Making political hay out of a hurricance
Hurricane Irene slammed a vast region of the US from North Carolina to Maine over the course of the last weekend and into Tuesday, dragging away homes and bridges, cutting off roads, submerging neighborhoods underwater, killing at least 35 people, and leaving at least 5.5 million homes and businesses across the region without power in the worst hurricane in decades (still 1,700,000 as of Wednesday, August 31). In New York City alone, some 100,000 customers were without electricity. Utility companies said it would take days to restore electricity in more accessible areas and weeks in the hardest hit and more remote regions. As of Tuesday, August 30 floods were expected to wreak yet more devastation as some rivers in Vermont, upstate New York, and New Jersey were still expected to crest. While homeowners are left to their own devices as to how to repair damage or relocate altogether as they discover that their insurance does not cover flood damage, they, and the rest of the population, are treated to a shameless display of political exploitation and disregard for human suffering by our exploiters. Whether they are to the right or the left or at the center of the capitalist state’s political apparatus, they are trying to reap political benefits from the devastation. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that disaster relief money should be paid for with cuts to other programs. He was immediately rebuked by the White House when Jay Carney took the opportunity to try and win brownie points for the Democratic Party by saying, “I wish that commitment to looking for offsets had been held by the House majority leader and others, say, during the previous administration when they ran up unprecedented bills and never paid for them". The ruling class, be it the right, extreme right wing of the Tea party, or the democrats, are making use of this event to fuel their respective rhetoric in the developing electoral campaign, as each political actor poses either as the champion of a ‘fiscally responsible’ government with a ‘balanced’ approach to budget deficit reduction that includes some ‘revenues’ – the democrats – or one that ‘helps the middle man’ by not including rising taxes – the right. The media, those mouthpieces of the ruling class, help either this side or the other as they frame the aftermath of the hurricane in terms of whether and how much aid the government should be prepared to give. Cantor and Carney may well pose as ‘opponents’ in the debate as each vies for power for their respective parties. The fact of the matter, however, is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) contingency fund dipped to about $800 million earlier this year and that the damage by Hurricane Irene is estimated at anywhere between $10 and $20 billion. The Republican-led House has already approved annual funding legislation to replenish FEMA’s contingency fund in which additional dollars for disaster aid were offset by cuts elsewhere. The Democratic-held Senate has yet to act on that measure, but the new emergency, coming at the tail-end of a year full of ‘natural disasters’ in the US and in the midst of a ferocious recession, will likely resolve the apparent hesitation by the Democrats in the Senate by giving them a reason to pass the legislation, notwithstanding their raucous blame-game at the present time. Cantor and Carney may disagree as to who is to blame for the current financial dire straits of US capital, but they cannot disagree that cuts will have to be implemented. Facing an unprecedented economic crisis, accompanied by enormous budget deficits which more and more states are unable to finance and sustain, certainly the ruling class has reasons to worry about how it will manage to provide the least possible relief while maintaining its credibility and boost people's confidence in its state apparatus. By contrast, for a great number of the victims of the hurricane, facing the costs of repairing the damage is a real tragedy which may bring with it total financial bankruptcy, not to mention the human loss. Looking at each side from the perspective of the working class, it becomes obvious that the mud-slinging in which the ruling class is currently engaged is proof of their utter failure to address the population's most urgent needs. In an attempt to shore up the tattered image of a quarreling ruling class, the media campaign turned to gathering kudos for the actions of the several governors, mayors, federal agencies, CEO’s of transit systems involved in the evacuations and rescue efforts. Indeed, the pre and post-hurricane media blitz serves several purposes: 1. By imposing a virtual black out on all other news and conducting a veritable media barrage in the days building up to Hurricane Irene’s landing, the media subtly suggested images of a violent and catastrophic ‘natural event’ against which our rulers could not humanly do enough to protect the population in case the hurricane’s impact would have been even more devastating than what it actually was; 2. By giving extensive coverage to the ‘plans of action’ put forth by the various governors and mayors of the cities and states impacted by the hurricane the media helped strengthen the image of a caring, prepared, and efficient state apparatus, thus suggesting that any grievance directed against it regarding the ensuing human suffering is unreasonable and unfounded, while tying the destiny of the affected population to the presence and intervention of the state. The conclusion that the population should draw from all of this is that another ‘Katrina’ will not be repeated.
Cantor and Carney are not the only politicians who see in a human tragedy the opportunity for political advantage. Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, that other reckless capitalist, sees in Hurricane Irene an opportunity to boost his own public image, which was battered at the time of the snow storm of last winter. On Friday, August 26th Mr. Bloomberg ordered mandatory evacuation of 370,000 people from low-lying areas most prone to flooding and ordered the Metropolitan Transit System shut down as of noon of Saturday, August 27th, until Monday. Metro-North, the LIRR, the PATH train to Jersey City, and AMTRACK were also shut down. This was an unprecedented action by a mayor of the city. The three metropolitan airports were also shut down. Measures of this kind have been studied ever since the notorious failure by FEMA and all other federal agencies to prepare for and provide relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina put the question to the credibility of the capitalist state in facing up with emergency situations. Therefore, Mr. Bloomberg did nothing ‘extraordinary’. What is indeed extraordinary, are the fame and glory he claims for himself and his ability to ‘save the lives of New Yorkers’, an easy claim to make, given the fact that Hurricane Irene left New York City comparatively unscathed! Had the hurricane hit the city with the same or similar violence as it did the rest of the region, the problems that the latter is experiencing – i.e. power shortages, homelessness, loss of lives and belongings, dirty water – would necessarily be tenfold. Why? Because capitalism has no ability to update the rotting infrastructures of its decaying cities to face up to the demands put on them by a changing climatic situation, ultimately the cause of the innumerable ‘natural disasters’ of the recent times, themselves caused by capitalism. Furthermore, the way in which capitalist production is organized requires the reckless and chaotic concentration of human labor in the megalopolis of the planet. The urban ‘planning’ of cities like New Orleans and Haiti, or the very urbanization of an archipelago like Japan, are a direct result of capitalism’s need to concentrate the population wherever it is the most profitable for its own needs, with no consideration for risk factors to the population it exploits. The catastrophes that ensued in those areas are the total responsibility of capitalism. This kind of urban ‘planning’ makes preparing for emergency situations and rescue operations extremely difficult and inefficient. The need for profit further aggravates the situation by significantly curtailing any serious attempt at evacuations. It also demands that, when evacuations do occur, workers are ordered back to work well ahead of the stabilization of the situation. This is what both Governor Christie of New Jersey and mayor Bloomberg did. In New York City, workers were expected back to work last Monday, even though the transportation system was not back to full operation. In New Jersey, Governor Christie ordered all state employees back to work in a similar fashion. Mr. Christie too, like Mr. Bloomberg, exploited the situation to his own political advantage as his popularity wanes in the face of the draconian austerity measures he has recently imposed on the workers in his state. In a display of total hypocrisy and political calculation he for once edited his right-wing Republican rhetoric of ‘small government’ and started to call on the administration and FEMA for total involvement as he declared the state of emergency for New Jersey!
As it has been the case for every emergency situation in recent memory – from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to the infamous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, to the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri a few months ago, just to mention a few events and just in the US – it will be left to the victims themselves and their neighbors, relatives, and friends to pick up the slack and piece together the tattered remnants of their existence. It has become evident that in the face of what they like to call ‘natural disasters’ all our exploiters have to offer us is ineptitude and the inability to either prepare before an emergency or organize effective rescue and repair after it, effectively turning every ‘natural disaster’ into a human catastrophe. Rather than being just an accidental occurrence, their political maneuvering, lack of adequate planning , and disregard for human suffering are symptomatic of a system that has reached its historic limits, with all this implies in terms of the urgency to finally overcome it.