Some disasters have natural causes but others don't

12 May 2008

Tens of thousands, possibly many more, have died following the typhoon in Burma and last week's earthquake in China. Hundreds of thousands have been injured and left homeless. The lack of water and medical supplies are threatening whole populations with catastrophic epidemics and the absence of food raises the spectre of large-scale starvation.

But while these disasters have natural causes, there is nothing natural in their devastating results.

The exorbitant cost of being poor

Predictably, Bush and Brown blamed the Burmese junta for the flood in Burma. But this has far more to do with the junta being an obstacle to the exploitation of the country's oil and gas by the Western oil "majors", than with its disregard for the population's hardship.

Bush says that the "world should be angry" with the junta for not allowing US aid into the country. And Brown's ministers sound as if they were about to call for an invasion of Burma, under the pretext of "saving the population from the regime". But the Iraqi catastrophe has shown the exorbitant price of such "rescue" operations for populations.

However, the devastating consequences of the typhoon in Burma are neither mainly due to the dictatorship nor to the obstacles it raises to Western aid. They are primarily due to poverty.

In Western Europe, entire regions which are below sea level are inhabited safely, thanks to mighty anti-flood protection. But the Burmese cannot afford such protection for their lowlands.

Much the same applies to China when it comes to earthquake protection. Despite all the nonsense about China's "economic miracle", it is a poor country. The same earthquake taking place in Japan or California would have left most buildings unaffected. But in the towns hit by the earthquake, 80% of houses collapsed like houses of cards, killing their inhabitants, because of cheap structure and bad quality materials.

Capitalist-made disasters

Of course, better pre-emptive measures could have been taken. But only the richest countries can afford the hugely expensive scientific resources needed for effective early-warning systems. And, in this profit-driven world, technological knowledge and resources are primarily used to dominate the poorest and plunder their resources, not to help protect their populations from natural disasters.

However, no-one can question the natural causes of the disasters in China and Burma. But what is natural about the causes of the disaster which is threatening the world's labouring populations due to the latest hiccup of the capitalist bingo economy? On this, Brown is keeping "prudently" silent.

Yet, it is not as if ministers did not know about it. The government brief on housing leaked by the press shows that they expect a fall in house prices by 5 to 10% this year. But what should be a good thing for us, spells catastrophe in terms of jobs and negative equity for many households.

Already high-street sales, manufacturing output and house builds have been going down for several months, meaning job cuts - as if there was no need for decent, affordable housing!

Due to higher retail interest rates, remortgaging has become a luxury. As a result mortgage arrears and repossession orders are at a 15-year high. Ever increasing bills and food prices (almost 1% in April alone), while wage rises are below real inflation, mean that our standard of living is falling fast.

This is a social disaster in the making, which is the direct product of years of frantic profit-making by a small layer of capitalists. There are, however, major differences between such a social disaster and the Burmese and Chinese natural disasters.

The first difference is that no-one can tell how much damage it can cause. Experts said that the credit bubble would burst, but no-one did anything about it, for fear of upsetting profiteering. Even today, it is considered perfectly "legitimate" for a hugely profitable company like Centrica to announce a second 15% gas bill increase this year, under the pretext that it needs to protect its "profit margin"!

The second difference with natural disasters, is that this threatening social disaster was entirely avoidable. Its causes are known - profiteering - and the preventive cure is just as well-known. It has nothing to do with Brown's posturing as a "caring" prime minister with his £2.7bn "compensation" tax cut, which is an insult - all the more so as it does nothing to help the poorest and comes after a £50-100bn handout to shareholders.

No, the only preventive measure against such capitalist-made disasters is to get rid of capitalism itself and build a new, profit-free society. In the meantime, to prepare for it, the only way forward is to stop the criminals from making us pay for their crimes - let the capitalists pay!