Catastrophes - signs of a society rotting on its feet

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In the last few weeks there has been an acceleration of disasters. Most terrible of all was the earthquake in Iran, but we have also seen an air crash in Egypt that left nearly 150 dead, industrial 'accidents' in China, Algeria and Indonesia, and new alarms about contagious diseases - legionnaires disease in France, 'bird flu' in south east Asia: the list just goes on and on.

For marxism, there is nothing natural or fatal about these catastrophes. They are expressions of the fact that the capitalist system is rotting on its feet. Despite having developed all the scientific and technological means to prevent or at least limit such calamities, capitalism in decomposition not only fails to do this, but tends to aggravate and even initiate them. Iran: natural disaster or social disaster?

At the end of December, a terrible human tragedy unfolded in Iran. In a few seconds an earthquake destroyed the town of Bam and its surrounding villages. The death toll has climbed to 40,000, with 35,000 injured and tens of thousands left homeless. As always, it is the poorest sections of the population who lose the most in all this. In Iran alone in the last 30 years, earthquakes have claimed more than 150,000 lives.

Of course, you can't blame capitalism for the earthquake itself. But we can point out that this was by no means the most violent quake in recent years and that even so it has caused a vast social catastrophe. And we can certainly point out that four days earlier, in California, an earthquake of exactly the same strength on the Richter scale killed only three people and destroyed a tiny fraction of the built environment.

There has been a great deal of progress in seismology on a world scale, and Iran is not without scientific competence and experience at this level. But the corruption and backwardness of Iran's political establishment is notorious. As an Iranian architect underlined, "what is lacking is an unfailing political will, a strict and systematic public control of the application of norms, and means and methods worthy of dealing with the problem" (L'Humanite, 3/1/04). More particularly, the social situation in Iran's cities has created a disaster waiting to happen. In recent years the population has grown from 30 million mainly rural inhabitants to 70 million, the majority living in towns and cities: many cities are swollen to the point of bursting. "In this situation, the most deprived elements in society are obliged to build their own housing using the most rudimentary means, while the voracious greed and corruption of commercial and state agencies, from the smallest to the largest, has led to criminal levels of negligence" (ibid). To the criminal neglect of safety norms, we can add the fact that the town of Bam has been largely made of mud brick, and when buildings made in this manner collapse, they cave in completely from top to bottom, leaving little hope for anyone trapped inside.

As in Turkey a few years ago, the Iranian state demonstrated that it had not drawn any lessons from previous earthquakes in the region. Since the last disaster, building continued in an anarchic and unregulated way. The contempt for the population shown by the public and religious authorities was exposed by the following facts: the earthquake took place at 4.30 in the morning and the first batches of aid didn't arrive until around five in the evening. While numerous inhabitants of the main Iranian cities, notably in Tehran, mobilised themselves to collect clothes, food and tents for the survivors, the authorities were incapable of getting this material to the affected zones. Even worse, the response of the Iranian bourgeoisie to this elementary display of human solidarity was to use the tragedy for its squalid electoral interests. In the first hours after the earthquake, with legislative elections due in February, we saw representatives of the two main political clans, the reformers around Mohamed Khatami and the conservatives around Ali Khameni, rushing to the earthquake zone in helicopters - while the aid agencies lacked any such means for bringing supplies or evacuating the wounded. These charlatans rivalled each other to arrive on the scene first and promise that the town of Bam and its citadel would be rebuilt. But it's precisely these politicians who are responsible for the carnage. Even recently constructed buildings, especially hospitals and schools, also collapsed because they had been put up without any reference to anti-earthquake specifications. Capitalism is responsible for these endless catastrophes

At the same moment that the town of Bam was being devastated by the earthquake, a gas explosion in south west China killed 191 people, half of them children; hundreds were wounded and over 3000 poisoned to varying degrees. There was nothing predestined about this accident either. It was the result of a frenzied drive for capitalist profit at the expense of the most basic rules of safety at the workplace. In 2003 alone, "13,283 people were killed in shipyards, factories or mines in China, which is a rise of 9.6% over 2002" (Le Monde, 27.12.03). In order to hide its responsibility for such crimes, the ruling class organises media campaigns to point the finger at such and such a company or person. We saw this with the Boeing crashes at Cotonou, in which over 100 died, and at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, which left 148 dead, most of them French travellers. In both cases, the campaigns accused the Lebanese and Egyptian companies which ran these planes; and while it's true that these companies failed to apply all the necessary safety rules, this is ultimately the result of cost-cutting aimed at offering the most competitive price for charter fares. And contrary to what was said by the French transport minister, this is in no way a unique characteristic of 'exotic' airlines or of companies that specialise in air-travel price 'dumping'. We only have to recall the Air France Concorde crash at Roissy in July 2000 which claimed 113 victims, or the collision between a Tupolev and a cargo plane over Lake Constance in Switzerland (71 dead), where the investigation pointed to failings in Swiss air traffic control; or again, there was the crash of the A-320 Airbus over Mont Sainte Odile in Alsace ten years ago (87 dead). Victims' families have had considerable difficulty in obtaining compensation, even though it had already been well known that this plane suffered from technical defects. Such accidents, which can only multiply, are the consequence of the ruthless trade war between the air companies, desperately seeking to guard their bit of the market. This compels them to reduce expenses when it comes to safety and the maintenance of the infrastructures needed for air transport to function properly. But air transport is itself no exception in this respect. We only have to look at the long list of train, tube and shipping accidents (particularly the disastrous break-up of oil tankers such as the Erika or the Prestige) in recent years, both in the 'third world' and in Europe.

The rise of new epidemics is further proof of the bankruptcy of capitalism. The SARS epidemic has still not been properly brought under control in Asia, and is now being chased by 'bird flu', while in Pas-de-Calais in France an outbreak of legionnaire's disease has infected 76 people, ten fatally. We are told that the refrigerating towers of the Noroxo factory are to blame. In fact, as a specialist reveals, the annual number of such cases in France has gone up from less than 50 to more than a thousand, and each time the cause is the negligence of this or that factory in maintaining the refrigeration infrastructure. These recurring examples of negligence have brought about a situation in which the hospitals, whose job is to make the population get better, have become sources of epidemics and infections. 800,000 people a year are affected by nosocomial infections (ie, picked up from within the hospital itself) and of these 4000 die in the wards. Capitalism's survival is a threat to humanity

In the face of such tragedies, revolutionaries have to denounce the vile cynicism of the ruling class and reaffirm their class solidarity with the victims of these catastrophes, particularly towards the proletarians in Iran hit by the Bam earthquake. What the bourgeoisie presents as yet another natural catastrophe, as a fatality or as proof that there can be no 'zero risk', marxism analyses much more pertinently: "As capitalism develops then begins to rot on its feet, it prostitutes techniques which could have a liberating use for its needs of exploitation, domination and imperialist pillage, to the point where it transmits its own rottenness into the techniques and turns them against the species�Neither is capitalism innocent of the so-called 'natural' disasters. Without denying that there are forces of nature which escape human action, marxism shows that many catastrophes have been indirectly provoked or aggravated by social causes�Not only does bourgeois civilisation directly provoke catastrophes through its thirst for profit and the predominant influence of profiteering on the administrative machine�but it has also shown itself to be incapable of organising effective protection, since prevention is not a profitable activity" (Bordiga, The Earth's Crust and the Human Species, preface)

Once again, it's not nature, or bad luck, or some divine will which is responsible for these tragedies. The capitalist system always provides partial explanations to prevent the proletariat from understanding that it is the very logic of capital which lies behind such horrors. The growing parade of catastrophes we are seeing today is further proof of the utter putrefaction of this social system, and those who suffer most from it have no choice but to destroy it before it destroys the whole of humanity.

Donald, 29/1/04.