Filed under: Analysis, Anarchist Movement, Central, Disaster
Report and analysis on autonomous disaster relief following Hurricane Harvey in so-called Texas. Originally posted to Regeneration.
We have just passed the second anniversary of one of the most destructive hurricanes Houston and the state of Texas have ever experienced. What transpired in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is a microcosm of national and international dynamics. Harvey is a symbol of climate catastrophe, austerity, intrastate conflict and a deepening deterioration of living standards for working-class people. To say that Harvey simply exacerbated pre-existing tensions doesn’t begin to grasp the complexity of how Houston is currently being reshaped. In the wake of Harvey, capitalists have unleashed an extreme intensification of contracted social reproduction. With hurricane season just ending, this essay will reflect upon and analyze why Harvey had such a deep impact on Houston, how contracted reproduction is being executed, identify the strengths and weaknesses of relief efforts and/or mutual aid organizing, and lay out ideas to advance future struggles around climate disaster.
Contracted Social Reproduction
For the purpose of this piece a brief explanation of contracted social reproduction is necessary. The lived experience of contracted social reproduction is a common one in many core capitalist countries of the west. Roughly, since the early 1970s, in order to stay afloat, realize value, counter working-class revolt and stave off crisis, the capitalist class has implemented austerity, broken up the production process, dismantled unions, and cut real wages.
The breaking up of the production process was a necessary move by capitalists for a number of reasons. For one, in the US, this helped to disrupt and undermine unionization efforts and workplace organizing by physically relocating the means of production to Latin America, East Asia and other parts of the world. Furthermore, capitalists were able to cut costs by finding cheaper proletarians and reducing or eliminating benefits offered to workers. This last point is significant because it prompted the lowering of the total social wage for proletarians globally. The non-reproduction of the class has plunged more proletarians into poverty and forced previously stable workers into precarious and deskilled work. This has resulted in increased exploitation and has generalized immiseration for many working-class people.
This reality continues as proletarians are increasingly taken out of the production process due to advancements in the forces of production that require less living labor. Capital is able to produce immense amounts of commodities, but through competition capitalists outpace one another as newer and improved technologies emerge, resulting in cheaper commodities. Yet, in capitalist society living, human labor is the key source in actualizing value. The expulsion of human labor from the production process causes the rate of profit to fall and crisis to ensue. As the rate of profit falls, capitalists must drive down wages below their values and reduce the cost of reproducing the working class. In order to do this, capitalists have to loot existing private fixed capital (machinery, buildings, etc.) as well as the means to reproduce labor power, like education, housing, and healthcare. This also includes public capital, such as roads, water infrastructure, bridges, etc. Nature is also a free input that capitalists use up as a means to boost their diminishing revenue streams. Coupled with this crisis is the emergence of proletarians confronting capitalism in the form of mobilizations against degenerative living conditions.
How contracted social reproduction unfolds globally is uneven and varies regionally. Still, this serves as a basic summation of its central elements. Contracted social reproduction isn’t a subjective choice made by greedy capitalists, but an objective reality of this current period of capitalism. Now, let us look at how contracted social reproduction changed concretely before and after Hurricane Harvey.
Houston Before Harvey: A Brief Overview
When Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast, all eyes were on Texas, and for good reason. The damage caused by Harvey, estimated at $125 billion, is second only to Hurricane Katrina. In the wreckage of Harvey, proletarians in Houston are struggling to gain a foothold, organize themselves, and fight back against the capitalist onslaught manifest in the top-down restructuring of proletarian life. Much independent research demonstrates how the chaotic planning and organizing of the city by capitalists exacerbated the flooding. What follows is a summation of why Houston experienced such destruction and how that destruction relates to urban capitalist design.
In the last two decades, Houston has grown tremendously due to the business friendly environment of low taxes, lax zoning laws, being a right-to-work state and low costs to capitalists on reproducing the working class, i.e. wages, education, health care, housing, pensions, etc. Due to the population boom, urban sprawl in Houston has taken off. A major area where this sprawl is occurring is to the west of the city in a suburb called Katy. Katy is home to shrinking wetlands. In the Gulf Coast region, wetlands play a significant role in retaining, purifying and steadily filtering out water after downpours into bayous, streams, and creeks as they make their way back to the Gulf. Wetlands act as the Earth’s natural kidneys and an organic flood deterrent. With the expansion of suburbs into this area Houston lost over 54,000 acres of wetlands in just over 10 years. These wetlands are being replaced with impermeable surfaces like concrete and asphalt, which make up structures such as roads, sidewalks, parking lots, etc. The effect of this is increased and faster water runoff that aggravates flooding in a flat city like Houston. Where homes were built by developers contributed to the flooding as well. In the rush to get up homes because of the surge in population, many were constructed in areas that were prone to flooding. In fact, there are multiple suburbs that were built in known flood plains, or along bayous that were previously inundated during the Memorial Day flood of 2015 and Tax Day flood of 2016. Infrastructural problems consistently plague the city.
Anyone living in Houston can attest to the fact that the infrastructure has not kept pace with the city’s growth. Highways remain undersized and public transit is terrible. The construction of the Metro Rail in 2001 within the 610 Highway mainly serves the gentrifying neighborhoods of the inner city. For most proletarians in the city, owning a car is an unavoidable necessity. The poor physical condition of roads provide a constant wear and tear on vehicles and are a continuous maintenance expense for car owners. Relatedly, the structures in place that are designed to prevent flooding, like sewage systems and dams, are just as old and ill-equipped to deal with stronger storms and heavier rains. In terms of flood prevention, what exists is a web of band-aids that include retention ponds that do nothing to address the problem. As you can imagine, all this poor infrastructure dips into people’s wallets and affects the quality of life in the city.
Houston is designed in a way that, in spite of these impediments, allows the facilitation of the complex social relationships that move industry. When you read any article about Hurricane Harvey it creates a dichotomy between the people affected by the storm and the world of things (cars, dams, wetlands, houses) that surround these people. The term “flood victim” is applied when talking about Houstonians impacted by the storm, reinforcing this dynamic. It obfuscates the inherent connection between social relations and the design of the city. The city of Houston is a living, breathing nexus of social relationships between proletarians that occupy various positions in the gendered and racist capitalist division of labor. Through their objectification as laborers, they create and recreate the very environment that now fails and lashes out at them. People’s alienated position as workers, forced to sell their labor power to the petrochemical, logistics, technology, government, real estate, medical, service and manufacturing capitalists in their effort to realize value, locks them in this coerced and exploitative relationship.
To demonstrate this point let’s look at 2015 when the refinery workers with the United Steelworkers Union in Houston went on strike. From talking with the workers on the picket lines, I could tell they were very much aware of the fact that working in the refineries is shaving years off their lives due to the hazardous conditions, workplace accidents, etc. Still, they continue working the jobs they do because of the standard of living it provides them and their families. This contradiction illustrates how refinery workers knowingly reproduce the very conditions that are detrimental to their health as well as the health of the people and the neighborhoods around them. This dynamic shapes Houston beyond the boundaries of the refineries when we take into consideration the port, waterways, freeways, petro-chemical storage facilities, transportation, pipelines, energy grids and neighborhoods where workers live that serve to produce and reproduce capitalism in spite of the detrimental impact it has on humanity and the natural world.
Although chaotic and ruinous, the logic of capitalist urban planning binds the working class together and was expressed in the catastrophe of Harvey, from homes built in floodplains to decrepit dams to the destruction of wetlands. The design of the city is a result of these relations of production and reproduction which are distinguished by the non-reproduction of the class. In this way, the form of capitalist urban design taken as a whole mediates the content, or activity of actualizing value. It does this in opposition to human needs and in its domination of nature. The vicious cycle of capitalist urban design, climate change disaster, and capitalist urban planning leads to further loss of life and worse conditions for working-class people.
Climate Change & Capitalism
Indeed, climate change is another expression of capitalist social relations. A defining feature of capitalism is that we’re alienated from nature, meaning we are separated from the natural world. Under capitalism, we own nothing but the ability to sell our labor power. Nature in capitalist society appears as a duality: nature is seen as an external object, in opposition to human activity, that must be dominated. It exists as a cheap or free resource in the accumulation and expansion of value in capitalism.
It’s important to note that I’m not just referring to trees, animals, minerals, and water, but also humans as cheap or free inputs. This will be expounded further in the next section, but during Harvey these cheap or free inputs included bosses stealing wages, the refineries dumping toxic waste in neighborhoods, and the state relying on working-class people to perform the work of carrying out rescues and rebuilding communities.
Capitalist industry is at the heart of what is devastating the planet. While the term Anthropocene centers undifferentiated human activity as the main culprit for climate change, the term Capitalocene is much more appropriate. We must identify the source of planetary destruction in order to defeat it.
Capitalist-induced climate change is forcing many people to deal with the idea of short- and long-term societal collapse. In the past few years new trends, such as deep adaptation, are raising the red flag that climate change will have grave consequences in the short term on how our lives and societies are currently organized. These new articles represent a partial break by climate academics and professionals with the status quo in climate research and analysis. Their work focuses on warning people that the science is clear that we are on course for more heightened and perilous climate events. This is a long overdue and a consequence of all the failures of market-based solutions, climate summits, protocols and conferences.
Besides Harvey, instances of climate catastrophe are all around us, from the California wildfires of 2018 to this year’s floods in the Midwest to the fatal cyclone that hit Southeast Africa. Likewise, new articles are being published discussing how climate change will impact global economies in the future.
The totality of the complications caused by Harvey pose a challenge for capitalists in their quest to accumulate value. Climate change disasters act as a hindrance to the flow of capital. First, much of the infrastructure and machinery that enables the flow and production of capital are damaged. This requires increased investment in technology at a time when capitalism is finding it less profitable to do so, further agitating the aforementioned falling rate of profit. Additionally, the lives of the proletarians that bring this process to life are upended and they are unable, for however long, to perform their critical function of value creation. This is magnified, in part, because Houston zoning laws are virtually non-existent. This allows industries of all types to build in whatever manner they please and absolves them of the cost of having to undertake massive infrastructural projects that properly address flooding, which impacts proletarians’ ability to return to work, or reproduce themselves and continue to labor. The evasion of the cost of reproducing proletarian life is what it means that Texas is touted as business friendly. The non-reproduction of all these facets of working class life highlights the conditions in post-Harvey Houston (1).
Houston After Harvey: Deepening Crisis of Social Reproduction
In the aftermath of Harvey, the lives of Houstonians have been sent into a tailspin. Most of the expense in repairing damages caused by the hurricane have been thrust onto the backs of the working class. While much of Houston was impacted in one way or another by Harvey, damage was experienced unevenly across the city. Many people were affected, including upper and lower middle class Houstonians. But, the hardest hit areas were those of working class Black and Latino neighborhoods on the North, Southwest and Southeast parts Houston. We’ll take a look at a number of aspects that exemplify how capitalists are carrying out contracted social reproduction since the hurricane.
In the fallout of Harvey, the Texas economy has taken a hit as thousands of people were left unemployed. This takes place as cities like Houston and Dallas struggle year after year with budget shortfalls. The cumulative and real impact of this is being felt in a myriad of ways. Housing is a prime example of how Houstonians are dealing with bigger financial burdens as rental prices have been consistently increasing and spiked after Harvey. There are countless stories of landlords demanding rent with the threat of eviction right after the storm. Additionally, we’re seeing a climb in home foreclosures because people don’t have the financial means to rebuild. These foreclosed homes are then getting purchased by speculators looking to scavenge off the misery and make a profit. Getting the needed funds to repair homes through FEMA has been a nightmare to navigate, and many low-income communities have been left with little to no aid.
Gentrification is a constant worry after mega-storms like Harvey. Already we’re seeing rumblings of gentrification in neighborhoods like 5th Ward, 3rd Ward, 2nd Ward and others. All working class and poor neighborhoods that have been historically Black and Latino have become trendier due to their proximity to downtown and the recent amenities constructed for the new multiracial class of gentrifiers. To top it off, the city continues to approve housing development in flood-susceptible areas ensuring future housing desolation and climate refugees.
Education is another affected area after the storm. The Houston Independent School District (HISD) is under threat of privatization due to persistent budget shortfalls. The push for charterization by the state was set in motion after the passing of HB 1482 which puts a limit on how many years schools function as under-performing before being forced to charterize. For now, a stalemate has been reached and the proposal to charterize 10 HISD schools has been put on hold after an outcry by community members and activists.
Furthermore, most capitalists didn’t do much beyond attempting to get their employees back to work as quickly as possible by providing limited aid. In total, a pool of about 25 private capitalist companies contributed roughly over $75 million to a variety of organizations and nonprofits like the Red Cross. Given the amount of damage Harvey caused and the number of people these corporations employ, this is a drop in the bucket when it comes to rebuilding Houston. This couldn’t be a clearer link to the non-reproduction of the class than this.
Immigrants in Houston, mainly from Latin America, compose a considerable amount of the workforce doing post-Harvey cleanup and repairs. When they returned to work they faced issues of wage theft(2). Crucial in maintaining immigrant labor in a super exploited state was the passing of racist SB 4 in May of 2017. Shortly after the storm the city and state resumed their hunt for undocumented immigrants. All this serves the dual role in banning sanctuary cities and keeping immigrants in fear of deportation, which in turn discourages them from fighting back against things like wage theft. Tethered to this point is the role police played during and after the storm. Using the exaggerated claim that people were looting, the city set up a curfew to restrict access to wealthier neighborhoods in their attempt to control the movement of working class Black and Latinx people.
Moreover, discussions about fortifying Houston against future storms we know are coming have been a joke. All projects like building a new dam or constructing the “Ike Dike,” a huge coastal barrier to protect against storm surges, come with hefty price tags. The “Ike Dike” would cost upwards of $15 billion and a new dam would cost more than $500 million. Even if the city decided by some miracle to approve one or both of these projects it would take years to complete, leaving us vulnerable in the meantime. To make matters worse, a new project to expand Interstate 45 to alleviate traffic seems poised to exacerbate flooding.
Another infrastructural stress was cleaning up the tons of debris created once people started mucking their homes. Given the scope of damage the state found it difficult to get the necessary assistance in removing debris because it was also competing with Florida who just got hit by Hurricane Irma. What transpired in the cleanup was that wealthier neighborhoods were prioritized while poorer communities of color were left with hazardous, rotting sheetrock, furniture and other trash. Also worth mentioning are the millions of gallons of raw sewage that were released after treatment plants were damaged, which cost millions of dollars to repair.
Climate change had an impact in another important sphere of social life: health and well-being. The recent ITC fire in Deer Park has stirred up evidence that the company intentionally released virulent chemicals into flood waters during Harvey. What’s more, ITC has a long history of violating environmental regulation. Reports have shown that the petrochemical industry has little oversight and there is much unknown about where they store these chemicals and the actual risk they pose to the public. It’s probable that ITC wasn’t the only company to take advantage of the situation during Harvey, and the state did nothing about it. Either way, the task of shutting down and restarting refineries is an exceedingly polluting process. Releasing poisonous matter into the environment goes hand in hand with the petrochemical industry. There are abundant Superfund sites across Houston that spread their harmful contents during the flood. Studies are still being done and no one really knows exactly how much toxins were released, or what noxious substances lie hidden in the ground and water. The long term health effects these spills will have on Houstonians is scary to ponder, but an actuality for innumerable amounts of people.
The super precarious and impoverished position of many Houstonians has the potential to evolve into working class mobilizations and confrontations with the city, state and federal government. It’s clear that Harvey has shaken up local and state politicians and civil servants. They have a sense of what is on the line politically and economically if Houston can’t keep the businesses and growing creative class that has been attracted to the city in recent years. What is unclear is the scope and type of action that will be taken to prevent and mitigate future disasters. Proposed solutions by various factions of politicians and capitalists range from increasing regulation, investing in infrastructure, or continuing urban sprawl with minor tweaks. Each contain their own obvious inadequacies in solving the actual problem at hand.
Any strategy in creating a new society will have to seriously undertake the challenge of defeating the petrochemical capitalists and abolishing this industry all together if we are to have a planet to live on. Next, I’ll take a look at the organizing that took place during and after Harvey, and that work’s strengths and limitations.
Disaster Communities: The Self-Activity of The Class
There are colossal challenges that we face in fighting for a new world. But Houston’s working class’s self-organization, solidarity and mutual aid was awe-inspiring. The term disaster communities describes self-organization when climate catastrophe strikes. Through their activity, social relationships between proletarians are undergoing slight transformations. In a limited, temporary, and underdeveloped way people start to freely associate based off needs. Social reproduction is being directly and collectively addressed as people react to adverse conditions. This offers a peek as to what non-capitalist social relations may look like during unusual circumstances. Nevertheless, we are not so naïve as to think that this moment presents a long lasting revolutionary threat. Relief effort organizing has slowed down significantly after the initial surge in the weeks and months when Harvey first made landfall. Even if people have life-changing experiences through organizing, their level of involvement alters as material conditions shift.
As we touched on earlier, given the design of the city, flooding hit Houston quickly and aggressively. The water followed its natural course of bayous and creeks from the west side of town toward the east as it rushed its way to the Gulf. Within hours bayous started to rise and jump their banks pouring into streets and neighborhoods. Normally meek bayous turned into raging rivers in some areas. Considering Houston’s landscape, the flooding occurred irregularly across the city. Some neighborhoods would be flooded, and just a few streets over the water level would be relatively low resulting in patches of wet and semi-dry land. For those who found themselves in need of help, rescues started almost immediately as people used whatever they had handy to move others to safety. In Houston, initial first responders were people’s neighbors, families, friends and strangers who performed rescues and shared resources. Many of the big freeways were partly or totally submerged, cutting off access to the city for days or weeks. Unlike New Orleans, Houston sits slightly above sea level which allowed much of the water to drain in the span of a few days after the rains stopped. After water levels fell, these same people would begin home repairs and salvage what personal items they could in the attempt to rebuild their lives.
Working side by side with many communities were various organizations and leftists. The organization Bayou Action Street Health (BASH) helped distribute medical supplies, meals, tool giveaways, put together street medic trainings, hosted people from across the country, and mucked houses. West Street Recovery was immediately on the scene performing flood rescues, supplying meals/tools, coordinating mucking efforts and helping to rebuild neighborhoods. Also, the Houston General Defense Committee (GDC) was involved in mucking efforts, supply distribution, and surveying damage to apartment complexes in Southwest Houston in their effort to build with tenants. Organizations like BLMHTX/ImagiNoir, Redneck Revolt, Solidarity Houston, the Houston Anarchist Black Cross, Houston Food Not Bombs and others that played vital roles. And leftists and volunteers from across the country, like Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, helped with relief work.
The state’s role was contradictory. It worked to undermine relief efforts to restore order while at times was indifferent to relief work underway. In the short term it meant setting up curfews to prevent “looting”, working quickly to get the courts running again, mobilizing politicians to pay lip service about how they’ll improve the city, quickly ending disaster relief pay for public employees and getting them back to work despite circumstances, falsely easing people’s worries about toxic contamination from flood waters that came into contact with Superfund sites/refineries, reassuring people that FEMA assistance would be available and creating a narrative of Houstonian resilience through sheer willpower. Hence the dual meaning of the popular term “Houston Strong” popularized after Harvey. On the one hand, it represents the strength, resilience, solidarity and compassion of the self-activity of the class. On the other, it serves the endeavor of the state to restore order through framing working class activity as being carried out by self-reliant, strong-willed, pick yourself up by your bootstraps Texans.
Yet, in keeping with the spirit of austerity, the state also remained indifferent or welcomed autonomous relief efforts. They see it as a cost-effective way on the path to restoring capitalist normality. The state doesn’t always have to use the stick to restore order. The carrot works fine (3). In the long term, after organizing died down, normalcy means deepening austerity through closing public schools in favor of charters, home foreclosures, raising rents due to an increase in housing needs, gentrification, and health issues. All of these assaults affect proletarian lives through slashing social services and lowering the cost of labor. In addition, many of the problems caused by Harvey were inside people’s homes, giving a false impression of reduced severity and scope of damage. This invisibility lends itself to the re-imposition of normality as well.
Disaster communities showcase the potential in working class self-organization to transcend immediate needs and concerns after climate disasters. Some of the limits of disaster communities are objective and are related to people’s shifting material conditions. But some are missed opportunities by the left due to the limitations of our own organizing methods that don’t allow us to capitalize, reinforce and advance the self-activity of the working class. In the following section I’ll take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of mutual aid work.
Mutual Aid: Strengths and Weaknesses
Mutual aid work has a number of positive attributes. If no prior ties exist between people beforehand it can establish bonds swiftly in extreme circumstances. Through mutual aid work we’re able to understand what communities are facing. To a degree, mutual aid organizing provides an investigative approach in understanding how people are acting and thinking about the problems they’re directly facing. Beginning dialogue about how to address these issues bestows an opportunity to discuss how profound the immediate concerns actually are, and think, plan, and act beyond them.
Yet, despite the upsides of mutual aid work, much of the Harvey recovery work was limited by either voluntarism or service-based activism. By voluntarism, I mean the tendency to carry oneself as though the strong will of individuals doing as much work as possible will in and of itself be a viable strategy for real political change. Whether intentionally or not, voluntarism reproduces the idea that change is a question of strong individuals. If I work harder, if I get access to more supplies, if I sleep less, etc. But change is a question of collective action, of groups and communities learning to act together, to define their own demands and goals, and to devise shared methods for fighting to win them. Going overtime in relief work does not translate into a political strategy for how people can collectively change their own conditions.
By service-based activism, I mean the tendency to treat relief work as solely distributing goods, or assistance. Working class people absolutely have real and immediate needs, and had them long before Harvey. But service-based activism lacks a strategy for transformation. The one-way relationship between those who have and those who do not remains intact, only with more pressure on those who have to pass on goods to those who do not. People are rarely encouraged to see how their individual issues and needs are actually social and systemic issues, shared by many others.
The limits of these two approaches are apparent. Voluntarism leads to burnout and personality beefs as relief becomes a competition of who does the most. Service-based activism means the dominant political strategy is battling for bigger crumbs from the master’s table – demands that center on money and funding. Little attention is paid to how people should be organizing themselves to develop the skills, lines of communication, and organization necessary to decide what to do with whatever money they do get.
Furthermore, it’s important we remember the context within which mutual aid work unfolds: state neglect and an overall disinvestment by capital in living labor. Mutual aid work approaches that don’t combine autonomy with the struggle for power don’t strengthen the position of working class people against the state. Because federal money is not forthcoming and the communities that are self-organizing have no leverage with the state. The strategy and tactics we develop must keep this limit in mind.
If the Left is to be effective in these moments it can’t simply sit on the sidelines and critique the work that is being done because it has limitations. It is through this work that we can begin to grapple with these limitations and figure out ways to overcome them. Additionally, why should community members and other organizers pay any mind to those who sit at home while hundreds of thousands of people are suffering?
Disaster Communism: Superseding Limitations
If disaster communities are the free association, solidarity, mutual aid and self-organization of working class people coming together to meet their needs, then disaster communism focuses on bolstering these relationships through building independent working class power separate from electoralism, political parties, politicians, and most nonprofits. Disaster communism seeks to take the fight to the capitalists, politicians and bureaucrats responsible for the conditions in which we find ourselves. It aims to transition from defense to offense, generalize struggles and confront those in power. Our goal should be to build protracted political struggle with other proletarians activated during climate catastrophes. This point is pivotal if we’re going to try and prevent relief efforts from being recuperated by the state or dissipating as conditions shift.
Disaster communism also presents the prospect for communisation. I mentioned in the previous section that disaster communities give us a glimpse at what non capitalist social relationships could look like when people organize their lives for the satisfaction of human needs. Can we make the implicit communist social relationship of disaster communities explicit in disaster communism? Perhaps in small ways we can. In working to generalize the fight against capitalism we can draw on the positive conception of labor that Marx outlines in Estranged Labor. (4).
The function of communisation could be to undermine capitalist social relations that give rise to the alienated form of our activity, or labor. We could work to reunite working class communities with the means to satisfy their needs, develop organizing projects that work to build social cohesion in the satisfaction of needs, break down the division between work and play, mental and manual labor, production and reproduction, and rebuild communities in ways that work with nature to enhance it using eco-friendly technologies and designs. On a much grander scale it requires the breakdown and repurposing of capitalist supply chains and infrastructure to meet human needs as working class struggles spread and intensify.
Currently, the only plan gaining notoriety that is pushing the debate regarding the fossil fuel industry and climate change is the Green New Deal (GND). These debates about long term solutions are a great development and there have been numerous articles written by the left critiquing the social democratic aims of the GND. I share many of these critiques of the GND such as how it leaves undisturbed capitalist accumulation, that material conditions are drastically different now compared to when FDR implemented the New Deal in the 1930s, that its implementation is contingent upon the continued resource extraction industry pillaging countries like Chile, and how it doesn’t confront the fossil industry.
However, while I disagree with much of her take on Jasper Bernes’s analysis about the GND, author Thea Riofrancos’s article is correct in pointing out that much of the revolutionary left doesn’t offer much beyond critiques, or what she calls a politics of negation. The revolutionary left must begin to orient to climate change events with the goal of developing tactics and strategies that augments the working class’s revolutionary potential.
Certainly, there are objective limitations on our efforts’ success. The working class isn’t an object that can be cajoled into motion. However, revolutionaries can have an influence and we must try. We know our enemies are.
What follows are a series of points that aim to widen the attack on capitalism through forming organizations, building continuity and setting up infrastructure that facilitates and bolsters collaboration. Taking into consideration this current phase of capitalism, the points here focus on sites of struggle in the area of social reproduction. This is not meant to de-emphasize or downplay the importance of struggles around the point of production and attempts to find where these two arenas of struggle could link.
These points are hopefully helpful on some level. But here I look at how the state and capitalists are trying to rebuild Houston, so that we can put forward possible tactics. Who are the people responsible for the predicament in which we find ourselves? Who do we target who do we blame? We need to have an idea of who to take the fight to. What tactics push the envelope during struggle (for this is going to happen again)? How do we prepare for future disasters in a way that transcends simple relief efforts? We don’t have all the answers, but we can offer thoughts, observations and more pointed questions based off our experience thus far.
- Begin organizing neighborhood assemblies and tenant assemblies independent of political parties and government agencies. Meetings where politicians and NGO/Non Profit activists lecture community folk for two hours does nothing to build up working class power. Autonomous assemblies can be sites where working class people discuss and develop their own short- & long-term demands around recovery and discuss how to fight for them. These assemblies shouldn’t be limited to coordinating logistical efforts around mutual aid but should also be spaces to develop political tactics and strategies oriented to building long-term.
- Taking the fight to the capitalists can help shape the political direction of assemblies. Here are a few examples of how we can organize campaigns against capitalists. Tenants and homeowners facing eviction or foreclosure can organize defense campaigns to keep people in their homes. Further demands can include lowering rents, rent control, or demanding that the bank forgive missed mortgage payments due to hardships caused by the storm. When schools are threatened to become charterized, community can organize to keep their state funding. Extra demands can include smaller class sizes, more extra-curricular activities, higher teacher pay, or expanding free lunch programs. Workers who experience wage theft can form solidarity networks that work to recuperate wages. We can unionize migrant workers. When it comes to immigration, repeal campaigns can be initiated to remove all harmful legislation like SB 4. The new sanctuary movement and those fighting to prevent deportations through rapid response networks are doing a lot. This can be applied to other fights regarding gentrification, defense against police, healthcare, etc. The method is to counter attack and not stay on the defensive. Working groups can be developed where people can pick and choose what most speaks to them, or what is most pressing.
- It was cool to see the blossoming of tool libraries where community members could borrow what they needed for home repairs. We must consider taking this to the next level. We can we ask for even bigger donations to expand how we rebuild. For example, we can solicit people to donate, or fundraise for things like hydraulic jacks to raise foundations. Or, trailers/tractors to clear debris from people’s homes. These tools could be held in common. We could create workshops led by people with the knowledge on how to carry out such work. The Houston working class, and the working class generally is rife with technical knowledge. It could be a more cost effective and collective way of handling repairs and meet human needs. FEMA continuously shows how incompetent they are when carrying out relief work. We can do it better.
- In rebuilding our homes and neighborhoods we should incorporate biophilic and regenerative designs. These designs could include dealing with toxic substances neighborhoods may have been exposed to. Once more, help and resources could be requested through organizing workshops or discussions about rebuilding along these lines. There has to be biology students or professors we can ask help from. Land can be taken and used in neighborhoods with this in mind. There are many empty lots or space along bayous that could be repurposed and defended.
- Street medics were involved in much of the city’s recovery work. It’s very possible to put a call out for nurses or even doctors to set up mobile clinics in neighborhoods to help people with skin rashes due to polluted flood water, or people suffering from respiratory issues from mold infestations. This has been done in the past and could be done again. Another area to consider is mental health. People could ask for assistance from social workers and therapists to deal with storm-related trauma. Trauma and stress workshops could be organized. This also raises the flag about who has access to and controls health care.
- Education classes could be set up to talk about climate change and its relationship to storms like Hurricane Harvey and many other climate disasters around the country/world. The petrochemical industry, which is responsible for climate change, spends so much money on discrediting climate change science through think tanks and it’s time we fight back against that. This could be a chance to build with science teachers in nearby schools and universities who could assist in putting together popular education workshops.
- Independent news and media collectives could be established that document these struggles, provide news/analysis and an arena for people to reflect on their own activity. I believe this is consistently lacking in Houston. People from the neighborhood could be worked with to set up twitter accounts, instagrams, youtube channels, blogs or podcasts with little to no cost.
- Refinery workers could be engaged with on some level. Worker inquiries could be put together to find out how these workers think about the environment, climate change and community struggles around social reproduction. It’ll give us a window into their actions and thoughts. For far too long refinery workers have been looked at as backwards and socially conservative. We should investigate how they actually contemplate the world based on their experiences. If any group of proletarians have the potential to bring down the fossil fuel industry this is it.
- It’s very common that workplaces take advantage of their employees during crises. Employees experiencing workplace issues you could use this situation as an opportunity to organize your workplace. Fundraisers could be organized for co-workers affected by the disaster to build solidarity and begin conversations about workplace grievances. What’s possible during a time of disaster may be limited, but over time the foundation could be laid for more qualitative collective action.
- On multiple occasions the local, state and federal government were at odds with one another on a number of questions regarding disaster relief. We need to think about what demands to make on the state that take advantage of these fissures. Let’s have discussions regarding demands on the state and whether making demands are even a desirable means of struggle.
- When the opportunity presents itself, events could be organized to establish communication between cities that have been hit by a climate disaster. This could be an opportunity to discuss how conditions are similar/different, reflect on their work, build solidarity and strategize about how to help one another and fight back against attacks by capitalists. We have much to learn from how other communities are struggling, how to link them up and overcome challenges.
- Demands could be placed on the petrochemical companies by the communities they’ve injured like paying for medical bills, cleaning up superfund sites, or toxic spills like the aforementioned ITC fires. I’m against including demands for money because they tend to divide communities and gives power to the petrochemical companies by granting them a sort of judge status where they decide who is worthy of the money and who is not. Not to mention the amount of time, resources and energy that are lost waiting for legal cases to get resolved in court. This point about demands is important given how refineries impact Houston. How do we think beyond legal action in this site of struggle? Should the demand for monetary compensation be forfeited altogether for other demands? How do we begin to confront the refineries head on in a way that builds working class power and autonomy?
- Although this essay focuses on concrete tactics around disasters and relief efforts, it is not simply an effort to create more radical, horizontal and autonomous mutual aid work. This is a call for those on the revolutionary left to develop long term strategies that deal with larger questions of state power, how to destroy it, reclaiming the means of production, overcoming capitalist logic, building the capacity of the working class to fight, constructing alternative organizing spaces, generalizing proletarian struggles, etc.
One area to avoid:
- I believe the fight around the allocation and distribution of federal funding is a losing battle, and one area that militants should avoid. It takes up too much time, resources and energy. The best we can do is understand the process of how to request funds or direct people to organizations who can assist them in this effort. Why? Hurricane Harvey did over $125 billion of damage (Irma over $64 billion in Florida and Maria over $91 billion in Puerto Rico) to the state of TX. The federal govt. agreed to issue $51 billion to be split between TX, FL and PR. This is a lose-lose scenario. So far, TX has received $2.7 billion in federal aid that has yet to be distributed. On top of this, the state still has $500 million in relief it still hasn’t spent since Hurricane Ike hit in 2008.
People are still feeling the effects of Hurricane Harvey as Houston continues to be recomposed. Ongoing climate catastrophes poses persistent challenges to proletarians already stressed by contracted social reproduction that pushes them into more unstable circumstances, not just in Houston, but across the US. Only working class struggle and intervention can end capitalist-driven climate change and capitalism overall. Revolutionaries have a role to play in emerging fights. Ideally, pre-existing organizing projects could strengthen their ties to working class communities through mutual aid work. If no organizing projects exist prior to climate disasters, then the potential exists to establish a relationship to communities by taking up relief work. Through this organizing, revolutionaries can work out strategies and methods alongside other proletarians and turn the tide on our conditions.
As a whole, capitalist supply chains and other infrastructure are used to accumulate value. The communism of the 20th century sought to seize these means of production, but never overthrew the capitalist social relations inherent in the forms they fought to control. The result was, despite their best intentions, state capitalist regime after state capitalist regime. The communism of the 21st century has learned these lessons and knows you can’t take over capitalist forms of organization and fill it with new “communist” content. However, can these means of production be broken down into their component parts and repurposed to organize society as Marx put it, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”? I believe the answer is yes. The vision of this piece is wide-ranging and is intentionally meant to be. It was put together with the idea of trying to work through bridging struggles around production and reproduction. Although it is a work in progress, I hope it contributes to ongoing discussions and debates around disaster relief work. Hurricane Harvey has left a lasting impression on many people who experienced its wrath. We know it won’t be the last storm, but hopefully we’re better prepared for the next.
- (1) The damage caused by Hurricane Harvey was not on the level of a total or even partial societal collapse. But, it does foreshadow the potential for societal collapse on a citywide scale with broader implications. Even though Houston’s infrastructure was taxed and pushed to its limits, it held. However, the real possibility did exist that the dams could have broken, or that Harvey could have changed course and made a direct hit that would have resulted in unknown destruction on the refineries. Both scenarios are bleak and would have had dire impacts in terms of human, infrastructural and environmental degradation. The long term shut down of the petrochemical industry in Texas, the second largest economy in the nation and tenth in the world, could have serious economic reverberations.
- (2) This is nothing new. It was recently reported that $1.2 million dollars were stolen from immigrant laborers in 2018.
- (3) We can look at the not-too-distant example of relief work that took place after Hurricane Sandy. There the Department of Homeland Security praised relief efforts as they worked to recuperate the struggle.
- (4) In Estranged Labor, Marx describes how our labor is turned into its opposite under capitalism. We become alienated from our activity, the product of our activity, means of production, nature and the activity of others with whom we labor. Marx states that our many-sided needs, the activity that fulfills our desires and imaginations beyond just the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, or shelter, are reduced to one activity. We become this one activity in the sale of our labor power, i.e. nurses, nannies, electricians, sex workers, librarians, teachers, etc. All of our other many-sided needs are denied us. Only through the abolition of capitalism can we turn this dynamic on its head.