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When Flood Waters Run Dry: Hurricane Harvey, Climate Change & Social Reproduction

By Camilo Torres - contracted social reproduction. With hurricane season just ending, this essay will reflect upon and analyze why Harvey had such a deep impact on Houston, how contracted reproduction is being executed, identify the strengths and weaknesses of relief efforts and/or mutual aid organizing, and lay out ideas to advance future struggles around climate disaster.

Contracted Social Reproduction

For the purpose of this piece a brief explanation of contracted social reproduction is necessary. The lived experience of contracted social reproduction is a common one in many core capitalist countries of the west. Roughly, since the early 1970s, in order to stay afloat, realize value, counter working-class revolt and stave off crisis, the capitalist class has implemented austerity, broken up the production process, dismantled unions, and cut real wages.

The breaking up of the production process was a necessary move by capitalists for a number of reasons. For one, in the US, this helped to disrupt and undermine unionization efforts and workplace organizing by physically relocating the means of production to Latin America, East Asia and other parts of the world. Furthermore, capitalists were able to cut costs by finding cheaper proletarians and reducing or eliminating benefits offered to workers. This last point is significant because it prompted the lowering of the total social wage for proletarians globally. The non-reproduction of the class has plunged more proletarians into poverty and forced previously stable workers into precarious and deskilled work. This has resulted in increased exploitation and has generalized immiseration for many working-class people.

This reality continues as proletarians are increasingly taken out of the production process due to advancements in the forces of production that require less living labor. Capital is able to produce immense amounts of commodities, but through competition capitalists outpace one another as newer and improved technologies emerge, resulting in cheaper commodities. Yet, in capitalist society living, human labor is the key source in actualizing value. The expulsion of human labor from the production process causes the rate of profit to fall and crisis to ensue. As the rate of profit falls, capitalists must drive down wages below their values and reduce the cost of reproducing the working class. In order to do this, capitalists have to loot existing private fixed capital (machinery, buildings, etc.) as well as the means to reproduce labor power, like education, housing, and healthcare. This also includes public capital, such as roads, water infrastructure, bridges, etc. Nature is also a free input that capitalists use up as a means to boost their diminishing revenue streams. Coupled with this crisis is the emergence of proletarians confronting capitalism in the form of mobilizations against degenerative living conditions. 

How contracted social reproduction unfolds globally is uneven and varies regionally. Still, this serves as a basic summation of its central elements. Contracted social reproduction isn’t a subjective choice made by greedy capitalists, but an objective reality of this current period of capitalism. Now, let us look at how contracted social reproduction changed concretely before and after Hurricane Harvey. 

Audio Report: Autonomous Relief In Houston Post-Harvey

By the collective - It's Going Down, December 6, 2017

Listen Here - link

In this audio report with Solidarity Houston, we talk with anarchists doing autonomous disaster relief in the wake of hurricane Harvey. While the waters have receded, in the aftermath of the storm many people have been made homeless, while others still in their homes have been unable to put their lives back together. Meanwhile, disaster capitalists have swooped in an attempt to flip houses for a profit and police have come down on those who now are forced to live on the streets.

In this interview, we talk about the kinds of ongoing programs and projects anarchists are engaged in, such as gardening and food programs, childcare, and more. We also discuss what life is like now that the storm has passed, such as the effect of pollution from superfund sites, how those who were taking shelter with the Red Cross are now living on the streets, and how various areas still lack basic services.

We end by talking about where people hope this organizing, infrastructure building, and activity can grow towards, as well as the need for people to come to Houston and take part in on the ground efforts. Towards this end, the group has also just released a call for people to come to Houston and plug into ongoing autonomous relief efforts.

Stay Warm this Winter! Come to Houston and Volunteer with Autonomous Disaster Relief!

By an anonymous contributor - It's Going Down, December 5, 2017

We need…

anti-oppressive people skilled in construction, childcare, squatting, media, cooking, growing food, fundraising, medics, healers, birthworkers, herbalists, artists, musicians, and Spanish speakers.

Houston is the 4th largest city in the US and the heart of the oil industry in terms of both corporate headquarters and industrial infrastructure, but most of the city’s people have always been considered expendable by those powers.

In the days immediately after the storm, disaster communism naturally took hold as neighbors took it upon themselves to organize boat rescues in the absence of any help from the state. For a few weeks, its influence extended beyond the hardest hit neighborhoods and we found ourselves as a small part of a large mobilization. Neighbors helping each other were the biggest force, church groups and liberals were out in large numbers, and even the local fascists were playing at relief work (in their own neighborhoods). Many businesses shared resources, including restaurant kitchens which were used to mass-produce free meals for distribution.

Fourteen weeks after Harvey, those free meals are a distant memory. Thousands of people are newly homeless, or living in unsafe conditions, or crowded in with family – and it’s starting to get cold here at night.

This is a critical time for anarchists to intervene against the return to normalcy – we do not want to rebuild the old Houston of hyper-individualism and slow death under capitalism. We want to take space opened by the storm and build new ways of supporting each other and relating to each other.

If you can help with that, and you don’t mind camping (with bathrooms/showers, kitchen etc) in a communal setting, get in touch with us at htxautonomy@protonmail.com

Reflections on Houston in a Time of Contradiction

By Samantha Harvey - Earth Island Journal, October 2, 2017

Last October I visited Houston for the first time. I grew up in the Midwest and have spent half my life in New York City — perhaps the least Texan person possible — but aside from a few cultural differences involving cowboy boots and biscuit-heavy restaurant menus, my background turned out to be good preparation. I was neither cowed by Houston’s skyscrapers nor confused by the hospitality of a Southern city’s people, familiar as the unsolicited smiles Midwesterners give complete strangers.

Because of this, perhaps, I found Houston comfortable, utterly pleasant, welcoming, warm, easy, and yet … the downtown streets at night were deserted, wide, silent. And the ten days or so I spent there transpired strangely, feeling at times much longer than ten days, flipping dramatically between blasting air conditioning and sopping gulps of hot humidity, women and men in slick suits with shiny shoes, women and men in drab clothing covered in dust, or seen from afar framed by open flames on pits of scrap metal.

In New York City it’s easy to feel resilient to the woes of the planet; even in the throes of Hurricane Sandy, many of us continued to eat well and sleep well above 42nd Street. But in Houston, the relentlessness of the heat, the stark discrepancy of bright cleanliness with belches of pollution down the road … in Houston, perhaps, I saw in sharper focus the inevitability of a future many are already living. A deepening divide between “insiders” and “outsiders,” the last gasps of an industry that suckles while it strangles. And today, of course, as the shock of Hurricane Harvey transforms into an increasingly familiar monotony of government bureaucracy, plodding clean-up, and despair of lives lost and put on hold, today it is up to all of us — victims and witnesses alike — to name these contradictions and fight for a more equitable future for all.

Fenceline Communities on Gulf Coast Face Mass Displacement & Toxic Pollution One Month After Harvey

Hilton Kelley interviewed by Amy Goodman - Democracy Now, September 26, 2017

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As many parts of the continental United States and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico recover from a devastating series of hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, Maria—we end today’s show with an update from one of the hardest-hit communities along the Gulf Coast: Port Arthur, Texas, a fenceline community with several massive oil refineries that flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Just last week, a fire at the Valero oil refinery in Port Arthur released nearly 1 million pounds of emissions into the air, prompting residents to stay in their homes for hours. Meanwhile, the 3,600-acre Motiva oil refinery in Port Arthur, that is run by Saudi Arabia, says it plans to continue a multibillion-dollar expansion of its facility, which is already the largest in the United States. This comes as hundreds of displaced Port Arthur residents, whose homes were flooded during the storm, continue to live in tents. And a number of Port Arthur residents who were renting and had to evacuate have been evicted.

For more, we’re joined by environmental justice activist Hilton Kelley, up from Port Arthur. He made history in 2011 when he became the first African-American man to win the "Green Nobel Prize," the Goldman Environmental Prize. Kelley is the executive director and founder of the Community In-Power and Development Association. His restaurant and home were both flooded during the hurricane. We last spoke with him on the phone just after the storm as he was helping save people. He joins us now in studio after attending a climate summit here in New York run by the Hip Hop Caucus.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to meet you in person, Hilton Kelley.

HILTON KELLEY: Thank you for having me, Amy. I appreciate being here.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you facing in Port Arthur?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, what we’re facing in Port Arthur, Texas, number one, is mass evacuations of our renters. We’re also facing Superfund sites. We’re also facing—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Superfund sites are.

HILTON KELLEY: Well, a Superfund site is an area that’s been deemed uninhabitable due to contamination of some type of toxin. And most of the time in our area, it’s petroleum waste or petroleum material that has been discarded in some shape, form or fashion, and it has rendered the land uninhabitable.

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going. What else?

HILTON KELLEY: And so, with that being said, many of our people are being displaced. I mean, there’s a lot of danger when you live in a situation like this. And also, we’re dealing with a situation with our elderly, in our community and in other communities around Port Arthur, Texas, where many people’s homes that were flooded, these folks were right at their 30-year mortgage payment, where they was about to be done with that. And now they’re having to start over because FEMA is offering them a loan instead of some kind of grant opportunity. And basically, most of the people in Port Arthur has been abandoned by FEMA. The Red Cross has reached its limit. And many people were in lines trying to get their $400 check, and now that’s gone. I mean, I’ve gotten thousands of phone calls and emails saying that "We need help now," to this day. And the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is just starting to show its ugly head.

Special Report: How Decentralized Mutual Aid Networks Are Helping Houston Recover from Harvey

By Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzáles - Democracy Now, September 12, 2017

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show in Houston, Texas, two weeks after Hurricane Harvey caused historic flooding and left residents to coordinate with each other to rescue thousands of people who were left stranded when officials were overwhelmed. Now that volunteer spirit of mutual aid has continued in the storm’s aftermath.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz joins us now with a report from her home town of Houston on how—some of the many Houstonians who formed decentralized networks to clean out flooded homes, feed thousands who lost everything, and offer much-needed counseling.

Welcome back, Renée. Why don’t you set up this piece for us?

RENÉE FELTZ: Thanks, Amy. It’s great to be back in New York. Like many people who live in Houston, in the Gulf Coast, I feel like I’m going through a bit of PTSD. I did have a good time. It was good to see people down there. But it’s a long-term recovery situation. And part of what I was happy to see and excited about was the fact that people that helped each other, neighbor to neighbor, are now helping each other in the long-term relief. And so, we spoke with a woman named Mary McGaha, and she’s going to introduce us, in this video, to her home that was destroyed. And then we’ll meet some of the volunteers that are helping to clean it out. We’ll also meet people helping to serve meals and to do counseling.

A Houston Wobbly’s Reflection on the USW Strike

By Adelita - Unity and Struggle, May 11, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Unions’ power is in decay and lately have been resorting to more creative methods in order to remain relevant. We’ve seen the Democrats putting their money behind the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Fight For $15 in Houston at the same time attempting to “turn Texas blue.” But this dependency of unions like SEIU and the United Steel Workers (USW) on the Democratic Party means they are severely limited in what they are willing to do in the realm of tactics. This along with union density being sharply in decline, as well as union power being undermined by Right-to-Work spreading to states like Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, means the unions are not up for waging anything close to a class struggle. Instead unions like the USW maintain their position as representing only certain interests and timidly bargaining around them.

Texas, like other Right-to-Work states, has a working class that is almost entirely disconnected with their own fighting traditions. There is no real culture of workers resistance, union or not, nor is there any historical memory of fighting strikes. However, recently in Houston we have seen a few significant developments unfolding in labor starting with the immigrant rights movement and detention center hunger and labor strikes, the Maximus Coffee strike and lockout at the end of 2013, the ongoing Fight For $15 “movement” and its semi-annual spectacles, and the most recent and equally significant, the USW refinery strikes. These developments are very exciting for Houston not simply because of the lack of historical memory of struggle to draw from, but also due to the high density of industry in Houston which is unlike most of the country.  This makes Houston a critical choke point for US capital and thus pivotal for workers struggle nationally.

Houston’s remarkably large industrial sector provides a lot of semi-skilled labor opportunities and has been instrumental in Houston’s ability to float the crisis better than most of the country. This and the extremely low levels of reproduction of the class, especially of black and immigrant people who make up the unskilled, low-wage, and casualized sectors of the economy. This leaves refinery work to be primarily composed of white and US-born Latino workers.

When the USW strike started it was the first strike the refineries and their workers saw in 30 years. Yet the USW was unable to carry out a successful strike nationally or locally. This is due to union decline mentioned above, but also because one-third of the oil industry is unorganized (many of which are contract workers). Also, the relationship between the USW and the Obama administration impacted the overall strategy of the strike. Only 5,000 workers were pulled out, a mere ten percent of all union workers, while local union leaders claimed this was part of their strategy. Overall this affected only about 20% of production which is pretty insignificant and we realized quickly that most workers had little to no information about the strike or negotiations. Locally the USW’s timidness looked like a handful of workers carrying signs at each gate while being unable to block scabs from crossing, or from even standing or parking on company property. The international didn’t even use their massive treasury to support their striking members.  It was clear that the USW was not in a position to be able to wage a political struggle against oil because they are beholden to the ruling party.

While 350.org Wins, Houston Continues To Be Sacrificed

By Perry Graham - Free Press Houston, November 14, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

“Today is an achievement,” announced 350.org founder Bill McKibben in an email Wednesday, refering to an agreement reached this week between the U.S. and China on reducing carbon emissions. McKibben took the opportunity to congratulate himself, his organization, and the participants of the march they organized seven weeks ago. He might as well have posed in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

This agreement likely has little to do with anything 350.org has done. It comes amidst intense jockeying by the two governments in promoting their different proposals for a Pacific-area free trade agreement, as well as a relaxation of tariffs between the two countries. Increasing the number of goods that are shipped halfway around the world before consumption is antithetical to reducing carbon emissions, and free trade agreements are notorious for limiting a country’s capacity to enforce environmental regulations. Taking a look at their track record, the last time 350.org tried to pressure Obama on climate — by showing up at the White House with 40,000 people — Obama spent the weekend golfing with oil executives.

There’s also the disappointing content of the agreement. The U.S. pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025. Five years ago, in the lead up to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Copenhagen, the proposal being discussed called for reductions of 25-45% by 2020, and the scientific predictions of the impacts of climate change have only gotten worse since then. Celebrating the reductions the U.S. has agreed to is major backpedaling on McKibben’s part, who has long been an advocate for reduction targets based on climate science. He also calls the agreement “historic” because it is “the first time a developing nation has agreed to eventually limit its emissions.” China has pledged to stop their emissions from growing by 2030; if it actually takes them that long, we’ll likely be locked into runaway climate change (chaos, catastrophe) for the rest of the century.

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