Katrina and the Fishy Logic of the State

All glories to you, O Lord of the Universe, who took the form of a fish. When the sacred hymns of the Vedas were lost in the waters of universal devastation, you swam like a boat in that vast ocean to rescue them.

~ the classical Hindu poet, Jayadeva

Mythology has it that the first incarnation of Lord Vishnu — the second person of the Hindu trinity — took place after the sacred word of ancient India was snatched away by a demon. The periodic flooding and dissolution of creation that ended each world epoch was about to take place. But Vishnu, disguised as a gargantuan fish, rescued the divine word just in time and steered it away through the cascading water in a boat packed with seeds and animals salvaged for the next round of creation. In the Hebrew Bible, this legend of the flood loses its Piscean hero but Noah’s ark still saves the animal and plant kingdom "two by two" — male and female — from the fluid chaos.

In the Big Easy it seems the saviors were not so organized or logical. Not two by two but by tens and perhaps thousands, men and women, the frail and the tender were left to rot and bloat in the stinking water. No pagan fish-god to the rescue, no ark. Instead the ancient Titan ruled — Chaos.

Chaos was what Hobbes, the philosopher of the all-powerful state, feared more than anything else. For him, brute nature and human nature ungoverned told only one story — the war of all against all. And it had only one remedy — an all-powerful state. For a metaphor for that state Hobbes turned to Leviathan, the whale-monster in the Biblical tale of Job. Hobbes, a Christian, believed that Leviathan alone could save mankind from its self-created chaos. Man’s nature was too depraved to attain salvation on his own. He had to be under dominion.

Judging by the coverage of Louisiana’s watery inferno, though the left and right keep tearing each other apart on everything else like endlessly divorcing spouses, on the inhumanity of man left to his own devices, they coo in one voice.

Here, conservative columnist David Brooks writing in the New York Times blames New Orleans on a "failure in administration" and there, Katrina Van den Heuvel of the Nation decries the state for abandoning its people. No question. But then both turn around and beg for more. Brooks wants more anti-poverty programs and Van den Heuvel goes one better with a second New Deal. Having diagnosed the poison in the body politic, right and left want to give carte blanche to the arch poisoner.

The statism clatters right out of the closet:

Brooks (September 4, 2005) mourns the past "Hobbesian decade," and the "dark realities that it is not in our nature to readily acknowledge: the thin veneer of civilization, the elemental violence in human nature, the lurking ferocity of the environment…"

Van den Heuvel attacks the "dog-eat-dog, antigovernment philosophy of the far right." (September 8, 2005)

Hobbes would have cheered.

For left and right, the problem is homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man. For left and right, the answer is Hobbes’ monster.

And so the numberless delicate acts of coordination, reciprocity, and self-sacrifice by which the people of New Orleans and their well-wishers all over America showed their distinctly un-lupine natures made no impact. Even those who recognized them still argued that the state would have to intervene in a much bigger way the next time to muzzle the shiftless, antisocial, thieving poor or to choke public-spiritedness out of the racist, antisocial, exploitative rich. The poor without the state cannot be relied on to overcome and the rich without the state cannot be relied on to help.

This is slander of human nature, poor or rich. This is amnesia of the real history of human beings whose voluntary cooperation has over and over again shored up the levees of civilization against the barbaric outbursts of the state. When human nature has been most vicious, it has most often learned its vice at the knee of its rulers.

A glance at the reports from New Orleans shows that it was state action of some kind that created and exacerbated this catastrophe down the line.

It was the federal government which violated development regulations protecting the wetlands south of the city which would have blunted the force of the typhoons.

It was the federal government which cut the funding for dike repair to hold the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain out of the low-lying city.

It was the federal government which diverted a third of Louisiana’s National Guards to the Iraq war when they might have aided the rescue.

While $600 million of private aid flowed to Louisiana, FEMA was busy sabotaging relief efforts:

"Wal-Mart trucks containing water and supplies were turned away; the Coast Guard was prevented from delivering diesel fuel; a 600-bed Navy hospital was left unused; firefighters were ordered away from flood sites; donated generators were refused; and rescue attempts by private citizens were rebuffed."

Is this a record that suggests a bigger helping of state action? Is it too hard to imagine that people on their own, without their all-knowing, all-powerful leaders, could voluntarily contribute to their own welfare? Apparently, for right and left-wing ideologues it is.

But in fact, people did just that, opening their homes, treating the sick, sharing food and water, coordinating escape routes, simply suffering together

They acted as individuals in a community, not fragments of a mass. Not a mass to be rescued by the left or a mass to be beaten back by the right. And like individuals everywhere, some broke under the strain, some could not live up to their better natures, some were perhaps driven to insanity or rage so great that they shot at each other and at their rescuers. But perhaps they were simply shooting at the insignia of the all-knowing all-powerful monster.

By ignoring the individuality of human beings, left and right connive to read the problems of society as a problem of equal numbers. Each individual no more nor less than any other and each interchangeable. Left and right reduce the individuality of human interchange to arithmetical addition and subtraction. To units of a mass to be computed. To commercial calculation.

Nietzsche named this poisonous logic the reasoning of the herd and saw behind the scientific statecraft which uses it nothing more than a manipulative and insatiable urge to power:

"Whatever the state saith is a lie; whatever it hath is a theft: all is counterfeit in it, the gnawing, sanguinary, insatiate monster."

Of course, Nietzsche also saw the same will to power behind the wisdom of the philosopher-statesmen and the priesthoods. But unlike the Oida of the Greeks, the Vedas of the Hindus, or the Logos of the Christians, the rationality of the modern state from the start set its face unrelentingly against the idea that goodness and wisdom might flower naturally in human beings. For Hobbes, human nature like brute nature was simply a mechanism prone to chaos and in need of overwhelming force to subjugate it. The only part of natural law that Hobbes did not discard was the right of self-preservation, and in its pursuit, anything was permissible.

Force and fraud — otherwise known by the high-minded as raison d’etat, was the rationality of the state from the start.

It was a reason like none before it.

From the science of the Enlightenment it took the binary logic by which push must be followed by pull and up by down, where every action has an equal and opposite reaction and this can never be that. Reason became mechanical.

From a dying Christianity it took dualism. Nature was severed from man, matter decapitated from spirit, object estranged from subject. The cogito of Descartes began its bloodless reign, and unhoused and unfleshed, the ghost-mind led the body around haughtily by the nose like a Brahmin chivvying an untouchable. Reason became alienated.

Then, not too long after Christianity had driven the faery folk and the whispering spirits, the witches and the wizards, the daivas and asuras of the pagans underground, the new scientists of mechanism, bent on usurping the waning power of the Church, took the next step and drained Nature of the last remnants of enchantment, bringing the old goddess to her knees, submissive. But when they did so, they snuffed out human nature as well. Individuality and intuition perished. Reason became unnatural.

Finally, from the mercantilists of the new-born European empires, the new reason borrowed its calculating streak. Like the Romans, who extended the word ratio from the accounting of money (rationes) to the practice of reckoning in general, state reason modeled its logic on the state counting houses. Wet-nursed by the accounting practices of the pirate merchants, the new reason never grew up but stayed forever suckling at those hard teats. Reason became exploitative.

The calculating "dog-eat-dog" philosophy that the left mistakenly pins on private enterprise per se was therefore strictly always the spawn of the state. And those who think that it can be domesticated to their pet social schemes, however laudable, are as mistaken as Frankenstein. Today, Leviathan’s one body has two heads, corporate-state and managed capital. To feed one, is to fatten the other.

That’s why looting quickly became the most repeated image out of New Orleans.

Why not? There was looting all around, though only the least of it appeared on our TV screens.

What we never saw:

1) The looting of federal tax money, withdrawn from New Orleans flood control and diverted to a profligate and criminal war abroad.

2) The looting of the consumer as oil companies used the flood as an excuse to jack-up gas prices.

3) The looting of private citizens’ fire-arms under the guise of maintaining law and order.

4) The looting of the currency as the federal government cranks out more paper money to paper over the $52 billion hole that Katrina will put in the nation’s finances.

And the looting will roll as businesses, fresh from the bid-rigging and cronyism in Iraq, rush into the reconstruction racket. And it will roll on as the bloated government lets out its belt a notch and begins stuffing its face again. And it will roll triumphant when the businesses which root in the same trough with government seize Kelo to smash the last bastion of the free citizen, his home.

The whole country smells the stink of New Orleans.

Looting by elites, by the middle class, by the underclass. The last perhaps the least pernicious.

And in each case, it was the insertion of the state into society that created the provocation, the opportunity, and the cover for the looters.

In fact, the so-called anti-government right that Van den Heuvel loathes is really not anti-government enough by half. It’s anti-tax positions begin and end largely around the destruction of welfare for the poor. Welfare for the rich, however, passes muster. One of the most vocal anti-government activists, Grover Norquist, somehow manages to be in favor of government regulation suddenly when it comes to monopoly pricing for drug companies.

Leviathan is rotten but it rots from the head down.

Make no mistake. The state did not fail in New Orleans. It succeeded. It did just what its logic drives it to do. It acted in the interests of its masters, a handful of the privileged. Before the universal protection of citizens’ lives, it put the selective securing of property. And when reconstruction begins we will again see lives displaced by the manipulation of the market as the forced reconstruction/gentrification of New Orleans begins, as it has begun in cities all over the country. As it has taken place in Baghdad. It was no accident that the U.S.S. Bataan, in which Iraqi prisoners were held secretly, was sent to New Orleans. It was no accident that active duty forces are reported to have intervened. It was no accident that the victims of the flood were labeled refugees and insurgents. New Orleans was a brilliant photo-op. State-created lawlessness inviting military intervention. Inviting destruction and rebuilding, the sanctified looting of the state.

Market manipulation, the one constant in the vicious Rake’s Progress that is the history of the imperial state.

The drunken looter’s fallacy of the broken window that the economist Von Mises described.

Smash a country and reconstruct it– that is the state’s job creation. Waste a resource and price-fix — that is the state’s energy policy. Borrow and then devalue your debt — that is the state’s financial planning. Artificially inflate house prices and drive out the city’s renters — the state’s urban renewal program.

Katrina of Nature speaks louder and clearer than Katrina of the Nation. Her senseless violence recognizes itself in the mirror of the state, shows it for what is. That is the lesson of New Orleans — human society pinned helplessly between the alienated power of senseless nature and the alienating power of a malevolent state. Two desolations.

September 15, 2005