Aftermath of hurricane Katrina: a window on the future under capitalism

Aftermath of hurricane Katrina: A window on the future under capitalism

The article below is an abridged version of articles written for a special supplement of Justice, the newspaper of Socialist Alternative (CWI

THE HORRIFIC spectacle of people stranded and abandoned, for days in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina has shocked the nation and the world. With the death toll estimated to be in the thousands, the fact that class and race discriminated against the victims poses important questions about our society.

Nearly one in three of New Orleans’ 485,000 residents live below the poverty level. 67% are African American, with more than 50% of them living in poverty. With few or no possessions, no access to an automobile, the absence of any serious public transport alternative, lacking a credit card as means to book a motel room, conditions of poverty became life-threatening.

In New Orleans as a whole, the literacy rate is only 40%. More than two classrooms of young students drop out of the Louisiana schools system every day.

But conditions in New Orleans are not unique. They mirror the kind of life tens of millions of poor working class families suffer everyday across America, where 40 million American live below the official poverty line, one in three children are poor, nearly one million African American children live in extreme poverty and corporate backed politicians have prided themselves on having shredded the safety net for the poor.

The corporate media portrays this as some form of personal failure. In the coming months many promises will be made that federal handouts will rectify this. Promises have been made before. Following the eruption of blacks in the inner cites in the mid-1960s, the political system was shamed into providing some relief. But 40 years later, conditions for the majority of workers and for the urban poor are worse than ever.

The simple fact is that the creation of poverty is a product of our economic system. It is a necessary by-product of capitalism. It flows from the internal working of the system, which allows a few rich owners of vast capital, to extract the labour from its workers for a pittance.


THE EXTREME polarisation of wealth in the US this has been accelerated and exacerbated by the policies pursued by both major parties during the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and so far this decade.

The guiding philosophy is rooted in the idea that making conditions good for corporate owners (investors) will provide for all Americans. Under this philosophy, called neo-liberalism, removing all laws that constrain business profit is considered beneficial to the economy and to the US public.

In other words, that means; slashing government programmes and laws which do not directly benefit owners of capital (i.e. the top 0.1% of the public).

The 1980s, 1990s and 2000 have seen drastic, extreme and devastating cuts in spending in all areas of life, whether housing, schools, public hospitals, public transportation, the infrastructure, job programmes, welfare etc. Federal support for low-income people’s housing was slashed from $32 billion in 1978 to only $5.7 billion in 1988. That’s a decline of more than 80%, when adjusted for inflation. It has since been almost completely eliminated.

The refusal of the Bush administration to spend money to repair the levees is only a very sharp example of the complete abandonment of infrastructure spending flowing from the neo-liberal model.

A study by the American Society of Engineers in March 2005, described how cuts in funding for bridges, public transportation, dams, schools, and the drinking supply system etc. now stands at a whopping $1,600 billion. That’s the amount that needs to be spent over the next five years to bring the nation’s infrastructure up to date.

In New Orleans, the recent removal of a housing project resulted in 7,000 African American poor people being thrown on the street to join the countless others looking for work, without even a roof over their heads.

Funding has been slashed for education at a federal and state level. As a result, the literacy rate of the US public has dropped from 18th to 49th place among the world’s nations.

This dismantling of government programs and government spending has been a huge boon for the profits of corporations, and the super rich who own the bulk of shares. Now the horrific social consequences have erupted to the surface. But this is only one part of the neo-liberal program.

A direct assault has taken place to reduce wages. Employers have demanded concessions on wages, benefits and working conditions. Both political parties have collaborated in refusing to raise the minimum wage, the income of tens of million of workers dropped below the poverty line. They have tightening restrictions on unemployment eligibility.

In cities like New Orleans, these policies have merged with a four-century old legacy of racism which has left African Americans as the most oppressed section of US society.

Controlled by big business

BOTH THE Republican and Democratic parties stand exposed for their policies. These parties were set up and are controlled by big business. Despite populist rhetoric, and differences on some issues, their central agenda has been to further the interests of the owners of the large corporations. Their agenda is to maximise their profits, and to reduce any restrictions on their actions.

The rewards have come in a massive increase in their profits. From 1980 to 1995, corporate revenues rose 129.5%, corporate profits rose 127% and executive pay rose 182%. The richest 1% of the population now own more wealth than the bottom 90%. There has been a massive shift in wealth from the working class to the capitalist class.

The class and race issues brought up by this tragedy show the desperate need for a fundamental change in society.

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.

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?

We need a democratically planned economy, where decisions about investment, about what is produced and how things are produced are decided democratically in the interests of the majority, rather than according to the undemocratic short-term profit calculations of a small minority who own the wealth in society.

We demand

  • Full care and compensation for Katrina victims.
  • Initiate a massive public works program to re-build and re-employ the Gulf Coast.
  • Democratic community control of relief. Stop racial and class discrimination. Stop profiteering from tragedy.
  • Pay for rebuilding by ending the war in Iraq and taxing big business.

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% (now down to 38%), down four points since July to the lowest point Pew has recorded.