The latest storm of the century saw most of America covered in snow and ice. Snow and ice are of course common in the winter months, but this particularly strong batch of winter weather saw areas like the South buried with little infrastructure in place to handle the aftermath. Nowhere has been hit harder than the state of Texas, where a largely privatized energy grid failed to meet the challenges posed by the catastrophic damage to essential power and water facilities. While American society failing to provide for its most vulnerable members is nothing new, the result of this failure hasn’t produced solidarity, but rather a partisan callousness and indifference that will only further serve to alienate and isolate.
As news began to disseminate from Texas and the South at large, an all too familiar mostly Liberal, but occasionally Left refrain began to echo across social media platforms: “That’s what you get for voting for Republicans.” This toxic statement is made one way or another to “Red States’’ in nearly every instance of crisis or hardship. It is a cruel ideology, focusing only on which political team its subscribers follow, and is sure to undermine any instance of solidarity or communal growth in the wake of shared trauma.
Thousands of people are still facing the reality of life without electricity and water as the bare bones, privatized infrastructure of most of the South failed in the wake of uncommonly severe winter weather. As of this writing, 80 people across the United States have died due to complications with electricity, water, or lack of shelter, with many more sure to come as recovery and rescue efforts continue. But rather than focus on the designed failures of leadership and the absolute cruelty of capitalist systems of governance, hatred and vitriol are being directed at the very victims of capitalism at its most entrenched.
This is American capitalism laid bare. Rather than attempt to correctly identify the cause of the systemic failure of capitalism, many are using the opportunity to get one over on “the bad guys,” grouping all Texans, all Southerners, or all Red Staters into a monolith of rubes who simply had this coming.
The groups most responsible for the failures of Texas’ energy grid are not the ones suffering from it. Rather, these failures disproportionately affect the largely poor, largely minority communities who are disenfranchised and alienated from the democratic process at all. A stark example came in photos of Austin in the wake of power outages. The line between haves and have nots was clearly drawn, as the working class area of East Austin faced blackouts and disruption, while more affluent areas faced little to no interruption in power or water services. These are not electoral lines, but economic lines that divide us.
While Ted Cruz may have had a difficult enough time to temporarily flee the country, it is unlikely that he would have suffered anywhere near the level of disruption and chaos that many of his constituents have felt over the past week. Instead, as usual, it is the poor, minority working class that will bear the brunt of suffering. It is the people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to stay warm in cars, the people watching their elderly relatives’ oxygen tanks slowly lose power, the people watching their homes burn with no water available in fire hydrants, and the people packing emergency rooms because they have nowhere else to go.
It is reductionist at best to write off the plight of people who live in Red States as “getting what they asked for,” and nearly homicidal at worst, as the lives of many impoverished communities are destroyed by policies over which they have no control. The people most impacted by the failures of capitalism do not have a say in policy by nature. They are systematically disenfranchised through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and overall alienation. They are politically homeless, as neither Democrats nor Republicans offer meaningful material aid in response to increasing crises.
Instead, the working class is further driven away from a sense of solidarity by those who treat politics as nothing more than an entertaining spectacle, where two teams vie for supremacy in an ultimately meaningless game. It is isolating, alienating, and ultimately unhelpful in the quest to build the kind of coalition that can topple the forces that push us all into lives of precarity and fear.
This is not to say that there isn’t this same kind of hatred exhibited when a Blue State breaks down. Many reactionary right wingers love the opportunity to point at the failures of energy policy in California as a failure of the Democrats, as companies like PG&E cause suffering every year during increasingly hot summers.
We should have learned from the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic that “Red State” and “Blue State” are meaningless designations that only exist in the bubble of politics as entertainment. The populations of these states are not monolithic, and therefore can’t be written off as such. Crisis does not discriminate based on arbitrary electoral borders. Instead it preys upon the weakest of us, wherever and whenever it finds them. That is why the suffering from the pandemic is found from New York to Arkansas, and why the failure of infrastructure can be found from newly blue Georgia to ruby red Texas. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic icon is as responsible for deaths in his state as Greg Abbott. Any distinction made is usually partisan gamesmanship.
What is lost in that partisan gamesmanship is the real cause of all of the suffering in these moments of crisis: capitalism. It does not make a profit to have surplus energy stored in case of emergency. It does not make a profit to house homeless in hotels that stand empty in the wake of a pandemic. It does not make a profit to ensure that electrical infrastructure is completely weather-proof. As a result, none of these easily achievable goals will be met, as the market is more than capable of ignoring a few deaths. The robber barons of the energy industry have made a handsome profit off of the energy squeeze in the South, and will continue to do so long after the ice has melted.
The failure of capitalism to take care of its people is a feature of the system. According to those who pioneered the privatization of Texas’ infrastructure, the system is working exactly as it should. “It’s not convenient. It’s not nice, it’s necessary,” observed William Hogan, the father of Texas’ privatized electricity market. There is no argument to be made with those who view these deaths as acceptable losses. To those in power, they’re numbers on a spreadsheet. Instead, it is up to those of us who purport to provide a meaningful political alternative to build solidarity and power outside of the current political system if there is any hope of breaking out of the hellscape that capitalism has wrought.
This country has the financial ability to cope with extraordinary weather events, and certainly has the administrative capacity. It has the capacity to deal with a pandemic, a housing bubble bursting, and a student loan crisis. What it lacks is the kind of class consciousness that illuminates the failure of market-based solutions to meet the needs of everyone in an equitable manner. Instead of using moments of crisis to dunk on perceived enemies, we should use this time to illustrate the lack of value capitalism has for human life, and to build a powerful coalition that can only be achieved through shared experience of suffering. Only then will we be able to stand the many, many storms to come.