Below is an excerpt from “The Stewardship of Nature Also Falls to the Working Class: In Defense of Land and Labor,” a statement adopted by the 2007 national convention of the Socialist Workers Party. It addresses issues relevant to understanding the social catastrophe unfolding in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami, which were not just acts of nature whose consequences were inevitable. As the statement explains, working people bear the brunt of such disasters because of the class divisions and oppressive social relations that exist under capitalism. The statement appears in New International no. 14, a magazine of Marxist Politics and Theory. Copyright © 2008 by New International. Reprinted by permission.
Human hardship from natural occurrences, including calamitous “acts of god,” falls in starkly different ways on different social classes under capitalism. The effects are ruinous for working people in city and countryside, striking with exceptional ferocity against the toilers of the oppressed nations of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
The undersea earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean in late 2004 wrought devastation from flooding beyond the power of human beings to avert. But it wasn’t the sea or the shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates that were to blame for the deaths of more than 225,000 people. That was not inevitable! It was the capitalists’ production priorities together with the social conditions imposed on toilers living in coastal areas. With profit rates always at stake, accelerated exploitation comes before warning systems and evacuation paths….
Nor do the spreading food riots in the opening months of 2008—from Indonesia to Pakistan and Egypt, from Haiti to numerous parts of sub-Saharan Africa—find their roots in calamities of nature. Not even the big-business media pretends the reason is primarily bad weather. With contemptible imperial arrogance, it claims that one of the main factors is that many more people in China and India are beginning to eat better!
But rising meat consumption is not why the world price of rice shot up nearly 150 percent in the twelve months between early 2007 and 2008. That’s not why wheat prices nearly quadrupled since early 2006. That’s not why the price of corn and soybeans both have tripled since 2006. The truth is that plentiful food—grains, meat, fruits, and vegetables—can be cultivated to provide nutritious and affordable meals for every human being on earth and many more, if agriculture, food processing, distribution, and trade were organized not on a profit basis, but by the associated producers.
In early 2008, while hundreds of millions tried to survive on a daily handful of rice or corn, giant food commodities traders—through the Chicago Board of Trade and other major capitalist exchanges—were hoarding stocks of corn, wheat, and soybeans equal to half the amount in all storage silos in the United States, as well as enormous worldwide supplies of rice….
This is not precautionary hoarding to prepare for times of drought, flood, or famine. This is hoarding by finance capital to reap windfall profits off the toil and misery of billions of working people. At the same time, enormous superprofits have also been reaped by giant world grain and seed trusts owned by U.S. and other families: Monsanto’s profits were up 108 percent from a year earlier in the first quarter of 2008; Cargill’s by 86 percent; Archer Daniels Midland’s by 42 percent; and Bunge’s by 1,964 percent (yes, twenty-fold. That’s not a typo!).
Finally, the social disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005—ravaging low-lying parts of New Orleans inhabited largely by working people, most of them Black, as well as elsewhere along the Gulf Coast—shined a spotlight worldwide on the “values” of U.S. imperialism’s ruling families and the state that serves their class. The moneyed rulers had known for decades that flood levees would give way when a strong hurricane hit near the city, yet they refused to dip into the surplus value they wring from the unpaid labor of working people in order to rebuild and reinforce the seawalls. Workers across the region, despite the acts of solidarity they displayed toward each other throughout the crisis, bore the deadly consequences of wretched housing; lack of emergency flood protection, transportation, and evacuation procedures; and longtime, morale-sapping cop corruption and brutality so endemic to life under the city fathers….
In late 2006 a number of daily newspapers carried obituaries of a prominent U.S. geographer named Gilbert White. “Floods are ‘acts of god,’” White had written in 1942, “but flood losses are largely acts of man.” White’s studies documented the fact that throughout most of the world the poorest layers of the rural and urban populations live on or near flood plains, either to scrape out a living or because better-protected areas are reserved for the propertied classes.
“Instead of simply building dams, levees and other controls that can actually encourage development in vulnerable areas, society should reduce risks by steps like discouraging such development,” one of the news accounts said, paraphrasing White. It continued: “‘The basic problem is how to get people off the flood plain,’ he said. ‘And after all these years, here we are with Katrina.’”
“Perhaps we may envisage a new kind of army,” White had said in his 1942 article, a global “peace force, of young people recruited and trained under international direction for the task of building healthy and prosperous communities.”
A worthy proposal. One deserving of the response, paraphrasing Ernesto Che Guevara: To have an army of revolutionary rebuilders, you must first make a revolution.1 To forge a “new kind of army” of “young people recruited and trained for the task of building healthy and prosperous communities,” working people must first have a revolutionary ethos, élan, discipline, and determination that is conquered only in the course of a successful fight for power. Without the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, for example, the mass campaign that marshaled the enthusiasm and capacities of more than 100,000 youth in 1961 and wiped out illiteracy in a single year, transforming that generation of young people in the process, would have been unimaginable.
So long as the extraction of surplus value in warlike competition for profits dictates the production and distribution of wealth, land will remain private property and rental housing for the toiling majority will be built where the propertied classes don’t want to live. It will be constructed where workers can “afford” the rent, including often on flood plains.
Only the leadership of a workers and farmers government, conquered in revolutionary struggle, can lead working people to even face confronting the vast worldwide pathologies of capitalism, let alone bring to bear their creativity, energies, discipline, and solidarity to cure them.
1. In August 1960 the Argentine-born leader of the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto Che Guevara, himself originally a physician, told a group of young medical students and health workers in Havana that “to be a revolutionary doctor … there must first be a revolution.” In Che Guevara Talks to Young People (Pathfinder, 2000), 2007 printing, p. 52.