In 1986, when the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl melted down, the Soviet system went with it.
What began as technology failure and human tragedy soon revealed itself to be very much more. Chernobyl was, in fact, a symptom of a bankrupt social and political system. And if it was not exactly the beginning of the end for late-Stalinism (that can be traced back further than 1986), it was certainly an important milestone on its road to the scrap-heap of history.
So, it may be that we will look back at Hurricane Katrina and see the beginning of the end (or perhaps the beginning of a new beginning) for the United States. Because what Katrina has revealed about the US, is what Chernobyl revealed about the Soviet Union — that the social and political system has failed to serve the needs of its people.
The system is broken, and will only get worse unless something — or rather many things, and big things — are done to fix it.
Most obviously, the political system is broken. Americans are fond of pointing to the longevity of their Constitution. Perhaps now is a good time to consider whether a document written in the late 1700s, to govern a few million people living in towns on an Atlantic fringe, is really what is needed to govern 300 million sprawled across a continent. The current relationship between federal, state and local is simply dysfunctional. The competing jurisdictions that led to skilled volunteers (nurses, doctors, fire-fighters) being turned away from New Orleans because they lacked the proper paperwork, or left them sitting around because nobody knew where to send them — all of this cost lives.
Thanks to Scratch
Similarly, the Imperial Presidency (which is essentially an elected fixed-term monarchy) was always a bad idea. Given the parade of incompetents that has occupied the throne in recent decades it should be obvious to anybody that it is time to rise up, overthrow the monarchy and declare a (parliamentary) republic.
Literally everything that Bush II has attempted has ended up a mess. Add to this the structural cronyism of presidential appointment, whereby every four or at best eight years, the entire government is emptied out and filled up with a new set of buddies. This has produced the least functional public service of any major country. We see this in the case of Katrina, where it is now clear that no one in the higher management of the Federal Emergency Management Agency had any experience at all in, well, managing emergencies. They were there because Bush liked them, or owed them.
The deeper fact that the public service is too small to function effectively, and is tainted as a career-choice by the vilification of anything labelled ‘public’ in US political culture, doesn’t exactly attract the best and brightest either.
That the social system is broken must now be clear to millions, even those who bought into the myth of America the Great. The increase over recent decades in the number of poor (employed and unemployed) and the increasingly desperate conditions in which they live, now has a human face — or, rather, hundreds of thousands of human faces.
People who are suffering because their poverty left them with no way to escape from nature’s wrath. People left, literally, to die, because they did not have cars — and neither the city, nor the state, nor the federal government saw fit to provide buses. (There was a brief aerial shot at one point of the city’s bus depot — agonisingly full of bright yellow buses in neat rows, water halfway up their tyres.)
The economy is broke, too. In both senses. The US neo-cons and their agents of influence trumpet the successes of the US economy, especially when measured against the failures of Old Europe. The figures for this (on productivity and unemployment, especially) are shonky. And other realities are breezily ignored (the lack of social mobility, declining educational and other opportunities). To this catalogue of failings we can now add the neglect of infrastructure.
We now know that demands for levee-maintenance works have been made repeatedly in recent years, but could not be met because there were more important things to spend the money on — the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, interest payments on the national debt, and so on. God only knows what else is ready to collapse: roads, bridges, dams. Everything probably.
If Katrina, like Chernobyl, has exposed the fault lines, that is a start. What we cannot know at this point is whether those who understand the deeper significance of what has been revealed can make their voices heard and their arguments understood. That is for the coming months and years. For the sake of us all, let us hope so.
A Final Thought: Sometime after the Chernobyl disaster I came across a striking fact. In the Soviet Union, I learned, life expectancy was actually declining. I knew then that something had to give. This week I discovered that the average US male is shorter than he was ten years ago. Something has to give.
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