Disaster: The New State of the State

Gihan Perera
Date Published: 
January 23, 2006

On August 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina breezed through South Florida leaving mass power outages and a bundle of frustrations. Four days later the same storm completely destroyed the Gulf Coast states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama leaving over 1,000 people dead and entire cities demolished. The busiest hurricane season in recorded history also produced Hurricane Stan which killed over 1 ,300 people in Central America and Mexico, Rita which forced mass evacuations in Texas, and Wilma which wreaked havoc on South Florida by leaving thousands homeless and millions without power.
Hurricane Stan, Rita, and Wilma have received scant national media attention while Katrina's impact on New Orleans created a worldwide uproar. However, despite the differential attention and scale of the disasters, the storms and their impacts signify a new political era.
The storms are cataclysmic shocks against the 30 year rise of conservative philosophy, power, and policy. In New Orleans, the endless days of stranded Black people and the federal government's complete inability and/or resistance to handle the situation exposed the gulf in race and class, relations and government protection in the wealthiest country in world history. It prompted rapper Kanye West to rip that "President Bush doesn't care about Black people", not poor ones anyway. These storms exposed the deeply rooted and even more sinister social, political, and economic reality of American and global life that have been in the making for decades.
The Katrina phenomena is not about one U.S. president's racism. Instead, it reflects a system that is desig~ed to fail all but its most wealthy citizens. The two weeks of television coverage crystallized the interaction and combustion of the contemporary crises in civil rights, the economy, the environment and the war. Katrina put race on center stage, revealed the impacts of environmental ignorance, and most clearly demonstrated the domestic impacts of United States' military build-up. The cost of U.S. aggression abroad is not only damage done to other peoples, but a steady hollowing of public programs such as education, public health, housing etc.
Most directly, Katrina revealed the the vacuum of state support and infrastructure that is the product of 30 years of right wing policy.The storm unveiled the fault lines of race, class, and governance in American society developed throughout our history. Such exposure marks a potential turning point for the progressive movement inside the U.S.

The Katrina Era
Conservative philosophy, policy and practice has reached its pinnacle over the last two Bush administrations, and Katrina is the manifestation of the results. The right wing onslaught has produced the 'Katrina era' which
is marked by three distinct but interrelated phenomena: a state of permanent war, an environmental meltdown in the form of global warming and growing global health pandemics, and the worldwide dominance of the neo-liberal state. Together, these three factors constitute the triple threat of our time.
Conceived in the 1970s, and increasingly prominent since 1980, neoliberalism refers to a political-economic philosophy that de-emphasizes or rejects government intervention in the economy. Rather, it prescribes structured free market methods, fewer restrictions on business operations, an expansion of property enforcement rights and the opening of nations to entry by multinational corporations. In a broader sense, it describes the movement toward using the market to achieve a wide range of social ends previously addressed by government.
Being the lone superpower and leading advocate for neo-liberalism, the United States government is the chief architect of the present crisis. First, in order to avert economic meltdown, the United States has pursued a policy of permanent military intervention and build-up. As a necessary prerequisite for corporate hegemony and the continued accumulation of profit on a global scale, it uses military action to create markets for multi-national corporations. Second, the United States has intentionally refused to be a signatory to every major international treaty that would restrict corporations from producing pollutants and dangerous 'green house gases' that raise air and water temperatures. Ignoring the impending environmental catastrophe of global warming and the myriad of health pandemics does not make it go away, it simply weakens the response to them. Third, the United States has led the charge to demonize government itself, outside of its role to support corporate interests. Almost every major component of government service and support for public security and infrastructure has been reduced.
The result is a permanent state of emergency. Local and global crisis are increasingly unmanageable by an increasingly gutted government infrastructure. The pattern of intense storm activity, which we have seen over the past two years, is predicted to continue for perhaps the next 20. There is no exit strategy for Iraq, and new military targets are on the horizon. Whether it be hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, or the increasing political, social, or economic disasters that are upon us, the neo-liberal state is in no position to respond. This paints both an incredibly bleak picture of the near future, but also one that is incredibly ripe to put forth a bold new vision for the economy and for governance.

Lessons for Progressives
Many on the Left were dismayed by the progressive movement's inability to respond to Katrina. Even with the mainstream outcry against what was seen as blatant racist and anti-poor practice by the Bush administration, the U.S. Left was not able to effectively harness this as a political turning point away from the conservative hegemonic agenda. Where is the movement to capitalize on this spontaneous moment of popular outrage and demand for radical reform?
To that there is one answer: We cannot reap what we have not sewn. Our inability to immediately react to Katrina is not the fault of what we can or cannot do in the moment. Political change happens in specific historical moments, but it is the gradual work of movement building over decades that allow us to capitalize on these moments. Given the lack of sustained organization and movement building by the Left and progressives over the last thirty years, we must see Katrina - on the heels of the last presidential elections - as a watershed moment to reconstruct the Left infrastructure for the long' haul. Katrina represents an opportunity to reinvigorate a Southern focused, broad based progressive agenda that has the ability to put race, gender, poverty, the environment, and fundamental issues of governance at the center of the debate.

The following is our list of what we should be doing in order to make the most of this moment:
Concentrate on base-building among the communities that are the most affected by the politics of disaster. The most powerful outcome of Katrina would have been if those tens of thousands of people who occupied the Convention Center and Super Dome were organized and acted as the political voice of a new movement. Those groups that are organizing in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast must be supported. On a broader level, this means that progressives should focus supporting and resourcing those who are organizing in Black, Latina/o, Native American, Asian-Pacific Islander, Arab and newly arrived immigrant communities, particularly in the Southeast and Southwest.
Frame early, frame often. We already know the end result of the neo-liberal policies that are being forced on cities and states. We do not have to wait for the disaster to hit to begin ringing the alarm. Our legitimacy and credibility will only come by being grounded, genuine, and consistent in our political critique of the present political paradigm. It is in times of crisis that the constant beating of the drum gets heard. We must be courageous to fill the airwaves, newspapers, meeting halls, and places of faith with a clear message about the impending disasters and the points of action.
Put policy on the front burner. The PATRIOT Act was introduced within days of the September 11 tragedy. If we already know the destructive impact the present policies are having, and we maintain a framework to critique it, then we must also have a frame of policy demands that reinstate collective public needs. We have to be able to quickly respond to crisis with sensible but far-reaching policies that reflect our long-standing analysis. This will begin to materialize an alternate paradigm of governance and priorities.
Flexible Alliances. Crisis creates the possibility for the rarest of bedfellows. In the Miami Workers Center's own experience in the wake of Hurricane Wilma, we found timely alliances with a broad array of liberal groups, faith organizations, service providers, advocates, humanitarians, as well as established Black elected officials with whom we had been warring in many campaigns. Suddenly they became primary tactical allies. We must be open to the range of these non-traditional alliances and realize that within them we may find the possibilities of power blocks that are much bigger and broader than what we can achieve on our own.
Serve the People. Just about every major movement that provided a peoples' alternative vision has been deliberate and effective at stepping into the spaces that the state has vacated. These spaces have been used to provide direct material support to constituencies. This process of 'serving the people' has established legitimacy, exposed the irresponsibility of the ruling regime, and built an independent political
base. Among the American Left, we have allowed corporate driven entities - like the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity - to dominate this space. Now is the time to create and make alliances with direct and indirect service providers and fold them into the progressive infrastructure.

The politics and policies of neo-liberal capitalism have created the economic, social, political, and environmental conditions for continued, repeated disasters throughout the globe and throughout the United States. Even in the absence of catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina, the disastrous effects of these policies are beginning to rip at the thread of American life, especially in urban areas. Now is the time for the sustained work of building bases and organizations and networks and movements, so that in times of political turmoil, progressives have the experience, capacity, infrastructure, and sensibility to act swiftly and deliberately to shift the political terrain.