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Sandy’s lessons

Tennyson Joseph

Sandy’s lessons

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The ongoing challenges of recovery in the United States, following the devastation of New York and other Eastern Seaboard states, recall the inertia that gripped disaster response mechanisms and officials following the destruction of New Orleans with the passage of Hurricane Katrina.
This uncanny similarity of political paralysis of the world’s most advanced capitalist state in the aftermath of natural events that cripple the life of its citizens exposes a deep but largely unacknowledged and denied flaw in neo-liberal capitalism, currently enjoying global dominance.  
Given that a central assumption of neo-liberalism is the retreat of the state, the ability of the individual to survive on his own with minimal state involvement and the general assumption that there is no such thing as society but only a loose collection of individual interests, capitalist states like those of the United States  have few built-in social intervention structures, expectations or past habits to facilitate state intervention to vulnerable populations most in need of state support.
Indeed, as seen in United States assistance to the Caribbean and from its own budgetary priorities, the US state is far more easily mobilized for military and security spending and intervention than it is for humanitarian and social assistance. When coupled with the near total privatization of economic life, it can be easily understood why, despite the obvious grave need for public intervention to alleviate short-term suffering, the US state exhibits signs of state failure following such events.  
The privatization ethos also means that actual recovery is the responsibility of private insurance companies.  There are few cushions for the extremely poor and the very vulnerable, beyond what is haphazardly provided by private humanitarianism and during the limited time officially designated as “crisis periods”.
It is tempting for one to argue that countries of the Caribbean have a longer history of responding to large-scale natural disaster and that the more highly developed infrastructure of the United States has resulted in a culture of smugness and complacency.  
It is also true that given the greater dependency of the United States on electricity and technology in every facet of life that a post-disaster “blackout” is a potentially more disastrous event there than it is in the Caribbean.  
However, much is revealed about the relative built-in people-centredness of the respective political systems when one compares the ability of a country like Cuba to mobilize its population, not only for evacuation before, but for the rebuilding effort, after a hurricane. The fact that the world is witnessing anew angry voices demanding government’s attention in the face of a snail-like response to obvious public dislocation means that Katrina was not an aberration, but points to a deeper weakness of the capitalist model. The failure of wealth to meet human need is a fundamental contradiction.
Sandy, along with the ongoing economic crisis, exacerbates neo-liberalism’s woes.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, specializing in regional affairs. Email [email protected]