This article has been reproduced from the Socialist Standard (December 1998), the monthly journal of the Socialist Party of Great Britain
Global capitalism’s reaction to the hurricane disaster in Central America shows the system in its true colours-greedy gold and bloody red. Hurricane Mitch left a trail of death and destruction in Honduras, Nicaragua and neighbouring countries. Over 24,000 people were killed or are missing. Millions of some of the poorest people in the world lost their homes and their means of livelihood. International aid agencies gave some help, but it was too little and too late to deal adequately with the problem. Above all, the global profit system proved woefully inadequate to deal humanely and effectively with the situation.
The surviving victims of the disaster need food, fresh water, clothing, medication and many other items. Some of those needs are being met, but not nearly enough. Governments of the richer countries have offered niggardly help. Ordinary citizens, appalled by the extent of the tragedy as revealed by the media, have responded more generously to appeals by the multi-charity Disasters Emergency Committee.
Hurricane Mitch and similar misfortunes are presented as unavoidable natural disasters. To some extent, this is true. But it ignores the difficult-to-quantify consequences of the deliberate pursuit of profit at the expense of environmental protection and conservation-the emission of poisonous gases, the destruction of forests, acid rain, and so on. The severity of the disasters is compounded by the fact that capitalism’s priority is to preserve and enhance the profit system, not to preserve and enhance human life.
The outstanding obscenity is that, even before the latest disaster, the countries affected were massively in debt to the richest “economies” in the world. Both Nicaragua and Honduras were paying about £1m a day in interest on those debts. The payments were more than twice what was spent on health and education combined. The best that some of the European governments could come up with was a scheme to offer debt “relief” in the form of a moratorium on interest payments and a fund to help reduce the cost of future repayments (Guardian, 11 November).
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are being asked to disgorge a fraction of their capital built up over many years by exploitation of the multinational working class. The bankers ponder whether they can afford such generosity, while the insurance industry is worried about its profitability. Experts “believe insurance cover, vital for attracting inward investment to develop tourist resorts and protect homes and businesses, will become prohibitively high. In some areas it may disappear entirely” (Times, 9 November).
How would the consequences of natural disasters be dealt with in a socialist world? The frequency and severity of such events would be minimised by not damaging the environment in the pursuit of profit and not forcing people to live in areas that are prone to really unavoidable natural disasters. When a hurricane, earthquake or whatever did occur, help would be organised directly and immediately to meet the needs of the victims. No waiting around for funds to be set up, relief costs to be authorised, etc. No question of debt moratoria or cancellation to be considered-not debts would be created. Just the simple meeting of human need. Is that too complex and unthinkable an idea to understand and act on?
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