Hurricane Katrina: a Marxist analysis
by Louis Proyect
IF SEPTEMBER 2001 SIGNALED an opening bid by U.S. imperialism to impose its hegemonic will on the rest of the world, then September 2005 represents closure for a project that had already been faltering under the impact of Iraqi resistance. Richard Haass, director of policy planning in Bush's State Department and an open defender of imperialism, put it this way recently:
Katrina will also have an impact on how citizens of the United States view foreign policy. The enormous problems and costs associated with the hurricane will raise additional questions about the ability of the United States to "stay the course" in Iraq. The aftermath of the catastrophe will inevitably increase political pressure on President Bush to begin to reduce the U.S. involvement in Iraq and refocus U.S. resources at home, be it on the expensive reconstruction of flood-ravaged areas or on improving the country's capacity to deal with future disasters of this magnitude.1
Hurricane Katrina exposed a number of fault-lines that are rooted in the very foundations of American capitalist society. The frequent characterizations in the media about New Orleans looking "third world," while somewhat overstated, do get to the heart of whether or not the strategic path of the American bourgeoisie over the past 30 years, which amounts to a dismantling of the New Deal legacy by Republican and Democratic presidents alike, is tenable. In the pages of the Nation Magazine, William Greider calls for a 'new' New Deal:
Senator Edward Kennedy calls for a "Gulf Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority," modeled after FDR's Tennessee Valley Authority, to lead the rebuilding. Former Senator John Edwards proposes a vast new jobs program, patterned after the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), in which the displaced and the poor are hired at living wages to clean up and rebuild their devastated communities. In the week after Katrina, Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Stephanie Tubbs Jones swiftly rounded up eighty-eight House co-sponsors, including some from Mississippi and Louisiana, for a similar initiative.2
The conclusion to this article will propose some alternatives to both Haass's overweening, neoconservative ambitions and to Greider's nostalgia for a welfare state that can never be recreated.
Although the mass media has depicted the New Orleans disaster as unprecedented, Mike Davis had already called attention to how devastating such a storm could be on the lives of poor Black people in the aftermath of the 2004 Hurricane Ivan:
The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Ivan looked sinisterly like Strom Thurmond's version of the Rapture. Affluent white people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and car-less -- mainly Black -- were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.
New Orleans had spent decades preparing for inevitable submersion by the storm surge of a class-five hurricane. Civil defense officials conceded they had ten thousand body bags on hand to deal with the worst-case scenario. But no one seemed to have bothered to devise a plan to evacuate the city's poorest or most infirm residents. The day before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, New Orlean's daily, the Times-Picayune, ran an alarming story about the "large group?mostly concentrated in poorer neighborhoods" who wanted to evacuate but couldn't.3
One might expect Davis, an authority on environmental crisis, to turn his attention next to Katrina's origins and impact. This storm is a case study in how capitalism is not a sustainable system.
To start with, Katrina-like the previous year's Ivan-was a category 5 Hurricane. Scientists have grown increasingly alarmed about the possibility that such storms might be caused by global warming, since hurricanes are spawned by warm ocean currents. The warmer the water, the more intense is the storm. Although it is difficult to "prove" that global warming is directly related to the intensity of recent storms, respected scientists believe that the trends are unmistakable. One such scientist, M.I.T's Kerry A. Emanuel, formerly skeptical about such ties, is now convinced otherwise:
While looking at historical records, the atmospheric physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the total power released by storms had drastically increased -- more than doubling in the Atlantic Ocean in the past 30 years. The evidence was so overwhelming that he could not stand by his earlier statements.
"I wasn't even looking for it," says Mr. Emanuel. "The trend was just so big that it stood out like a sore thumb."
He withdrew his name from the forthcoming paper that plays down global warming's influence on hurricanes. Then he published a new study in Nature last month, proclaiming the opposite conclusion.
"I didn't feel comfortable saying what we said a year ago," he says. "I think I see a strong global-warming signal."4
If the devastation wrought on New Orleans does not serve as a wake-up call to the American ruling class, then probably nothing ever will. The combination of a powerful hurricane and inadequately maintained levees in close proximity to oil refineries has turned a major city into a toxic dump that will take months, if not years to reclaim. In an exclusive interview with the Independent on September 11, Hugh Kaufman, an expert on toxic waste at the Environmental Protection Agency official, warned the city will be unsafe for human habitation for a decade or more. He added that the Bush administration was covering up the danger.
Whatever future the city has, the nation's elite has few plans for the poor Blacks who were the main victims of government ineptitude. While some conspiracy theorists argue that the 17th street canal levee was deliberately dynamited in order to flood Black neighborhoods and drive the inhabitants out in order to facilitate gentrification, it is far more likely and easier to prove that evacuation and rescue efforts were given short shrift in order to accomplish more or less the same thing. Just as the Bush administration took advantage of 9/11 in order to penetrate and control the oil-rich Middle East and Central Asia, it and its local allies in New Orleans (including many Black Democrats) seek to recast New Orleans as more economically viable and whiter metropolis.
Such plans were already underfoot under African-American Mayor Ray Nagin's administration. According to the September 6, Los Angeles Times, Nagin, who donated thousands of dollars to Bush's campaign in 2000, was behind "a controversial plan to replace many public housing projects with single-family homes and businesses. The notorious St. Thomas housing projects, for example, were replaced a few years ago by a Wal-Mart."
In a gesture that symbolized ruling class insensitivity to its most vulnerable subjects, President Bush's mother stated: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."
Considering the fact that this is the largest internal migration in the U.S. since the Great Depression, one might hope and expect a militant reaction to this sort of Hooverville mentality.
Although hostility and contempt for poor Black people crosses party lines, there is a growing perception that the Bush administration with its commitment to "small government" (except when it comes to military adventures overseas) is simply inadequate to solving the mess in New Orleans or responding to future disasters, like an earthquake in California or another major terrorist attack. When you gut agencies like FEMA and the EPA and hire toadies like Michael Brown to run them, you eliminate the possibility of providing adequate protection against disaster and ensuring a rapid recovery. Ultimately, this involves corporate profits. Hurricane Katrina, with all due respect to conspiracy theorists, was a major blow to big business as well as the housing project denizen.
As a seaport, New Orleans was second to none. A vast array of exports made their way overseas, especially farm goods that were sent south on barges on the Mississippi River just as they have for over a century. In addition, oil drilling and refining infrastructure was heavily damaged. It is entirely conceivable that this damage can be repaired and that a New Orleans might be constructed on a new basis consisting of petrochemicals, farm exports and tourism, but it is a challenge to a weakened labor and Black movement, as well as the organized left to take the needs of a vast refugee population into account.
Unlike the period following September 2001, society is now far more favorably disposed to challenges to the Bush administration and its liberal accomplices. Despite former President Clinton's efforts to soften criticism of Bush through his partnership with the elder Bush in charitable fund-raising around Katrina, there are signs that other mainstream politicians and the press are finally reacting to widespread alienation from the neoconservative agenda and are ready to speak out.
In contrast to March 2003, when embedded reporters in Iraq served as virtual public relations operatives for the Pentagon, the media has openly challenged the Bush administration and its hard-core supporters in Murdoch-controlled outlets.
The sight of bodies floating in the streets of New Orleans and babies crying for milk has had even the most flag-waving reporter crying out in anguish against government inaction and insensitivity. Anderson Cooper, a CNN host not particularly noted for challenging officialdom, conducted an interview with Louisiana Senator Mary L. Landrieu on September 1. When she began by complementing both Republican and Democratic politicians for their response to the crisis, Cooper interjected:
Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting, I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians slap -- you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours.
Cooper clearly reflects a shifting mood in the country. Continuing casualties in Iraq, mounting energy prices, insecurity over a jobless "recovery" have made the ordinary citizen less receptive to Karl Rove orchestrated media events featuring the president. The N.Y. Times's Maureen Dowd, never a great fan of the president to begin with, had this to say on September 17, 2005:
In a ruined city - still largely without power, stinking with piles of garbage and still 40 percent submerged; where people are foraging in the miasma and muck for food, corpses and the sentimental detritus of their lives; and where unbearably sad stories continue to spill out about hordes of evacuees who lost their homes and patients who died in hospitals without either electricity or rescuers - isn't it rather tasteless, not to mention a waste of energy, to haul in White House generators just to give the president a burnished skin tone and a prettified background?
The slick White House TV production team was trying to salvage W.'s "High Noon" snap with some snazzy Hollywood-style lighting - the same Reaganesque stagecraft they had provided when W. made a prime-time television address from Ellis Island on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On that occasion, Scott Sforza, a former ABC producer, and Bob DeServi, a former NBC cameraman and a lighting expert, rented three barges of giant Musco lights, the kind used for "Monday Night Football" and Rolling Stones concerts, floated them across New York Harbor and illuminated the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop for Mr. Bush.
Dowd dismissed these efforts as a kind of "Disney on Parade" in the title of her op-ed piece. All in all, there is the ineluctable sense that the media is beginning to conclude that the emperor is not wearing any clothes.
Ultimately, the Maureen Dowds and William Greiders of the U.S. pin their hopes on an ouster of the Republican Party in 2008 and a restoration of honest government and a willingness to treat social ills with something more than private charity. They have fond memories of New Deal traditions extending through Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Realistically, there is about as much chance of restoring the welfare state as there is in time travel. The period they look back nostalgically upon owed more to the fortuitous circumstances enjoyed by the American capitalist economy than the beneficence of its rulers.
World War Two broke the back of the Great Depression through military spending and post-war prosperity. Programs like the G.I. Bill, subsidized housing and Medicare feasible rested on the U.S.'s hegemonic role in the global economy. With a recovered Europe and Japan following the 1960s and with newer challenges from China and India, it is no longer possible to sustain imperialism abroad and the welfare state at home. The meanness of the Bush administration is a necessary outcome of fierce global competition. If you are forced by the logic of capital accumulation to drive down wages and cut expenses, the inevitable outcome is politicians like Bush. When the Democrats are forced by the very same iron laws to support neoliberal trade bills and assaults on Social Security, voters will most often back the Republicans rather than a cheap imitation.
As these contradictions deepen, more and more people will be open once again to the socialist alternative. Even the N.Y. Times resorted almost inexplicably to featuring a story that had originally appeared in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization, about the difficulties involved with evacuating New Orleans. On September 10, Gardiner Harris reported, "Police agencies to the south of New Orleans were so fearful of the crowds trying to leave the city after Hurricane Katrina that they sealed a crucial bridge over the Mississippi River and turned back hundreds of desperate evacuees, two paramedics who were in the crowd said." Harris relied heavily on an account that was filed by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky in the Socialist Worker and that was widely distributed on the Internet. Among other things, Bradshaw and Slonsky wrote:
We walked to the police command center at Harrah's on Canal Street and were told the same thing--that we were on our own, and no, they didn't have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred. We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and constitute a highly visible embarrassment to city officials. The police told us that we couldn't stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp.5
Their report and many others out of New Orleans describe in sorry detail how necessary it was for ordinary citizens to act on their own behalf in the face of government indifference-or worse-armed hostility from the cops.
How much better it would be if the government was made up of ordinary working people who knew what it meant for a baby not to have milk to drink or for an old person in a nursing home to be abandoned to flood waters.
Such a government not only exists, it offered to send physicians to the U.S. in a generous offer to help victims of Katrina that Bush turned down. We speak of revolutionary Cuba, of course, a nation that despite rationing and hardships of one sort or another at least knows how to protect its citizens against the ravages of a category 5 hurricane.
When Mike Davis was calling attention to the indifference of the authorities in New Orleans following Hurricane Ivan's onslaught in 2004, Cuban officials behaved much differently in the face of that same storm. In a report by Marjorie Cohn that was widely circulated on the Internet, we learn how Cuba rose to the occasion:
Last September, a Category 5 hurricane battered the small island of Cuba with 160-mile-per-hour winds. More than 1.5 million Cubans were evacuated to higher ground ahead of the storm. Although the hurricane destroyed 20,000 houses, no one died.
What is Cuban President Fidel Castro's secret? According to Dr. Nelson Valdes, a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico, and specialist in Latin America, "the whole civil defense is embedded in the community to begin with. People know ahead of time where they are to go."
"Cuba's leaders go on TV and take charge," said Valdes. Contrast this with George W. Bush's reaction to Hurricane Katrina. The day after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Bush was playing golf. He waited three days to make a TV appearance and five days before visiting the disaster site. In a scathing editorial on Thursday, the New York Times said, "nothing about the president's demeanor yesterday - which seemed casual to the point of carelessness - suggested that he understood the depth of the current crisis."
"Merely sticking people in a stadium is unthinkable" in Cuba, Valdes said. "Shelters all have medical personnel, from the neighborhood. They have family doctors in Cuba, who evacuate together with the neighborhood, and already know, for example, who needs insulin."
They also evacuate animals and veterinarians, TV sets and refrigerators, "so that people aren't reluctant to leave because people might steal their stuff," Valdes observed.6
Perhaps the jibes about the U.S. looking like a third world country might have to be qualified in light of the Cuban example. Although this is conventionally understood as a developing country, Cuba demonstrates that a commitment to social need rather than private profit can go a long way, even if the country is not a major global economic power like the U.S. Furthermore, if penurious Cuba can do so well in such a crisis situation, what would a wealthy nation like the U.S. be able to accomplish? These will not simply be rhetorical questions as the economic and environmental contradictions of late capitalism deepen as senseless warfare is pursued in far-off lands.