By Jacob Aguillard
A recent ice storm and freezing temperatures have created extremely difficult and deadly conditions for millions of Texans. Record low temperatures caused over 4 million Texans to lose power and exposed again just how capitalism fails and exploits the working class. In Texas, a state where “about 56 percent of Texas’ energy comes from natural gas,” the pipelines that deliver natural gas to power plants froze, shutting down over 70 facilities. This left millions without heat or water as the most prominent politicians from the state ignored their needs and blamed wind energy, the Green New Deal, and California for their own policy failings. Ted Cruz even fled to Cancun! This massive failure of capitalism has killed dozens—including an 11-year-old boy who died from the cold in a trailer home without power. Many more people have been forced out of their homes because they don’t have heat or water. In the midst of this crisis, the mayor of Colorado City told residents that it was a “sink or swim” situation, blamed them for looking for “handouts” and told them to “get off your ass and take care of your own family.” The people of Texas are suffering from a climate-induced, man-made disaster, all while state officials are listening to Big Oil and pushing for a greater dependence on fossil fuels for their power needs. These are the same companies that caused blackouts in 1989 and 2011 and they’re using this disaster as an opportunity to destroy green energy competition and gain further market control. The deregulation of power production in Texas has allowed for service to remain unreliable in Texas despite warnings.
How Could this Happen?
On the night of Sunday, February 14th, temperatures dropped across all of the Great Plains as an arctic storm pushed through. For many states, the snow, cold, and wind were just a problem, but for Texas, it was a statewide disaster caused by years of deregulation, private company negligence, and shocking amounts of neoliberal policies.
Texas has its own power grid with little public oversight. Being free to operate without federal regulations, the power companies in Texas ignored all industry standards on weatherization and operated at as low a cost as possible to maximize profits while still raising prices for consumers. Furthermore, Governor Abbot and power companies in the state ignored “a federal report that said if [they] didn’t winterize” they’d face system stress and blackouts. ERCOT, the non-profit corporation appointed to manage power production in Texas, failed to enforce standards for winterization and reliability. Capitalism always values profit over life, and capitalists will not willingly make the kind of decisions like weatherization or buying de-icing gear because it is a threat to their profits. This is why private ownership of utilities can never benefit the public.
Millions in Texas were left without power because of conscious decisions that the fallout of disaster would cost less than the materials and practices needed to prevent it. So, when the temperature dropped and gas/water lines froze, it was the workers of Texas that suffered from the state’s capitulation to fossil fuel profits.
The Effect On the Working Class
Even after this is over, many Texans face the burden of repairing their homes or finding new places to live. Some people have been without power for over a week. The electric companies have used the situation to increase their profits as people are reporting bills upwards of $15,000. Many people can’t even get food—lines were wrapped around stores even while shelves were empty.
Another consequence of the lack of power is the number of water pipes freezing and bursting within homes and buildings, rendering them unlivable. Governor Abbot told Texans to “get plumbers lined up and work with your insurance company in advance,” again putting the workers on the hook for disasters they didn’t cause. Hotels raised prices to more than four times their normal rates. Super 8 motels, known for being as cheap a place to sleep as possible, are charging more than $400 for a single night’s stay. And they’re doing so in a state of emergency when temperatures are below ten degrees Fahrenheit. People have nowhere to go and many are sleeping in their cars with the engine running. This is a clear example of the priorities of capitalism: instead of allowing people to stay in vacant hotels for free, these companies are charging exorbitant amounts of money simply because they can.
Like all man-made disasters before it, the effects of this winter storm are impacting the most vulnerable populations. Hospitals in Texas lost power and water, forcing them to be evacuated. Those who can’t care for themselves, are on assisted living, or in need of financial help have no guarantee of survival in a disaster. While this disaster is affecting everyone in Texas, it is particularly affecting the poorest people. It disproportionately affects people of color, as they are twice as likely to be poor than white Texans are. People are being drained for every last penny they have and, when disaster strikes, are forced downward into greater poverty and oppression.
In the richest nation in history, millions shouldn’t be struggling to survive. It is only as a result of capitalism that people are being left to die in natural disasters. In response to this disaster, the capitalist class is implementing the same austerity measures as seen after Hurricanes Maria, Laura, and Katrina/Rita. And the responses we see now are what we can expect in the future as capitalist-driven climate change creates more volatile and powerful weather. The people of Texas are suffering the consequences of political decisions, and as such, the solutions to these problems must be political.
A Socialist Solution
In the long term, a serious campaign to plan for natural disasters and to resolve the climate crisis must be organized by the working class to avoid situations as we’ve seen with Texas, the California wildfires, and many disastrous hurricanes in recent years. At the most basic level, public ownership of utilities is a necessity. Public ownership of utilities in a socialist society would eliminate the profit motive altogether, creating decision-making by working people based on our needs. Socialist planning and democratizing the economy would also create enough resources for cities and states to make the best decisions for everything from weatherizing, to alternative energy sources, to improving infrastructure.
A socialist organization of energy production and distribution would also allow communities and experts to analyze failures and create responses that prevent the same mistakes happening again and again. The capitalist response to the disaster has been to double down and lean into fossil fuels, the industry most directly responsible for this, and many more tragedies!
Shifting energy production to green energies would slow or stop climate change. A socialist shift to green energy would mean retraining workers in fossil fuel industries for jobs involving wind, solar, thermal, and other alternative energy sources as well as creating more high-paying union jobs.
We must go beyond the Green New Deal that the Democrats have watered down to make it more appealing to their fossil fuel backers. What we need is a socialist Green New Deal that can make substantive change to our lives.
The energy sector must be nationalized and placed under the democratic control of workers — including the oil and gas companies. The resources of the nationalized companies should be used to invest in massive public transport and renewable energy projects. In doing so, the workers in polluting industries will be guaranteed a just transition with free re-training, full pay, and benefits, while cutting pollution and fighting climate change.
Capitalism is incapable of prioritizing the needs and safety of workers. Only through socialism, by democratizing the workplace, communities, and the economy, can the needs of all workers be prioritized and met.
In the immediate term, workers must push for a response to the disaster in Texas that prioritizes the needs of all working people. Unions, socialist organizations, community groups, and activists must organize to fight for:
- Mobilizing more disaster relief teams, including the distribution of portable generators, food, and water. Utility companies from out of the area should be ordered to send repair teams to assist with the restoration of power and water to the areas.
- The use of state and federal funds to pay for any emergency home repairs not covered by insurance payments.
- Using hotels and unoccupied properties as emergency housing for the homeless and displaced Texans free of charge
- Canceling all electric bills through the start and end of the crisis and refunding those who already paid during this time.
- Using public and private transportation businesses to provide evacuation services to communities without power, including shuttling people to safe housing outside of the state, if necessary
- Using grocery stores and other business with stores of food to distribute food and bottled water, free of charge, to affected communities
- Criminalizing corporate negligence: decisions that kill and displace people for profit should not be tolerated.
- Utilities in Texas should be taken under full public ownership with statewide elected committees, subject to recall, to run utilities as a service for the people, not a business.
For more information on disaster capitalism and austerity, check out this article: https://independentsocialistgroup.org/2020/11/02/hurricane-lauras-aftermath-disaster-capitalism-in-action/
Image Credit: Jonathan Cutrer via Flickr // CC-BY-NC 2.0