New Orleans: Racism & Capitalist Irrationality
U.S. Imperialism in Decline
The following is a slightly edited version of a talk given by Jason Wright in Toronto on 30 September 2005.
On 29 August 2005, New Orleans, the cradle of jazz, famous for riverboat casinos, Mardi Gras excesses, Cajun cuisine and easy living, sank like a 21st century Atlantis. One of the few cities in the U.S. where bars can legally serve alcohol round the clock, the Big Easy was closed down with a toxic cocktail of flood water, sewage, industrial waste and gasoline.
Like Amsterdam and Venice, New Orleans symbolized the determination and resourcefulness, bordering on hubris, with which human beings have carved out centers of civilization in the most inhospitable places. Its destruction demonstrates the irrationality of the capitalist social system.
As the flood waters rose, coffins interned in the 1800s floated free of their mausoleums to mingle with the corpses of victims who lacked the resources and connections to flee Hurricane Katrina. In a city where 84 percent of those who live below the poverty line are black, it is hardly surprising that most of the victims were African-American. As one journalist, Greg Palast, observed:
“There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster. Hurricanes happen, but death comes from official neglect, from tax cuts for the rich that cut the heart out of public protection. The corpses in the street are victims of a class war in which only one side has a general.”
Not much of a general, but one who personifies the willful ignorance, arrogance and stupidity of a ruling class that, while still the most powerful in the world, is unable to reverse, or even acknowledge the symptoms of its own decline. George W. Bush, the “What Me Worry?” president, belatedly responded to this immense human tragedy by shrugging and moronically observing: “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
In fact the calamity was widely anticipated in both scientific and popular literature. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had predicted a hurricane flooding New Orleans as one of the three most likely major disasters faced by the U.S. (along with a California earthquake and a major terrorist attack on New York). The October 2004 National Geographic described a hypothetical scenario in which a hurricane produced a storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain that:
“raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.
“Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued.”
That is pretty much exactly what happened.
New Orleans sits in a bowl, surrounded by water on three sides and protected by an extensive network of levees that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to construct in 1879 to shield the towns and industries along the Mississippi from its periodic floods.
But routine spring flooding, carrying millions of tons of sediment, was integral to the formation of the channel islands and the periodic renewal of the bayous. As flood prevention reduced the capacity of the ecosystem to regenerate, the cypress swamps hung with Spanish moss began to gradually recede. The elimination of flooding lowered the water table, which increased the rate at which the land subsided, thereby accelerating New Orleans’ drop below sea level.
Since the 1950s, more than 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) of canals have been laid through the delta, mostly to facilitate oil exploration and improve shipping lanes. “Development” has reduced the wetlands of the Mississippi Delta, which buffer New Orleans from the Gulf, at the rate of an acre (4,000 square meters) every 25 minutes. Since the 1930s, it is estimated that 1,900 square miles of coastal wetlands have disappeared, thereby clearing a path for hurricane storm surges.
Bob Morton of the U.S. Geological Survey noted a correspondence between increased oil and gas production in the delta in the late 1970s and early 80s and the accelerated loss of wetlands. Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer from Louisiana State University, put it like this:
“When you look at the broadest perspective, short-term advantages can be gained by exploiting the environment. But in the long term you’re going to pay for it. Just like you can spend three days drinking in New Orleans and it’ll be fun. But sooner or later you’re going to pay.”
President Bush embraces superstitious notions about “intelligent design” and “creation science” but is quite skeptical about global warming. There is a broad consensus among scientists who have studied the question that, as an unintended by-product of fossil fuel consumption, humanity is nearing, if we have not already passed, a critical “tipping point” in climate change. In the British Independent last week (23 September 2005) Sir John Lawton, chairman of Britain’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, was reported to have observed that over the past few decades: “Hurricanes were getting more intense, just as computer models predicted they would, because of the rising temperature of the sea.” Between the 1970s and 1990s, the average temperature of surface sea water has increased by nearly a full degree Fahrenheit (0.5 Centigrade) while the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled.
As has been widely reported, the Bush administration’s response to the growing severity of hurricanes has been to slash funding for flood control. A 16 February 2004 article in New Orleans City Business reported that the federal government was spending only 20 percent of what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considered necessary to maintain the levees on Lake Pontchartrain.
It seems that the money was needed for other things. The occupation of Iraq is going very badly—instead of being an enormous new source of wealth for the oil monopolies and providing new leverage for U.S. imperialism over its rivals, it has dramatically weakened America’s position diplomatically, militarily and financially. At the same time, the expansion of the domestic bureaucratic apparatus of police repression under the banner of “Homeland Security” has also been expensive. And while vastly increasing the federal budget, the administration also pushed through a program of tax cuts for the corporations and the ultra-rich that slashed government income. The result is a soaring federal budget deficit and less room for the ruling class to maneuver in.
The attempt to square this circle by cutting “flab” like levee maintenance on the Mississippi reflects the ideological priorities of the American bourgeoisie, as liberal economist Paul Krugman recently pointed out:
“the federal government’s lethal ineptitude…was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn’t forthcoming?”
—New York Times, 5 September 2005
The port of New Orleans did not spring up by accident—it handles more goods than any other in the U.S. More than 50 million tons are shipped out of New Orleans each year, including most of America’s agricultural exports. It also handles the bulk of imports, particularly oil and coal. The decision to cut funding for the levees therefore was not only a devastating blow to hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people, but also to the entire capitalist class.
Ports cannot function without workers, and port workers require others to provide housing, schools, grocery stores, utilities, transit and every other necessity. This is why Bush felt he had to promise to rebuild New Orleans—without of course increasing taxes or the government’s budget. Of course the imperialists often make grand promises to do this or that and then renege, as the victims of last year’s tsunami and the peoples of the former Soviet bloc, Iraq and Afghanistan well know. But the U.S. bourgeoisie cannot simply leave New Orleans to its fate.
New Orleans has never been particularly popular with right-wingers in America, but Dick Cheney, Karl Rove & Co. are smart enough to recognize that its destruction is a disaster for the capitalist class as a whole. The malign neglect of the past several decades, as the market worked its “magic” along the Gulf Coast, now has to be paid for. And the bill will be steep.
Of course some of the president’s “born again” base doesn’t think rebuilding New Orleans is such a good idea. They are generally more inclined to view the destruction of this city as evidence of divine retribution rather than capitalist stupidity. The anti-abortion bigots of “Columbia Christians for Life” think Katrina was aimed at New Orleans’ ten abortion clinics, but “Repent America” sees a broader focus: “this act of God destroyed a wicked city. From ‘Girls Gone Wild’ to ‘Southern Decadence,’ [the city’s annual gay pride event] New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin.”
Racism & Cop Mentality
In America the question of race always simmers just below the surface, but it burst into the open in the wake of Katrina. Before the Civil War, when cotton was king and the Gulf Coast was lined with the plantations of the slavocracy, New Orleans was a center of the slave trade. Yet it was also unique among Southern cities during the time of slavery because of the opportunities it offered free blacks. This originated in the willingness of the French and Spanish colonialists, who feared American expansionism, to welcome runaway slaves in their territories. The late Herbert Aptheker, leading historian of the American Communist Party, wrote that in the 1790s the impact of the French revolution and the resulting slave revolt in Haiti were felt throughout the region:
“In Spanish Louisiana the turmoil was great, and ‘the fever of the French Revolution stirred up sedition among the numerous French creoles…and insubordination among the slaves.’ When, in 1793, Spain declared war upon France, only severe measures of repression directed against both the white and the Negro population prevented revolution.”
—American Negro Slave Revolts, 1943
The U.S. purchased Louisiana from France in 1803, after Napoleon finally abandoned plans to revive a French colonial empire in North America when it became clear that after a decade of unsuccessful attempts the French Army was unable to stamp out the Haitian rebellion. New Orleans’ large, bi-racial Creole population, which already numbered in the tens of thousands, made the city a cultural mecca for American blacks. Many of the gens d’couleur were literate, skilled artisans who tended to look to London and Paris, rather than New York and Washington, for inspiration. Their very existence refuted the racist ideology of the defenders of the slave system.
During the Civil War, the Confederacy had to enforce strict martial law to retain control of New Orleans. After the city fell to the Union in April 1862, thousands of runaway slaves found refuge there. The First Louisiana Native Guards, raised in New Orleans, was the first black regiment to be officially incorporated into the Union army.
When Katrina struck, New Orleans was a city where two thirds of the population were black and poverty rates were triple the national average. In 1850 only 20 percent of free blacks living in New Orleans were illiterate—by 2005, 40 percent of the city’s population was illiterate. The U.S. ruling class has for generations maintained blacks as a pool of cheap labor, forcibly segregated at the bottom of society and traditionally stuck with the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. But racism is not only about economic super-exploitation, it also functions as a means of social control by providing the ruling class with a ready-made scapegoat in periods of social crisis. The use of the “race card” to deflect criticism of the handling of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated this.
To counter television images of the plight of desperate, overwhelmingly black, crowds of people trapped without food, water or medical care, the political spinmeisters fixated on “looting” and incessantly repeated that “law and order” had to be the first priority. An influential German weekly, observed:
“three pictures of apparent ‘looters’ featured on Yahoo news. Two men are pictured wading through flood waters with bags of groceries and beer in their arms. They are described as ‘looters.’ And, coincidentally they are African-American.
“Next comes a picture of a white couple carrying food supplies through the flood waters. According to AFP/Getty Images, these fine young people are on their way home after ‘finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.’ So the white people don’t ‘loot,’ they ‘find’. A curious insight into prevalent racism in the US media; just as one man’s ‘terrorist’ is another man’s ‘freedom fighter,’ it seems one man’s ‘looter,’ is another man’s ‘finder’.”
—Der Spiegal Online, 31 August 2005
The situation was presented to enthralled American television viewers as a sort of bizarre dystopia, with scenes of chaos straight from “Waterworld,” “Mad Max” and “Escape From New York.” On 2 September 2005, Reuters reported claims by a woman that gangs of (black) men were roaming through New Orleans’ convention center raping and murdering children:
“She said she found a dead 14-year old girl at 5 a.m. on Friday morning, four hours after the young girl went missing from her parents inside the convention center.
“‘She was raped for four hours until she was dead,’ Joseph [the woman] said through tears. ‘Another child, a seven-year old boy was found raped and murdered in the kitchen freezer last night.’”
The dispatch included the unusual disclaimer that these sensational allegations, which were immediately picked up by the rest of the media, “could not be independently verified.” Other stories of snipers firing on rescue helicopters circulated widely. The constant repetition of such tales without any attempt to verify them served to divert attention from the stupidity and ineptitude of the political authorities, and provided the media with the opportunity to praise the cops and National Guard units sent to enforce martial law.
It was left to the European media to investigate the horror stories—and not surprisingly most turned out to be inventions. New Orleans police superintendent Eddie Compass confessed: “We don’t have any substantiated rapes,” but promised to investigate if any victims or their families came forward. The London Guardian (6 September 2005) reported that: “while many claim they happened, no witnesses, survivors or survivors’ relatives have come forward. Nor has the source for the story of the murdered babies, or indeed their bodies, been found.”
When some in the U.S. media finally sought to verify the reports of attacks on rescue helicopters, they also turned out to be false. Laura Brown of the Federal Aviation Administration told ABC News, “We’re controlling every single aircraft in that airspace and none of them reported being fired on,” and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff admitted: “I haven’t actually received a confirmed report of someone firing on a helicopter.” Unlike the original lurid fantasies which were prominently featured and widely disseminated, the truth was confined to the small print and back pages.
There were undoubtedly plenty of instances of lumpen criminality, but the chief problem in New Orleans was not “crime” or “looting,” but rather the gross incompetence of the federal and state authorities whose actions put tens of thousands of desperate people in a near hopeless situation with no resources. The Guardian commented: “America is the richest and most powerful country on earth, but its citizens, begging for food, water and help, are suffering agonies more familiar from Sudan and Niger. The worst of the third world has come to the Big Easy.” Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther and long-time activist who is now with the Green Party, observed bitterly:
“We have Amtrak here that could have carried everybody out of town. There were enough school buses that could have evacuated 20,000 people easily, but they just let them be flooded. My son watched 40 buses go underwater—they just wouldn’t move them, afraid they’d be stolen.”
The capitalists and their media hacks avoided any discussion of the root of the problem—a social system organized to serve the interests of a few at the expense of the many—even when the issue was one of maintaining the essentials of life, which in New Orleans includes the levee system. The lesson drawn by capitalist ideologues is that everyone has to accept personal responsibility for their own individual situation. Rick Santorum (the right-wing Republican senator from Pennsylvania whose name has become synonymous with a particular frothy mixture) advocated a crackdown on the victims:
“I mean, you have people who don’t heed those warnings and then put people at risk as a result of not heeding those warnings. There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving.”
But it was not just the Republicans—their “progressive” Democratic twins also prioritized martial law over rescue efforts. In welcoming the Arkansas National Guard in New Orleans, Louisiana’s Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco praised them as troops who “know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.”
Baton Rouge’s David Duke, one of America’s most notorious fascists, wrote an article entitled “New Orleans descends into Africa-like Savagery,” a theme picked up by Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force who told the Army Times: “This place is going to look like Little Somalia….We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
An Empire in Decline
True to form, various Bush cronies have seized upon the disaster as an opportunity for personal enrichment. FEMA’s website sought to channel donations through Operation Blessing, a dubious “charity” run by Pat Robertson on the basis that “charity begins at home.” During the Rwandan genocide, Operation Blessing planes were busy delivering equipment for an African diamond mining operation owned by Robertson. Presumably he has found similar opportunities this time.
Vice President Dick Cheney’s buddies at Kellogg, Brown & Root Services Inc., a Halliburton subsidiary famous for getting no-bid contracts for restoring Iraqi oil production, have already tapped a $500 million Navy contract for repairing Gulf Coast facilities. (Cheney was, of course, the former CEO of Halliburton.)
So far the “reconstruction” of New Orleans promises to be as good an example of capitalist irrationality as its destruction. Bush’s assurances that everything can be fixed without straining the federal budget by setting up a few tax-exempt “free enterprise zones” and paying workers less than the minimum wage can only be taken seriously by imbeciles. Free enterprise is the problem, not the solution.
This is demonstrated by comparing the handling of Katrina with the response of the Cuban deformed workers’ state a year ago to Hurricane Ivan, a Category 5 storm that destroyed 20,000 homes. The Cubans managed to successfully evacuate a million and a half people with no loss of life. The United Nations International Secretariat for Disaster Reduction declared: “The Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions and even in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their population as well as Cuba does.”
The contrast is rooted in the difference between a social system based on private property and untrammeled competition on the one hand, and a collectivized economy, albeit a bureaucratically deformed one, on the other. In New Orleans many diabetics, AIDS sufferers and other people with particular requirements were stranded without help or medication. Those unable to fend for themselves were simply left to die. In Cuba, everyone had a pre-assigned shelter, with the necessary medical personnel, patient records and medicine.
The U.S. today is an empire in decline—a fact made rather evident by the quality of its leadership. The peculiar indifference displayed by the Bush gang to the enormity of this tragedy, their initial focus on dismissing it with an upbeat public-relations spin before getting back to holidaying, shoe shopping and business as usual, was typical of an administration that has made obliviousness to reality, particularly to unpleasant facts, its calling card. From the manifest stupidity of denying “global warming,” to the notion that the ballooning federal deficit can be best addressed by destroying the social security program that most of the population depends on for retirement, the Bush White House has given perfect expression to the fundamentally irrational character of the global social order over which it presides.
The diversion of funds from Medicare, food stamps, libraries, parks, pensions, schools, childcare, environmental protection and practically every other form of socially useful spending, in order to fund military aggression and further enrich a tiny minority of parasites, has only accelerated the decline of U.S. imperialism. In 2004, the usually staid London Financial Times bluntly characterized the Bush government’s economic policy as “lunacy.” The same could be said of the notion that American economic supremacy can be preserved through a military doctrine of “preemptive strikes” against “rogues” and potential rivals—a policy that, at bottom, is an expression of the deterioration of America’s position in the global world order.
The deepening difficulties besetting the U.S. crusaders in Iraq is compounded by the domestic catastrophe in the Big Easy. This has created, at least in the short term, a genuine political crisis for the American ruling class that seems likely to accelerate the erosion of domestic popular support for seizing control of the oil fields of the Persian Gulf by establishing a massive, permanent American military presence there.
The gradually worsening situation in Iraq, compounded by an inability to really get New Orleans back on its feet, seems likely to undercut the popular legitimacy of many of the traditional mechanisms of capitalist rule. The U.S. economy, kept afloat by an enormous expansion of debt, is in a position that is simply unsustainable. A major economic dislocation could result in significant social turmoil. There is of course no guarantee that any upheavals will necessarily have a leftist character—Pat Buchanan, David Duke and the rest of America’s far-right can certainly be counted on to seek to channel them in a racist-reactionary direction.
But the disaster in New Orleans cannot help but suggest to people of reasonable intelligence that the existing social order is not only manifestly irrational and profoundly unjust, but also that it is neither necessary, nor inevitable. The venal, pro-imperialist bureaucracy that has strangled the American trade unions and run them into the ground can provide no leadership for people who are looking for a way out of the capitalist morass of poverty, oppression and endless war.
The fundamental problems faced by working people in every capitalist country cannot be solved by tinkering with a system created by, and for, the exploiters of labor. The only way forward is through creating independent working-class parties committed to struggle to expropriate the bosses, rather than begging for crumbs.
The first step in creating such a party in the U.S. is to cohere a nucleus of an authentically revolutionary, class-struggle leadership within the mass organizations of the working class. Only through the revolutionary overturn of the entire system of capitalist competition, and the creation of a social system based on the collective ownership of the economic levers of society, will it be possible to set economic and social priorities on the basis of human need, rather than private profit.
At this point this is still a distant prospect—yet it is quite simply the only way out. And we of the International Bolshevik Tendency are committed not only to analyzing the contradictions and irrationalities of capitalism, but to building an organization capable of intervening to change history. For, as Karl Marx observed in his famous “Theses on Feuerbach” 160 years ago, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point, however, is to change it.”