Hurricane Katrina Breaches Capitalism's Levées

Statement of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party

With the clinical sharpness of a laser beam Hurricane Katrina has opened up a whole series of issues about the nature of today's class society, the level of the economic crisis, the culpability of capitalism for ecological disaster, and also the fact that capitalist rule is neither as powerful nor as permanent as many believe.

An increasingly divided class society

Hurricane Katrina devastated an area the size of Great Britain stretching through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It was forecast at least ten days before it made landfall just east of New Orleans on Monday 29 August. It had already claimed nine lives over Florida the previous Thursday. Hurricanes of category 4 or 5 have been forecast for years by meteorologists but nothing had been done to upgrade the levées originally designed to withstand a category 3 hurricane. Despite the time available, despite the huge resources at the disposal of the US state, the plans for evacuation consisted of nothing more than an order to people the day before to drive out of New Orleans. This sort of brilliant capitalist planning did not care to take into account the approximately 100,000 people in the city who did not own their own automobile, who could not pay for a hotel room if they were to leave and for whom there was no federal emergency scheme to provide food or shelter. Approximately 20,000 of these were herded by police into the Superdome and Convention Center, where they were supposed to wait for the storm to blow over. But when the levée along the 17th St canal burst about 80% of the city was flooded they were left stranded without food, water, medication and sanitation. Initial media reports made no mention of this. All they focussed on was the billions of dollars of damage to property and when people were obliged - at first with the sanction of the police - to get what they could from shops and supermarkets in order to survive the media blanketed it all as theft and gangsterism.

It took four days before the first official 'aid' arrived (mainly bottles of water), closely followed by thousands of troops with a shoot to kill policy against looters. The message was quite clear. The American Dream means that only "rugged individualism" is rewarded (with tax breaks). If you're poor you're probably a criminal and you're not worth saving anyway. Poverty is your own fault and is punished. (With welfare cuts). These cuts, carried out by both Democratic and Republican regimes have increased over the last thirty years to the point that the number officially defined as poor has risen by more than 10% in the last four years. At 28% New Orleans has double the national average for the number of its population living in poverty.

And when we say poor the pictures tell the story that this largely means black. 140 years after the abolition of slavery Katrina has fully exposed the deep level of segregation and discrimination in the USA. The scenes in New Orleans were like a repeat of 1927 when the Mississippi flooded. The levées then were deliberately broken near black areas to prevent white plantations from being flooded. Black workers were forced into squalid concentration camps to work on shoring up the levées near the plantations as their owners departed on a steamer apparently singing "Bye Bye Blackbird" to the inundated blacks. The defence of property and the pursuit of profit always come first.

The economic crisis

The pursuit of profit also explains the failure to maintain the levées which protect this city below sea level for the past thirty years. The apologists of the pathetic performance of the US government since Katrina struck maintain that hurricanes are natural disasters, "Acts of God" which cannot be countered. However, many have quite correctly pointed out that the policies of the Bush regime have made New Orleans more vulnerable to natural disaster. The Louisiana Corp of Army Engineers last year proposed $18bn of work to widen drainage canals, build pumping stations and improve the levée system to withstand a hurricane like Katrina. Instead the 2006 government budget proposes to reduce spending on this socially necessary infrastructure even further from the current level of about $82 million dollars. This in turn is lower that the 2001 level of $147 million.

On top of this there has been deregulation. This has led to irresponsible building of housing and shopping malls on the wetlands which once protected New Orleans from the full force of the floods that follow hurricanes. Again this began decades ago but has accelerated in the last few years as financial speculation has become the latest method to to compensate the fall of capitalist profit rates.

However the neglect is not just that of the Bush regime. The cuts have been going on ever since the dollar was devalued in 1971. This was the signal that the global cycle of accumulation regulated by the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall had brought the post-war boom to an end. The USA could no longer support a Cold War rearmament programme and reinvest in its basic infrastructure. In the Seventies the richest country in history first tried to spend its way out of crisis but the consequence of this in a stagnant economy was inflation and more unemployment. Thus began the neo-liberal experiment of tax cuts for the already rich which since the 1980s to today has seen massive cuts in all social areas by whichever party was in power. To put these cuts in social spending into perspective, the Institute for Policy Studies and another think-tank called Foreign Policy in Focus have jointly issued a report recently that estimates the cost of the war in Iraq to be about $5.6 billion every month!

By contrast with this spending on the US war machine, the chronically low level of profit over recent decades has meant that private capital has failed to invest in key economic infrastructure, notably in oil refineries and power plants. Despite the US obsession with controlling as much as possible of the world's oil there hasn't been a new oil refinery built for thirty years. Katrina's damage (much of it permanent) to the 10% of US refining capacity that stands in the Gulf of Mexico has done more to undermine US fuel supplies than any action of Saddam Hussein or Al Q'aeda. - and this is without taking into account the knocking out of New Orleans port facilities which, until 29 August, accounted for 60,000 jobs in the city.

Thus, Hurricane Katrina, a category four hurricane, easily wiped out the levées that were meant originally to withstand category three hurricanes at best. In doing so it has also wiped out the myth that capitalism is the highest form of social organisation open to humanity.

An unnatural disaster

In December 2001 the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] warned that a hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three likeliest disaster scenarios for the USA with 25,000 deaths predicted. In 1965 Hurricane Betsy left the city under 8 feet of water but, as we have seen, this did not stop annual fiscal starvation budgets for the most basic infrastructure improvement projects as well as building on the wetlands by property developers.

The FEMA was originally designed to deal with natural disasters but since 9/11 it has seen its role diminished and it has become another agency dominated by the "war on terror". The Louisiana FEMA conducted an exercise last year to study how to deal with a hurricane hitting New Orleans. They concluded that special buses would have to be laid on in advance for those without cars, that centres of sanctuary such as the Superdome would have to be supplied in advance with food water and extra sanitation. None of this happened. Incompetence obviously plays a part, but the US state is also a victim of its own complacent propaganda which dictates that there is no such thing as global warming and even if there is this has nothing to do with the USA.

Every US Government represents US Big Business but in an era when US imperialism feels itself more under threat than ever the Bush Administration does so in a way that few of its predecessors have done. Not only did Bush refuse to sign the Kyoto Agreement (feeble though that may be in preserving the world's sustainability) but he has (until recently at Gleneagles) even refused to recognise that global warming is taking place at all. The Republican Party in Congress is currently conducting a witch hunt of scientists who have written papers demonstrating that green house gas emissions cause global warming. And yet the number of hurricanes which are a product of climate change continue to grow. This year three times as many hurricanes are predicted for the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico as normal. Katrina demonstrates that they are also increasing in intensity. The handling of the aftermath of Katrina shows that the ruling class of the most powerful capitalist country on earth puts profits before humanity's future. They, and the system which created them, are the greatest threat to human existence.

A breach in the system?

To the discomfit of the capitalist press the debacle in the Deep South has vividly demonstrated that capitalism itself is responsible for the greatest part of the death, destruction and social breakdown that has accompanied this 'natural' disaster. The richest state in the world, the self-styled defender of democracy and human rights, could not reveal more clearly how its defence of profit and private property does not square with the defence of the majority of its citizens for whom it has a callous indifference. Katrina and its horrendous aftermath have laid bare the myth that the unseen hand of the capitalist market results in a rational form of social organisation. Nothing is further from the truth. The chilling fact is that more and worse 'natural' disasters lie ahead. The idea that rampant, crisis-torn global capitalism can be reformed into a benign, socially responsible, environmentally 'friendly' system is a utopian dream. The best thing that could come out of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina is the recognition by at least some of those who are looking for a better world that capitalism is unsustainable and has to be overthrown. There is only one alternative: the organisation of a global community organised to produce directly for society's needs.

Once again, capitalism is forcing the issue. Socialism or barbarism. There is no third road.


September 6 2005

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