Poor, Black and Left to Die: What Hurricane Katrina Shows About American Capitalism

Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster. But the massive death, destruction, and misery that followed in its wake was entirely man-made and preventable. It was the poor, the old, the sick – overwhelmingly African American – who had no means to flee the storm that bore the brunt of the suffering.

One million people in the Gulf Cost have been displaced, many without homes or work. Thousands are feared dead. As the New Orleans levees broke, they unleashed a hell on earth for tens of thousands of poor, black residents left abandoned. The city descended into squalor and abject social misery, with many literally dropping dead in the streets for lack of care.

While the city government called for people to evacuate before the storm hit, it was on a “free market” basis. No public transportation or shelter was provided for those without a car or who could not afford to rent a hotel room. 28% of people in New Orleans live in poverty, and of those 84% are black. 35% of black households did not have a car.

Those who could not leave were told to go to the New Orleans Superdome. But what they found when they arrived was a scene of unimaginable horror. Approximately 50,000 people were trapped for days in deadly heat and stench at the overflowing Superdome and Convention Center.

Once in the stadium, they were not allowed to leave. “They’re housing us like animals,” said Iiesha Rousell, unemployed after four years in the Army, unable to contain her fury. “It’s worse than a prison” was another comment. One woman worried what would become of her after being sent out of New Orleans, asking “What’s going to happen to our jobs? How can we take care of our families?” (NY Times, 9/1/05)

“There’s nothing offered to them, no water, no ice, no C-rations. Nothing for the last four days,” reported NBC journalist Tony Zumbada. Desperate crowds were reduced to chanting “Help us! Help us!” in front of TV cameras, while others begged “Don’t leave us here to die.”

But no help came for four days.

In the richest country in the world, the U.S. government, which is capable of fighting a $300 billion war in Iraq, failed to mobilize emergency aid for the tens of thousands of people in desperate conditions in the Gulf Coast.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune noted that the hellish conditions in the Superdome “stood in stark contrast to those of people nearby in the restricted-access New Orleans Centre and Hyatt Hotel, where those who could get in lounged in relative comfort … guests were being fed ‘foie gras and rack of lamb’ for dinner, according to a photographer who stayed there, while the masses, most of them poor, huddled in the Dome.” A line of state police armed with assault rifles drove the crowds of evacuees back from the entrance of the hotel.

When buses finally arrived to evacuate people from the Superdome, the effort was interrupted to allow the Hyatt Hotel guests to be brought out first “much to the amazement of those who had been crammed in the Superdome since last Sunday. ‘How does this work? They (are) clean, they are dry, they get out ahead of us?’ exclaimed Howard Blue, 22, who tried to get in their line. The National Guard blocked him as other guardsmen helped the well-dressed guests with their luggage.” (Associated Press, 9/4/05)

Just as outrageous was the callous disregard for human suffering and the colossal mismanagement by the corrupt Bush administration. This criminal negligence was so staggering, even Republican politicians like Louisiana’s Senator David Vitter gave the federal government an F for its handling of the whirlwind after the storm.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff arrogantly blamed the hurricane’s victims for their plight. “The critical thing was to get people out of there before the disaster,” he said. “Some people chose not to obey that order. That was a mistake on their part.”

In a scathing editorial, Maureen Dowd wrote “Michael Brown, the blithering idiot in charge of FEMA – a job he trained for by running something called the International Arabian Horse Association – admitted he didn’t know until Thursday that there were 15,000 desperate, dehydrated, hungry, angry, dying victims of Katrina in the New Orleans Convention Center. Was he sacked instantly? No, our tone-deaf president hailed him in Mobile, Ala., yesterday: ‘Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.'” (“United States of Shame”, NY Times, 9/3/05)

Man-Made Disaster

There was nothing natural about the transformation of New Orleans into a massive graveyard for the urban poor.

Leave aside for the moment the growing evidence that climate change is causing more frequent and stronger hurricanes and tropical storms. Leave aside that the marshlands of Louisiana, which historically provided natural protection against flooding, has been sold off and destroyed in corrupt deals between land developers and politicians.

More immediately, Bush’s war on Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, and vicious cuts in funding for vital infrastructure and social services were centrally at fault for the disaster.

Repeating his “who could have known?” line from the Iraq war, Bush claimed, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” But the fact was that the danger of a major hurricane breaking the levees and flooding New Orleans and was widely discussed for years before.

Since 1995, the Army Corps of Engineers spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained. Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars dropped to a trickle.

In June 2004, the emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish fretted to the New Orleans Times-Picayune: “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.”

The funding for this crucial public infrastructure was slashed to pay for Bush’s Iraq adventure and tax cuts for the rich. Yet at the same time, Bush and Congress agreed to a $286.4 billion pork-filled highway bill with 6,000 pet projects, including a $231 million bridge for a small, uninhabited Alaskan island.

Not only was the money depleted by the Bush folly in Iraq; 30% of the National Guard and about half its equipment are in Iraq. How long did this delay the rescue operations and how many lives were needlessly lost because of it?

This has exposed in the starkest fashion the lie that the Iraq war is about making ordinary Americans safer. Nor is the U.S. occupation helping the Iraqi people. Many are asking, why has funding on prevention of natural disasters been cut back to $187 million per year while we spend over $5.6 billion per month on the Iraq war? Tens of millions will no doubt conclude that we need to bring the troops home now and that money should go towards relief, not war.

Racism and Poverty

These events have graphically illustrated the reality of widespread poverty, racism, inequality, and social deprivation in America, particularly the squalid conditions in the inner cities.

The New York Times wrote: “What a shocked world saw exposed in New Orleans last week wasn’t just a broken levee. It was a cleavage of race and class, at once familiar and startlingly new, laid bare in a setting where they suddenly amounted to matters of life and death.” (9/2/05)

This poverty and racism did not fall out of the sky. It comes against the background of a massive polarization of wealth within the U.S. over the past 30 years, reaching levels unseen since the 1920s.

A new Census Bureau report showed that in 2004 an additional 1.1 million Americans were thrown into poverty, the fourth consecutive year poverty rose, bringing the total up to 37 million. In many cities, the situation is even worse. In New York City, for example, the poverty rate rose to 20.3%.

And while it is people of color who disproportionately are poor, tens of millions of white people also live in poverty. In fact, since 2003 the largest increase in poverty was among whites, going from 8.2% to 8.6%. The same report also announced that household incomes had not increased for the past five years – the first time ever recorded.

There is a boiling rage throughout the country at the completely incompetent, criminal failure of the government to help the victims of Katrina. But this is felt most intensely in the African American community, which is outraged at the naked racism that led to the deaths of thousands. Hip-hop star Kanye West captured this mood when he said live on national TV, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

West also pointed to the repulsive, racist media coverage, saying “I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. See a white family, it says they’re looking for food.” Most of the “looting” that took place was desperate people taking vital essentials – water, food, diapers – in order to survive.

In response, the police were redirected away from search and rescue to defending the private property of businesses like the GAP and casinos. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, declared “war on looters.” Referring to newly-deployed National Guard troops fresh back from Iraq, she said “They have M-16s, and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary. And I expect they will.” (Seattle P-IReuters, 9/2/05)

What did they expect stranded people to do? Get some cash out of the broken ATM and pay the non-existent sales clerk for the bottle of water? This response follows the twisted logic of capitalism, which upholds the scared principle of private property over saving people’s lives.

It is true some horrifying crimes, like rapes and murders, were carried out by a small but lethal number of criminals and gang members. However, this is a commentary on the brutal, inhuman character of U.S. capitalism. It is the result of a system that treats as utterly “normal” unleashing a murderous policy of “shock and awe” on the Iraqi people, flattening the entire city of Fallujah, or using the death penalty on children.

But the crisis also brought out the enormous self-sacrifice and solidarity that exists among ordinary people. There were numerous stories of survivors risking their lives to save others. Across the country, millions of ordinary people took action to help, far faster than Bush and his cronies.

The media’s focus on criminals was completely out of proportion with the incomparably greater crime of the government failing to evacuate the poor or deliver emergency aid. Where is the media outcry over the massive looting by the big oil and gas companies, who are gouging consumers with outrageous price increases at a time when they are making record profits? Even less is said about U.S. imperialism’s record of looting poor countries, as we have seen with the occupation of Iraq.

The events in New Orleans have driven home the fact that racism is far from eradicated from our society. “Is this what the pioneers of the civil rights movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by legal segregation laws?” wrote Mark Naison, director of the Urban Studies Program at Fordham. “Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region and a nation, rent by profound social divisions.”

While the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s succeeded in winning legal equality for African Americans, the underlying system of capitalism remained intact. As Malcolm X warned, “you can not have capitalism without racism.” The continuation of capitalism, and its economic crisis since the mid-1970s, has meant that not only has racism remained, but that even the social conditions for African Americans have actually worsened since the 1960s. It is time we drew the necessary conclusions from this experience and fight to overthrow the system, capitalism, that breeds poverty, racism, and inequality.

System Failure

It took almost two days for Bush to end his fishing-and-biking vacation when tens of thousands of poor and black people were suffering in appalling conditions in the Gulf Coast. But he was much quicker off the mark last March, cutting short his Crawford vacation to storm back to Washington within hours to sign a bill to “save” Terri Schiavo. The President issued a statement in which he promised “to stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans, including those with disabilities.”

The supposedly compassionate pro-life, pro-family moral values of George Bush have been exposed as utterly hypocritical and fraudulent. Bush’s defense-of-life policy did not prevent him from cutting crucial funding for strengthening levees or social services for the poor, in order to pay for tax handouts to the richest Americans and for a war that has killed 2,000 U.S. soldiers and 100,000 Iraqis.

The only thing that can be said in Bush’s defense is that the blame is being overly focused on his administration when, in reality, this was not simply a failure by Bush or by the local authorities along the Gulf Coast. It was a system failure – a result of free-market capitalism that is myopically focused on short-term profits and on extending U.S. corporate power around the world, while treating poor people as expendable.

It is true that the Bush gang were the ones who lead the charge for the war on Iraq and the tax cuts for the rich. But what did the so-called opposition party, the Democrats, do? They not only failed to seriously fight these policies, they went along with them. The Democrats in Congress voted to support Bush’s “war on terrorism,” the Patriot Act, the war on Afghanistan, the Iraq war, and the hundreds of billions of dollars for the occupation of Iraq, Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, and “No Child Left Behind.” In reality, the Democratic Party, like the Republicans, represents the interests of the corrupt corporate elite that dominates U.S. society.

The cutting of funds for the levees is only a glaring expression of the general neo-liberal drive by the entire political and corporate establishment over the past 30 years. The ending of the post-war economic boom in the mid-1970s opened up a period of economic crisis, compelling big business to launch a major offensive against the working class to drive down wages and conditions in order to maintain their profits. To meet Corporate America’s tax-cutting demands, politicians have gutted essential social services and the public infrastructure, allowing inner cities to rot.

Of course, this neo-liberal dogma is extremely shortsighted. A refusal to invest tens of millions of dollars into strengthening levees has led to a catastrophe that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. This shows the extreme shortsightedness and anarchy inherent in capitalism. Decisions are made by a small elite on the basis of today’s, and maybe tomorrow’s, “bottom line.” Comprehensive planning, investment in preventive measures or public infrastructure, and democratic involvement is foreign to capitalism’s fundamental tendencies.

This crisis shows the basic functioning of modern society is increasingly incompatible with the requirements of the profit system, which ruthlessly sacrifices social needs on the alter of private profit. Katrina laid bare the complete disregard for the needs of society by the arrogant, money-mad elite who rule the country on behalf of their corporate masters. While the administration of George W. Bush is particularly venal, ruthless, and shortsighted, it nonetheless is only an extreme expression of a system in its decay that is unable to develop human society any further.

Socialist Solution

Katrina is a window into our future on the basis of capitalism – “horror without end” for the poor, the oppressed, and the working class. There will be more disasters of this sort, particularly if drastic action is not taken to reverse global warming. There will be more imperialist wars. There will be growing poverty and racism.

That is why it is urgent we fight to put an end to capitalism and create a new, socialist society based on human needs. The entire disaster clearly shows the need for social planning and the failure and anarchy of free-market capitalism. How can disasters be prevented when decisions are being made based on the short-term profit drive of Corporate America?

How can we possibly address climate change without a democratically planned economy? Are we to hope that the giant oil and auto corporations will, on their own, decide to set aside their massive profits and wealth for the long-term good of humanity?

How can the massive evacuee crisis be dealt with without massive, federally-funded, public works projects, directed by accountable, democratic bodies?

We call for a real relief effort, which is based on the needs of the poor and working class victims of Hurricane Katrina:

  • Full care and compensation for Katrina victims: All victims of this crisis should be fully compensated for all losses by the federal government. Free medical care for all those in need. Ensure that all affected people receive a stable income to get back on their feet after this tragedy. All those from the affected counties who have lost their jobs, have been displaced, or are in need should receive a living wage of $500/week for up to 3 years. Immediate interest-free loans for workers, small businesses, and small farmers who had their livelihood destroyed in the hurricane.
  • Initiate massive public works program to rebuild and re-employ the Gulf Coast: Immediately begin the construction of decent, affordable public housing in the safe areas for all those in need due to the hurricane. Employ the jobless victims of Katrina in public works programs to rebuild the counties affected. All rebuilding and relief workers must receive a living wage with union rights and benefits. Ensure the homes, workplaces, schools, and streets of New Orleans are cleansed of the toxic contamination caused by the flooded sewage and oil and chemical spills.
  • Stop racial and class discrimination in relief, compensation, rebuilding, and policing: All relief money received through government and charity should not be put in the hands of big-business politicians and bureaucrats. Instead, oversight committees elected from the affected communities, evacuees, and relief workers should control the funding and administration of relief and rebuilding efforts. Don’t bankrupt state and local budgets for the relief. The federal government should hand over billions of dollars for the relief effort. Don’t cut social service funding like healthcare and education to pay for relief and rebuilding efforts.
  • Stop profiteering off tragedy!: We need price controls on gas and other products to protect consumers. Construction should be done for the public good, under democratic community control, not for the profits of a few corporations.
  • Pay for rebuilding by ending the war in Iraq and taxing big business: This disaster is the direct result of the Bush administration defunding levy strengthening and other disaster prevention programs to pay for the war in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich. Bring the troops home and redirect military resources to rebuilding. This disaster results from decades of corporate tax cuts by the two major parties, and the resultant underfunding of infrastructure and inner cities. Make the rich and Corporate America pay for reconstruction.

Each of these measures, absolutely vital for those displaced to be able to restart their lives in any decent fashion, go directly against the logic of capitalism, which teaches that the “market” can magically solve social needs.

Big business, the real culprits behind this tragedy, will claim they cannot afford to pay for such a massive relief effort. If that is true, then we cannot afford to live under their inhuman, rotten system.

That is why socialists draw the conclusion that we need to change the entire system. We need a planned economy, where decisions about investment, about what is produced and how things are produced, are democratically decided in the interests of the majority, rather than according to the undemocratic short-term profit calculations of a small minority who own the wealth.

This can only be possible on the basis of taking the giant corporations that dominate the economy into public ownership. Instead of CEOs deciding what working people are paid and how companies should invest their resources, this would allow workers to elect management teams and democratically decide pay scales and investment priorities.

Socialism would mean that instead of big business running our media, controlling the political system, deciding the priorities of our country, politicians would be directly elected from neighborhood and workplace committees, paid an average worker’s wage, and immediately recallable when they are not representing their constituents.

Political Consequences

In the wake of Katrina, a political storm is sweeping across the country with the force of a category five hurricane.

Nor will it simply blow over. There is far more horror to come, as more bodies are found and more facts come out. Its full effects, which will shake U.S. society to its foundations, will be felt over a period of time as tens of millions across the country begin to absorb the full ramifications of these events.

The impact will be incalculable, transforming U.S. politics for the whole next period on a scale similar to 9/11. But rather than strengthening Bush and triggering a reactionary wave like 9/11, Katrina is the “anti-9/11,” as right-wing columnist and supporter of the Iraq war David Brooks pointed out (“The Bursting Point”, NY Times, 9/4/05). It is dramatically weakening Bush, radicalizing millions, and will give a profoundly left-wing impulse to U.S. politics.

There is enormous anger throughout the country about this preventable tragedy and the slow, cavalier response of the Bush administration. This has been reflected in the firestorm of criticism against Bush from the normally tame mainstream media, Democrats, and even many Republican politicians.

Already before Katrina hit, Bush was in serious trouble. His flagship policy, Social Security privatization, was completely stuck in the water with massive public opposition. Bush’s approval ratings were falling sharply, and anger at the war was growing by leaps and bounds.

A Pew Research Center poll found 67% of Americans believed Bush could have done more to speed up relief efforts, and just 28% believed he did all he could. His approval rating slipped to 40%, down four points since July to the lowest point Pew has recorded. A CBS poll taken September 6-7 also found confidence in Bush during a crisis had fallen, and only 48% now view him as a strong leader – the lowest number ever for Bush in the poll. A year ago, 64% of voters saw Bush as a strong leader (Reuters, 9/8/05).

Bush’s political base has been seriously weakened, not least in his southern “stronghold” which has been hardest hit by these events. Many Southern Republican politicians, feeling the anger of their constituents, have been compelled to denounce the Bush administration’s failure to rapidly respond to the hurricane and are demanding relief. And with gas prices likely to stay extremely high for the next period, support for Bush will be further undermined.

There is also widespread understanding that Bush cut the funding for levee improvements to pay for the Iraq war, and that relief efforts were hampered by the fact that many of Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s National Guard soldiers were in Iraq. This will dramatically strengthen the antiwar mood, giving it a much broader, working-class character as the war is increasingly linked to domestic social and economic problems. At the same time, the U.S. faces a growing catastrophe in Iraq. It is likely the antiwar protests on September 24 will be huge, and could open up a new period of mass protests against the war and the Bush administration.

This anger is strongest in the African American community. Katrina’s searing images of racism have had a profound effect on the psychology of the black community. “To African-Americans, Hurricane Katrina has become a generation-defining catastrophe – a disaster with a predominantly black toll, tinged with racism … ‘You’d have to go back to slavery, or the burning of black towns, to find a comparable event that has affected black people this way,” said Darnell Hunt, a sociologist and head of the African American Studies department at UCLA.” (“Katrina, Aftermath Galvanize Black America”, Associated Press, 9/8/05)

The upcoming Millions More March against racism in Washington, D.C. on October 15 is likely to give vent to this anger. Despite the confused and conservative nature of the March program, the turnout could very well be huge in one of the largest political mobilizations of the black community in a decade. This explosive anger, particularly in the inner cities, is preparing the ground for a new revolt of African Americans against racism and poverty.

Taken together, Bush faces an immense political crisis. The New York Times pointed out, “perhaps not since Richard M. Nixon faced Vietnam-era tumult abroad and at home has an American president had to meet quite the combination of foreign war, domestic tribulations, and political division that President Bush now confronts” marked by the “enduring insurgency in Iraq and the looming battles over the first double vacancy on the Supreme Court [in] 34 years …’I think he’s really undermined his credibility at this point, and it really saddles him with the kind of problems that Johnson and Nixon faced,’ said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. ‘These crises are such a heavy burden, and they are so self-inflicted, except for the court vacancies, that if he is not very careful and tries to put across someone who is seen as an ultraconservative, he is going to touch off a conflagration in the Senate.'” (9/5/05)

Bush’s credibility has taken a crippling blow, and along with it public confidence in capitalist institutions has been seriously undermined.

David Brooks pointed out, “Last week’s national humiliation comes at the end of a string of confidence-shaking institutional failures that have cumulatively changed the nation’s psyche. Over the past few years, we have seen intelligence failures in the inability to prevent Sept. 11 and find WMDs in Iraq … We have seen the collapse of Enron and corruption scandals on Wall Street … As a result, it is beginning to feel a bit like the 1970s, another decade in which people lost faith in their institutions and lost a sense of confidence about the future. Katrina means that the political culture, already sour and bloody-minded in many quarters, will shift … There is going to be some sort of big bang as people respond to the cumulative blows of bad events and try to fundamentally change the way things are … We’re not really at a tipping point as much as a bursting point. People are mad as hell, unwilling to take it anymore.” (9/4/05)

Many on the left drew completely one-sided and false conclusions following Bush’s election victory in November, arguing that it signaled a right-wing swing in the U.S. Instead, we argued that U.S. capitalism is on the edge of historic shocks and convulsions. We explained that, on the basis of events like the disaster in Iraq, economic crises, and the growing anger of workers and the oppressed, Bush’s support would be undermined and that massive upheavals in U.S. society – most importantly, mass movements of the working class – were posed.

Generally, consciousness lags behind reality. It takes huge events, historic shocks, to shake off previously ingrained thinking in the minds of millions of people. Katrina is one of those shocks, breaking millions from previous illusions and laying bare the brutal realities of U.S. society. It has revealed how weak Bush’s political position truly is and the potential for mass struggles in the next period. Profound events of this kind act as a catalyst, crystallizing in mass consciousness the need for radical change by bringing to the forefront the accumulated grievances that have been building up below the surface of U.S. society for the past period

Katrina has also severely weakened the propaganda of the American dream and the U.S. being the “greatest country in the world.” One of the main feelings across the country was a feeling of “shame, a deep collective national disbelief that the world’s sole remaining superpower could not – or at least had not – responded faster and more forcefully to a disaster that had been among its own government’s worst-case possibilities for years. ‘It really makes us look very much like Bangladesh or Baghdad,’ said David Herbert Donald, the retired Harvard historian” (NY Times, 9/3/05). Internationally, it has also deeply undermined the prestige of U.S. imperialism.

This catastrophe will lead to enormous questioning, particularly by young people, of the entire order of U.S. society. Already, one of the most striking features of the current situation is how questions of class and race have now entered into the mainstream political debate.

The ideology of neo-liberalism has received a tremendous blow. Katrina will strengthen the idea among tens of millions that it is vital to have publicly-funded infrastructure, social services, and public planning. In the aftermath of the hurricane, there is a growing demand for a massive relief effort by the government.

But many will not stop there. There will be profound questions raised about the twisted priorities of an unplanned, anarchic system which pursues foreign wars of plunder yet is incapable of providing a decent or stable life for the majority. The idea of a system based on human solidarity and the democratic running of society, socialism, will increasingly gain support.

Join us in building a movement dedicated to sweeping away this rotten system!

September 18, 2005