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Katrina exposes the warped priorities of the system
Is there an alternative?

September 23, 2005 | Page 6

ALAN MAASS, author of The Case for Socialism and editor of Socialist Worker, looks at how Hurricane Katrina has exposed racism, repression and class inequality in U.S. society--and shown the urgent need for a socialist alternative to a world of suffering, poverty and war.

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AUGUST 29--the day that Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast--should be a date etched in memory like September 11. No one knows the full number of casualties from the hurricane catastrophe, but they are almost certainly higher than September 11. So is the damage and the impact on ordinary people's lives.

It's also clear that Katrina will have the effect--as September 11 did--of transforming U.S. politics.

The hurricane and the manmade disaster that followed exposed racism, poverty, class inequality, environmental destruction, police repression--realities of the U.S. political and social system that are normally hidden. For once, the corporate media's reliable defenders of the status quo were stunned into demanding answers from public officials--about the failure of "emergency management," but also about the underlying social causes of the disaster.

But there is a more immediate reason why August 29 and September 11 are connected. The truth is that the U.S. government's response to September 11 contributed in very important ways to the catastrophe in New Orleans.

In the mid-1990s, Congress authorized a major project in New Orleans to rebuild levees and construct more pumping stations, specifically to protect the city against disastrous flooding.

More than $500 million worth of work was completed. But in the past few years, federal funding for the project all but stopped, leaving another $250 million worth of work undone. Next on the drawing board as of this summer was work on the 17th Street levee, on the north side of the city, bordering Lake Pontchartrain--the site of one of the breeches after Katrina.

A series of articles in the New Orleans Times-Picayune explicitly cite both city and federal officials stating that the war on Iraq and homeland security were drawing money away from the flood control project.

This illustrates in a nutshell the question of priorities--what comes first when decisions are made about the allocation of government resources. To the leaders of the U.S. government, the Army Corps of Engineers was needed in Iraq and Afghanistan, not in New Orleans.

Defenders of the Bush administration complain that anyone who makes this connection is politicizing a natural disaster. But everything about this highly unnatural disaster was political.

The decision to devote U.S. government resources to the war on Iraq rather than the New Orleans levee system was completely political. New Orleans is known the world over as a tourist destination, but it's also a poor city--two-thirds African American, with fully one-third of families in Orleans Parish living under the poverty line. And when it comes to the U.S. political establishment, the needs of a poor and mostly Black city don't stack up against an imperialist agenda of safeguarding the flow of Middle East oil and extending U.S. military power.

The spectacular failure of the official rescue and relief effort was likewise entirely political--from the "mandatory" evacuation order that anyone without a car couldn't follow, to the herding of those left behind, under armed guard, into the Superdome hellhole. Throughout the crisis, the response of government officials at all levels was to deal with the disaster as a police problem, not a humanitarian one.

And it's already become clear that how New Orleans will be rebuilt--and in whose interest--is a highly political question.

Natural disasters always expose completely unnatural social and economic relationships--of wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness. None of them are accidental, either--just as it wasn't an oversight that funds for building up New Orleans' levees were cut off.

On the contrary, as the great writer James Baldwin pointed out, poverty, suffering and violence are the deliberate products of a society structured in a certain way. "The civilized have created the wretched," Baldwin wrote, "quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo...[They] rain down bombs on defenseless children, whenever and wherever they decide that their 'vital interests' are menaced, and think nothing of torturing a man to death: these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the 'sanctity' of human life, or the 'conscience' of the civilized world."

This is exactly right. We live in a society that is organized, "quite coldly and deliberately," in a way that it inevitably produces injustices and inequality--because the main priorities of society aren't meeting the needs of everyone in it, but protecting and promoting the wealth and power of the tiny handful at the top.

Take the question of that most basic of necessities--food. Every year, 6 million children die around the world of malnutrition and its related diseases. Not because there isn't enough food produced around the world to feed them--there is, or easily could be, according to United Nations studies--but because the food doesn't reach them.

Instead, the food production system is "coldly and deliberately" presided over by giant agribusinesses to make sure that there isn't enough to go around. These corporate interests make sure that prices remain high enough to sustain their profits--so, through their own decisions and with the help of the politicians they control in Washington, they create artificial scarcity. As the German poet Bertolt Brecht wrote, "Famines do not simply occur. They are organized by the grain trade."

In the same way that hunger throughout the world is not accidental, but organized, so, too, are poverty, unemployment, oppression and war organized--"quite coldly and deliberately," by a minority ruling class at the top of society with total or overwhelming control over the institutions and resources of society.

Whenever socialists talk about a ruling class, we're accused of imagining that society is like the X-Files--run by shadowy figures, through conspiracies hatched in back rooms in Washington. But there's nothing especially secretive about how power is unequally distributed in the U.S.--or any other country in the world, for that matter.

A relatively small elite--largely unaccountable to the majority of the population, in the case of the most powerful political leaders, and totally unaccountable in the case of the corporate executives and wealthy shareholders--make the most important decisions about the resources and direction of society.

Thus, someone like Donald Rumsfeld--who shuttled between the corridors of power in Washington and the boardrooms of Corporate America for most of his adult life--had many times more say than an ordinary working person about whether the U.S. went to war in Iraq, or the character of the official relief effort after Katrina. And the likes of Rumsfeld make their decisions based on the priorities they hold in common--which put their own profits and power first, and everything else second.

The disaster on the Gulf Coast is an indictment of these priorities. Nothing more clearly highlights the need for a different kind of society, based on putting the interests and desires of everyone in it first, rather than the profits and power of a few.

The case for socialism is simple: If some people are hungry, and there is food to feed them, then the resources of society must be devoted to getting the food to the people who need it--nothing less. If a part of society has suffered the devastation of a natural disaster, then the whole of society must make their immediate and future welfare the highest priority, not the maintenance of "order," or protecting the property of a minority.

These basic principles would become possible if we shared out the wealth of society equally, instead of allowing a tiny few to hoard it, so that they can live unimaginably different lives than the rest of us.

Even more importantly, everyone in society needs to exercise control, democratically, over the means of that tiny elite to create and protect its wealth--from the giant corporations whose profits line the pockets of the ruling class, to the governments that serve their interests.

Wouldn't it make more sense for everyone in a workplace to make decisions about what gets produced, how resources are used and how work is organized--rather than management and shareholders dictating from on high?

Shouldn't decisions about the whole of society be made through a system that promotes grassroots democracy and holds all representatives immediately accountable for their actions--rather than one where only a part of the government is even subject to elections every two, four or six years, while other parts, from parts of the judiciary to the bureaucracy to the military and police, are entirely unelected?

These goals can be seen, to a greater or lesser extent, in all the great struggles from below of the past 150 years--most of all in the revolutionary upheavals that threaten the structures of injustice and oppression in society and raise the possibility of new, democratic forms of organizing society. They are the core of the case for a socialist alternative.

Those who want to see social change have much work ahead of us today, in the struggle to help the victims on the Gulf Coast, or the fight to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But we also ought to devote some of our efforts, too, toward the goal of changing society more fundamentally--to create a world in which poverty, war, oppression and exploitation are forever abolished.

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