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Vol. 72/No. 34      September 1, 2008

Katrina disaster caused by capitalist greed
(feature article)
August 29 marks the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, frequently referred to as a “natural disaster.” Yet as the following excerpt from number 14 of the Marxist magazine New International demonstrates, the devastation wreaked by Katrina was a social disaster caused by capitalist greed and indifference to the consequences for working people. The excerpt below is taken from “The Stewardship of Nature Also Falls to the Working Class: In Defense of Land and Labor,” a resolution adopted by the July 2007 convention of the Socialist Workers Party.

[T]he social disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005—ravaging low-lying parts of New Orleans inhabited largely by working people, most of them Black, as well as elsewhere along the Gulf Coast—shined a spotlight worldwide on the “values” of U.S. imperialism’s ruling families and the state that serves their class. The moneyed rulers had known for decades that flood levies would give way when a strong hurricane hit near the city, yet they refused to dip into the surplus value they wring from the unpaid labor of working people in order to rebuild and reinforce the seawalls. Workers across the region, despite the acts of solidarity they displayed toward each other throughout the crisis, bore the deadly consequences of wretched housing; lack of emergency flood protection, transportation, and evacuation procedures; and longtime, morale-sapping cop corruption and brutality so endemic to life under the city fathers.

Despite the rulers’ sentimental pretense of “rebuilding” New Orleans, toilers there continue to bear the brunt of capitalist greed and indifference to this day. Life or death, a home still habitable or forced diaspora—a few feet above or below sea level marked the class divide.

Long after the “Freedom Tower” replacing the World Trade Center has been completed, long after the concrete and steel skeletons from 9/11 are a distant memory, long after massive new rents are being collected across Lower Manhattan—New Orleans will still not have been “rebuilt.”1 Not under capitalism. Not ever again the city we knew.

The tideland called New Orleans shows the future “free enterprise” has in store for the toilers.

In late 2006 a number of daily newspapers carried obituaries of a prominent U.S. geographer named Gilbert White. “Floods are ‘acts of god,’” White had written in 1942, “but flood losses are largely acts of man.” White’s studies documented the fact that throughout most of the world the poorest layers of the rural and urban populations live on or near flood plains, either to scrape out a living or because better-protected areas are reserved for the propertied classes.

“Instead of simply building dams, levees and other controls that can actually encourage development in vulnerable areas, society should reduce risks by steps like discouraging such development,” one of the news accounts said, paraphrasing White. It continued: “‘The basic problem is how to get people off the flood plain,’ he said. ‘And after all these years, here we are with Katrina.’” “Perhaps we may envisage a new kind of army,” White had said in his 1942 article, a global “peace force, of young people recruited and trained under international direction for the task of building healthy and prosperous communities.”

A worthy proposal. One deserving of the response, paraphrasing Ernesto Che Guevara: To have an army of revolutionary rebuilders, you must first make a revolution.2 To forge a “new kind of army” of “young people recruited and trained for the task of building healthy and prosperous communities,” working people must first have a revolutionary ethos, élan, discipline, and determination that is conquered only in the course of a successful fight for power. Without the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, for example, the mass campaign that marshaled the enthusiasm and capacities of more than 100,000 youth in 1961 and wiped out illiteracy in a single year, transforming that generation of young people in the process, would have been unimaginable.

So long as the extraction of surplus value in warlike competition for profits dictates the production and distribution of wealth, land will remain private property and rental housing for the toiling majority will be built where the propertied classes don’t want to live. It will be constructed where workers can “afford” the rent, including often on flood plains.

Only the leadership of a workers and farmers government, conquered in revolutionary struggle, can lead working people to even face confronting the vast worldwide pathologies of capitalism, let alone bring to bear their creativity, energies, discipline, and solidarity to cure them.  
Labor’s transformation of nature
The capitalist system, and the propertied families who benefit from it in imperialist centers and semicolonial countries alike, will inevitably continue to ravage humanity and the planet we inhabit. It cannot be stopped without uprooting capitalism itself. Explaining this is part of preparing the working class and its vanguard to advance with determination along the historic line of march toward the dictatorship of the proletariat and the worldwide struggle for socialism. Workers must convince our toiling allies, young people attracted to the working-class struggle, and the vast majority of propertyless humanity to commit themselves without reservation to that line of march.

1. As this issue was prepared for press in the opening months of 2008—two-and-a-half years after the catastrophe—the population of New Orleans remained an estimated 35 percent below its level in July 2005; there were some 100,000 fewer jobs; entire neighborhoods still looked like moonscapes, with average rents nearly 50 percent higher than before the storm; nearly 15,000 families were still living in deteriorating federal emergency trailers; only 19 percent of pre-Katrina public buses were running; only three of seven general hospitals had reopened; almost 40 percent of public schools and 60 percent of pre-Katrina child care centers remained closed; and not a single building at the city’s only Black public university had been restored.

2. In August 1960 the Argentine-born leader of the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto Che Guevara, himself originally a physician, told a group of young medical students and health workers in Havana that “to be a revolutionary doctor … there must first be a revolution.” In Che Guevara Talks to Young People (Pathfinder, 2000), 2007, printing, p. 52.
Related articles:
SWP candidate: New Orleans needs a public works program  
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