When the superstorm generated by Hurricane Sandy landed on the New York City area the night of October 29th, the level of death, damage and suffering was due not only to an unprecedented act of nature. The lack of preparation for inevitably worsening natural catastrophes had set up tens of thousands of working- and middle-class people for financial and even life-threatening disasters. And once the storm hit, the limited and belated aid efforts by public and private authorities alike – in the wealthiest country in the world – exposed the capitalist ruling class’s congenital contempt for the masses and its unfitness to run society.
Before rolling up the U.S. East Coast, the hurricane inflicted its greatest destruction and suffering upon several poor countries in the Caribbean. The storm laid waste once again to a region that has been devastated by previous disasters – and even more by European and U.S. imperialism, which have invaded, super-exploited, looted and impoverished it for centuries. At last count, over 250 people were killed by this latest storm. In Haiti alone, over 50 people died and 200,000 were left homeless – on top of the carnage from the earthquake that hit in 2010.
The countries worst affected will inevitably see a second wave of horrors: the hunger and diseases borne by poverty and exacerbated by the effects of the storm. Many survivors in the U.S. will also see a second wave of victimization, in this case from a swarm of financial predators feeding off foreclosures, demands for debt payments and real estate speculation. For capitalist parasites a disaster is an opportunity not to be missed.
Amid all the devastation two positive factors stood out. One was the upwelling of volunteers, not only from the affected communities but often from far away. They supplied time, labor and money to aid the storm’s victims, well beyond what governmental and other aid agencies produced. The other was the ability to scientifically foresee such events: the extreme size and destructive force of major storms had been anticipated by analyses of global warming, and the storm’s path of devastation was foreseen with remarkable accuracy by weather models days in advance of its landfall. Even though the capitalist system wasted these two factors and left millions of people unprepared, humanity and science are vital elements that will help make possible a future socialist society, one that relies on technological progress and the collective concern of people for one another to provide decent and useful lives for all.
When it smashed into the U.S. Northeast, Sandy joined with another storm to become the largest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, with near-hurricane-force winds stretching across 1100 miles. In the U.S., its toll of death and destruction was surpassed in recent years only by Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out much of New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast in 2005. In the New York region, Sandy overwhelmed the shoreline and flooded streets, tunnels and subways, destroying or heavily damaging nearly 14,000 buildings and knocking out power for 8 million households. Several hospitals lost power and had to be evacuated. Over 200,000 people lost their houses, and weeks afterward hundreds of thousands of homes remained darkened.
The most concentrated impact was on New York City’s low-lying high-rise housing projects for poor people, the majority Black and Latino. Buildings that had been systematically neglected for decades remained without electricity, heat and running water for weeks. In the isolated Rockaways neighborhood, only heroic volunteers were available to check up on elderly residents, provide food, and haul water up pitch-dark staircases. Some buildings were still without central power six weeks after the storm, getting electricity only through erratic generators.
Also battered were thousands of small homeowners in ocean-front neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey who have lost the houses that embodied their life’s savings. Some of these areas had originally been dedicated to summer beach houses but were irresponsibly (and in many cases illegally) built up by real-estate developers. Detailed reports are now appearing about the connivance of such real-estate interests with local and state politicians. These make clear once again that the capitalist drive for profit is fundamentally incompatible with the well-being of humanity.
As well as buzz-sawing middle-class and working-class homes, the storm destroyed a variety of businesses and even brought Wall Street to a brief halt. The fact that the American ruling class was unprepared for and unable to deal with a well-forecasted threat to its financial headquarters speaks volumes for the decadent character of present-day capitalism. Rescue forces and supplies could have been put into place in advance, but it took days after the storm hit for any equipment and aid to arrive. There were some preparations: the Transit Authority in New York managed to shut down the day before the storm landed, in order to move trains and buses to higher ground. This was a step up from New Jersey Transit, which kept its railway cars and buses in low-lying areas and as a result lost nearly a third of its rolling stock.
The main government body responsible for responding to the disaster is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As part of the political reaction to the atrocities it imposed on the victims of Katrina, FEMA was alleged to have improved its capabilities and attitude. Yet weeks after the storm, FEMA was still relying on volunteer medical workers and electricians in affected areas. In response to criticism of its tardiness, a FEMA spokesperson pointed out that search and rescue efforts took priority over assistance. In a situation of very scant resources, this would make sense. But such a situation should not have existed, given the materials and equipment available in this country – if those in power were interested in using them for the benefit of poor and working-class people. Instead, the capitalist ruling class seeks to spend as little as it can get away with on social services. And the ongoing economic crisis only adds to governmental unwillingness to spend money on anything that doesn’t directly aid profit-making.
Some private companies like Goldman Sachs invested in serious flood barriers and generators and were quickly back in business. The governmental priority was to get the financial swindlers up and running as soon as possible. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg obscenely celebrated the Stock Exchange’s re-opening on October 31st, at a time when thousands were still imprisoned in flooded buildings and many were still searching for the bodies of their neighbors and relatives. His attempt to pretend that all was normal by refusing to cancel the New York Marathon was aborted only after a mass public outcry.
Government was a justified target of frustration and anger, but not the only one. The Red Cross once again proved far more efficient at collecting donations than dispensing aid. Insurance companies are already denying payments to homeowners and small businesses. Perhaps the purest fury was aimed at the inadequacies, incompetence and neglect of the electrical utilities that fleece people routinely. Against stiff competition, the Long Island Power Authority took the gold medal for failing to fix its facilities and callously dismissing calls for help. LIPA is in a state of disarray: understaffed, ill-equipped and weighed down by a $6.9 billion debt load. Once again capitalist profiteering (with Wall Street in the lead) has created a man-made disaster.
The authorities were not prepared to respond, but there certainly were preparations for a show of benevolence by politicians. Barack Obama was not about to repeat the oblivious detachment displayed by George W. Bush after Katrina. New Jersey governor Chris Christie likewise made sure he was not going to be on vacation in Disney World, as he had been during a severe snowstorm in 2010. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose two years in office have featured steady attacks on public-sector workers, made populist noises against power-company failures. But these were acts of public relations, not actual aid. And in these cases political careers may well have been boosted. Obama in particular was fortunate to have the disaster come just before the November election: on the one hand, he could appear to stop campaigning to come to storm-ravaged areas (in effect, a shrewd form of campaigning); on the other, there wasn’t time for the inadequate nature of the governmental response to fully present itself.
The undeniable responsibility of the government to mount a response puts its failures in the harshest light. Despite the dedication of volunteers (including teams from Occupy Sandy, a by-product of the Occupy movement of 2011), such efforts cannot compare to the resources that the state can provide and commandeer if necessary. Indeed, politicians from Obama to Bloomberg hailed the volunteers, in effect enlisting them as an alibi for their own neglect.
While the primary purpose of the capitalist state is to protect the capitalist ruling class from its victims, above all the working class, it must also act to carry out functions that capitalists would not otherwise do on their own, including disaster relief. But national and local governments in the U.S. do not go all-out to aid beleaguered masses or even small businesses. They do not want to give the impression that they can be relied on for a major recovery effort at a time when their political themes are austerity and limited government. What they have been doing can be seen as sympathetic only in comparison to the malign neglect and violent policing offered during Katrina, and the already low expectations of the populace.
Time will not heal all the wounds – not with capitalists poised to profit from misery and with government far more interested in supporting them than providing serious aid and preparation. In fact, for many thousands “recovery” will mean a new surge of foreclosures, increased insurance premiums, mounting health issues and higher utility rates. There will be bribes, kickbacks and government windfalls to contractors. The most victimized will tend to be those with the least money, political power and even legal rights – workers, oppressed people of color and undocumented immigrants. Such an outcome is even more predictable than was the storm itself.
It is bitterly ironic that many of the people who were responsible for the recovery work – utility workers, transit workers, gasoline truckers, etc. – were performing services that the Obamas, Cuomos and Christies took credit for. These same workers have been vilified by mayors and governors whenever they fight for their own class interests – as when the Consolidated Edison work force in New York was locked out by the bosses last summer. And across the region, many workers faced discipline for not being able to get to work at the height of the disaster.
The storm had barely blown through when it became apparent that little would be done to prevent a repeat performance. One indication is that New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, who is trying to raise his political profile by presenting himself as a friend of the Earth (he laughably endorsed Obama for re-election on the grounds of the president’s supposed commitment to climate awareness), rejected measures that would protect the city from future storms, like the construction of sea walls – at the same time he arrogantly insists on waterfront development by his billionaire cronies. Even more important is the lack of any serious effort on a larger level to stop the pouring of burnt hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, the accumulation of which makes wilder weather all the more inevitable. The national elections featured barely a peep of concern for the environment.
At the same time, the storm highlighted other ills of capitalism and of American imperialism in particular. European journalists were shocked to see above-ground power-lines in the imperial capital city – the widespread power outages were mainly due to their being brought down by fallen trees. Generators powered by little more than obsolete lawn-mower-type engines – gas hogs that run out in hours – were bought en masse by desperate people left with candles and thick clothes as alternatives for light and heat. The choking of gasoline supplies highlighted the utter dependence on inefficient and polluting forms of energy. The deteriorating infrastructure in this country, having already reached scandalous proportions, now faces a new round of budget cuts as the ruling-class parties in Washington debate how to make the working class pay even more for the capitalist-created financial crisis.
Science under capitalism has developed to a point that allows changing weather patterns to be identified and comprehended as a result of global warming. But that knowledge is not being put to practical use for the benefit of society in general. On climate change alone, the warnings of the system’s own scientific leaders carry little weight against the massive amounts of capital, and the attendant political power, that is invested in existing energy forms. The drive for profit sabotages any serious program for shifting to alternative energy sources, which would require strong government intervention; just as it stands in the way of the massive governmental mobilization of labor and resources that a serious recovery effort requires.
These needs won’t go away; they will only become more acute. Society needs a massive economic program to create jobs, production and infrastructure. This will not be provided by private capital nor by the capitalist state. The experience of the superstorm amounts to a powerful argument for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class.
There is an understandably strong tendency for most people to look to the existing governments – local, state and national – for relief if not solutions. While these expectations embody illusions in the capacity and intent of the capitalist state, they also help expose the role of the banks and corporations as nothing other than profit-chasing monstrosities.
The working class needs to make immediate demands for political action. With respect to housing, these include: 1) a halt to foreclosures and repossessions and 2) that government pay for building quality homes for every family who lost its house or had its apartment made unlivable (including undocumented immigrants). Workers should also be prepared to advance more long-term demands on governments to address major social needs. Two that are particularly relevant to the problems exposed by the storm are massive public works projects to repair and modernize the infrastructure and the development of “green” industry. Such programs alone would go a good way towards providing productive, well-paying jobs for the millions of under- and unemployed, speeding the creation of energy alternatives and reversing the material deterioration of society.
Demands like these will not win mass support at the moment. However, forces are gathering for such a response: given the gravity of the environmental crisis, the economic depression and the ever-expanding attacks on the masses, there may be a new stirring of working-class resistance. Capitalist-run governments might be forced into concessions by a mass working-class-led movement. But more importantly, an energized and confident movement that a fight for such measures will create will be critical to advancing the sole means for accomplishing them: a centralized economy under the collective control of the working class. Economic and social decisions will be made in the interest of society in general only when power is wrested from those who run society for the private profit of a few.
Only a workers’ state can seriously undertake the comprehensive social response to disasters that is already technically feasible, and more generally to develop the productive forces in the interests of the workers, poor and oppressed. The demands we have cited reflect measures that will be undertaken by a workers’ state, through a planned economy that mobilizes all the resources of society for human needs. Vast resources will need to be devoted to cleaning up the social and ecological wreckage that this society produces. There is all the more reason to create the revolutionary party of the working class that is essential to this historic project.
1. For example, “Staten Island’s Hurricane Sandy Damage Sheds Light On Complicated Political Battle,” by Saki Knafo and Lila Shapiro, Huffington Post, December 12; “A Queens High Rise Where Fear, Death and Myth Collided,” by Sherry Fink; New York Times, December 20; “Occupy the Rockaways!” by Michael Greenberg, New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013.