Monday, January 18, 2010

Corvee Succour

Corvee Labour in Succour of Haiti

The earthquake in Haiti is a grim reminder of how inadequate housing is, especially for the poor. Whereas in California a similar earthquake killed only about sixty, the one in Port au Prince doomed more than sixty thousand souls. Whenever a disaster like this takes place, I pull out my hair. How can such events be prevented? What could have been done to avoid all this suffering?

Surely in the future cosmopolitan condition everybody, no matter how poor or where they may live will have a home that is fireproof and earthquake proof, and reasonably secure against floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters. There must be a minimum standard building code enforced for every dwelling in the world. When disaster does strike, it should be routine to fly in large earthmoving machines and quickly construct permanent earthquake-proof shelter for the survivors. 

The hillside housing projects that I have been writing about here (cooperative building developments under the direct supervision of a world government) are designed from the ground up to provide rapid, yet permanent, modern and vastly improved accommodation for displaced victims. They can be built very quickly, complete with the best hospitals, schools and other of the most modern facilities already built in.

Of course, having a good design for infrastructure is not enough. These projects require a great deal of organization and trained workers prepared to respond at a moment's notice to every kind of emergency. A world emergency authority would train a large contingent of workers ready at any time to come in as soon as a place is declared a disaster area.

The emergency force should go far beyond the basic needs that are so much in need right now in Port au Prince, such as food, water, medical aid and shelter. They would lay in permanent housing while organizing the labour for recovery efforts. That way, as soon as immediate the immediate physical needs of victims are taken care of, teachers would move in to eliminate poverty and destitution by training large numbers of local people for the new tasks of an cosmopolitan economy. The new infrastructure would need new jobs, but crisis allows for the changes that would lead to a far more vital economy than existed before.

In Haiti the quake at first incapacitated by all reports, the government, police and other authorities, which led to looting and violence. If it were properly prepared, such conditions should actually make it easier for the world government to set up temporary replacements for local authorities and rapidly lay in hillside housing than if partial remnants of the pre-existing order remained.

There would be many aspects to such a finely tuned emergency response, but today I want to concentrate on one of the most important: corvee labour. The dictionary gives two definitions of corvee, both of which should kick in in an emergency. The first definition of corvee describes what would be set in motion as soon as the emergency hits.

Corvee, Definition One: "Unpaid labour (as toward constructing roads) due from a feudal vassal to his lord."

People naturally want to help others in a dire situation like an earthquake. However, when there are some who do not -- who may prefer to loot, for example, there are usually laws already in place to compel bystanders to assist in disaster relief, as long as there are enough police on the ground to enforce them. Of course, in the feudal age, corvee labour was far from voluntary, it was a non-monetary form of taxation. This leads to the second definition of corvee:

Corvee, Definition Two: "Labour exacted in lieu of taxes by public authorities especially for highway construction or repair."

As the first stage of disaster recovery fills the most urgent needs, a relief effort would then transition to a second stage aiming at corvee definition two. That is, journeyman tradespersons and teachers from around the world would move in to get the new hillside infrastructure operational and instruct locals in how to operate it. How do you do that? Give everybody the option to offer their expertise without excessive sacrifice, through corvee labour.

Thus, every worker, instead of paying taxes for this year in funds would have the choice to go to Port au Prince and work it off, directly applying their expertise in the recovery effort. In order to survive, they would live in a new hillside housing living pod, getting paid a nominal stipend and be fed by the new communal gardens and kitchens. Meanwhile of course, the nation they live in would lose the taxes they otherwise would have paid, but this loss can be written off as direct foreign aid.

Corvee labour would be a normal part of life in a hillside development, as it certainly was during the Roman Empire.

"Under the Roman Empire, certain classes of people owed personal services to the state or to private proprietors. For example, labor might be requisitioned for the maintenance of the postal systems of various regions, or landed proprietors might require tenant farmers and persons freed from slavery to perform unpaid labor on their estates. The feudal system of corvie -- regular work that vassals owed their lords  developed from this Roman tradition."

Clearly, this is not a new idea. No doubt in the past it was wrapped up in the cruel and inadequate social systems of the time, including slavery and serfdom.

However, if corvee were modernized I think that many, if not most workers would find it has tremendous advantages. It is far more interesting to take a few months a year off to go somewhere exotic to work or teach, in lieu of taxes, than to slog at the same old thing all the time and just deduct a proportion of its remuneration to taxes. In a new work situation, one would often discover new interests and skills. What is more, corvee could even solve unemployment by leading corvee workers into retraining for a new career.

Other workers might want to remain for an extended corvee work period and pay their tax bills several years ahead. This would give them several years of increased earning power, enabling them to accomplish in a few years financial goals that would otherwise take decades.

Corvee will undoubtedly be a useful tool to reduce dislocation from the expected rise in sea levels around the world caused by melting of the poles. Instead of huge influxes inland of helpless climate refugees, people living in coastal cities would simply serve corvee obligations in many different places, until they found an inland job that suited them.

I think that a corvee labour system could potentially supercharge the volunteer economy as well. Volunteers already play an important role in keeping the system going, and a well-designed corvee system might offer many the opportunity to know the joy of serving society without the usual considerations of narrow personal gain getting in the way.


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