Images of the destruction caused by the recent onslaught of violent tornadoes resembles that of the victims of American imperialism, completely levelled by bombs and explosions. The similarity continues, the victims of the ruin being composed of the poorest and most dejected from society.
Bombing raids, missile attacks, and destruction as a result of war is a clear act of violence that is easily visible. When it comes to natural disasters, nature is called the perpetrator. The death and debris is the result of an unfortunate accident instead of deliberate killing. This is how capitalist society rationalizes its effects. The terror from the sky in both cases are manufactured catastrophes from the capitalist shop of horrors.
April 25-28, 2011
April saw the greatest monthly record for tornadoes in the United States, with over 875 reported. The previous record for any month was 542. The tornado outbreak that marched across the South between April 25 and April 28 was the deadliest in almost a century, claiming over 322 lives, 237 in Alabama alone.1
Over 330 tornadoes touched down during those three days, including 3 that ranked a five on the Enhanced Fujita scale, the most powerful of tornadoes.2 The storms made their arrival in Arkansas and traveled eastward, with catastrophic damage being dealt in Mississippi, then to Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and dissipating around Kentucky.
Starting from February 1 and ending May 24, over 519 people this year have died in tornado “accidents.” The circumstances of 297 of these deaths are considered “unknown”, meaning the information on whether the death occurred in a house, a mobile home, outside, or a vehicle hasn’t been determined. However, of the 222 known deaths, 55% of these occurred in a mobile home.3
Tragedy in Joplin
Less than one month after the calamity that raged through the Deep South, another natural “accident” occurred in the small town of Joplin, Missouri on May 22. An EF5 tornado hit the town and surrounding area at 5:41 PM. The storm came and went in less than 20 minutes, but not without bringing with it the lives of over 134 people and leaving the town in a state of complete disrepair. The Joplin tornado is the deadliest single tornado since 1947.4
Whole neighborhoods flattened, businesses destroyed, power outages, communication cut, and people trapped under an avalanche of rubble. The screaming winds drowned out the screams of its victims.
Warning: Capitalist Disaster Area
When we see death, destruction, and disaster, capitalists and other assorted fat pockets see a public relations opportunity. Barack Obama and other politicians strike poses on top of the debris of some poor sucker’s home and tell the film crew how they have never seen destruction like this ever before. The evening news is filled with reports of communities coming together and giving a helping hand, white-black and poor-rich getting over their differences to help one another. Even Walmart donated a hefty sum of a monumental $1 million (the rich do care).
However, something different about a tornado strike or hurricanes in comparison to other disasters. Wildfires, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, avalanches… are easily exploited by the bosses and their media spokesmen. The exception that proves the rule would be Hurricane Katrina. Hurricanes come and go, causing “minimal” damage and death. However, “when the levees broke” every charlatan sprouted microphones from their hands and gave their outrage over this public policy “failure.” Some of the more despicable characters blamed it on the New Orleans residents who were so stupid as to not completely evacuate from the city weeks prior, how exactly they were to evacuate and where they would have gone is not answered (nor is it meant to be).
Katrina and the aforementioned disasters are blamed on human error, whether it is by public officials or the victims of the tragedy. This does not lead to a better understanding on why such disasters occurred after a survey of the “solutions” offered by the bosses. Increase federal funding for disaster relief, pump up investment into new Life Saving Technology™, or for the environmentally conscious, purchase recycled goods and use public transport to reduce your carbon footprint.
Tornadoes are something different. The violent winds are personified into conscious beings, who go on rampages and live on destruction. The kind of damage a tornado might inflict can’t be known till it touches ground and its path is anyone’s guess. Tornadoes are seen as something so outside of human control, that the damage and death is viewed as a given. Images on the television of homes and communities being completely flattened maybe tragic, but nothing unexpected.
The effects of natural disasters are dependent on the social arrangements in which people carry on their lives. Tornadoes are no exception.
Torn from the Same Cloth
One similarity that is noticed is the victims of tornadoes are overwhelmingly the most victimized of capitalist society. The average per capita income of the populations of the most devastated areas of the recent surge of tornado activity is $16,958.5
As mentioned previously, the majority of the known victims lived in mobile homes. It is no great discovery to point out that mobile homes are in greater danger of being destroyed than other structures, even by weak EF-0 tornadoes
What is not asked is why are so many people living in mobile homes, and why in areas that are susceptible to destruction? Reformers see the problem being in the poor quality of the design of the home, thus the solution is to build better quality homes or sell shelters. Others may advocate raising the living standards of the victims, so they can eventually move to better areas. These solutions obviously miss the point, because there is a complete lack of understanding of the social dynamics at play.
Mobile homes are of obvious poor quality and poor design. Why? The only way we can understand is to understand how this is a predictable and necessary consequence of the capitalist mode of production.
Tornado activity is most frequent in the southern United States. The South has historically and remains less developed industrially as the northern United States. An exception to this is the “industrialization of agriculture”, which has thrown many people out of work, depresses the wages of farm work (which is often done by immigrants who are exploited even further by threat of blackmail), and absorbs large amounts of natural wealth such as land and water (the South often experiences “droughts” and public officials urge conservation, which means making sure enough water is available for agribusiness).
A large industrial reserve army exists in the South, and there is little sign they will be called to service any time soon. Their poverty and poor living conditions are imposed upon by the capitalist system. Sometimes, they are referred to by the classist slur “white trash”, which reflects the material reality that capitalism has tossed them out and has no more use for them.
The povertised residents of the rural South encounter other issues that are specific to capitalist production and class society. The clear conflict between “town and country” is exposed in the infrastructure found in rural communities, especially poor rural communities. Roads are few, those that do exist are often in disrepair. Mobile home communities, colloquially known as “trailer parks”, brings together people close together in high concentrations. In case of a tornado or storm, electrical infrastructure can be damaged and made completely inoperable, preventing warnings from reaching the residents. Plumbing and communication can also be rendered useless. Houses turn into coffins.
The rise of the mobile home occurred during the post war boom. Mobile homes, an industrially manufactured commodity, began to be advertised as a cheap alternative to traditional housing, though not as permanent. Even while capitalism was undergoing a new phase of accumulation, the opportunity to depress living conditions was still exploited at every chance. Mobile homes were primarily first used as a temporary solution to deflate pressure on housing demands for workers moving to new areas for employment (and used for this purpose today by Israeli settlers in the West Bank). At the end of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the size of mobile homes began to increase to the point they were no longer “mobile.” The term “manufactured home” is now the “proper” way to refer to them. The increase in size with the corresponding loss in mobility was the first stage in turning mobile homes into permanent housing.
The statistics referenced only cover deaths; they do not make mention of damage. The lowest ranking of tornadoes, an EF-0, is enough to take a mobile home off of its foundation and cause serious damage. It is not an extravagant leap to say that the damage and destruction done to people living in mobile homes (as well as cheap, cookie cutter crafted traditional houses) is far more extensive.
The reality that mobile homes are frequently destroyed or damaged is openly acknowledged by the industries that sell them. An interest group for the manufactured housing industry, the Manufactured Housing Institute, states bluntly on their website:
“While many like to joke that ‘mobile homes attract tornadoes,’ there is no meteorological or scientific basis to thinking that that theory. (sic) In fact, the explanation for the reports of damage to manufactured homes from tornadoes is quite simple: manufactured housing is largely found in rural and suburban areas where tornadoes are most likely to occur.”6
I think I recall somebody in the past referring to the conscious effort on the part of capitalists for the destruction of objectified labor as the “murder of the dead.” I also remember the example he gave was of automobile industries designing cars that break down in a few years time, for the purpose of selling new ones. There is little point in selling commodities that will fulfill the consumer’s use for a lifetime if your purpose is the reinvestment of surplus value into new and expanded capital, which requires a constant market and constant selling. However, unlike the automobile example, this process involves a murder of the living.
Capitalism is the Culprit
Capitalism cannot offer an answer to the question on how to curb the effects of natural disasters; it cannot even pose the question. Death and destruction caused by tornadoes and other natural disasters have more to do with social relations than weather patterns (not to deny that social relations have an effect on the weather, as the pumping of greenhouse gases into the ozone is without a doubt behind the recent rash of violent weather). Social relations in capitalism are not arranged to the needs and concerns of the people in society, but to the needs of capital and its cancer like growth. Only a society that can properly ask how this can be solved, will it be solved.
1″Annual Fatal Tornado Summaries.” Storm Prediction Center. <http://www.spc.noaa.gov/climo/torn/fataltorn.html>.
3″Annual Fatal Tornado Summaries.” Storm Prediction Center. <http://www.spc.noaa.gov/climo/torn/fataltorn.html>.
4″2011 Tornado Information.” NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. <http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/2011_tornado_information.html>
5Joplin, MI – Lawrence County, AL – Faulkner County, AR – Monroe County, MS – Dekalb County, AL – Marion County, AL – Franklin County, AL – Tuscaloosa County, AL – Ringold, Georgia – Hamilton County, TN – Bradley County, TN – Cullman County, AL
6″Frequently Asked Questions.” Manufactured Housing Institute, Modular Homes, Communities, Housing Industry Trade Association. <http://www.manufacturedhousing.org/lib/showtemp_detail.asp?id=231>.