Socialist Worker

The politics of the tsunami

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 1934

IN HIS classic book Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, Sidney Hook discusses the role of accident in history: “A chance event in history is one which although it has historical consequences has no historical causes.

“The historian could no more predict an earthquake on the basis of historical data than the geologist could predict the social consequences of an earthquake on the basis of his geological laws alone.”

The example that Hook uses is of course only too pertinent. The Indian Ocean tsunami may have been caused by the grinding of tectonic plates quite independently of any human action, but its consequences are mediated by the socio-economic structures of the capitalist system.

In last week’s Socialist Worker Giles Ji Ungpakorn explained very well the impact of the tsunami on the poor of the region. But the same is also true of the quake’s political consequences.

Whenever a humanitarian disaster takes place, there is a lot of pompous talk about how dealing with it is above politics, but this is nonsense, as the bungling behaviour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown—the Laurel and Hardy of British politics—demonstrates.

When I wrote last week that they might now vie over Africa and global poverty, this was half a prediction and half a joke. I didn’t expect to be proved right within days with Blair and Brown being shown split-screen on TV making simultaneous speeches each proclaiming himself the saviour of the world’s poor.

But the way in which responding to the tsunami is being channelled into existing political conflicts has also been clear in a much more important way on a global stage.

The Iraq war opened up profound fissures among the leading capitalist powers. This has been on display since these states’ leaders started to wake up to the significance of the tsunami.

Thus on 29 December George W Bush announced the formation of a “core group” of nations—initially the US, Japan, India and Australia—to respond to the crisis. As with the Iraq war, this amounted to an attempt to create a “coalition of the willing” by-passing the UN.

This came against the background of an offensive that has been mounted by the Republican right against the UN, and in particular its secretary general, Kofi Annan, since Bush was re-elected.

The pretext of this campaign was alleged corruption in the administration of the UN’s oil for food programme in Iraq.

But the real issue was that Annan—who was handpicked by the Clinton administration after he had facilitated NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1995—had failed to be a sufficiently obsequious servant of US power, notably in condemning the Iraq war as illegal.

Apart from sniping at the UN, the Bush administration has tried to use the tsunami to rebuild the US’s global image. The president’s brother Jeb and outgoing secretary of state Colin Powell were sent to tour the disaster areas.

“US Pushes Caring Super Power Image in Quake Zone,” the Financial Times commented. “The rest of the world is [being] given a chance to see American generosity, American values in action,” said Powell.

Other great powers have also tried to seize the advantage by projecting themselves as effective and compassionate rescuers of the victims.

At last week’s donors’ summit in Jakarta the US “core group” was dissolved, after only eight days of existence, and the UN was confirmed in charge of the aid operation—a setback for the Bush administration’s unilateralist approach.

There is, of course, something very grubby about the way in which politicians seek to exploit disasters to gain the advantage against their geopolitical or domestic political rivals.

But we shouldn’t allow this to lose sight of the fact that dealing with human suffering isn’t above politics. Most of this suffering can be traced back ultimately to the grossly unequal and unjust distribution of resources in the world. Addressing this is the real political question facing humankind.


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Sat 15 Jan 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1934
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