There is a real estate “boom” reported in New Orleans and other devastated areas as desperate people sell shattered houses and the speculators move in, buying up land to make money. Perhaps a future New Orleans will be gentrified with the aid of snorkels.

Actually, the offers to buy New Orleans real estate are coming from all over the country. An ad has even been posted by a Chicago real estate agent offering to purchase flooded land. Land doesn’t depreciate, the agent figures, and people need money, so why not play “let’s make a deal” in the private sector to which the Bush administration pays homage.

People with money who lost their homes are busily bidding up real estate prices in nearby Baton Rouge. Some people whose for-sale houses withstood the hurricane well have radically increased their asking prices. Meanwhile, the Bush administration encourages all of this “private initiative” and moves ahead with plans to “balance” federal aid for the reconstruction of New Orleans with cuts in education, transportation, health services and other vital social programs.

Since a majority of the victims are African American, a chorus of predictable racist right-wing statements and speculation accompanies the administration’s support for speculators. For this administration, the only questions are what to cut, how to keep tax cuts and how to make private charity the center of national policy.

If housing is a commodity to be bought and sold in a “free market,” then natural disasters are also commercial opportunities for those situated to take advantage of them. After all, isn’t it good social Darwinist doctrine that those with wealth have proved their superiority in the great game of “natural selection,” and those without wealth deserve to be uprooted, displaced, perhaps even made extinct, for the greater social good? (In social Darwinist lingo, society is better off neglecting the “unfit” since they merely take away from the “fit.”)

When these people are gone along with their poor neighborhoods, there will be a better “new” New Orleans for the far right. The “new” New Orleans will have higher property values, better rated bonds and people smart enough to invest in cheap labor in poor countries and live off their investments as they compete with each to buy the best yachts, the finest wines and the best of everything from a world market which caters to, at most, 10 percent of humanity and neglects the remaining 90 percent.

A socialist society, and only a socialist society, can plan seriously for the welfare and well being of the entire population, without speculators and profiteers. But even a capitalist society with a strong labor and left movement can tax and regulate the capitalist class, and institute price controls (as capitalist states do in wartime) to prevent the scavengers’ real estate boom that New Orleans is currently experiencing.

It is also both possible and necessary to establish modern flood control systems (expensive but a lot cheaper than what New Orleans faces) of the kind that have been instituted in The Netherlands and other countries.

The battle for New Orleans is just beginning and it is a battle for both democracy and an America whose national identity and international reputation will be connected to social justice and security, not to the pursuit of private wealth by all means necessary.

Before he died near the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Engels noted that society faced the long-term choice of “socialism or barbarism.” Barbara Bush’s early statement that those in Houston shelters had little to begin with and so were pretty well off in the shelters will be read by people of the future as an example of social callousness like that of the 19th century robber barons and their idle rich relatives.

William Bennett’s recent statement that abortion (which he claims to be against on “moral” rather than economic grounds) could be used against African Americans to reduce the crime rate reminds me of eugenicists calling for “selective breeding” of human beings. Hitler’s rantings against “useless eaters,” the “unfit” who take land and resources (“lebensraum” — living space) away from the German “Master Race,” were the most grotesque expression of these views, culminating in the genocide practiced by the fascists in World War II. (The Nazis, by the way, banned abortions of the “racially fit” since producing soldiers for the nation was woman’s sacred duty.)

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s classic socialist novel “The Jungle,” about the evils of capitalism in the U.S. Our struggle in the U.S. will determine whether “The Jungle” is a work of the past or a harbinger of the future.

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.

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Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.

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