Sunday, 27 December 2015

Capitalising the Cumbrian Floods

Naomi Klein's book: The Shock Doctrine (2007), makes the insightful, but surprising claim that free-market capitalists use economic and climate disasters to push forward neoliberal ideological policies. This is called #disastercapitalism . 

The idea is this: people normally resist free market solutions to all sorts of cultural norms. For example, the NHS in the United Kingdom is deeply valued to the extent that an amateur choir can achieve a Christmas number 1 in the pop charts by releasing a song that defends it.

What Disaster Capitalism does though is use the dislocation, caused by a traumatic event to railroad purported solutions to inject free-market answers while people are still reeling in confusion from the event. For example, in the case of climate change related events, you would think it would be the other way around: that people would rapidly form the association between global warming and and the current event and make strong calls for the government to turn more rapidly away from fossil fuels.

Surprisingly, although some people do this, by and large no such response occurs. Instead what happens is that people are preoccupied with the immediate need for relief and consequently suppress or ignore statements or opinions that relate the event to climate change. For example, after the Hebden Bridge flooding of 2012, they released a web page where they talk about "what work has been done since last Summer, and what’s also planned in the medium and long terms". There's no mention of climate anything. You can skip to the forum too. So, from the 2012 forum, topic "Floods Practical Solutions", of the 19 posts, there's one reference to climate ("Has anyone mentioned Treesponsibility? The group was set up to leessen (sic) the effects of climate change in the Valley by planting trees"). Another flood-related topic is no longer on the server. Of the other topics "Floods Sandbags" (no references); "Floods, The Politics" 20 refs: "Climate change certainly seems to be contributing to the problem, but it will be hundreds of years, if at all, before we will see the results of any effort we make to counter climate change."(i.e. let's not think about it right now); "Every Councillor and every senior Council Officer in Calderdale needs to read the Pitt Review of the 2007 floods and act on the recommendations. They should also understand where Climate Change is leading us." (which was written by the Green Party Candidate and brushed aside in the next post with "I'm not sure that right now is the time to be pushing 'I told you so' stuff"); "Only yesterday a report was mentioned on the BBC from the Committee on Climate Change that warns of more of these downpours in the future.". Another Green party comment "Our own Government and its agencies have to stop talking about flood threats in terms of one in 30 or 100 years. With climate change it could happen next month again". This was countered in the next post and in a couple of later posts: "As I said, there is no evidence to link the recent wet weather with man made climate change and for that reason the Green Party and other opportunists should not use terrible events such as the recent floods to progress their agendas."

Given that people are cautious to make any link, particularly during the events themselves, it becomes relatively easy for the government to exploit it. And indeed this is just what they've done. In response to questions about how the Government had made cuts to the Environmental Agency prior to the Cumbrian floods in early December 2015, the government then offered Council Tax and business tax cuts as relief.

Doesn't this strike anyone as being rather odd? As if anyone's need for flooding relief was somehow related to how much they pay in council tax? Isn't it also more likely that homes built closer to flood plains are likely to be in lower council tax areas and therefore there's less to claim back, though they're more likely to be flooded? And how is a business's profits related to the amount of damage they'd suffer? And isn't it likely that a business that was making more money would find it easier to cope with the cost anyway?

The only common factors in all of this is that:
  1. The 'flooding relief' potentially has greater benefits for Cumbrians who are better off, compared with those who aren't.
  2. The relief needs to be applied from across the country to those in need, not localised to the area in question. How is a community's ability to fund its own relief related to the extent of the disaster?
  3. Business taxes (and possibly Council taxes) pay for things like welfare, so in a sense the flooding disaster is being used to make cutbacks in welfare: although the rich across the country aren't paying for the flooding relief, the poor in the UK will have less money as a consequence.
And guess what, Liz Truss is planning to apply the same approach to the flooding in the North of England again - they have no idea if it works, but it's already policy.
“Of course, you’ve asked about funding and we’re looking at schemes similar to what we put in place in Cumbria to make sure families and businesses are supported,” said Truss.
 Disaster Capitalism to a tee.