Cronyism, lies and social decay

Eddie Ford assesses George W Bush's futile attempt of damage limitation in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina

Two weeks after hurricane Katrina struck, the United States is now feeling the political aftershocks. Amidst angry, and obviously correct, accusations that the federal government did too little, too late, George Bush eventually went on record to state that he takes "responsibility" for government failures in dealing with the effects of Katrina. As part of this taking "responsibility" no doubt, Bush - rather than offering to resign - has instead sacked Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), despite the fact that only a few days earlier the president had asserted: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Brown is to be replaced by R David Paulinson, who according to his 'official' Fema profile was "formerly a certified paramedic" and "oversaw the Miami-Date Urban Search and Rescue Task Force", not to mention his role his role as a "past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs" (www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease). Indeed, the row over Brown has developed into a wider argument about the Bush administration and its institutional cronyism - the allegation being that the former Fema boss got his job by virtue of being a close family friend of the Bushes, not because of any respective merits or suitability for the post. Frankly, the evidence looks damning. Before joining Fema in 2001, Brown's previous position had been the prestigious one of commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Then, according to his biography on the Fema website, he oversaw emergency services as assistant city manager of Edmond, Oklahoma - but, in fact, as a spokeswoman for the city told Time magazine, Brown's position was "more like an intern", never a manager. Time also recounts how Brown's profile on the website 'FindLaw.com' lists him as an "outstanding political science professor" at Central State University. However, in reality, he was only ever a student there and never taught at the university, let alone held a professorship. On top of all this, the Washington Post has reported that five of eight top Fema officials were appointed despite having done hardly any work on disaster/emergency relief before - but, by a strange coincidence, all five of them had extensively helped Bush during his 2000 presidential election campaign. The stench of corruption, nepotism and self-enriching jobbery is everywhere. However, what really sticks in the gullet of the American working class is the fact that they are so brazenly being lied to by Bush and his crawling minions. So on September 12, Bush undertook his first on-the-ground tour of the swamped city, albeit travelling by truck and helicopter. Standing alongside Ray Negain, New Orleans' black mayor, Bush pontificated: "My attitude is this - the storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort." In response to Bush, communists say - garbage. Just as we responded to Respect councillor Michael Lavalette when he said the same thing about the Boxing Day tsunami. Katrina - while being an act of nature - discriminated with savage ferocity in the sense that its victims were disproportionately poor, working class and black. In other words, the consequences of this "natural disaster" was socially determined by the unequal and exploitative political-economic structures of current-day US society. If a natural disaster occurs it is the poor and the workers who are first in line for annihilation, not the plutocrats in the White House. An even bigger lie, possibly, is that no one in authority expected New Orleans to be flooded. In this vein, on September 1 Bush told viewers of Good morning America: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." Such mendacity almost takes your breath away. The Bush administration had been repeatedly warned from a whole series of experts - going back years - about the potential damage that a category four or five hurricane could inflict on a city like New Orleans, lying as it does below sea-level. But, armed with this information, what did the Bush government do? Easy answer - exactly nothing. Even worse, and quite criminally - fully deserving of a trial by a people's court - the administration has systematically under-funded and run down Fema and all such disaster/relief schemes and plans. In short, the federal government abrogated virtually all responsibility for the citizens of its country, as part of its tax-cutting, hypocritical 'small government' philosophy - which in New Orleans took the concrete form of everyone for themselves and everyone paying for themselves. And tough luck if you don't have the cash: seeing how this is the land of opportunity, you must be some sort of welfare bum if you don't have a car - so who is going to miss you if you are washed away? Bush's culpability for this grim state of affairs is well documented, and has been widely reported. To use the parlance of the bourgeois press, it is plain to see that Bush 'played politics' with Fema, even after Katrina had struck. For instance, the city of Chicago drew up a list of resources it was willing to make available for relief efforts. It told Fema it could spare more than 100 Chicago police officers, 36 fire department personnel, eight emergency medical experts, at least 130 staff from Chicago's department of public health, 140 staff from the department of streets and sanitation, dozens of trucks, two boats and so on. These teams, so federal officials were informed, could work in affected areas independently, bringing their own food, water and other supplies with them. But, shockingly, Fema were just not interested. Despite all the resources Chicago offered, at the end of the day Fema only requested one thing from Chicago - a single tanker truck. "I was shocked," Chicago's mayor later said at a news conference. "We are ready to provide considerably more help than they have requested - we are just waiting for a call." Of course, the federal government became less and less concerned with preventative planning and measures to limit the impact of natural disasters after September 11 2001 - the 'war against terror' became first priority. Accordingly, Fema's mandate was shifted toward anti-terrorist responses and in 2002 Fema was subsumed into the burgeoning department of homeland security bureaucracy. The consequences of this merger were easy to predict. Trina Sheets, the executive director of the National Emergency Management Association - which represents local emergency personnel - told the American news outlet, Salon, that "since the department of homeland security was established there has been a steady degradation of capabilities". A recent report by the government accountability office showed that "almost three of every four grant dollars appropriated to the [department of homeland security] for first responders in fiscal year 2005 were for three primary programmes that had an explicit focus on terrorism". More than $2 billion in grant money is available to local governments looking to improve the way they respond to terrorist attacks, but only $180 million is available under the main grant programme for natural disaster funding. The administration had proposed cutting that amount to $170 million, even though Nema had identified a $264 million national shortfall (for more details see www.salon.com/news/feature/2005/09/07/fema/print.html). For the White House imperial elite then, the drive to bring about 'full spectrum dominance' and the new 'American century' takes precedence over everything else. Meanwhile the American working class - or "trailer trash", to use the foul term employed by some liberal commentators - pays the price. Or, in the case of the Gulf coast, it is left stranded and helpless before the approaching hurricane. Old people had to fend for themselves. The sick died in their beds untended. For communists, and anyone who regards themselves as some sort of progressive or humanist, the situation in the United States is truly obscene. The fabulously wealthy few preside over, and ruthlessly exploit, the labouring masses - who are working longer and longer hours, in worse and worse conditions, for less and less pay. The decadence and sheer wastefulness of capitalism and the 'new world order' was aptly summed up in the words of one New Orleans hotel worker: "We live in the richest country in the world with the most powerful military who go off and invade any country they like, but a disaster like this happens and we can't even evacuate people from their homes" (The Guardian September 13). Thus, we can only agree with the comrades of the Freedom Socialist Party (USA), who point out: "Nothing more clearly shows the fact that this is a capitalist-made tragedy" than the fact that the "workers' state" of Cuba recently suffered from a "similar situation". They go on to say: "Barely a month before Katrina, on July 14 2005, Cuba was swept by hurricane Dennis - like Katrina, a category four hurricane". Though strangled by the US embargo and lacking the vast resources the US has at its disposal, the Cuban government was able to limit the death toll to 16, by "smoothly relocating over 1.5 million citizens". Surely the richest nation on earth has the technical ability to do the same. But "ability and will are two different things" (Weekly Worker September 8). Whatever you think about the Cuban "workers' state", this points to a great truth - there should not have been the terrible death toll seen in the US. Whether the figure is 10,000 or 1,000, the fact of the matter is that there need not have been any deaths from Katrina - if the necessary infrastructural work had been carried out in the preceding years and a proper and efficient evacuation plan had been speedily put into effect. The Thames barrier cost many millions of pounds to construct. It is designed to protect London against a 'worst case in a hundred years' of flooding . Holland's system of dykes involved colossal expenditure too. They are designed to withstand storms and high tides within a 'worst case in the thousand years' eventuality. Such long-term public works were features of the social democratic stage of capitalism. Socialism would, of course, really plan and undertake far bigger projects, including those that will one day bring the weather and the environment itself under human control - an anthropocene. By contrast US administrations have one after the other systematically neglected the infrastructure of the country and left its people, especially the poorest, increasingly vulnerable to entirely predictable, and by no means exceptional, natural events. Hurricane Katrina is in no way equivalent to the 9/11 suicide attacks on New York and Washington. Now there is even gloomy talk of abandoning New Orleans altogether. Leave it to nature and the waves, say despairing politicians, scientists and media pundits. Of course, it will not happen. Not least because New Orleans is the second largest US port. What is significant, though, is that such mordant defeatism can be uttered at all. It conjures up the exhausted late Roman empire leaving Rome to the incoming barbarians. The expectations and social vision of US capitalism and its political leaders is getting ever narrower and prone to wild foreign adventures. Substantive wage and welfare concessions have long gone. To gain consent from the populous the US ruling class nowadays relies on social atomisation, the opiate of religion and fear - especially the fear of terrorism. What matters to finance capital is making the biggest possible profit in the shortest possible time frame. Hence the combination of a record number of billionaires and the administration's criminal short-termism. Bush delivers finely crafted speeches about Americans returning to the moon and going from there on to Mars within the next two decades. But behind the rhetoric of his speech-writers there lies the grubby programme for the militarisation of near space and further boosting the arms budget -which helps keep the ailing and massively indebted US economy afloat. The reality of US capitalism is therefore one of ever growing waste, unparalleled private fortunes, infrastructural decay and a crushing human impoverishment.