As the Brisbane River burst its banks into the city of Brisbane and surrounding areas and threw its people into a state of disbelief and disarray, I was watching the “hundred-year flood” unfold on the television screen from a close-by suburb.
As much as the flood and its effects were tragic and devastating to many in the community, a large proportion of the television coverage focused on the community spirit. Evidently, customers were helping small business owners carry valuables out of their properties, good Samaritans were going around in small boats rescuing people from their inundated houses, out-of-towners were helping sandbag the houses of locals.
Positive energy was pervasive, perhaps even eclipsing the expected heavy mood summoned by the dark times. The television presenter made an ironic observation in an effort to sum up the altruistic character of the people: “We see this side of people come out in times of tragedies and difficulties; we can see what they are capable of.”
The warmth of the community spirit was palpable even from where I lay watching the television, twenty or so kilometers from where all this was taking place. But then, all of a sudden, there was news that the presenter coined “simply disgusting” that seemed to force a dagger through the positive vibe and spirit engulfing the community. The news was that there were opportunists looking to loot homes and other properties where possible. Some were trying to snag empty yachts and jet skis floating down the river and some had even attempted to steal beers from empty pubs.
The feeling of scorn upon the alleged looters was conspicuous in the faces of the presenter and the reporters on television and it was analogous to that which is directed at a drunk who spoils the wedding ceremony by confessing his love and lust for the bride and proceeds to urinate on the cake. This was not your average looting; it was extreme greed and selfishness at a time when the victims were in deep despair over losing their homes and their sources of livelihood. The looters had not a fiber of humanity left in them, it seemed, for this was no different than the act of an animal. The whole community was infuriated and it was evident that this community could hate together as much as it could love if it was wronged.
The reason this case was different and quite interesting was because virtually everyone in the Brisbane metropolitan area was so engrossed in what was unfolding at the time that it seemed as though everyone reacted at that same instance to the news of the looting, which was very unexpected during times of such camaraderie. It was as when a burglar is caught and the whole neighborhood is out in the street watching, people shaking their heads, and some hurling their shoes at the burglar. But in this case, the neighborhood was the whole metropolitan Brisbane, two million strong.
There is always a similar level of negative reaction among people when it comes to judging acts such as stealing: it is simply deplorable. Seeing or hearing about stealing produces an almost innate reaction of disgust among humans. This is familiar to anyone who has seen a thief get caught in the act and exposed to the crowd. Even the pacifists can be seen having a punishing swing at the thief. Even if it was a relatively small act of stealing, it remains as one of the most humiliating experiences of the thief’s life.
The instinctive reaction of disgust towards the act of stealing comes from one of the basic moral codes of humanity. This moral code asks of a person to respect the right of ownership of property of another person. If this moral code of respecting the ownership of property was to be broken freely, mankind as we know it would not exist. The reason mankind works as a civilization is because when a fisherman spends his whole day catching a few fish, he gets to keep the fish as the fruit of his labor. The fish become his property. This is the fundamental principle that civilization runs on. If another person were to simply take the fish from the fisherman without offering any compensation and if bystanders were to simply go about their businesses as if nothing unusual had happened, the fisherman would lose any incentive to fish again. The fisherman would not want to waste his precious energy and time all day if he did not get to keep the reward for his labor. In this way, nobody would really work and without work we would not even be close to what civilization has become today.
The looters of the Brisbane flood produced reactions from the community that is expected, as that kind of reaction is what has kept civilization from imploding, keeping looting and such activities to a minimum. It is quite reassuring to see that when necessary, a whole community of two million people can react instantly with a deep sense of injustice.
As I just stated, it is reassuring to see that the capability of a community to react together in such a large scale almost instantaneously exists but, on the other hand, it is also quite perplexing to see this capability utilized so rarely. It can only be presumed that the aforementioned kind of reaction to injustice does not appear against other acts of stealing because the people of the community are not all aware of it, at the same instance, as people were about the looting.
There are some kinds of stealing, although significant, may not even be seen as a form of stealing by many. And this incongruence of judgment may be the reason for the inexistence of a meaningful reaction.
Going back to the fisherman example, if the fisherman came back from a whole day of fishing with fifty fish and another person came by and took twenty of the fish, would that be considered stealing? Most people would say yes. Now let us assume that the boat and the fishing equipment that the fisherman used belonged to that other person. Would the other person taking the twenty fish considered to be stealing the fish now? Depends on how much is fair, what the fair rent is. Now, in the final scenario, let us assume that the fisherman’s livelihood is dependent on fishing but to maintain his livelihood he needs to bring home at least thirty fish per day. The fisherman does not have the resources by a long stretch to purchase or build the kind of vessel that would bring in at least thirty fish per day. So, in order to maintain his livelihood, he is forced to fish from the boat owned by the other person. He catches fifty fish in the whole day with his labor but at the end of the day, he is only given thirty fish to take home, with him having little negotiating power in the matter. The fair-value rent for the boat would be ten fish. The boat owner takes the other ten fish home. This is, in fact, the real life scenario of almost everyone who works for a profit-making company. Is this stealing by the boat owner? There may be a tendency to quickly resort to the answer of “unfortunately, that is just the way it is,” when asked to rate the fairness of the last scenario. But that does not answer the question.
This is where the feeling of powerlessness will make one blurt out something like, “Yes, a small part of it may be stealing, but there is nothing one can do about it but accept it as harsh reality.” When someone steals a couple of beers out of a pub full of other valuables it can apparently produce reactions of disgust amongst the whole community almost instantaneously and become the talk of the whole town. But when workers do not get back the full share of the fruit of their labors, which happens everyday, to everyone, everywhere, when some ‘fish’ that belonged to them gets stolen everyday, the deep instinct that usually springs into action at the slightest appearance of theft gets deflated, confused about what to think because we are paid ‘thirty fish,’ but we fail to realize that we had actually made them a lot more ‘fish’ than that. Is stealing just two beers out of twenty beers in the fridge not stealing? Should it not produce the same kind of reaction of disgust? You would not have to steal the whole twenty-pack of beers for it to become ‘stealing.’
What gives a company the right to take more than it deserves from the fruits of labor of a worker, which is the worker’s property. In fact, there is a euphemism for the stolen property: PROFIT. The fact that profit exists is also proof that the company is taking from its workers more than it deserves. If the rent for the fishing boat was ten fish but the fisherman only gets to take home thirty fish, the ten fish has become profit for the boat owner, something that was the fisherman’s property. As we know, when companies make profit (and most large companies make enormous amounts of profit), they grow larger and larger making people dependent on them and powerless over them. It can be imagined just how much stealing goes on behind the scenes everyday, infinitely more than the few beers looted during the floods. However, there is never a meaningful and sustained reaction by the community.
This great instinct of recognizing and punishing theft that has brought mankind so far into civilization seems to be getting duped in recent times, and when stealing can go on so freely, everyday, and in such a vast scale, a great catastrophe has to be imminent. Symptoms of this looming catastrophe can already be seen by events such as global financial crises and global warming (both borne out of corporate greed), but if we keep on tolerating and condoning this mega-scale everyday theft, our civilization could well collapse as its pillars of moral codes rot away unused.
I believe that humanity is capable of reacting against such greed and selfishness, but such reaction has been kept dormant so far. As was learned from what happened during the 2011 Brisbane floods, if enough people know about it, if the theft gets exposed on a large scale to a large audience at once, the community will react, especially if it is in a state of crisis. What will be ironic, I predict, is that this state of crisis will be brought about by the greed and callousness of the corporations and the companies that secretly exploit workers on an everyday basis.