Nothing Natural About This Disaster

How should anti-authoritarian socialists respond to the politics of the great wall of water of 12/26 in the Indian Ocean and the spectacle of its havoc? Its horrific tragedy is interwoven with the very architecture of our world system built on inequality, privilege and greed — structures of neo-colonial control and dependency, wealthy centers and desperately impoverished peripheries — and spliced with the image machinery of the society of the spectacle. The tsunami becomes a text through which to view anew the contradictions of this system highlighting the need for a world built on socialist principles of mutual aid and self-organization.

Why No Warning?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn has stressed: “As events in Thailand show, natural disasters, such as violent storms, earthquakes and tsunamis may have natural causes, but their effects are the result of the profit-driven system we live in.” [2] The systems’ priorities are inscribed in a chilling fact on the morning of 12/26: a warning was sent from Hawaii to the American military base on the island of Diego Garcia far south of Sri Lanka — while elsewhere there was silence. Here in Thailand, someone in Bangkok made a conscious decision not to “alarm” the tourists at the very peak of high season on the Andaman Sea coast [3]. Simple science in the hands of the masses could have saved tens of thousands [4].

There were a full two hours in Thailand between the seaquake’s first tremor at 8 a.m. and the cataclysm that hit our southwestern coasts at 10. One of my own students, a tour guide out in a longboat with 21 passengers at Bamboo Island in Krabi, escaped in the nick of time because she suddenly spotted the Great Wave coming, was near shore, and hurried her boat captain and astounded tourists to high ground. She had a cell phone in her pocket and could have easily been given a warning had her firm been notified. There was no warning.

As Fred Goldstein notes: “Capitalist television networks have recently carried footage of amateur video showing the tsunami hitting Banda Aceh. But first you saw people cleaning up from the earthquake, slowly and methodically for 25 minutes, completely oblivious of what was to follow — despite definite danger signs, like the sea receding. An organized, educated, prepared population with the government fully behind it could have evacuated thousands of people, even at the site closest to the epicenter of the tsunami. Evacuation to safety in most areas involved moving people only a relatively short distance from the coast. This holds in even greater measure for the high-casualty areas further from the quake, such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and of course East Africa” [5].

Horror on the Margins of a Margin

This has been a calamity on the “periphery of a periphery,” massively affecting in the main simple fisher families and their economies where people live literally on the edge. Natural disasters affect poor and developing countries disproportionately because the struggle of the down-and-out for daily survival does not allow for disaster preparedness. And as mappings at the Earth Institute at Columbia University clearly show, most of the “disaster hot spots’ on our planet lie in the Global South. The geology and meteorology of calamity ominously overlap with the geography of poverty [6].

Profits not Mangroves

Yet this calamity was due in significant part not to geology but to massive environmental degradation as a result of a profit-driven system of priorities: the destruction of the mangrove forests along the coasts of the Indian Ocean over the past two decades, sacrificed to tourism development and excessive shrimp farming. As Devinder Sharma has stressed, the devastation wrought by this wall of water was “the outcome of an insane economic system — led by the World Bank and IMF — that believes in usurping environment, nature and human lives for the sake of unsustainable economic growth for a few” [7]. Nearly 72 per cent of the shrimp farming is confined to Asia, and the expansion of this shrimp farming in India, Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere, has been specifically at the cost of tropical mangroves — amongst the world’s most important ecosystems. Here as elsewhere, the priorities of the World Bank were guided by concern for profits not people, greed not need, despite many warnings by environmentalists about the potential impact of the loss of mangrove forests. Sharma points out that at the very time the tsunami struck, logging companies were busy axing mangroves in the Aceh province in Sumatra for exports to Malaysia and Singapore. “Ecologists tell us that mangroves provide double protection — the first layer of red mangroves with their flexible branches and tangled roots hanging in the coastal waters absorb the first shock waves. The second layer of tall black mangroves than operates like a wall withstanding much of the sea’s fury. Mangroves in addition absorb more carbon dioxide per unit area than ocean phytoplankton, a critical factor in global warming.” The market-driven eco-collapse behind the disastrous effect of the tsunami has been underplayed by the capitalist media.

Spectacle’s Schizophrenia

Indeed, at the heart of the way the media have treated the tsunami’s havoc is a kind of schizophrenia in the face of the everyday tragedy of misdevelopment and inequality that ravages the Global South. At the core of the way the neoliberal corporate governments have responded is a similar schizophrenia. The extraordinary perhaps excessive “tidal wave” of charity masks an underlying indecency in the way our Spectacular world is organized — its fundamental dehumanizing indifference to the massive death of the poor. Natural disaster is a natural candidate for media and charity hype. Horrific suffering of the innocent is momentarily turned into the spectacle of the month, a barrage of benefit concerts, while the vast oppression that is much of humanity’s everyday in the Two-Thirds World remains endlessly invisible: the more than 2 million who will die this year of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, the 900,000 who will die of malaria, the 11 million AIDS orphans in Africa at this very moment, the 2.7 billion on our planet who live on less than 2 dollars a day.

Certainly 12/26 has been the most mediatized natural catastrophe in modern memory. As Mike Whitney notes: “This is where the western press really excels: in the celebratory atmosphere of human catastrophe. Their penchant for misery is only surpassed by their appetite for profits. . . . The manipulation of calamity is particularly disturbing, especially when disaster is translated into a revenue windfall. . . . Simply put, tragedy is good for business. When it comes to Iraq, however, the whole paradigm shifts to the right. The dead and maimed are faithfully hidden from view. . . . The uneven coverage (of Iraq and the tsunami) highlights an industry in meltdown. Today’s privately owned media may bury one story, and yet, manipulate another to boost ratings. They are just as likely to exploit the suffering of Asians, while ignoring the pain of Iraqis” [8]. The anti-war movement needs to seize on these contradictions, bringing home to ordinary Americans their split consciousness: the hypocrisy of gala charity drives for tsunami victims and profuse “giving” — to ease our consciences — while our army and corporations wage a war literally against the world.

Compassion and Victimization as Control

Harsha Walia stresses that “political global compassion is often an ideology of political and social control couched in euphemisms and contradictions of humanitarian intervention . . . Let us be clear that there is no doubt that humanitarian work in order to save lives and provide adequate access to food and shelter is absolutely necessary. But the larger context must never be lost: international aid and NGO work will largely defuse the anger of those affected by the tsunami. . . . The power and anger of the people has again been channeled into victimization to curb any political resistance” [9]. Central here is the entire hierarchical structure of much aid — top-down, dispersed by international governments and NGOs. Handouts construct a whole curriculum in the inculcation of dependency, drying up the wellsprings of self-sufficiency, reinforcing hierarchical structures that serve well ruling class interests. The governments in all the affected countries have sought to build a consciousness of victimization by “natural disaster” to deflect public anger.

Another aspect of such a frenzy of focus is the “tsunami relief industry,” largely Western, that rushes in with NGOs and bureaucrats quite literally to “exploit an emergency to reproduce their own bureaucracies,” for their own benefit, to justify their own existence, as detailed in an insightful article on the “accomplices of destruction” [10]. As Arundhati Roy reminds us: “NGOs . . . defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. They alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance. . . . They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and re-affirm the achievements, the comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilization. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern world” [11].

Social anarchists need to be speaking out, telling people this calamity was in significant part preventable: you are the victims of the human greed on which this system is founded, you should be damn angry. We need to contemplate how to make this disaster a “politicizing” factor for self-action and rage against governments, statecraft elites and their inevitable failures — instead of one more lever for intensifying depoliticization and the passivity of the victim. That is also fed by the culture of ‘fate,’ what Thai Buddhists call ‘duang,’ acquiescence in the face of ‘predestined’ oppression and suffering.

The Tsunami and its Geopolitics

Troops in Aceh, Sri Lanka and Thailand have all been fighting separatist insurgencies for years. After the tsunami, these troops were more focused on these internal insurgencies than mobilizing to assist the Cataclysm’s victims [12]. This is another reason why Washington found it convenient to step in with such a massive ‘military humanitarian’ presence, conveniently attuned to its own geopolitical interests and imperatives across the region.

Indeed, Bush’s Pentagon is eager to reenter its old Vietnam War era military base U-tapao in Chonburi province 90 miles south of Bangkok [13]. Washington has been pressing Bangkok for the past 18 months to allow it to use Thailand as its new “forward positioning” site facilitating its armed forces in the war against terrorists in Southeast Asia [14]. Now that door has been opened, as Thailand is made a “regional hub” for a massive redeployment of military equipment and personnel, with the linchpin at U-tapao. And the pictures beamed across the planet of American soldiers helping distressed Moslem survivors in Indonesia is engineered to ‘improve’ Washington’s ‘image’ in the Moslem world and beyond, while at the same time reproducing and demonstrating capitalism’s military hegemony. Socialists in Sri Lanka (New Left Front) have called for the removal of American troops there: “On the one hand, it is an opportunity for the US to gain a foothold with designs to suppress the LTTE and control the Tamil liberation struggle on behalf of local capitalist rulers. On the other, it also provides an opening for the US not only to arm-twist Sri Lanka to go along with global capitalism, but also to use Sri Lanka’s strategic location to consolidate its neo-colonial agenda all the more blatantly” [15].

The spectrum of tsunami relief can be read as a lesson in the geopolitics of the manipulation of image and bolstering of power & influence in the name of compassion. Condy Rice called the tsunami a “marvelous opportunity” for showing the world how “generous” the U.S. is. It has also been a boon for Japan, China and India, major geopolitical players in the region [16].

Communalist Alternatives to Social Atomization?

An anarchist network of socialist communities grounded on mutual aid, radical direct democracy, self-organization and self-help, would know better how to respond to disaster. It would be better prepared by assuring that what safeguards exist are equally shared, not reserved for Hawaii, Japan, and the California coast. It would redirect the vast expenditures on the military toward help for the people. The networks of associated communities and regions would be able to distribute assistance where needed more equitably, more rapidly and without the vast corruption associated now with NGOs and their channeling of humanitarian aid through hierarchies of authority. The people would have had a proper system of information and education about the danger of massive Walls of Water. The need for science for the people is a natural moral of this horrific tale. Anarchist information structures could tap the reservoirs of traditional folk knowledge, reconnecting with the Earth, as in Thailand where Chao Lay nomadic fisher communities on the Andaman coast — so-called ‘sea gypsies’ — read the warning signs according to ancient sea lore and were able to flee in time to higher ground [17].

Fundamental here are basic eco-socialist water management, sustainable rural communities, a proper infrastructure of roads, adequate health care, a halt to the destruction of mangroves and their restoration. Decentralized empowerment would mean working class people doing far more for themselves on the ground where they are. This is the grassroots mutual aid in action, of which there are countless untold examples in this disaster — tales that radicals need to salvage and retell.

1. Harsha Walia, “The Tsunami and the Discourse of Compassion,” ZNet, www.zmag.org

2. Giles Ji Ungpakorn (Workers Democracy, Bangkok), “A “natural’ disaster made worse by the profit system,” Socialist Worker, 8 Jan 2005, www.socialistworker.co.uk/ ; see also the insightful interview with Mike Davis, “The burden falls on the poorest societies,” Socialist Worker, 7 Jan 2005, www.socialistworker.org/

3. “What if an early warning had been given?,” The Nation (Bangkok), 31 Dec 2004, www.nationmultimedia.com/ As a ranking Thai official noted: “The important factor in making the decision was that it’s high season and hotel rooms were nearly 100-per-cent full. If we had issued a warning, which would have led to an evacuation, [and if nothing happened], what would happen then? Business would be instantaneously affected.”

4. Arthur Lerner-Lam et al., “Simple Science Could Have Saved Thousands,” Los Angeles Times, 30 Dec 2004

5. Fred Goldstein, “Cuba leads world in managing disasters,” Workers World, 20 Jan 2005, www.workers.org/

6. Michael Schirber, “Scientists Chart Global Disaster Hot Spots,” www.msnbc.msn.com/

7. Devinder Sharma, “Tsunami, Mangroves and Market Economy,” GM Watch MMII, 14 Jan 2005, www.gmwatch.org/

8. Mike Whitney, “Iraq Vs. Tsunami; The Duplicity of the Media,” Anarchist People of Color, www.illegalvoices.org/

9. Walia, op.cit.

10. Thomas Seibert, “Komplizen der Zerstˆrung,” Sozialistische Zeitung (Cologne), Feb. 2005

11. A. Roy, “TIDE? OR IVORY SNOW? Public Power in the Age of Empire,” San Francisco, 16 Aug 2004, www.democracynow.org

12. Ungpakorn, ibid.

13. Sirinapha, “Tsunami Relief as a Subterfuge? The Pentagon Scrambles to Reenter its Old Thai Air Base,” http://dc.indymedia.org/

14. “Terror Offensive: US Wants Forward Base Here,” The Nation (Bangkok), 12 June 2003, www.nationmultimedia.com/

15. Dr. Vickramabahu, “No to induction of foreign troops!,” International Viewpoint, Jan 2005

16. Jacques Amalric, “The Tsunami and False Friends,” LibÈration, 20 Jan 2005, www.truthout.org/

17. “Wisdom of the sea,” Bangkok Post, 17 Jan 2005, www.bangkokpost.com/