Revolution #99, August 26, 2007
New Orleans: Capitalism in the Wake of Disaster… and the Disaster of Capitalism
August 29, 2007 is the second anniversary of the day that Hurricane Katrina slammed onto the Gulf Coast. From the moment the hurricane hit, to today, the massive death, suffering, homelessness, displacement of two hundred thousand people and the virtual abandonment of huge swaths of the city of New Orleans are an indictment of the worthlessness of this system and its inability to meet the basic needs of people.
When the authorities told people to evacuate New Orleans in advance of Katrina, over 100,000 people in that city had no access to cars. The government did nothing to guarantee their ability to leave before the hurricane struck—abandoning many of them to die. After the hurricane hit and large sections of the city were flooded, people trying to flee New Orleans had gunshots fired near or at them by racist police in neighboring towns who forced them back into the city.
Tens of thousands of people were trapped, without the basic necessities of life, in the stench of human waste in the Superdome simply because the system didn’t provide the resources to evacuate them. 1800 people in the region died unnecessarily because the system didn’t evacuate everybody who lived in the path of Katrina.
News helicopters showed people stuck for days on roofs in 100-degree heat with nothing to eat or drink. People around the world watched in horror, while the richest, most powerful country in the world, that could ship hundreds of thousands of troops to invade and occupy Iraq, couldn’t rescue people or provide for their most basic human needs. And who can forget Bush, in the midst of all the incredible suffering and government neglect, with his arm around the government official in charge saying “Good job Brownie.”
And it continues, today. Desperately needed housing for poor people is not being rebuilt, people are locked out of public housing. The resources people need to rebuild homes are not being provided. Even middle class people have been denied insurance payments and government assistance to rebuild. The public school system in New Orleans is being restructured in a way that the people on the bottom are going to have even worse education than before Katrina. Even the levees that allowed the flooding that caused so much of the property damage and loss of life have not been properly repaired or built to withstand a serious hurricane. And tens and tens of thousands of people have been exiled from their homes, living in toxic trailers or still in Houston and other cities.
All this is NOT because of government incompetence. These outrages occur because they fit the interests and the corresponding plans of the capitalists who rule this society.
The Needs of the People vs. the Needs of the System
The city of New Orleans was built on the sweat and blood of Black people. Slaves were bought and sold in the markets. The cotton picked by slaves shipped through its port. The wealth of the whole United States is built to a great degree on the foundation of slavery. Then, after the Civil War, Black people worked almost like slaves on plantations, under a sharecropping system enforced by lynch mobs and KKK terror, all backed up by the government.
In the great Mississippi flood of 1927, the authorities rounded up Black people at gunpoint and threw them into concentration camps. They were worked day and night to reinforce and rebuild the levees and were forcibly prevented from leaving the flood area. The wealthy white plantation owners were determined that their labor force would not escape to the north.
With changes in the economy after World War 2, the role of New Orleans in the accumulation of wealth by the capitalist system changed. Black people were driven off the land. In New Orleans, as in cities around the country, Black people labored at the most dangerous and dirty jobs—on the docks and in other industries. In the 1960s and ’70s, New Orleans had a large Black, relatively stable, working class population. Even in poor neighborhoods like the Lower 9th, people were able to buy their own homes.
But like other major cities in the U.S., in the last few decades, New Orleans has been profoundly affected by changes in the global and U.S. economy. The deindustrialization of the city has meant the loss of thousands of jobs and over the last few decades an unemployment rate among Black people that is even higher than other cities with large Black populations. Today, New Orleans needs something like 60,000 minimum wage workers for the tourist industry. So, to the system, there were, and still are, simply tens of thousands or more who the system considers “unnecessary” people.
Poor Black people don’t fit into the ways that capital could profitably invest in the tourist, oil, and shipping industries. To the system, the poor Black people of New Orleans were not only “in their way” but are a potentially explosive section of the population for whom this system has no future. Because of what they've seen and been through as a people, including the great struggles of the ’60s, there is an edge of defiance among Black people—which is a very positive quality to anybody who wants to change the world—but is considered dangerous to the ruling class. At the time Katrina hit, in places like the Lower 9th or Central City, half of all working-age people were not in the work force, surviving by whatever desperate means they could find. These are people who couldn’t be profitably exploited—except if they end up in prison where they can work on chain gangs or in prison factories.
William Oakland, a retired economist from Tulane University in New Orleans who has studied the city’s economy for decades, put it this way: “The city’s population was thus ‘out of equilibrium…’ It’s not normal to have that level of nonparticipation in the labor force.” And addressing the fact that the population of New Orleans is now only about half of what it was before Katrina, some economists have cynically pointed out that New Orleans had more people than the economy could support anyway. Oakland put it this way: “Maybe the diaspora is a blessing.”
The people who built the city, whose sweat and blood helped lay the foundation for this country as it is today, are now branded as parasites and criminals. A horrible disaster, that kills 1800 of them, and forces the dislocation of 200,000 people is a “blessing.” The continuing suffering and dislocation of tens of thousands of people whose lives have been ruined is seen as part of “clearing the ground” in order to rebuild the city.
This is why, speaking for the whole ruling class in this country, Republican Congressman Richard Baker said, right after Katrina: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” The ruling class in this country looked at the horrible destruction and suffering brought by Katrina, and their neglect of the people there, as a gift from god! It fit into their plans to get rid of the poor Black people.
And all the lunatic ravings of fundamentalist Christian fascists after Katrina about how god was punishing the people of New Orleans for Mardi Gras, tolerating gays and all served this whole agenda too, justifying the system’s response to New Orleans, with its genocidal implications, as “god’s will.”
This System is Worthless—We Need a Whole Other Kind of System
In the days after Katrina, there was incredible heroism among the people who had been abandoned to die. What the system called “looting” was in most cases people taking what they needed to survive. (And as Céline Dion said, if they were taking jeans, or a TV too, so what!) One woman said, “Those ‘looters’ are the only ones keeping us alive.”
But to the system, this was their worst nightmare. The people they saw as superfluous, who they hate and fear, were saving themselves and others. What kind of system hates and fears that kind of thing? To the capitalist system, the most important thing after Katrina was “social control,” i.e. repression, and the protection of private property and businesses. The sanctity of private property was more important than human lives. So when people, in desperate situations, attempted to save themselves and others by taking what they needed, they were slandered as “looters,” and Governor Blanco announced: “We are going to restore law and order… These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect that they will.”
And, later, when volunteers—many of them white and/or middle class—tried to come to New Orleans to help save people, to clean up, and to rebuild, they too were considered a problem by the system. The masses who were trying to survive had guns shoved in their face by the police. In many cases, volunteers who were trying to get into the city to help were turned around and ordered to stay out of the city. Despite any rhetoric to the contrary, in every real and fundamental way, the system got in the way of volunteers who came to help. When people wanted to fix up and reopen schools, the government did nothing to help—at best. When people wanted to fix up homes, government bureaucracy was in the way.
For the capitalist system, the people taking all kinds of great and heroic initiative in the face of a desperate and dangerous situation was something to be suppressed and repressed or kept under tight supervision. But for the revolutionary proletariat this is something to cherish, build on, and learn from.
What kind of a system abandoned, betrayed, and attacked the masses in New Orleans? It is a system that cannot and does not want to do anything that doesn’t fit the “bottom line.”
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we saw not only the need but also the possibility of revolution, and of a radically different society. The government left the masses to suffer and die, and then rounded up and subjected to horribly inhumane conditions. Yet the people kept their dignity and showed their humanity in many ways. And they put to lie the slanders that portrayed them as criminals and animals. When they took matters into their own hands in order to survive and help others, the great majority did so with right on their side. And in this they were supported and assisted by people all over the country.
Revolutionary state power, a socialist society, would welcome and back up the efforts of people to help each other. To drop everything and head for New Orleans to help. It would provide people with the materials needed to rebuild. It would not be trying to “rebuild” a lean, mean city based on tourism and minimum wage jobs. And, it would embrace, welcome, and promote the kind of chaotic mixing together of different kinds of people, the vibrant discussions and debates that would erupt on the spot, and throughout society, over how to rebuild in a way that served the interests of the people.
As a statement by the Revolutionary Communist Party put it shortly after Katrina: “In all this can be seen the potential for masses of people to be mobilized to bring into being a society in which relations among people are radically different than the daily dog-eat-dog that this capitalist system pushes people into. Yet what has also stood out very clearly is that the masses of people are not fully aware of and organized on the basis of an understanding of how the whole operation of this system is in direct and deep-going conflict with their real and fundamental interests.” (“On Hurricane Katrina: 3 Fundamental Lessons,” Revolution #14, September 18, 2005)
But it is these same masses who, on the basis of a revolution, can bring into being a new society and a new state which would put the interests of the great majority of the people at the foundation and at the center of everything it stands for and everything it does.
It Can’t Go Down Like This
The demands of the people still in, and those still exiled from, the city of New Orleans must be met! And that struggle must be part of, and contribute to, building a revolutionary movement.
Most of the people displaced from New Orleans want to return. The tens of thousands of people still displaced, neglected, abused and abandoned by the government must be allowed to return to their homes. Housing projects must be repaired and reopened. Homes must be rebuilt, now, and made available to people affordably. Basic social services must be restored and made available to people: health care, childcare, public schools, and other social services. And jobs must be provided to people in New Orleans and to those who want to return, including to rebuild the city.
This system doesn’t recognize the vitality and uniqueness of New Orleans, except as a Disneyland-type tourist attraction. But the people must demand that the rich Black history and culture of New Orleans must not be wiped out!
People are right to resist the ongoing crimes being committed by the government against the people of New Orleans—everything from fighting for basic needs, to artists and intellectuals doing work that exposes the situation to millions of people, to people all over the country finding different and creative ways to support the people in New Orleans. That resistance must be strengthened and spread. Already in the last two years, there has been a huge outpouring of musicians, artists, intellectuals, and others who have created songs, theater works, documentary films, and books that expose the crime of the system in New Orleans, give voice to the people of the city, and stand in solidarity with their struggle.
Many forces and organizations have called for protest events on August 28, the second anniversary of Katrina (see box). The theme of many of these events is that the people must have a right to return to their homes. People must take the second anniversary of Katrina as a time to join in solidarity, in different activities, to push this struggle forward.
In the aftermath of Katrina, the horrible and continuing crimes of the system against the masses of Black people of New Orleans cannot become just another outrage that goes down in history. The system’s plans that continue to cause misery and suffering for the masses of people in New Orleans must be DEFEATED.
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