Hurricane Katrina: Capitalism leads humanity to disaster

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As with the Bam earthquake which killed tens of thousands in Iran two years ago, as with the Tsunami which left hundreds of thousands dead in the Indian ocean region in December, so in New Orleans, in Mississippi and Alabama, the capitalist system has turned a natural disaster into a social disaster.

The nightmarish scenes unfolding in the USA make this clearer than ever. This is not something that can be explained away by vague talk of underdevelopment and global poverty. This catastrophe, whose toll of death and destruction cannot yet be calculated, is happening in the richest, most powerful nation on earth. It is proof that the present social order, for all its technological and material resources, can only drag humanity towards its ruin. 

In every single one of its aspects, the disaster unleashed by Hurricane Katrina is an indictment of capitalism and class society.

In the origins of the disaster. The catastrophe that has all but destroyed the city of New Orleans, a unique memento of all that is best in American culture, has been predicted for a long time. An environmental study of the destruction of the wetlands around New Orleans – which could have provided protection against the massive water surges that engulfed the city –  concluded that the city could be devastated by an ‘ordinary’ hurricane, let alone a force five storm. In 2003, the US government reversed its previous policy of ‘no net loss’ of wetlands, opening the door to massive ‘development’ and get-rich-quick commercial building.  Warnings were also made about the perilous state of the levees built to protect the city.  Again studies were made into this, but again the state had other priorities. As the Times-Picayune reported on September 2: “That second study would take about four years to complete and would cost about $4 million, said Army Corps of Engineers project manager Al Naomi. About $300,000 in federal money was proposed for the 2005 fiscal-year budget, and the state had agreed to match that amount. But the cost of the Iraq war forced the Bush administration to order the New Orleans district office not to begin any new studies, and the 2005 budget no longer includes the needed money, he said.”

And this is not even to begin on the subject of global warming: there is growing evidence that the heating up of the world’s oceans – the product of capitalism’s inbuilt need for unrestrained ‘economic growth’ – is at the root of the increasingly extreme weather conditions being felt all over the planet. The US government can hardly bear to acknowledge that this problem even exists, let alone take measures to counter it.    

In the fiasco of the ‘evacuation’ before the storm, which reveals a complete lack of planning and a total failure to provide resources to the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society. All that the local and national state could do faced with the coming storm was to tell people to flee. Not a thought was given to how the poor in New Orleans and in the rest of the region were actually to get away, given that they didn’t have enough cars, or the money to pay for train or bus tickets. Even more telling was the abandoning of whole hospitals and old peoples’ homes. The sight of elderly patients left to die in the open air, as those around them desperately tried to help, provided some of the most heart-wrenching images from the disaster. This is the price of being old and poor in the 21st century.

In the farce of ‘rescue’ after the storm. For days, those who were left behind have been enduring hellish conditions, in the streets, in the ruins, in the Superdome where they were told to take shelter, lacking food, water, protection from the sweltering heat and basic sanitation, while the mighty US ‘authorities’ seemed incapable of reaching them either by land, sea or water. The administration itself called the delay “unacceptable” but has so far offered no explanation. And once again, social class determined survival, as can be seen by the contrast between the conditions imposed on the Superdome refugees and a privileged group housed at the Hyatt Hotel. “Gordon Russell of the New Orleans Times-Picayune noted pointedly that these hellish conditions “stood in stark contrast to those of people nearby in the restricted-access New Orleans Centre and Hyatt Hotel, where those who could get in lounged in relative comfort.” A line of state police armed with assault rifles drove the crowds of homeless refugees back from the entrance to the facility”. Later these same police ensured that these VIPs were given precedence over other survivors when it came to being evacuated; and it turned out that most of them were officials of the mayor, Ray Nagin.

On the other hand, when it came to evacuating the Superdome, no sign of such generosity. According to the World Socialist Website: “While Bush was conducting his tour, the death toll in New Orleans continued to mount rapidly. Mass evacuations have begun at the Louisiana Superdome, the largest emergency shelter for displaced people, after the arrival of a huge National Guard convoy escorting trucks loaded with food and water and hundreds of buses. But the buses dumped many of the refugees only a few miles away, at a cluster of overpasses on Interstate 10 where thousands of homeless people were gathered in the broiling sun. At least a half dozen deaths were reported among the overpass refugees” (3.9.2005). 

In the future economic and ecological consequences of the disaster: The task of ‘rebuilding’ the region –  an area larger than the UK and with some of the poorest areas in the US – has been much talked about already, but the US was already sliding inexorably into open economic crisis before the storm, and the disaster is already showing clear signs of making it worse. This has so far been expressed in the sharp rise in oil prices which is resulting from the huge blow to supplies: the storm has ripped a hole into the oil infrastructure with 30 oil rigs lost, another 20 broken from their moorings, and the refinery network shut down. This helped the oil companies make a fast buck – their share prices rose in the immediate aftermath of the storm. But the longer term effects of these oil price rises on the world economy are already causing real concern to the bourgeoisie’s economic experts.

The hurricane is also threatening further ecological calamities: the coastal area was already known as “cancer ally” before the storm because of the concentration of the refineries and chemical plants. Now this has been mauled by the storm and could lead to whole areas of New Orleans and elsewhere being left uninhabitable. Commentators spoke of a “witches’ brew” of toxic waste being carried by the flood waters, greatly increasing the danger of disease for the stranded survivors.

In the diversion of social resources into war: A point made over and over again by the victims: the USA can mobilise its army to invade a country thousands of miles away, but not to rescue other Americans? The gruesome priority given to war over the protection of human life was expressed in the fact that funds to pay for the Iraq adventure were withdrawn from budgets aimed at improving New Orleans’ defences; and massive amounts of equipment and manpower from the National Guard were also siphoned off to Iraq, which must partly explain the slowness of the rescue efforts.   

In putting private property before life:  And how many of the troops that could have been spared were sent in to restore ‘law and order’ rather than bring help to the needy? Certainly the forces of repression arrived well in advance of the forces of aid. They were accompanied by a huge media campaign about looting, shooting, and raping. No doubt criminal gangs were trying to take advantage of the situation, no doubt desperation drove some into irrational and destructive acts, but the cynicism of the ruling class reached new heights as it launched a systematic media campaign to turn attention away from the failure of the State, at every level, onto those desperately trying to survive in the ruins of New Orleans. Suddenly the victims were to blame for their own sorrows, and instead of sending any help the ruling class had the pretext for sealing off New Orleans, abandoning rescue efforts and sending guns, armoured cars and troops instead of water and food

Let’s be clear: the majority of ‘looters’ were ordinary people facing starvation and utter misery, taking what they could from abandoned stores; in many cases they unselfishly shared out the goods they found. Web logs based on first hand experience recounted innumerable acts of basic human solidarity, by those who had themselves lost everything towards others whose age, injuries or illness put them in an even worse state. And while the overall impact of the disaster was to create chaos, there were real efforts by people to organise impromptu aid on the spot. On TV there were images of ‘looters’ giving out food. A group of doctors at a conference on HIV organised a clinic in one of the affected areas. In the hospitals health workers have worked to maintain care faced with terrible circumstances. Thus, we can see that whilst all the ruling class can offer is crude stunts and repression, it has been the working class and the dispossessed who have put solidarity with those suffering above their own safety.

The problem is not just Bush

Much scorn has been poured on Bush and his cronies, both inside and outside America, for his inept speeches, empty gestures, and slow-motion response to the disaster. And certainly this new crisis is adding to the woes of an administration which was already becoming increasingly unpopular. But ‘anti-Bushism’ is utterly simplistic and can easily be recuperated by the other bourgeois parties in the USA, and by America’s imperialist rivals. The excesses of the present gang in the White House – its incompetence, corruption, irrationality and callousness – only reflects the underlying reality of US capitalism: a declining superpower presiding over a ‘world order’ that is sinking into chaos. And this situation in turn reflects the terminal decay of capitalism as a social system which rules the whole planet. We are living under a mode of production whose continuation threatens the survival of the human species. However much they may criticise Bush or America, the rest of the ruling class has no alternative to the blind march towards destruction through war, famine and ecological disaster. Hope for humanity does not lie with any faction of the exploiting class, but with those who are always the first victims of the system’s wars and disasters: the exploited class, the proletariat. Our solidarity, our indignation, our collective resistance, our efforts to understand the real nature of the present system – these are the seeds of a society in which labour, science and human creativity will be no longer be in the service of war and profit, but of life and its enhancement.WR, 3/9/05