Libya Catastrophe is a Double Whammy; Capitalism is to Blame

Image of capitalism graffiti.

Image by Mike Erskine.

Prodigious rainfall and the failure of long-deteriorated earthen dams caused a rush of waters through Derna, in Libya, on September 11. Thousands of residents died, infrastructure was destroyed, and buildings ended up in the Mediterranean. Failure to protect residents, maintain the dams, and sustain the lives of all Libyans point to societal collapse.

There is also the environmental crisis. Climate change provoked the enormity of storm Daniel that had drenched the eastern Mediterranean area ahead of the disaster. The association of climate change and terrible storms is known and so too is the role of human activities in causing great amounts of greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere.

The focus here is on the social disruption that transformed Libya. That’s because predisposing factors may not be clear. There are lessons to be learned. The two crises are actually joined by virtue of both having developed out of a single impulse for domination.

Nationalist rebels led by Muammar Gaddafi deposed the embattled Libyan regime of King Idris on Sept. 1, 1969. Between 1973 and 1977, a Yugoslavian company contracted by the new government built two dams on the Wadi Derna River for the sake of flood control and irrigation. Maintenance of the dam would be lax.

A 1998 study revealed cracks and deterioration. After delays, a Turkish company began repairs on the dams in 2010. When the Gaddafi government was ousted in the following year, the work stopped. Some $2.3 million was on hand for finishing the project. It disappeared.

Anti-government protests ─ the Arab Spring ─ had broken out throughout the region in 2010. An anti-Gaddafi insurgency making headway in early 2011 prompted the military forces of the United States France, Great Britain, and a host of other countries to carry out a self-styled humanitarian intervention in March. Gaddafi’s murder seven months later ended the intrusion.

U.S complaints had centered on an “opaque political and economic system,” widespread corruption, and Gaddafi’s autocratic proclivities. There had been mutual, and occasionally lethal, provocations. Gaddafi’s increasing financial and banking influence in Africa raised eyebrows.

Gaddafi had offended by nationalizing 51% of oil companies’ assets in 1973. According to one expert, “in 2006 the oil sector in Libya … made up ninety-five percent of export earnings, ninety-two percent of government revenue, and seventy-three percent of GDP.”

The foreign assailants could not have overlooked the reality that a government with tight control over oil was in trouble with an insurgency. It was no mean prize. Libya’s oil reserves now rank first in Africa and nineth in the world.

Their forces carried out air operations, inflicted civilian casualties, assisted with the rebels’ ground actions, blockaded ports and embargoed weapons deliveries. They had a convenient tool.

Writer Eve Ottenberg a decade later accuses NATO, instrument for intervention, of fattening the wallets of war profiteers and weapons moguls and wreaking havoc in places like Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, now Ukraine.” Today France , Holland, and the United States are looking at French Guyana as a “forward-operating base for NATO” in Latin America, reports Guyanese activist Maurice Pindard.

In its own review of “past and present” missions, NATO, with planetwide ambitions and unlimited potential for destruction, is, as expected, bereft of even a hint at repairing places left in chaos after its wars.

NATO departed from Libya, and ever since a government in the West of the country has been vying with a militarized counterpart in the East, where Derna is located. Cities have been bombed and occupied; Derna was subject to Islamic State rule from 2014 to 2016. Mercenaries, militias, and tribes jostle with one other. Milita groups control oil fields and extort vast sums. There’s “pillage on a vast scale,” plus drug-trafficking and exploitation of migrants heading to Europe.

Now one third of Libyans live in poverty; 13% of them require humanitarian aid, according to one estimate. By 2016, oil production, the source of social spending, had fallen to 75% below Gaddafi-era levels. It’s risen recently.

The troubles experienced by Libya’s people were new. The Ghaddafi government had achieved much. The 2010 UN Human Development Index, a composite measure of health, education and income, ranked Libya 53rd in the world and first in Africa. By then, Libya was registering the highest per capita income in Africa, the lowest infant mortality, and the highest life expectancy. Schooling and healthcare were provided without Libyans having to pay.

Under Gaddafi, more than 95% of Libyans were adequately nourished; the government had abolished taxes on food. Literacy increased from 25% to 87% during the Gaddafi era. Almost 10% of Libya’s youth received scholarships for study abroad. Beginning in 1983 the government developed a massive water-delivery system with 1,100 new wells and 4,000 kilometers of pipelines.

Had the Gaddafi government not disappeared, the social advances and protection might have remained. Some of the progress might have continued under another government, if there had been no intervention.

What’s certain is that previous arrangements for sustaining the population disappeared following NATO’s military action. Adverse conditions now allowed for the dams to disintegrate and for Libya’s people to not be rescued.

Pointing to a planetary “double crisis,” an ecological crisis and a social one, analyst Jason Hickle insisted recently that the two crises be dealt with simultaneously: “Attempting to address one without the other leaves fundamental contradictions entrenched.” He adds that, “the two dimensions are symptoms of the same underlying pathology … [which is] the capitalist system of production.”

Derner is witness to Hickle’s double crisis. The unprecedently heavy rainfall reflects climate crisis. A decade of turmoil and neglect of the dams attests to social crisis. The two share the same root cause.

Capitalism requires perpetually increasing production of goods, which led to overuse of fossil fuels, which has translated into climate change. Under capitalism, natural resources in the world’s peripheral regions are plundered. Popular forces may be suppressed. Devices like NATO come into their own. If it had occurred a little earlier, Jason Hickle could have used the catastrophe to illustrate the main point of his article.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.