Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
September 17, 2007
Act now: Make society shock resistant
Barbara Fraser's front-page story in last week's WCR traced how the poor are often harmed the most severely by natural disasters in Latin America.
The poor often can do no better than to haphazardly build their homes out of unsafe materials on unstable hillsides, flood plains or old landfills. When poorly constructed infrastructure, such as dams and roads, collapses in a flood, hurricane or earthquake, those poor are invariably the first to be swept away.
A lack of urban planning and disaster planning only heightens the risks facing the impoverished masses.
But the situation is much worse than Fraser described, according to Canadian writer Naomi Klein. In her new book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Klein traces in great detail how natural disasters, wars and economic collapses are seized upon by greedy, power-hungry elites to impose an agenda of downsized government, lower taxes for the rich, free trade.
For the "disaster capitalist," major calamities are not human tragedies, but exciting market opportunities. Interest in reconstructing basic services and infrastructure is minimal or non-existent.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans two years, economist Milton Friedman wrote that the disaster provided an opportunity to radically reform the local school system.
That's what happened. Before Katrina, the public school board was running 123 schools; 19 months later, it ran only four. The teachers' union was destroyed and its members fired. Private charter schools filled the gap. They rose in number from seven to 31.
Within days of the hurricane, the state legislature decided to bulldoze what was left of public housing and replace it with condos. As well, taxes were lowered and industry was deregulated.
Klein argues that none of this was accidental. For decades, Friedman and his followers had been honing a strategy of "waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the 'reforms' permanent."
Such a strategy was imposed in Chile by General Pinochet in the 1970s, in Iraq following the latest war, in Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, in China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in the U.S. following the 9/11 terror strike and in a myriad of other countries.
While such market-oriented reforms could be instituted through democratic elections, that approach typically led to piecemeal implementation. Friedman himself maintained that "only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change."
In cases where there is organized resistance to such "reform," the dissidents are routinely jailed and tortured. In many cases, people were killed or tortured before any resistance emerged.
This paints a decidedly bleak picture for efforts to build societies that are both egalitarian and free. But Klein says that after 20 or 30 years, the effects of the shock therapy imposed by the reign of terror wear off. She sees that happening now in Latin America as in country after country people have regained their courage and confidence to fight for social and economic equality.
Better yet would be preventing the disaster capitalists from taking over in the first place - making society shock resistant.
Crucial to that process is being aware that, in the event of calamity, the disaster capitalists are likely to move in and try to restructure society.
Armed with that awareness, a people would want to strengthen non-profit organizations and improve disaster planning to mitigate the effects of a catastrophe. If a cataclysm occurs, leaders must emerge to help the people rebuild their own homes, infrastructure and society, especially if the government is willing to turn over its own power to those who would impose a regime of inequality.
- Glen Argan
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