Hurricane Katrina: A Capitalist-made Crisis

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Everyone has seen the catastrophic images. Bloated corpses floating in fetid flood waters in New Orleans. An elderly man sitting in a lawn chair, hunched over, dead, killed by heat and lack of food and water as other survivors languish around him. Mothers trapped with their young children with nothing to eat or drink for three days. Chaos at the very refugee centers that the authorities told the victims to go to for safety. This unprecedented tragedy has not unfolded in some poverty stricken corner of the third world, but in the heartland of the greatest imperialist and capitalist power on earth.

When the tsunami hit Asia last December, the bourgeoisies of the rich countries blamed the poor countries’ political incompetence for refusing to heed the warning signs. This time there is no such excuse. The contrast today is not between rich and poor countries, but between rich and poor people. When the order came to evacuate New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf coast, in typical capitalist fashion, it was every person, every family for themselves. Those who owned cars and could afford gasoline, the price of which soared with capitalist price-gouging, headed north and west for safety, seeking refuge in hotels, motels and the homes of friends and families. But in the case of the poor, the elderly, the infirm, most were stuck in the path of the storm, unable to flee. In New Orleans the local authorities opened the Superdome arena and the convention center as shelters from the storm, but provided no services, no food, no water, no supervision, as thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of them black people, jammed into these facilities, and were left abandoned. For the rich who remained in New Orleans, the situation was far different. Stranded tourists and VIPS who remained at five star hotels adjacent to the Superdome lounged in luxury and were protected by armed police officers who kept the “rabble” from the Superdome at bay.

Rather than organize distribution of food and water supplies stockpiled in the city’s stores and warehouses, police stood by as poor people began “looting” and redistributing vital supplies. Lumpenized elements undoubtedly took advantage of the situation and began stealing electronics, money and weapons, but clearly this phenomenon began as an attempt to survive under the most dehumanizing conditions. At the same time, however, shot-gun wielding police officers provided security for employees sent by a luxury hotel to a nearby pharmacy to scavenge for water, food and medical supplies for the comfort of wealthy hotel guests. A police officer explained that this was not looting, but the “commandeering” of supplies by the police, which is authorized in an emergency. The differentiation between “looting” and “commandeering” is the difference between being poor and rich in America today.

The system is to blame

The failure of capitalism to respond to this crisis with any semblance of human solidarity demonstrates that the capitalist class is no longer fit to rule, that its mode of production is mired in a process of social decomposition – literally rotting on its feet – that it offers humanity a future of death and destruction. The chaos that has consumed country after country in Africa and Asia in recent years is just a taste of the future that capitalism has in store even for the industrialized countries, and New Orleans today offers a glimpse of that bleak future.

As always, the bourgeoisie has been quick to offer up all manner of alibis to excuse its crimes and failures. The current crop of excuses whine that they are doing everything they can; that  this is a natural disaster, not a man-made disaster;  that no one could have anticipated the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history; that no one anticipated that the levees holding back the waters would be breached. Critics of the administration, both in the U.S. and abroad, blame the incompetence of the Bush regime for turning a natural disaster in a social calamity. None of this bourgeois claptrap is on target. All of it seeks to divert attention from the truth that it is the capitalist system itself that is responsible.

“We’re doing everything we can” is rapidly becoming the most repeated cliché in the bourgeois propaganda stockpile. They are doing “everything they can” to end the war in Iraq, to improve the economy, to improve education, to end crime, to make the space shuttle safe, to stop drugs, etc, etc.. There is nothing else or nothing more they could possibly do. You’d think the government never made policy choices, never had the possibility to try any alternatives. What nonsense. They are pursuing policies they consciously choose – with clearly disastrous consequences for society.

As for the natural vs. man-made argument, sure, Hurricane Katrina was a force of nature, but the scale of the natural and social disaster was not inevitable.  It was in every aspect manufactured and made possible by capitalism and its state. The growing destructiveness of natural disasters throughout the world today is arguably a consequence of reckless economic and environmental policies pursued by capitalism in the relentless pursuit of profit, whether it’s the failure to employ available technology to monitor the possibility of tsunamis and to warn threatened populations in a timely manner, or whether it is the denuding of hillside forestlands in third world countries which exacerbate the devastation of monsoon-related flooding, or whether it is the irresponsible pollution of the atmosphere with the unleashing of greenhouse gases which worsens global warming and possibly contributes to aberrations in the world’s weather. In this case, there is considerable evidence that global warming has led to increases in the water temperature and the development of a greater number of tropical depressions, storms and hurricanes in recent years.  When Katrina hit Florida it was only a Category One hurricane, but as it hovered over the 91 degree waters of the Gulf of Mexico for a week it built itself up to a Category Five storm with 175 mile an hour winds before it hit the Gulf coast. 

The leftists have already begun citing Bush’s ties to the energy industry and opposition to the Kyoto Protocols as being responsible for the Katrina disaster, but this critique accepts the premises of the debate within the world capitalist class – as if implementation of the Kyoto agreement could actually reverse the effects of global warming and the bourgeoisies of the countries that favored the Kyoto Protocols are really interested in revamping capitalist production methods. Worst still, it forgets that it was the Clinton administration, which, even though it postured as pro-environmentalist, that first rejected the Kyoto agreement. The refusal to deal with global warming is the position of the American bourgeoisie, not simply the Bush administration.

In addition, New Orleans, with a population of nearly 600,000 and nearby suburbs with even more people, is a city that is built in large part below sea level, making it vulnerable to flood waters from the Mississippi River, from Lake Pontchartrain, and from the Gulf of Mexico. Since 1927, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed and maintained a system of levees to prevent the annual flooding of the Mississippi River, which permitted industry and farming to thrive beside the river, and allowed the city of New Orleans to grow, but which stopped the flood waters from bringing the sediment and soil that naturally replenished the wetlands and marshes of the Mississippi delta below the city towards the Gulf of Mexico. This meant that these wetlands, which provided natural protection to New Orleans as a buffer against sea surges became dangerously eroded and the city more vulnerable to flooding from the sea. This was not “natural”; this was manmade.

Nor was it a force of nature that depleted the Louisiana national guard, a large percentage of which has been mobilized for war in Iraq, leaving only 250 National Guard troops available to assist the police and fire departments in rescue efforts during the first three days after the levees broke. An even greater percentage of Mississippi guardsmen has also been deployed in Iraq.

The argument that this disaster was unanticipated is equally nonsense. For nearly 100 years, scientists, engineers and politicians have debated how to cope with New Orleans’ vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding. In the mid-1990s, several rival plans were developed by different groups of scientists and engineers, which finally led to a 1998 proposal (during the Clinton administration) called Coast 2050. This plan called for strengthening and reengineering the existing levees, constructing a system of floodgates, and the digging of new channels that bring sediment-bearing water to restore the depleted wetland buffer zones in the delta, and had a price tag of $14 billion dollars to be invested over a ten year period. It failed to win approval in Washington, on Clinton’s watch, not Bush’s.  Last year, the Army Corps requested $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans, but the government approved only $42 million.  Yet at the same time, Congress approved $231 million for the construction of a bridge to a small, uninhabited island in Alaska.

Another refutation of the “no one anticipated” alibi is that on the eve of the hurricane’s landfall,  Michael D. Brown, the director of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration)  bragged during television interviews that he had ordered the creation of an emergency contingency plan for a worst case scenario in New Orleans after the  tsunami in South Asia, and that FEMA was confident they could handle any eventuality. Reports out of New Orleans indicate that this FEMA plan included a decision to turn away trucks carrying donated bottled-water, refusing delivery of 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel transported by the Coast Guard, and the severing of emergency communication lines used by the local police authorities in suburban New Orleans. Brown even had the nerve to excuse inaction on rescuing the 25,000 people at the Convention Center, by saying that federal authorities hadn’t become aware of those people until late in the week, even though news media had been reporting on the situation on television for three or four days.

And while Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat, has been vituperative in his denunciation of federal inaction, it was his local administration that made absolutely no effort to provide for the safe evacuation of the poor and elderly, took no responsibility for the distribution of food and water, provided no supplies or security for the evacuation centers, and abandoned the city to chaos and violence.

Only the working class offers an alternative

Millions of workers have been moved by the deplorable suffering in the Gulf coast and outraged by the callousness of the official response. Especially within the working class, there is a tremendous sense of genuine human solidarity for the victims of this calamity. While the bourgeoisie parcels out its compassion based on the race and economic status of the victims, for most American workers no such distinction exists. Even if racism is often a card that the bourgeoisie utilizes to divide white and black workers against themselves, and various black nationalist leaders are trying to serve capitalism in this way by insisting that the crisis in New Orleans is a black vs. white problem, the suffering of poor workers and the underclass in New Orleans today is abhorrent to the working class.  The Bush administration is undoubtedly a poor ruling team for the capitalist class, prone to ineptitude, empty gestures and slow motion response in the current crisis, and this will add to its increasing unpopularity. But the Bush administration is not an aberration, but rather a reflection of the stark reality that the US is a declining superpower presiding over a "world order" that is sinking into chaos. War, famine and ecological disaster is the future that world capitalism is taking us towards. If there is any hope for the future of humanity, it is that the working class of the world will develop the consciousness and understanding of the real nature of class society and take in hand its historic responsibility to push aside this anachronistic, destructive capitalist system and replace it with a revolutionary society controlled by the working class, in which genuine human solidarity and the fulfillment of human need, is the guiding principle.

Internationalism Sept. 4, 2005


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