In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey, Memet Uludağ looks at the responses of the ruling class and of ordinary people, arguing for something better than a return to capitalist “normality”.
As time passes, the hope for finding more survivors is fading. It has been 8 days since two massive earthquakes destroyed more than 10 cities in Turkey and Syria. 13.5 million people are directly impacted by the earthquake. Its impact keeps widening. People are now facing unimaginable levels of homelessness, internal displacement, unemployment, and huge issues with disruption to health, education and public services. Together, these issues will cause a real, long-lasting poverty for many.
Disasters always bring the best of human nature in terms of solidarity and charity. They bring suffering people together in a world that we are told is ‘individualistic’, ‘selfish’ and ‘people must look after their own first’.
We have seen many examples of this with the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. People who lost everything went on to help others. People rushed to save people from under the rubble. Globally, millions of people are helping by donating money and supplies. We saw tears shed for strangers.
But, disasters, the incomprehensible loss of life and suffering, and the problems that follow also have the potential to give rise to anxiety, fear and all sorts of reactionary ideas and forces. Capitalist societies are sick. People naturally have all sorts of contradictory consciousness and forceful influences that shape their actions. From conditions of disaster and chaos, there arise the dangers of state oppression,the curtailment of civil and democratic rights, ultra-nationalism, racism and a situation where vulnerable sections of the society are pitted against each other. We saw this during many other disasters in the US, Haiti and elsewhere.
Whose disaster is it?
In my view, the fundamental reason behind this is as follows:
Following a disaster, the real conflict is between the ruling class and the state that protects their interests on one side, and the suffering and needs of the majority working class, or more generally put, ordinary people, on the other.
It is, in short, a race to “normality” where the ruling classes can get back to making profits and the working classes need their lives to be rebuilt. While the ideas of “getting back to normality from the disruption of the disaster” may sound like a common ambition for all, the journey to “normality”, and what needs to be done to get there, are a world apart.
Back to normality?
There are several important questions behind “normality”.
Is it back to the old “normal” where old norms of society and the order is restored, or is it a new “normality” which rejects the badness of the old one and builds a different society?
Who is going to pay for this journey to normality? Who is going to rebuild the cities and restore public services? Who is going to decide on the priorities? Who is going to come out of this journey as the winners and who is going to be left behind.
The Old Normality
People are in shock but have not lost their senses. They do see the reason behind the huge devastation. They talk about unsafe construction practices or the lack of regulation and safeguarding. The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria were massive. It is not an easy task to deal with the devastation, but people do ask questions about the rescue efforts and why so many people had to die. They do wonder why it has been such a chaos. They don’t necessarily have all the answers and conclusions, but they have all sorts of questions.
The realities of the old, pre-disaster normality are staring right at us. This normality was a social and economic model that was imposed by the system. Under this old normality, large fortunes were made from profit-driven housing while millions of people who couldn’t even afford a house were left at the mercy of the profiteers.
This is the reality of the old normality, where state and political rulers enforce this profit system. Law and regulations are subservient to the interests of profit and in the process, deadly houses and entire cities that are vulnerable to earthquakes are built.
There lies the reality that the old normal is all about profit and not people. Not just in terms of housing but also in terms of the public health system and a social protection system that wasn’t adequate for the needs of ordinary people before the disaster. These are now under even more stress.
The Ruling Class
The rich, the big business owners, the massive industries are hurting. They have incurred losses, too. Their victims are their profits because their profits depend on workers at work. Today, workers are not at work. Furthermore, they need to sacrifice some of their accumulated wealth in order to restore the order of profit making. But they will not be generous in this sacrifice. They will put pressure on the government to restore the economic and social order and force the working classes to pay for it.
The economic rulers will of course make some donations to rescue efforts and talk in humanitarian terms about the disaster but their real objective is to limit the damage to their wealth. Furthermore, they will look for more profit opportunities from this disaster. In the case of the earthquake, the rebuilding of cities can be a lucrative business for them. They will force the state to dish out land and money to this business. Only to get back to the fundamentals of the old normal, at best, with some limited lessons learned, but with the profit-making system intact.
The state and the government, given that they are under pressure from all sides, will try to manage the situation. On one hand the government must implement popular measures to alleviate the suffering – most of these will be in the form of temporary state aid and charity – on the other hand, they will be concerned with the restoration of the economy as the ruling class wants it.
What about us?
What about us? By us, I mean those of us who have a different vision for our society and the world in general. Some of us, some of our families and loved ones are also victims of the earthquake disaster. Some of us are also activists and we have a claim for the future. At times of disasters our anger, our analyses, our efforts to help the victims intensify. We are in high gear. But unfortunately, for some of us this is not the only weight on our shoulders. Our problems are rooted in the pre-disaster old normal: The killer normal. Our ambitions for changing the world – and our conviction of the actuality of real changes – puts more tasks on our plates.
Chaos and the unimaginable hurt, the fear and anger of people create a complex and contradictory atmosphere. Someone selflessly working to help victims might say, “Syrian refugees should be kicked out. We need to look after our own”.
A politician crying for victims of the disaster might defend the beating of innocent people accused of robbing destroyed buildings. Solidarity and racism, anger towards government and nationalism may all coexist.
Our preparedness to understand this and operate within this chaos is not spontaneous work but one that should emerge from our work in the old, normal times. A working class may indeed rise with progressive consciousness or fall victim to reactionary ideas during a disaster. Whichever is the case, those who want to change the world must be prepared for this uncertain time – not just ideologically, but also in our practice.
The Working Class
That is not to say that revolutionary forces have a magical power to influence how and where the society goes. But for example, in a country like Turkey, it’s not just about housing alone – earthquake-safe housing is a working-class issue. It is a central issue for the ordinary people. There have been 6 major earthquakes that have killed tens of thousands of people in the last 50 years. Some call it “disaster capitalism” but I think the fundamental issue is capitalism in normal times. Yes, the capitalists try to swoop in and suck up profits during disasters, but it is their system in “normal” times that has created the conditions for the damage to be so great.
The force to change this system lies within the working class. Hence their material conditions and social problems matter to us, in fact they are central.
Disasters are political. Beyond the rescue and humanitarian efforts in the immediacy of the disaster, there is a world of mess out there and capitalism is set to kill more, many more.
Business as usual – continuity from the old “normal” to the new is the problem at hand.
What can be done in Europe?
People all over the world have been wonderful with their solidarity with the victims of earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
But such disasters need more than the magnificent efforts of ordinary people. It needs tangible steps by states with real outcomes.
What’s so awful is that many of the victims of this disaster are those who have been worst affected by the war and devastation in Syria. These include Syrian people still in Syria, Syrian refugees in Turkey, and of course the people of Turkey who were most generous with Syrian refugees.
What a tragedy in a region with a history of so much hurt.
So far, over 37,000 are dead and more than 89,000 injured. These numbers will increase.
But there is much that could be done immediately.
Here are some of these:
1. Lift all sanctions on Syria. Allow Syrian and other people in Europe to send money to their relatives.
2. Organise airdrops of supplies to affected areas in Syria.
3. Process the family reunification applications of Syrians settled in European states.
4. Allow Syrians in various refugee camps and refugee centres in Europe to go back to their hometowns in Syria (if they want to) to help their relatives and guarantee their re-admission when they can come back.
5. Force the European pharmaceutical corporations – which are massively profitable – to mass provide essential medicine to Syria and Turkey.
6. Some of the dead and injured in Turkey are Syrian and other refugees. The region hit by the earthquake is home to tens of thousands of refugees who are in a precarious situation. Their temporary home in Turkey is gone. Their homes back in Syria are gone. Restart a safe refugee admission program.
7. Stop all deportations back to Syria and Turkey. It is estimated 300,000 Syrians will be internally displaced, yet again. Many more people in Turkey will be forced to relocate to other parts of the country.
8. Support the opening of the Syria-Turkey border. Allow people to cross freely, as they did before.