A Capitalist Disaster: The Disaster Capitalism complex at work in Christchurch
American writer and activist Naomi Klein coined the phrase “disaster capitalism” in the wake of the Bush Administration’s response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. This term became mainstream when her book ‘The Shock Doctrine’ was published in 2007 and went on to become a No.1 best seller and later a feature length documentary. However, far from the accepted media view of an incompetent Government response, Klein’s theory is that this was merely an example of a growing worldwide trend involving the highly competent and undemocratic transfer of Public wealth and resources to private hands in post-disaster situations. It is hard to read this book without immediately drawing parallels with the current situation in Christchurch where a lack of real democracy and public debate around the reconstruction effort is apparent. However, as Klein thankfully points out in the final chapter of her worrying book there are alternatives to this top-down Neo-liberal economics approach to reconstruction which involve democracy through community level initiatives and participation in the process.
The theory of the rise of disaster capitalism is essentially that the neo-liberal global economic system seizes on disasters as prime opportunities to circumvent democracy and demand wholesale privatization of public assets without government interference so that even disaster responses are now conducted by and for the benefit of private contractors and industry.
In New Orleans post Katrina rather than help local people rebuild their lives the Government marginalized them and forced them to move, often out of the state entirely. Poor African American neighborhoods and solidly built housing projects undamaged by the waters were demolished and replaced with condominiums and replicas of white suburbia. Public Schools were replaced with private ones to which local communities could not afford to send their children. New malls were built where houses had stood on profitable real estate and leased to multi-nationals. In the places where there were no real estate opportunities, properties were simply left to fester like ghost towns.
The chapter of the Shock Doctrine on the post Katrina nightmare states:
“The images from New Orleans showed that this was the general belief – that disasters are a kind of time out from cut-throat capitalism, when we all pull together and the state switches into higher gear – had already been abandoned, and with no public debate.”[i]
The main elements of this new approach to post disaster re-construction are that it involves a large scale transfer of Public Wealth to private hands and a lack of democracy or public involvement in decision making. This was seen drastically in Sri Lanka after the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 where the Government effectively grabbed all land within 100 metres of the coastline from local subsistence fishing communities in the name of safety only to promptly sell it off to multi-national tourism developers to build resorts. In addition, billions of dollars of aid money from the largest fundraising effort the world has ever seen was siphoned into these tourist developments and corrupt politicians coffers so that little of it actually assisted the affected people for whom it was raised. For more on this, see the Documentary “From Dust” by Dhruy Dhawan [ii]
Relevance to Christchurch?
This lack of democracy and public debate has been a hallmark of every level of the New Zealand Government’s Reconstruction efforts in Christchurch after the recent seismic disasters. The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010 was rushed through parliament in a whirlwind three days without proper scrutiny and effectively gave the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) led by Minister Gerry Brownlee the authority to effectively do anything they like and requires no public consultation, environmental safeguards or other features of legislation respectful of democratic process.[iii] As the herald reported this Law “gives CERA specific powers to get information from any source, to requisition and build on land and to carry out demolitions. It can also take over local authorities if they are not working effectively on recovery work.”[iv]
A concern about the CERA approach is that there has been little discussion or public debate about what will be done with the valuable land in the uninhabitable residential Red Zone after it has been purchased. The Government has announced a buyout package for such affected residential land which is essentially a take it or leave it offer for residents who are prohibited from rebuilding on that land.[v] It seems there is overwhelming public support for turning the land around the badly liquefied Avon river and the Iconic Cathedral into public parks and wetlands for the benefit of the city.[vi] However CERA appears evasive on this issue and a growing suspicion is that the land may well end up as prime waterfront private property built on expensively remediated land.
A local community group ‘Action for Christchurch East’ have commented on the need for a cohesive response in an interesting blog post:
“The mistake we made since September was to assume that business and suited politicians are the best equipped people to deal with natural disasters. The government and decision makers have deliberately segmented the communities’ response. We are encouraged to deal with issues individually and are left hoping that our phone messages are responded to – think back to the community briefings where we were told to line up and deal with our issues “separately”, what a missed opportunity for the community to get organised! Groups that have created a collective response and have shown real promise are now being gagged and trodden on.”[vii]
This lack of democratic process or community involvement in Christchurch is allowing for the situation where private contractors are making huge public gains while taxpayers and private individuals all over the country are paying. Stories are emerging of overbilling, unsatisfactory work and contractors effectively manipulating the system for their personal gain. Fletchers Construction, a large Auckland based nationwide construction firm with powerful ties to many of the largest New Zealand companies and strong political connections was awarded a Multimillion dollar contract to rebuild the city amid allegations of conflict of interest in the tender process. The now familiar approach seen in Iraq and New Orleans of companies sub contracting and sub–sub contracting out this work means that the local people actually doing the work get paid little and have little resources to do an effective and quick job while CEOs and shareholders make a tidy profit. This approach does not create jobs for the worst affected local people and makes them reliant on insubstantial Government handouts.
The Government if elected for a second term will attempt to use the cost of rebuilding to justify speeding up the already planned privatisation of state assets and services further directing public reconstruction money into the private sector. On top of this Taxpayers are now funding $1 billion bailout of AMI Insurance who cannot pay out to insured people. Increasingly it seems that a select few in the corporate sector will benefit from or have any say in the rebuilding of Christchurch while the working and middle classes will suffer big losses in the areas of living standards, employment, labour standards, public education, and social welfare.
The positive message to come from the awareness of the disaster capitalism complex is to stand up for your community, take power and exercise democracy by being involved in the process and in public debate. We should not simply sit idly by and watch as our wealth and resources are handed over to corporate interests for individual gain. After Hurricane Katrina a number of communities simply defied the bulldozers and the laws and organized themselves to reoccupy and rebuild their own houses or public schools with little or no outside assistance. Similarly, in Thailand despite attempts by the Government to impose a law similar to the Sri Lankan one, many communities simply stepped over the barriers and started rebuilding their houses without waiting for permission or assistance. The resilience of these communities has led to them surviving as living entities whilst many others around them have not.
Worker self-management is a form of direct economics or democratic workplace decision-making in which workers manage their factories or farms as co-operatives. Salaries are usually more equal and production, division of labour and other decisions are made democratically. After the Mid 1990s financial collapse in Argentina this approach was used effectively by many local workers who occupied their defunct and bankrupt factories previously owned by wealthy elites and recommenced production with the support of and for the benefit of the community. This story is the subject of a documentary “La Toma” (The Take)[viii] also made by Naomi Klein and her husband Avi lewis. Interestingly, the Spanish verb ‘recuperar’ used to describe these occupations means not only “to take back” but also “to put back into good condition”. When Police attempted to evict some of these locked in workers the local communities formed a human shield around the factories to prevent it until they eventually won the right to continue.
There are many stories of hope and resilience as groups in Christchurch are finding ways to navigate through the bureaucratic nightmare and get on with the task of rebuilding. ‘Gap Filler’ is one initiative started in response to the Christchurch earthquakes which aims to temporarily activate vacant sites within Christchurch with creative projects, to make for a more interesting, dynamic and vibrant city.[ix] Veteran New Zealand Human Rights and Social Justice Activist John Minto stated in his article ‘Anarchy to the rescue in Chch’ “It’s useful for some to remember that anarchy doesn’t mean ‘chaos’ it means ‘without government’. The Christchurch anarchists are showing the will and organisation to help keep their communities going while the resources of the government appear focused elsewhere.”[x]
For more detailed accounts of this from people on the ground in Christchurch check out the upcoming special edition of Freerange: ‘Chur Chur: Stories from the Christchurch earthquake.’
I’m not attempting to incite a riot or suggesting people storm the ‘red zone’ as neither are entirely safe or productive, however if we are able to work together as a collective force then the recuperation of our economy for the benefit of our communities is entirely possible. As Klein puts it we are rebuilding our cities and our economy “not from scratch but from scraps.” By this she means that anything left behind by the successive waves of natural and capitalist destruction can be salvaged and recycled into use in this new form of community led economic development. Participating in decision making and ensuring accountability in matters affecting our communities is necessary for achieving this. Investing time, money and energy into local level industry and initiatives has the potential to replace what has been lost and to build a truly local economy and a more livable environment from the ground up.
[i] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine Penguin Books 2007, p.408
[iv] Controversial Christchurch earthquake laws passed JOHN HARTEVELT http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-earthquake/4887566/Controversial-Christchurch-earthquake-laws-passed
[v] Latest Christchurch land information released http://www.rebuildchristchurch.co.nz/blog/2011/6/cera-latest-christchurch-land-information-released
[vi] Christchurch residents want red zone park, cathedral rebuilt http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK1107/S00454/christchurch-residents-want-red-zone-park-cathedral-rebuilt.htm
[vii] The Shock Doctrine and The EQ Response in Christchurch http://actionforchristchurcheast.blogspot.com/2011/06/shock-doctrine-and-eq-response-in.html
[x] John Minto, Anarchy to the rescue in Chch, 27 February, 2011 http://thestandard.org.nz/anarchy-to-the-rescue-in-chch/
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