From the March 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
In January, a 42-day long Indian religious festival began at Allahabad, 500 miles east of New Delhi. The Kumbh Mela attracted over 70 million Hindu pilgrims and believers, the largest gathering of humanity in history. Around one million “holy” men trekked from their remote hideaways in caves, forests and walled ashrams to be there, some revealing acts of devotion which along with the more traditional maintaining of absolute silence and sleeping on beds of nails, has included hanging upside down over smouldering fires, sitting under pots of dripping water, standing on one leg for years, staring at the sun for long periods, keeping arms permanently raised until they atrophied and in pursuit of total celibacy, having their penises enclosed in cages or fitted atop with iron rings. Such penances apparently bestow special powers, as demonstrated at the festival by the pulling along of heavy vehicles by sacred John Thomases. On one day, 24 January, over 30 million Hindu followers plunged joyously into the River Ganges to gain salvation, immortality and miraculously wash away their sins and diseases. According to the stars, this particular day had been determined to be the festival’s most auspicious time. And how did the Hindu gods respond to this immense display of spiritual faith, devotion and self-punishment with its high point of a mass dip in “sanctifying” waters where devotees prayed for “Mother Ganges” to bless them? With a 7.9 Richter earthquake just 48 hours later devastating Gujarat and killing over 30,000 people.
According to a Naga priest “bathing in the Ganges will accelerate the road to illumination”, so one might expect that following this disaster, a great many people will now stop believing in ridiculous fairy tales about divine nectar of immortality having spilled from a Kumbh (pitcher) into the confluence of three rivers (one invisible!) and thereafter becoming active every 12 years. Dedication and respect by humankind should go towards humankind, not any supernatural being or phenomenon which even if it did exist, manifestly has no inclination or ability whatsoever to prevent death, disease, poverty, hunger, exploitation, wars and numerous other everyday troubles. If thought of as an earthquake from god, and conveying a message, then it would be loud and clear: if the living want to go on living and be free of such horrors and suffering, they should forget all about religion, and act to look after themselves. Something applying as much to India’s Muslim minority who were soon praying to Mecca amidst the quake’s dead, dying and devastation, as it does to the Hindu majority.
If people let others deceive and persuade them into giving priority to belief in an almighty being, life after death and acceptance that loss of life and suffering from natural forces, conflicts, authoritarian control, hard work and the like are the will of god, then those religious leaders and governments claiming to be god’s Earthly assistants possess immense power, freedom to exploit and abuse that power and immunity for social failings. Such extreme influence, class privileges and infallibility explains why religion has existed for thousands of years and continues into the twenty-first century. But if those seeking to brainwash and manipulate us—and young impressionable minds especially—are rejected, and people instead give priority to looking after themselves and their needs collectively through socialism, then we prevent religious leaders from ruling and ruining our lives, along with political, military or any other type of would-be chiefs.
The reality with earthquakes is they kill only if we let them. They are inevitable, but death 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; Mafia groups will drive away more legitimate building constructors. With, moneyless, socialism all such potentially lethal activity is avoided. Human needs and safety come second to nothing.
Even in rich countries like America, money can degrade safety. Multi-storey housing and office premises reach high into the sky despite earthquake risks because maximum profit comes from maximum exploitation of available ground. That means tall buildings crammed with residents or employees of capitalism’s banks, insurers, law firms etc, but high casualties if a major quake brings them down. But even where structures are well-built and designed to withstand quakes, it is usually because owners have decided that far more money would be lost than saved should damage arise from poor construction work or non-adherence to building codes. It might be said that the Japanese earthquake at Kobe in 1995 was an example of economic failure in weighing up money saved to potential losses. At $100bn, it was the most expensive “natural” disaster ever with 6,400 lives lost and 300,000 people made homeless. However, if the cost for achieving maximum safety and structural endurance had been $500bn, then Japanese capitalists acted “correctly”, and the dead were a “price worth paying”. The point is that where residents or workers find they have better survival prospects in better buildings; with capitalism, it is often more incidental than intentional.
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? And whereas with capitalism it is nuclear submarines, military satellites, stealth bombers, tanks and the like which get “properly” designed and rigorously tested beforehand to prevent any failures when they’re built in bulk, with socialism such diligence would then be applied to endangered homes and workplaces. 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.
In a united socialist world, people would be able to move in large numbers if necessary to completely different regions of the world without any of today’s “them” and “us” animosity and violence created by capitalist exclusive assets, property rights and market-supporting politicians, as witnessed world-wide in places like Northern Ireland, the West Bank, Kosovo, Rwanda etc etc. Not forgetting India’s own continuing divisive caste system with “untouchables” lowest down, ranked as society’s toilet cleaners, 8,000 of whom were employed as “turd pickers” at the Kumbh Mela festival. India’s divisive internal Hindu-Muslim tensions which left thousands dead in riots when Hindu zealots destroyed an ancient mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, and which may soon erupt into further bloody confrontation if a planned new Hindu temple gets built there. And the on-off divisive dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, a struggle that could claim many times the 26 January death toll in less than the short while the earthquake lasted, thanks to both sides’ possession of nuclear weapons.
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. Some may be moved to send money to charities or hand over old clothes and blankets, while others are assumed to have compassion fatigue. So why no sizeable political activity for real progress? It seems our society has been influenced to believe that nothing can be done. That big death tolls from quakes, famines, droughts, conflicts etc are inevitable. What efforts do schools and 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 generations of children brainwashed on how to obtain “suitable” employment and use money, and endless TV reports of global tragedies, quickly downgraded by ratings concerns for the next show-biz marriage break-up or rich person’s demise. Brief public interest at best, or channel-changing “Not-another-disaster. There’s-nothing-I-can-do-is-there” indifference at worst. Of course, that suits capitalists and politicians just fine, but it’s only a matter of time before those far-away populations that we feel incapable of helping now will themselves one day be shrugging their shoulders while watching pictures of immense death, destruction and suffering in our part of the capitalist world. A major disaster is heading our way, and the only way to stop it is through widespread realisation that human needs can and must be prioritised, and collective political action for the social change that brings that about.