The New Orleans Disaster: The Real Face of "Capitalism of the 21st Century"

Hurricane Katrina will be remembered for years to come as an important turning point in the USA. Thousands, tens of thousands of poor people have been left to fend for themselves, many dying dehydrated, in what is the richest country in the world. People are noting that the Bush administration, very quick to mobilize a huge army to invade Iraq, has been painfully slow in helping the people of New Orleans. The class question is emerging clearly and this will have profound effects on the whole of US society.

“And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.”

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Nearly 100 years ago, V.I. Lenin explained that under capitalism, life for the vast majority of humanity is “horror without end”. Misery, degradation, squalor, hunger, lack of clean water, electricity, and housing – let alone access to jobs, health care, and education - is the wretched fate of literally billions of people on this planet. Until recently for most Americans, this grim reality existed only in places “far, far away, about which we know very little” - and in the American inner cities where the media’s cameras never shine.

Literally overnight, this has all changed. Now, images of unimaginable devastation and anguish are splashed across our TV screens, beamed in not from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, but from the historic home of Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street: New Orleans.

In nature and in society, seemingly routine, insignificant incidents can set off chains of events with profound, far-reaching consequences out of all proportion to their beginnings. In an unstable situation, in a “system on the edge of chaos”, even the smallest shock or change can unleash tremendous forces further down the line. Under certain conditions, all it takes is one flake of snow or a single cough to set off an avalanche on a snow-covered mountain – the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back”.

In the science of Chaos Theory, this is often referred to as sensitive dependence on initial conditions, or the “butterfly effect”. Under certain conditions, the normally insignificant airflow generated by a butterfly’s wings could in theory let loose tremendously powerful forces; in other words, this small amount of energy can push the system “over the edge”. How much more so a category 4 super storm with winds exceeding 100 miles an hour? Hurricane Katrina, which at first appeared to be “just another storm”, will prove to be just such a “push over the edge”.

The full implications of Katrina’s devastation cannot be quantified at this point in time. The 2000 election, the attacks of September 11, the collapse of Enron, and the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq all shook the consciousness of the American working class. The accumulated cobwebs of decades of relative lethargy and indifference to U.S. and world politics were violently shaken out. Millions of Americans began to open their eyes to the realities of the world, and took an increased interest in politics, both local and global.

Now Katrina, a non-economic, non-political, non-social, non-military disaster will have vast economic, political, social, and military consequences. This force of nature has only just begun to send the whole decrepit system of U.S. capitalism reeling. Hurricanes may be “natural”, but the lack of advance planning for prevention, evacuation, and relief are an entirely human-made disaster. The full responsibility for this calamity rests with the government of G.W. Bush and the entire class he represents. Every person killed by hurricane Katrina and its aftermath must be considered a direct casualty of the war and occupation of Iraq.

Connecting the Dots: Capitalism Means War and Misery!

From the comfort and safety of Air Force One, the U.S. President surveyed the damage and called it “historic”. His words will prove prophetic. Katrina will long be remembered as a decisive, historic turning point in the consciousness of the American working class. Already there is a growing feeling that this will “bring things to a head” in the U.S. Millions of Americans are making the connection between the war on Iraq, the farce of “Homeland Security”, deep cuts in social programs, the jobless recovery, tax cuts for the rich, and the inept planning for a killer storm the authorities knew for decades would come sooner or later.

Since September 11, we have explained that the war on terror is a war on working people at home and abroad. Nothing since then has demonstrated this as clearly as Katrina and its aftermath. We’ve suffered vicious attacks on our living standards, working conditions, and democratic rights over the past 4 years, all in the pursuit of super-profits for the rich. But the ruin of New Orleans is the most graphic evidence possible of the putrid nature of this system.

Hundreds have already died as a result of the storm, and many estimate the final count will likely be in the thousands. As of Thursday, more than 2.3 million people in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida remained without power. Gross negligence and the impersonal pinching of pennies in order to divert the funds to the war in Iraq have destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of survivors who have lost their loved ones, their homes, and their hopes. Those who have been displaced have few options. Even the Astrodome, located in America’s oil capital of Houston, TX, is full to capacity with New Orleans’ refugees. Frustration at the inefficiency and slowness of the authorities is widespread.

And what is the ruling class’ reaction? House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s callous comments sum it up: “It looks like a lot of that place [New Orleans] could be bulldozed.” For his part, President Bush promises to make a donation to the Red Cross, and proposes that former presidents Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton lead fundraising efforts for relief. Fundraising? They can find billions of tax dollars for the occupation and subjugation of Iraq, and yet they call for charity to alleviate the suffering of thousands upon thousands of people right here at home. The grim reality of life under pitiless, inhumane system of capitalism is clear to all.

“Restoring Order” and the Media’s Spin

Surrounded by a veritable lake of sewage and dead human and animal bodies, tens, if not hundreds of thousands are homeless, without food, or even potable water in a hot, humid climate ripe for water-borne disease. Relief efforts have been even more disastrous than the storm itself, and the death count could rise rapidly in the coming days as thousands languish in despair and filth, abandoned to their fate by the very forces that are allegedly here to “serve and protect” the public good.

Instead of looking for survivors or bringing in food or water for the thousands that remain trapped, the first priority for “the forces of order” was to protect stores like the GAP from looters. In Biloxi, Mississippi, the state declared martial law to protect the casinos from survivors. Sure, there are a few folks taking advantage of the chaos to help themselves to big-screen plasma television sets they will never be able to use, but the vast majority of the “looters” are “stealing” bags of potato chips and bottles of juice from shell-shocked stores already written off as a complete loss by their insurers. Under capitalism, respect and awe for private property must be upheld at all times.

The media has played a pernicious role in trying to divert attention from the total collapse of the infrastructure and the criminally irresponsible relief effort. They have focused on the “violent gangs of looters” and given the entire coverage a repulsively racist hue in order to gloss over the fact that it is at root a class question. As always, it is the poor of all races who are paying the price for the greedy indifference of the wealthy class that owns this country. (See photo captions below).

But even these professional liars and hired apologists for the crimes of the capitalist class are deeply affected by the horrors they are witnessing. They cannot help but criticize the relief effort and the lack of advance planning. Many journalists are delivering their reports on the verge of tears, against a backdrop that can only be compared to a war zone. (See for example this video on MSNBC)

And a war zone it is: a class war waged by the American capitalist class against the working class of this and every country. In a situation reminiscent of the U.S. Marines’ pounding of Fallujah into rubble, heavily armed Military Police are roaming some areas in force. Military helicopters, including a Cobra gunship, have been sent to help in the rescue operations, and of course, to restore order (just how many marooned Louisianans can be flown out at a time in an attack helicopter?). One New Orleans police officer, who must have temporarily imagined he was in Sadr City, was reported as saying they were “meeting some resistance”.

At one point, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suspended rescue operations because it was “too dangerous”. Despite some incidents of violence, most people are helping each other survive without the need for riot-gear-clad police. But they do not have the helicopters and boats required to escape from the islands of dry land they occupy. Buses and ambulances cannot reach them. And yet, the media continues to blame “violence” for the unpardonably slow and inadequate relief effort.

The poorest layers of New Orleans society - those without the resources to flee the city on their own - were the ones herded like cattle into the unsafe Louisiana Superdome without adequate food, water, bedding, or medical personnel. Some 30,000 people ended up in that potential death trap. That the entire building didn’t collapse on them under the strain of Katrina’s winds is sheer luck. Now the media blames them for not leaving in time. May we ask, precisely how were they supposed to leave if they had no money or transportation out of the city? Although it is the poor of all shapes, sizes, and colors that were abandoned to fend for themselves, in New Orleans, these people are disproportionately African American. According to the 2000 Census, the white per capita income in Orleans parish was $31,971, as compared to $11,332 for blacks. Once again, it is those on the lowest rung of American society that suffer most for the crimes of capitalism.

Missing In Action in Iraq

The National Guard was originally formed in order to put down civil unrest; and that remains its primary function. But from time to time, they are called out to assist disaster relief efforts. So where are they now? Thousands from the Gulf Coast region are stationed in Iraq, watching helplessly as their families and friends struggle for survival in the U.S., while they struggle to stay alive on the streets and highways of Iraq. Were they not thousands of miles away, killing and being killed in a now overwhelmingly unpopular war, they would be at home, helping to find survivors. Perhaps they would have even been able to evacuate everyone before it was too late.

At the beginning of the rescue efforts, just 7 helicopters were available, the rest being stationed elsewhere, primarily in Iraq. It is also the height of history’s irony that the state with the highest number of casualties suffered in Iraq is Mississippi, one of the states most affected by this catastrophe.

G.W. Bush and co. are moving might and main to avoid these basic connections between the pursuit of the Iraq war and the disastrous response to Katrina. But millions of Americans, including many soldiers, have already made that connection, and will be demanding answers soon.

“Did This Have to Happen?”

This is the question being asked by millions across America and around the world. The simple answer is, “No”. To be sure, capitalism’s role in accelerating global warming, leading to increasingly violent weather patterns must be kept in mind. And human ingenuity has not yet figured out how to stop hurricanes. But the cost in lives and damage need not have been anywhere near this bad. Had the evacuation blueprint included plans to ensure that all citizens of the New Orleans area were out safely before the storm hit, the loss in lives would have been minimal. A government that can rapidly move hundreds of thousands of troops and millions of tons of equipment to go to war half way around the world could certainly have evacuated those that were left behind – if it wanted to.

It is also a well-documented fact that the shocking scope of this disaster could have been averted for a fraction of the cost it will require to rescue and rebuild after the fact. Initial estimates by insurance companies put the damage at as much as $30 billion – and that is just on property they will have to pay out on. Billions more in uninsured properties will have been damaged beyond repair.

Long before Katrina hit, much could have been done to prevent a debacle of this magnitude. To start with, the levees and dikes surrounding the city of New Orleans, which is nestled in a bowl-like depression between the Mississippi river and Lake Pontchartrain, could have been fortified. Remember, if it were up to Mother Nature, much of the country of the Netherlands would not exist; it too lies largely below the flood plain. However, it has invested the time and above all money into strengthening the traditional dikes to withstand a flood the likes of which comes just once every 10,000 years. The dikes around New Orleans were rated to withstand just the 100-year flood level.

The Louisiana authorities had known for decades that a massive storm would inevitably come. They also suspected that the current defenses were not adequate to stop the flood such a storm might bring. In June 23, 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported:

“The New Orleans area’s last line of defense against hurricane flooding is a 475-mile-long system of levees, locks, sea walls and floodgates averaging about 16 feet high. The Army Corps of Engineers says the system will protect the city and suburbs from a Category 3 hurricane that pushes in enough seawater to raise Lake Pontchartrain 11.5 feet above sea level -- high over the head of anyone standing on the other side of a levee.

“That margin of error is critical because a storm that pushes the lake any higher can force water over the top of the levees and inundate the city. The water could quickly rise 20 feet or higher. People would drown, possibly in great numbers.

“The corps doesn't know what that safety margin is anymore. Generally speaking, the corps says the powerful, slow-moving storms capable of overwhelming the system are rare and the levees are safe. But corps engineers say their own safety estimates are out of date, and an independent analysis done for The Times-Picayune suggests some levees may provide less protection than the corps maintains.”

According to engineering consultant Lee Butler, quoted in the same article, “I think everyone familiar with this is sitting on pins and needles because nothing has happened in that lake for 50 to 60 years and you start to think, are we due. And the answer I think is yes, statistically you’re due. And that’s scary. Based on my knowledge of hurricanes, I'd watch what happens very closely - and I’d get out of Dodge.”

Tragically, Katrina surpassed even the worst-case predictions of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Why wasn’t money set aside to make these obvious improvements? The fact is, money was set aside for this purpose, and reinforcement of the dikes was underway. That is, until, that money was diverted directly to fund “Homeland Security” and the war in Iraq. As reported in the Times-Picayune, work on the 17th Street levee, which breached on Monday night, came to a halt earlier just a few months ago for the lack of $2 million. City and state officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had requested additional funding to reinforce the levees on numerous occasions. These requests were not only rejected, but the Bush administration slashed this year’s funding for the New Orleans Corps of Engineers by $71.2 million, a stunning 44.2 percent reduction since 2001.

In the words of Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana: “It appears that the money has been moved in the President's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay… Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.” (Quoted in the Times-Picayune in June 2004).

According to the Corps of Engineers: “major hurricane and flood protection projects will not be awarded to local engineering firms… Also, a study to determine ways to protect the region from a Category 5 hurricane has been shelved for now.” (Ibid.)

This is a damning condemnation of a system that puts war and profit before human need. This is the end result of billions of dollars spent on “Homeland Security”. That reactionary terrorist Osama Bin Laden could not have conceived a more devastating attack, even with the element of surprise; and the likelihood of a category 4 or 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans was known for years in advance. The patriotic, pro-Homeland Security hysteria that followed 9/11 dissipated long ago, and millions of Americans now want to know, how could this happen? The naked truth has been revealed: the capitalist class and its representatives in government simply cannot guarantee us even the most basic level of security.

What a far cry from Cuba, where the nationalized, planned economy allows this impoverished country to do what the world’s richest nation cannot do: put people before profit and quickly and efficiently evacuate all those in the path of the many hurricanes that come through each season. Or Venezuela, which although it is under intense threat from U.S. imperialism, immediately offered $1 million in aid – which the U.S. government cynically rejected as “unsolicited”, and therefore “counterproductive”.

Effect on the Economy

We should not underestimate the far-reaching effects Katrina will have on the U.S. and world economies. Oil is quite literally the fuel of the modern world, and the effect of the Gulf Coast devastation has already caused prices to rocket to record levels. A couple of years ago, with oil at $30 a barrel, we explained that due to geopolitical instability, oil might well reach $100 or even higher. At the time, this may have seemed a bit over the top. Now, with oil hovering around $70, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Even before the storm, we were getting gouged at the gas pump for nearly $3 a gallon. Now, according to many commentators, the economy has been delivered a “knock out blow”. New Orleans is the most important port of entry for oil supplies coming from outside the U.S., and the Gulf Coast is the biggest source of domestic oil drawn from the ocean. Refining operations in the region are 90 percent out of commission and oilrigs are literally washing ashore along the coast. The worst hit region will be the Midwest, because almost 100 percent of the oil refined there comes from crude shipped up the Mississippi from New Orleans. $3 a gallon is now the norm; in the coming days and weeks, $4 and higher will be required to travel just a few miles in the gas-guzzling behemoths the auto industry assured us we just had to own (employee discounts for all!).

As could be expected in the face of such human tragedy, Wall Street traders have cashed in on fears for the future, betting against a rapid recovery of oil refining capacity. Speculation is a big part of it, but there are also infrastructural reasons for the steep rise in the price of black gold. Fears are mounting that with a swathe of refineries out of commission, possibly for months, and inventories rapidly sinking, rationing of America’s lifeblood may be introduced. Bush’s response was to order the Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily eliminate Clean Air Standards at oil refineries and power plants, in an alleged effort to increase fuel supplies. This just happens to have been a long-time goal of his pals in Big Oil.

High oil and gasoline prices were already squeezing the life out of consumer spending and the feeble economic recovery. At these new prices, the whole of the economy could quickly come to a grinding halt. We will continue to analyze the economic effects of Katrina in future articles.

“Socialism or Barbarism?” - End Capitalism before it Ends Humanity

The images on TV are shocking: babies and the elderly dying of dehydration, left to rot in the heat and humidity. Crowds of people who have not eaten for days chanting, “We want help! We want help!” The heart-breaking voices of those asking, “Are they going to leave us here to die?” The enraged, disgusted crowds that can only be compared to the people of revolutionary Venezuela, awakening to the harsh reality that they can only rely on themselves for help. And while most people have worked together to make the best of a desperate situation, others have had to literally fight for survival. Fights over basic foodstuffs and water have been reported. One woman recounted seeing people fight like rabid dogs to secure a spot on a stolen truck in order to flee the hellhole that was once a beautiful city. These frantic efforts to survive are reminiscent of films like Mad Max or Water World. These post-apocalyptic films paint a bleak picture of humanity’s future if we do not replace the decrepit capitalist system. Or in the case of millions around the world and the many thousands still marooned in New Orleans, of humanity’s present.

After September 11, Bush was able to manipulate the American people into focusing on an outside enemy, manipulating them into supporting the neo-cons’ Project for the New American Century. This time around, after the “shock and awe” at the devastation, the outrage will be increasingly leveled directly at the government and the system it defends. Like the under-funded and under-fortified levees surrounding New Orleans, the superficial lies of the world’s most powerful ruling class no longer hold water. They have plainly proven their inability to provide even the most basic necessities of life to the very people from whose hard labor they extract their profits. All excuses about how Katrina was “an unavoidable ‘act of God’” are total rubbish. We repeat: all responsibility for the scale of destruction and loss of life lies with the capitalist class that dominates our world. It was their cost-cutting measures and indifference to the long-term consequences of their inaction that condemned thousands to death and inhuman suffering. Now they must be made to pay the consequences.

To those who lament that “nothing changes, it will always be the same, capitalism will always exist,” we point to the mind-boggling situation in New Orleans, formerly home to over half a million people. From one day to the next, the world-renowned city of Cajun and Creole food and the birthplace of Jazz has been reduced to a polluted lake dotted with abandoned ruins. Nothing lasts forever: capitalism has not always existed, and it will not always exist. But what will replace it? The apocalyptic “horror without end” we are seeing on TV, or socialism, a system based on human need?

Hegel explained that in history, necessity often expresses itself in the form of an accident. Katrina’s destructive violence was just such an accident. This seemingly “routine” storm, just one of many other hurricanes that have affected the Caribbean and Gulf Coast in recent years, has unleashed forces that will continue to play out for years after its winds die down. Conditions determine consciousness, and under conditions such as these, consciousness can change in a heartbeat. And this is only the beginning. Katrina could well mark the beginning of a profound crisis of confidence in the U.S. government, and of the capitalist system as a whole.

We often discuss what “socialism of the 21st century” will look like. The terrible fate of New Orleans is a brutal wake up call to millions of Americans: this is what capitalism in the 21st century looks like. Never has the ruling class’ contempt for human need been more clearly exposed. Now more than ever, we must end this brutal, decaying system once and for all. Only the final overthrow of the rotten profit system can lay the basis for a true flowering of human society. Another world is possible: join us in the struggle for a better world!