Flood relief, solidarity and nationalism

There was an overwhelming response from working people to the flood preparation and recovery efforts in Queensland. On the weekend after the waters receded in Brisbane, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, getting knee deep in the mud to assist friends and strangers alike.

While the capitalist politicians and corporate media were in overdrive whipping up nationalist sentiment, this was not the sentiment on the streets. People were not working for the “Aussie spirit” - it was a massive effort driven by basic sentiments of human solidarity. The nationalist fervour is something that is superimposed in an effort to undermine this very powerful sense of solidarity.

‘All in it together’?

They use nationalist sentiment to break the ties of solidarity. They want us working for “the nation”, not for each other. They want us to believe that we are “all in this together”. But that is never true. The class divisions in society cannot be eradicated, even by a wall of water.

It is always the working people and poor who suffer the most. The more prosperous suburbs received the greatest attention in the media and the official volunteer efforts. The poor rural areas suffered the most and will continue to suffer.

The rich can afford hotels and have their beach houses to go to. The poor have nowhere to go. The rich can afford to hire trucks and storage or can just move everything to the top floor of their multi-storey mansions. The poor have to scramble with their few precious items to get out the back gate - if they get home from work in time to save anything at all. The rich have their flood insurance and over-inflated bank accounts to replace anything they lose.

The rich pay people to manage their affairs. They know the councillors and can get a dozen volunteers at the snap of their fingers. The poor are more concerned about their neighbours and want volunteers to help others who are worse off.

But in this case, people were not left on their own. The massive mobilisation of working people meant that people did get the help they needed.

Thousands turned up at the official volunteer registration, but there were many times more who took to the streets themselves. The turn-out also put paid to the myth that young people are apathetic: young people made up the majority of the volunteers (the “mud army” as it has been dubbed). Many people self-organised through Facebook and other social media, working with strangers to put together teams that could offer all the assistance needed: plumbers, electricians, builders, people to cook and general hands.

People found a role for themselves. Those who couldn’t labour in the mud walked the hot streets with baskets of food and cold drinks to sustain the work. Or they volunteered to do the washing for those who no longer had a laundry.

Very few people had experience or skills in flood clean-up, but people worked together to find solutions. The skills and tricks involved in getting mud out of houses, backyards and streets quickly spread across the suburbs as people shared their experiences.

There was a strong sense of solidarity. No-one shirked work, and no-one resented anyone who needed a break. People in cars tooted and cheered muddied volunteers as they made their way home. For a short time in some streets, it was like a strange sort of socialism - from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

With such widespread solidarity and cooperation among poor and working people, it is no wonder that the capitalist politicians and the corporate media are so keen to undercut it with their nationalist ideology.

Pushing parochialism

Demonstrating that the “Queenslander” parochialism was superimposed on the clean-up efforts was the fact that many people travelled from interstate to help. Even more so was the fact that around 70 refugees in a detention centre in Darwin donated from the very little they had to the flood appeal.

While most helping out are not class conscious, many have an instinct to help those most in need. Some of the teams that are being put together are consciously targeting the poorer areas, those that were more overlooked by the official efforts.

The nationalist sentiment does take hold; there is an element of flag-waving on the streets. But it is not instinctive. It is adopted in the absence of class consciousness as a means of identifying with a collective.

Of course, there is also racism inherent in the greater degree of concern for the victims of floods in Australia than those who were suffering to a much greater degree at the same time in Brazil and the Philippines. But again, this is more the result of the role of the corporate media than anything instinctive among working people. There would be much greater concern if people knew about the floods in other parts of the world, and if people could help, they would, as they did in the Boxing Day tsunami relief efforts in 2004.

In Brazil and the Philippines, the structural inequality is even greater due to the history of imperialist exploitation; assistance for flood victims is even more reliant on the working people and poor - demonstrating once again that there is nothing inherently “Aussie” or “Queenslander” about helping those in need.

Banks and other corporations have contributed to the relief efforts, but relative to their wealth, their contributions pale into insignificance compared to what working people have given. It is a PR exercise and an effort to promote the idea that “we’re all in this together”. But it is hollow; for example, the announcement that some of the banks agreed to freeze temporarily mortgage and credit card repayments for flood victims would be done in the knowledge that most people won’t be able to pay in any case.

Compare this to the response of the state-owned Bank of Venezuela, which gave “socialist solidarity bonuses” equivalent to one month of the national minimum wage to thousands of flood victims in the capital, Caracas. This is just one example of the many measures taken by the country’s socialist government to assist working people and the poor during and after the floods in late 2010. These measures included a decree to force luxury hotels to accommodate flood victims (the presidential palace was also used for emergency accommodation), massive funding for emergency building of public housing and the takeover of unoccupied buildings and land for new housing. Part of the funding is coming from US$500 million recovered from frozen US bank accounts.

Capitalist governments cannot match such efforts. Despite the infrastructure available and the massive efforts of volunteers and the public service, the political, social and economic reality means that it will be working people and the poor who are forced to carry the burden. Already there are signs that the state, local and federal governments will use the flood recovery as an excuse for cuts to jobs and social services that they had already planned anyway. These attacks will again be shrouded in nationalistic “we’re in this together” rhetoric, but we can be sure that it won’t be the politicians’ salaries or corporate profits that will be cut.

Working people need to stand together and resist these attacks and resist the attempts to undercut our solidarity with the poisonous ideology of nationalism.