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Exterminism and the World in the Wake of Katrina

By Stan Goff


© Copyright 2005, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. May be reprinted, distributed or posted on an Internet web site for non-profit purposes only.

The Loop
Many have forgotten – if they ever knew – that this region of Louisiana was not known just for jazz and crawfish etouffée. It was also referred to as “Cancer Alley,” a toxic corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans – peopled by the mostly-Black poor who worked for the giant petrochemical industries along Interstate10. The region has been a battleground for the environmental justice movement – one that combines its environmentalism with a powerful critique of poverty and racism.

Exterminism not only makes toxic waste, it treats subjugated nations themselves as toxic waste dumps. Import the good stuff, export the bad stuff.

When Hurricane Katrina leapt ashore, past the destroyed barrier islands and decimated wetlands, it took this toxic effluvia, along with the accumulated poison of the Mississippi Valley’s nitrosaminic industrial agriculture folded into the levee-bound silt, and redistributed it across the entire transformed landscape.

These dangers will have to be mitigated, and soon, because “the Loop,” or Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, has been severely damaged. Toxins or no toxins, this port is the only one in the United States that is designed to accept the great oil supertankers from the Persian Gulf.

“While the bringing to market of a few tens of millions of barrels of stored oil and gasoline may temporarily calm speculators and thus prevent dramatic price spikes,” writes Richard Heinberg [The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society, 2003) and Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (New Society, 2004)],

it cannot balance the global supply-and-demand equation for more than a few weeks (the world uses 84 million barrels of oil each day, after all). And once these stores are gone, few nations will have any cushion in the event of other supply threats. Hence Katrina may mark the beginning of the inevitable unraveling of the petroleum-based industrial world system.

The United States is the center of that system. Think of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as a gaping wound in the national body. Organisms need a steady flow of energy in order to maintain their ordered existence; a wound is like an intrusion of entropy within the system. When wounded, the body essentially takes energy away from other parts of itself to restore order at the site of injury. In ordinary times, nations as “organisms” do this very well. But in this case the timing is bad, as energy is scarce anyway (the wound was incurred at the onset of what will soon become a global energy famine); the nation has already been hemorrhaging materiel and trained personnel in Iraq for three years; and the site of the wound couldn’t be worse: it is in the part of the national body through which much of its energy enters (the region is home to half the nation’s refining capacity and almost 30% of production). Thus it seems likely that the available energy may not be sufficient to overcome the entropy that has been introduced; rather than being contained and eliminated, disorder may fester and spread.

New Orleans will be rebuilt. It must be: the nation needs a port at the mouth of the Mississippi, and the port needs a city to support and service it. It is one of the few US cities with character and charm, and people will desperately want to return to their homes. The only event likely to prevent rebuilding would be another strong hurricane hitting Louisiana later this season. However, rebuilding will proceed in the context of a national economy that is crippled and perhaps mortally wounded, and a global complex system of production and trade that is starting to lose its battle against entropy.

Whether Heinberg’s prognostications turn out to be as cataclysmic as he suspects (they may), there is little doubt that the US production and refinement capacity have been dealt a serious blow at a critical time. The government and the industry are tight-lipped about the damage wrought by the combination of Katrina and Rita, but the (inadequate) release of emergency reserves from around the world to temporarily staunch the post-Katrina hemorrhage is an ominous sign.

Just as the Bush administration waived the Davis-Bacon Act to pay post-Katrina reconstruction workers below the prevailing wage, it will work to ensure a vast pool of under-employed and unemployed to accept below-par wages and exposure to the toxic stew of the LOOP to repair it. Poor workers and Black workers and Latino/a workers will be welcome for this task, even as the land speculators move in to the condemned properties of New Orleans in order to gentrify it into a Disneyized African American cultural theme park – too expensive for many of its former residents to live there.

In Houston, after homeless storm victims were transported to the Astrodome, the military recruiters moved in. They are having trouble getting volunteers. So they pick through the net, take what they can, and forget about the by-catch.

The main contract to rebuild the Port, which is classified as a Naval facility, was given to Halliburton. Halliburton is one of the top three contractors to receive no-bid contracts. Another contractor is Bechtel, closely associated with Republican heavyweight and former Secretary of State George Schultz. Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root, have been represented by lobbyist Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s former campaign manager and the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who also represented the Shaw Group – another winner in the Katrina Reconstruction Sweepstakes. Finally, the biggest contract was awarded to AshBritt, represented by lobbyist and former Mississippi Governor and Bush confidante, Haley Barbour.

Given their exemption from paying prevailing wages under the waiver of Davis-Bacon, and the huge new pool of desperate labor in the region, they stand to make a killing.

(As this is written, public pressure from the scandalous nature of these contracts is set to reverse this situation and re-open bidding.)

Cronyism and something called “unequal exchange” are both characteristics of late imperialism and determining factors of exterminism. And they both make rulers brutally stupid. They also make subjects brutally mad.

Autonomy and Legitimacy
In stable, productive capitalist economies, the state has one overarching objective. It is the ruling class’s umpire, pretending to be society’s umpire.

The capitalist state is owned and operated by the capitalist class. Under conditions of stability and productivity, it represents capital-in-general. This often means that it has to suppress or even eliminate certain fractions of capital – whose range of view is limited by its own business cycle – in order to ensure continued power by the class as a whole.

In the classic Brando film Burn, based loosely on the history of Haiti, the colonial military commander orders an entire island colony set ablaze, including its lucrative sugar plantations, in order to crush a Black proletarian rebellion. One of the island’s capitalists pleadingly objects that the commander has wiped out the island’s profits. The commander then explains that the destruction of the island is necessary to send the message to other workers on the rest of the colonized islands, and that this “pacification” is required to ensure profits for all, not just over the next business cycle, but for the next decade.

A short story of capital and the state: The New Deal involved quite a lot of suppression of capital, and even semi-socialist programs, to ensure social order for capital in the long term. This so angered some capitalists that they attempted to organize a coup d’etat against Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in 1934, which was uncloaked by former Marine Commandant Smedley Butler – the most decorated Marine in the United States. Butler was transformed into an anti-imperialist, a process that began when he saw poverty-stricken WWI veterans descend on Washington DC in the legendary “Bonus March.” President Hoover broke up the “Hooverville” camp of the “Bonus Army” on the DC mall by sending tanks under the command of Eisenhower, Patton, and Macarthur against the vets, killing three people, including an infant. Butler then published his famous War is a Racket, a powerful anti-imperialist tract to this very day.

To further describe the capitalist state, we have to put it in the context of a world system – now thoroughly integrated under so-called globalization – in which core-capitalist economies require the peripheral nation inputs – acquired not through the valorization of capital as described by Ricardo and Marx, but through chicanery and plunder, through debt leverage, and through unequal wages paid in countries where the reproduction of the labor force is cheaper due to underdevelopment. It is in this core-periphery dynamic that we can unravel more of the threads connecting ecocide, the racially-polarized and highly militarized response to Katrina, and the military disaster in Iraq.

All states in this system are not equal. There is little doubt at this particular conjuncture that the United States has become a kind of metastasized hyper-state, but aside from sheer military power and the levers of a vast global monetary extortion and loan-sharking scheme, what are some of the characteristics of the US state that differentiate it from other core-capitalist countries and from the various peripheral states?

The answer to this question revolves around legitimacy. It should be glaringly obvious to everyone that the entire police and armed forces of the United States are not even close to capable of controlling the population of the United States if that population were to become – hypothetically – disobedient. Sheer numbers alone would overwhelm these armed bodies, without even taking into consideration that ours is a heavily armed society.

What holds the state together is legitimacy. The state – any state – has to enroll a substantial portion of its population as full citizens, objectively enjoying the privileges of citizenship and subjectively identifying with the nation – giving them some stake in the continuation of the system as it is. Even if whole sections of the polity are not full citizens, there must be a critical section of the population that sees its interests – and privileges – tied up with that state. Privilege is a crucial concept here.

With privilege goes protection from non-citizens, from feared Others, from outsiders. Even when the state itself promotes the notion of a dangerous Other, and masks plunder of the Other as “self defense,” there is always the possibility that this Other will become a real threat. A humiliated people will seek both self-defense and revenge. A hopeless ghetto is a great place to get mugged. The state creates enemies – real and imagined – to consolidate the dependency and loyalty of its full citizens; but then the state has to ensure protection from these created enemies to retain its legitimacy with those citizens.

Protect us from the Ay-rab terrorists. Protect us from the 16-year-old Black kid we call “superpredator.”

So the effective state must retain two characteristics: autonomy and legitimacy.

Beyond Clausewitz
Mary Kaldor, of the London School of Economics, is a student of war. She subscribes to what I believe is a crackpot theory of “global cosmopolitanism,” but she has written insightfully – if in a fragmentary and eurocentric way – about the evolution of something she calls the “new war.”

“The construction of these public monopolies [states] was… intimately bound up with war against other states,” writes Kaldor in her essay, “Cosmopolitanism and organized violence.”

Inter-state war became the only legitimate form of organised violence and, moreover, was sharply distinguished from peace. In place of more or less continuous warfare, war became a discrete episode that was reserved for use against other states and was excluded from internal relations. Domestic pacification (the elimination of private armies, the reduction of corruption, violent crime, piracy and brigandage), the growth of taxation and public borrowing, the regularisation of armed forces and police forces, the development of nationalist sentiment, were all mutually reinforcing in wartime. Essentially, the social contract associated with the construction of the nation-state could be said to have taken the following form; civil and political rights were guaranteed in exchange for paying taxes and fighting in wars. The individual rights that citizens enjoyed in peacetime were exchanged for the abrogation of those rights in wartime. In wartime, the citizens became part of a collectivity, the nation, and had to be ready to die for the state. In exchange for individual civil and political rights in peacetime, the citizen accepted a kind of unlimited liability in wartime. Hence, [Norbert] Elias, writing just before the Second World War, feared that the civilising process would be engulfed by the barbarity of war.

Inter-state war is sometimes described as Clausewitzean war. The wars of classical modernity had a kind of extremist logic that is well analysed by Clausewitz. As war became more extreme and terrible, so the social contract was extended, reaching its logical end point during the Cold War period. Essentially, during this period, there were unprecedented gains in economic and social rights. But the risks were also dramatically extended. The price of these gains, during this period, was readiness to risk a nuclear war.

This process was disrupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the combined shocks of recession, the Vietnam War, and the OPEC oil embargo. It was during and immediately after this period that the United States began a radical transformation from a productive-economy hegemon into a nation that ruled the world by nuclear threats, loan-sharking to the periphery, and – remarkably – its own debtor status, using dollar hegemony to extort unpayable loans from fellow capitalist core states.

The crisis of capitalism brought with it a crisis of socialism and national liberation, because these projects were always fully contained inside the capitalist world system. The continual assaults on the economies and states of these projects militarized them – resistance became barracks socialism.

Stalin was not a phenomenon of socialism, but of capitalism… the terrible combination of domestic underdevelopment and hostile capitalist encirclement. An entire society was transformed into a military organization to prevent not capitalism – which was not what the West held in store for Russia – but Africanization. Exterminism was met with exterminism.

(Mostly in the conduct of WWII, however – more than 25 million killed in the war. The numbers of those executed by Stalin’s regime are grotesquely inflated as a form of popular wisdom in the west, with numbers reaching into the tens of millions. The best estimates of those actually executed, which included both purges and ordinary criminal executions – with most killed during the 1937-38 bloodbath [680,692] – are that there were a total of 727,271 executions from 1929 until the start of the war. The grossly inflated and discredited figures generated by Robert Conquest were commissioned by arch-anticommunist William Randolph Hearst to “prove” that communism was worse than Nazism).

The crisis of capitalism was a crisis of the capitalist state, and the socialist states co-existed with them in an inter-STATE political system. Just as the large-scale complexity of the Soviet Union and China ( Cuba is an exception precisely because of its small scale) required exposure to international capital, it obliged these states to expose themselves to loss of legitimacy if they were perceived as non-autonomous or incapable of protecting “citizens.” The former was exhausted in its attempt to create socialism in one country, and the latter has transformed itself as part of a long-term development strategy into an archipelago of Dickensian sweatshops that are now the envy (and sometimes the province) of western capitalists.

Earlier struggles for state power were planned on a map of the state. But the actual terrain represented on that symbolic map can change. Then we get lost.

During the period under review, the US covert operations establishment – cribbing from the Israeli conquest of Palestine, and its own experience with state-destruction in Africa – began deploying surrogates around the world to dismantle the autonomy of peripheral states who resisted US demands.

Autonomy and legitimacy go hand in hand.

Neoliberalism is in its very essence the antithesis of peripheral state autonomy, even on behalf of these states’ national elites. All decisions about future development are circumscribed by the Holy Trinity of neoliberalism – Debt-leverage, Privatization, and Export-economy. National autarky is off the table. In the event that any state attempted to resist this imperial assault on its autonomy – as in Yugoslavia and Iraq – then covert operatives from the CIA to the National Endowment for Democracy begin to destabilize the target state for the purpose of delegitimating it, followed by the coup de grace where necessary of a military strike.

The combination of privatisation and globalisation can give rise to a process, which is almost the reverse of the process through which modern states were constructed. Corruption and clientilism leads to an erosion of the tax revenue base because of declining legitimacy and growing incapacity to collect tax and because of declining investment (both public and private) and, consequently, production. The declining tax revenue leads to growing dependence both on external sources and on private sources, through, for example, rent seeking or criminal activities. Reductions in public expenditure as a result of the shrinking fiscal base as well as pressures from external donors for macro-economic stabilisation and liberalisation (which also may reduce export revenues) further erodes legitimacy. A growing informal economy associated with increased inequalities, unemployment and rural-urban migration, combined with the loss of legitimacy, weakens the rule of law and may lead to the re-emergence of privatised forms of violence - organised crime and the substitution of ‘protection’ for taxation, vigilantes, private security guards protecting economic facilities, especially international companies, para-military groups associated with particular political factions. In particular, reductions in security expenditure, often encouraged by external donors for the best of motives, may lead to break away groups of redundant soldiers and policemen seeking alternative employment. (Kaldor)

Kaldor partially overlooks the role of the US state in creating the conditions for these “new wars,” but she describes what they look like very well. The above description could be Russia, it could be Kosovo, or it could be Afghanistan.

It could also be seen in Blackwater mercenaries invading post-Katrina New Orleans. The United States itself – having pillaged its own accounts for Wall Street and adopted a private-sector-does-it-better ideology – has now begun extensively using mercenaries.

These are the circumstances that give rise to the ‘new wars’. It is the lack of authority of the state, the weakness of representation, the loss of confidence that the state is able or willing to respond to public concerns, the inability and/or unwillingness to regulate the privatisation and informalisation of violence that gives rise to violent conflicts. [It remains interesting that Kaldor does not mention the US itself in this description – blinded by her extreme euro(American)centrism.] Moreover, this ‘uncivilising process’, tends to be reinforced by the dynamics of the conflicts, which have the effect of further reordering political, economic and social relationships in a negative spiral of incivility.

I call the conflicts ‘wars’ because of their political character although they could also be described as massive violations of human rights (repression against civilians) and organised crime (violence for private gain). They are about access to state power. They are violent struggles to gain access to or to control the state. As the state becomes privatised, that is to say, it shifts from being the main organisation for societal regulation towards an instrument for the extraction of resources by the ruler and his (and it is almost always ‘his’) privileged networks, so access to state power becomes a matter of inclusion or exclusion, even, in the latter case, of survival.

In the majority of cases, these wars are fought in the name of identity – a claim to power on the basis of labels. These are wars in which political identity is defined in terms of exclusive labels –ethnic, linguistic, or religious – and the wars themselves give meaning to the labels. Labels are mobilised for political purposes; they offer a new sense of security in a context where the political and economic certainties of previous decades have evaporated. They provide a new populist form of communitarian ideology, a way to maintain or capture power, that uses the language and forms of an earlier period. Undoubtedly, these ideologies make use of pre-existing cleavages and the legacies of past wars. It is also the case that the appeal to tradition and the nostalgia for some mythical or semi-mythical history gains strength in the social upheavals associated with the opening up to global pressures. But nevertheless, it is the deliberate manipulation of these sentiments, often assisted by Diaspora funding and techniques and speeded up through the electronic media, that is the immediate cause of conflict.

In these wars, violence is itself a form of political mobilisation. Violence is mainly directed against civilians and not another army. The aim is to capture territory through political control rather than military success. And political control is maintained through terror, through expulsion or elimination of those who challenge political control, especially those with a different label. Population displacement, massacres, widespread atrocities are not just side effects of war; they are a deliberate strategy for political control [note Israel]. The tactic is to sow the ‘fear and hate’ on which exclusive identity claims rest. (Kaldor)

Here is the line connecting the Rwandan massacres, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the appeal of Osama bin Laden (who has proven smarter by orders of magnitude than anyone in the Bush administration). And it is the line connecting these instances to their epoch, one of a protracted crisis of capital – a permanent overproduction crisis that forces the acceleration of the plunder against the peripheries, and the desperate preservation of the US as the world’s consumer base – a base dancing on an overhang above a deepening chasm of personal debt – to sop up that overproduction in an orgy of technological bread-and-circuses.

It is not fully fruited yet. The US state still requires the withering fig leaf of spreading democracy to the terrifying dark Ay-rabs to legitimate its attempt to militarily cordon the global oil patch.

But this is the basis of what Chalmers Johnson and others describe as “blowback.” The policies of the US created terrorism for its own purposes, and has inexorably expanded the stateless milieu of (the cipher) al Qaeda in the interstices of the world system now deeply in the grasp of exterminism – the policy and ideology of mass displacement and death. But the “blowback” goes far deeper than Johnson describes.

The ‘new wars’ are no longer discrete in time and space. The various actors –states, remnants of states, para-military groups, liberation movements, etc. – depend on continued violence for both political and economic reasons. Cease-fires and agreements are truces, breathing spaces, which do not address the underlying social relations –the social conditions of war and peace are not much different. The networks of politicians, security forces, legal and illegal trading groups, which are often transnational, constitute a new distorted social formation, which has a tendency to spread through refugees and displaced persons, identity based networks often crossing continents, as well as criminal links. Moreover, the conditions which give rise to the ‘new wars’ and which are exacerbated by them, exist in weaker forms in most urban conglomerations in the world and indeed often have direct links with the most violent regions. (Kaldor)

This doesn’t merely describe the Afghan-Pakistani border. It increasingly describes the US government itself. The US state finds itself captured by a clique that completely fails to see how they are undermining the state’s ability to act autonomously – confusing that with the ability of the executive branch to act with impunity.


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