Here We Go Again: Looting in Chile

March 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

By now we all know that Chile was devastated by a massive earthquake this week, and by massive, we’re talking 8.8 on the Richter Scale; by comparison, the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January measured 8.0, certainly massively devastating.

In the aftermath, looting has broken out in across the nation.  I find looting in the wake of natural disasters fascinating, as condemnations of it clearly show a disturbing trend of our culture: that private property in many cases is more sacrosanct than life.  Indeed, if Western history teaches us anything, it is that property was and is quite often more important than the lives of the commoners or the poor or the working-classes.  Indeed, this is clear from Thompson and his The Making of the English Working Class: property matters.  The state is constituted to protect men, true, but also, men’s property.  Especially that of wealthy men.  Indeed, as no less an authority as Jean-Jacques Rousseau points out in his Discourse on Inequality, it is private property that is at the heart of that inequality.  Thus we band together to be governed, surrendering some of our own personal sovereignty in order that our lives and property can be protected and, thus, at the same time, inequality.

Consider this passage from the Washington Post today:

Though there were middle-class looters — some carried off their booty in expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles — the pillaging was carried out largely by poorer Chileans, and it left some horrified onlookers wondering whether their country had really advanced as much as the economists and government officials had believed.

I can’t understand why it is that the poor looting carried out by the poor would cause such hand-wringing and soul-searching.  And this causes The Post to go onto a long discourse on inequality and poverty, the nation with the lowest poverty rate (14%) in South America.  But one also, according to Piero Mosciatti, a lawyer and director at Radio Bio-Bio in the city of Concepion.  He says that:

I think there are very big resentments on the part of those who are poorest and marginalized.  Chile is a country that is tremendously unequal, scandalously unequal. The statistics show it.

That may very well be.  But aren’t all Western nations predicated on this inequality?  It is one thing to wring our hands and tut-tut when the desperately poor of Port-au-Prince engage in looting.  But, culturally, we expect that.  We expect the desperately poor in a desperately poor nation to loot in the wake of a natural disaster.  But when it happens in a supposedly wealthy western nation, then we get concerned.  We saw this in New Orelans after Hurricane Katrina.  And we’re seeing the same thing in Chile after this earthquake.

The media is shocked to learn that there are poor people, an underclass in first-world nations.  Why this is is beyond me.  Any trip through any major city in the west, be it London, Miami, New Orleans, Buenos Aires, and one is confronted by the urban poor.  Our society is predicated on that inequality, for better or worse.  And quite often, wealthy, industrialised nations have a massive disparity between the rich and the poor.  This was made abundantly clear in the wake of Katrina in New Orelans in 2006.  And this is true of not just the United States.

According to one of the looters in Concepcion, Chile, “This is done for necessity.  Everything is abandoned, and we are looking for what has been left behind.”

At least the Chileans, according to The Post, are beginning to have the discussion as to whether or not Chile, which has developed rapidly, has done enough to bridge the gap between rich and poor.  This is a discussion worth having in Canada.


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