Explosion in Beirut: a tragic illustration of capitalist negligence

Printer-friendly version

The huge exploision in Beirut

On 4 August 2020, in the port of Beirut, a stockpile of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded, causing one of the biggest industrial disasters in the history of capitalism.

Capitalism's latest criminal act

To date, 190 officially dead, dozens missing and more than 6,000 injured, some very seriously. According to specialists from Sheffield University, this explosion would be the equivalent to a tenth of the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima ... The material damage was enormous: imagine a crater 120m in diameter and 43m deep! Hospitals, like the Saint-Georges Hospital, were badly damaged, even completely destroyed.

Looking back on the unfolding of events, we can see that the reality far exceeds the fiction of a Netflix series: in 2013, a Russian ship, the Rhosus, sailing under a Moldovan flag of convenience, was taking 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate from Batumi in Georgia to Mozambique. Due to technical problems, this waste-carrying vessel with its explosive cargo had to make a stop in Beirut. After inspection, the Lebanese port authorities did not allow the ship to go to sea. In 2014, the nitrate was unloaded and then stored in a warehouse at the port. The owner abandoned both the ship (refusing to pay for repairs) and the sailors. Obviously, they were no longer being paid and were prohibited from disembarking. Moreover, they did not comply. The story does not end there: subsequently, customs officers warned six times about the danger of this explosive stockpile.

But their recommendations were in vain and nobody wanted to take a decision. Seven years of judicial, administrative and political meandering followed, which led to the disaster of 4 August 2020. The immediate consequences of the explosion were dramatic: the port and much of the city were wiped off the map. Much infrastructure was destroyed and economic activity severely damaged. The scenes on the streets were reminiscent of the battlefield. Almost 300,000 people were left homeless, without running water, and 100,000 children were displaced. The humanitarian stakes are considerable, as the port of Beirut handles 60% of Lebanon's imports, including 80% of its foodstuffs, the food security of the population has been seriously jeopardised.

Before the disaster, Lebanon was already going through a dramatic social and health crisis (due to the inadequacy of the hospital system: lack of medicines, overflowing hospitals, exodus of medical personnel, ...) Under these conditions, and with the rapid spread of Covid-19, the health system was already no longer able to meet the medical needs of the population: it should be noted that lockdown was imposed again on August 21, 2020 … except for sectors affected by the devastation! Such decisions speak volumes about the cynicism and incompetence of the Lebanese “government”.

But what the ruling class tends to present as a simple industrial accident (another one!) is in reality yet another tragic episode in the life of capitalism driven by the permanent search for profit and by the reduction of the costs of production to a minimum. This logic, in which human life is irrelevant, is at the root of the proliferation of catastrophes of this sort all over the world. Industrial history is littered with what the media discreetly presents as “accidents” whose frequency and scale continue to grow as capitalism sinks into its historical crisis and today into its phase of decomposition. It is enough, among the immense number of catastrophes, to mention some notable ones to get an idea of ​​their monstrosity:

- On 10 July 1976, the factory of a Swiss firm, located in Seveso, 20 km from Milan, suffered a tragic fate: the sudden increase in pressure in one of the reactors blew a safety valve and caused an explosion of extremely harmful herbicides. Dioxin was a chemical agent in Agent Orange that was widely used by the US military in villages throughout the country during the war in Vietnam! It is therefore easy to understand that the authorities have minimized the toxicity of this product while planning, among other health measures, “therapeutic abortions” ...

- On 3 December 1984, in Bhopal in India, at the Union Carbide pesticide plant, owned by a subsidiary of an American corporation, there was a highly toxic gas leak: 30,000 dead, between 200,000 and 300,000 sick in a city of 800,000 inhabitants, permanently contaminated.

- On 26 April 1986, the Chernobyl power plant 96 km from Kiev in Ukraine (then a “socialist” republic of the USSR) exploded and left the region unfit for human life. The number of deaths due to exposure to radioactivity is estimated at several thousand. In April 2020, fires in a forest near the power station increased radioactivity 16 times compared to “normal” But everything was “under control” according to local authorities.

- On 21 September 2001, in the AZF factory in Toulouse, a subsidiary in France of Total-Fina: an explosion of a stock of ammonium nitrate caused 30 deaths and 2,000 injuries: the cause of the explosion was, as in Beirut, the storage of this highly toxic product without any protection and very close to a large city.

- On 12 August 2015, in the port of Tianjin in China, 140 km north of Beijing: a sodium cyanide leak caused an explosion and fire at a warehouse: 173 died, according to the figures provided by the Chinese authorities, more than 700 people were injured or infected, thousands were made homeless, in a devastated area with a radius of several kilometres.

- On 12 August 2018, the Genoa Bridge in Italy collapsed: 43 died. We soon found out that the monitoring sensors had not worked for several years ... However, two years later, the authorities inaugurated a new bridge with a great fanfare (without the presence of affected families who refused to participate in this despicable ceremony).

- On 26 September 26, 2019, in the river port of Rouen, the American Lubrizol plant, similar to that at Seveso, caught fire and a subsequent explosion caused a huge toxic cloud affecting an area with a radius of more than 50 km. The authorities denied the toxicity of the fumes so that they could restart business as quickly as possible. Residents’ protests and the setting up of monitoring committees had no effect on decisions, and the “post-Lubrizol” plan (as the authorities called it) looks surprisingly like “pre-Lubrizol”. Capitalism is allowed to continue its work of destruction.

This list is unfortunately not exhaustive. But all of these disasters, brought about by the wilful neglect of bourgeois states and the capitalist class, remind us that capitalism can only survive in a landscape littered with rubble and corpses.

Lebanon, a country eaten away by decomposition

Today, Beirut is added to the roll call of “accidents”.

The local authorities were aware of the danger of this cargo and the scale of the disaster can only be explained by negligence, naked greed, and corruption at all levels of the completely rotten Lebanese state. This country survives only by attracting foreign capital with interest rates of up to 20%. The Beirut disaster was not due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances. It took place in a country totally ravaged by fifty years of war in the Middle East, by widespread corruption, by political and sectarian cliques. The decomposition that has ravaged this country for decades, has led the desperate population to want to find “democratic solutions” and so, since 2018, waves of impotent anger have been expressed through an interclassist movement entirely dominated by bourgeois demands. This has only grown since the disaster.

You could draw a parallel with the situation of the neighbouring state of Israel, also confronted with demonstrations of popular revolts on a bourgeois "democratic" terrain against the political power in place, its corruption, its disastrous economic and military policy, against the backdrop of the handling of the equally calamitous Covid-19 pandemic.

The restrictions that were imposed in Lebanon in October 2019 were drastic: you can't withdraw wages from the bank, you can't withdraw currency, there's no access to the most basic medical care. The Lebanese pound has lost over 78% of its value, 45% of the population lives below the poverty line, and 35% of the workforce is unemployed. The daily life of the population becomes unbearable: for example, more than 20 electricity cuts per day. It's easy to appreciate the suffering and the anger of the population against this extreme precariousness.

A wave of protests led in October 2019 to the resignation of the government. The next cabinet, headed by Hassan Diab, was equally marked by corruption and incompetence. All this triggered a new wave of demonstrations in June. Nothing changed. The Lebanese state has been mired for decades in a system of corruption in which the banking system (fuelled by foreign funds, including powerful regional sponsors) plagues the entire economy and inexorably sinks the country into decomposition.

The international community is an accomplice

As always, the same scenario arises: the international bourgeoisie sympathises, sends some assistance, and promises aid. But capitalist life continues its same frantic race for profit, exacerbating the geopolitical rivalries that fuel growing chaos. Under the guise of solidarity and humanitarian aid, it is the stampede of cynical imperialist vultures (be it the great powers or the second rank regional powers) rushing to “help” Lebanon in order to defend their own sordid interests.

And in the foreground of this swarm of grim predators, we find France. The eagerness of Macron (the only head of state to date to have visited the scene of the disaster) led to a first visit to Lebanon in which he told the Lebanese government the conditions for French aid in reconstruction … because the French State intends to regain a preponderant place in the region after having practically been ejected from it in recent years. This is why Macron said that “France will never let go of Lebanon”. On 28 August 2020, in a press conference, he said: “If we let go of Lebanon…, there will be civil war”. To support the imperialist scope of such a declaration, during his visit on 1 September 2020 Macron first of all boasted by commemorating the centenary of the creation of Greater Lebanon (at the instigation of France) then spoke with the various Lebanese political factions to get them to promise to create a transitional government in the next fifteen days.

During the course of the French President's stay hundreds of residents took to the streets to let it be known that they weren't fooled. At the end of the day, Macron was more threatening: “At the end of October I will convoke an international conference in Paris and if nothing has been done, I will tell the international community that we cannot be there for aid.” Such statements say a lot about the fraternal intentions of the French bourgeoisie! The new Prime Minister Adib, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Mikati (first in the camp of Hezbollah camp and then in the opposing side of Hariri) perfectly embodies the type of “change” expected by the old General Aoun who, overnight, understood that “the time has come to change policy” and called on the different political factions to come to an agreement to proclaim “a secular state, as demanded by the Lebanese youth” ... It would almost be a great melodrama if the situation was not so serious.

For the moment, the country is mired in an unprecedented crisis and the explosion of 4 August constitutes a new climax of the decomposition of the state with the impact of corruption and incompetence of the various political parties, financed by rich external sponsors. With this new scenario, the Lebanese bourgeois cliques are only trying to buy time and each is trying to keep its position in the face of growing chaos.

This terrible event reminds us once again that the “accidents” of capitalism are so many permanent threats against humanity. The only guarantee of security for the future lies in the constitution of a truly human international community, namely a society where man and his environment are at the heart of all concerns and decisions. Before that, it will be necessary to sweep away the rubble of this rotten and murderous capitalist society. This is our programme, our struggle. In 1915, Karl Liebknecht said: “The enemies of the people are counting on the forgetfulness of the masses – we counter this with the solution: Learn everything, don’t forget anything!”

Adjish (2 September 2020)


Advancing decomposition