Shaw's Widowers' Houses, directed by Fiona Shaw, which is currently on a UK tour. Widowers' Houses, Shaw's amazing first play, was first produced in 1892. Written as a black comedy of manners, the play demonstrates how, given the imperatives of capitalism, landlords must necessarily exploit their poor and needy tenants, and that all those who are involved in the system are inevitably tainted as a result.

Fiona Shaw is a marvellous actress, whose performances have given me much pleasure. She is also a sparky, intelligent woman with, so I understand, an Honours degree in philosophy. But her directorial debut sees her perfidiously misinterpreting Shaw's masterpiece. The play as written is a biting, ironic attack of the unpleasant facts of live in Victorian England. But the play as performed is stripped of its historical, economic and political reference points, and infused with an arbitrary erotic sexuality and unlikely melodrama, to the point where it becomes meaningless. "Did you understand that?" said the man next to me to his partner at the end of the show. "No," said his partner without qualification. And it was easy to sympathise.

Director's often reinterpret great pieces of drama, sometimes to telling effect. Shakespeare is a frequent target and the result can occasionally be thrilling. I recall a recent performance of Richard III in which the king was a Hitler-like dictator living in 20th century Europe. And film buffs will likely be familiar with Paul Douglas's account of Macbeth, with the central part being played by a gangster, Joe Macbeth, living in 1920s' Chicago. But Ms Shaw hasn't so much reinterpreted her namesake's play as perversely misread it. On this occasion she might properly be called Fiona Unshaw.

The words spoken by the actors often don't match their actions. Early on Harry Trench, a young doctor with aristocratic connections who is enjoying a Rhineland tour with his older travelling companion Cokane, meets Blanche Sartorious, the wealthy daughter of a rich slum landlord. This is familiar territory, and the resonances with Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which had been performed for the first time only few years earlier, are very clear. Trench hasn't been formally introduced to Blanche and the conventions must be observed. As the redoubtable Blanche tries to have to find a way of prompting the dithering Harry to speak to her father so that she can acknowledge that she has already spoken briefly to him, Shaw describes Harry as "stammering" and "looking at her piteously". But in this production he doesn't stammer or look piteous. Rather he drags Blanche behind an awning where the audience see them immediately begin to copulate.

This deliberate undermining of Shaw's intentions would be bad enough, were it not that matters immediately get worse. The highly-charged sexual encounter has been seen by Blanche's father. His reaction in real life can only be imagined, but Shaw has given him words which meet his intentions, and not the behaviour which Ms Unshaw has conceived. The Shaw line reads, "Sartorious (gravely): 'I intended you to accompany us' (on our walk), Blanche." You can imagine the audience's wide-eyed disbelief. Many people laughed uproariously at the sheer absurdity of it all. Rarely have I felt more sympathy for an actor having to speak such a foolishly inappropriate line.

Further liberties are taken. Speeches are jettisoned, the author's stage directions wilfully ignored or countermanded, Blanche becomes pregnant, and Sartorious's rent collector appears in drag.

How the National Theatre can allow such a travesty to tour is beyond me. It is an unworthy, tawdry show. Better to spend part of the entrance fee on a copy of the play, and re-read Shaw's biting attack on the inhumanities and injustices that are forever part and parcel of capitalism. Whereas I read the play with increasing pleasure, Ms Unshaw's production had my blood boiling with barely suppressed rage.
Michael Gill