A Letter from America from the April 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
By the time these words are published, the blizzard of 1978 that inundated the northeast coast of the USA with the largest snowfall in anybody’s memory, obliterated all highways and shut down most of the means of transportation, will be but a memory. They are being written on Feb. 8, the second day of the Governor’s Emergency and the pending Federal Disaster edicts that have put Boston and Massachusetts, generally, in the control of State and Federal authority. After more than 24 hours of steadily and rapidly accumulating snow— to a record total of 27 inches—plus hurricane-force winds of up to 100 miles an hour throughout the period, the clean-up operation has just begun. It is the second full day of following orders to remain at home and nothing much is moving in the Greater Boston area other than emergency equipment, police, soldiers, underground rapid transit, and so on.
Up-to-the-minute information on what is happening is being provided by the various TV and Radio stations and networks—as long as there are no breakdowns in transmitting equipment, and enough of a working staff is on the job, electronic news dispensing goes on. So there is no lack of the usual things that accompany disasters to write of—rescuing of trapped motorists in the thousands of stranded cars on the highways surrounding the city, life-saving operations along oceanfront residential areas where houses by the dozens were being destroyed by angry tides, general cooperation among “intrinsically competitive” (as some “scientists” would have it) human beings—and so forth. We shall leave that aspect to the professional journalists and concentrate upon some thoughts of what is happening from a socialist perspective.
To make a beginning, let us examine the state (small s) and its function in situations of this nature. The smaller divisions, such as city, town and country governments, soon must appeal to the main, centralized, authorities for help, so State (large S) and Federal politicians and troops take over. The Mayor takes a back seat. A sour-voiced Mayor Kevin White, of Boston, speaking over the radio via telephone, averred that “nobody” wants a Federal Disaster situation—something that is required before Federal troops and equipment can join in the rescue and clean-up efforts, it seems. (In Boston’s case, a convoy of army trucks has already arrived from a nearby Federal barracks while some 40 troop-and- equipment carrying planes are scheduled to land at the airport as soon as runways are cleared.) So the Governor of Massachusetts and the Federal politicians take over and the free publicity afforded them had a monetary value in the millions, particularly so in the case of Governor Michael Dukakis who must campaign for re-election this year.
But all of this is neither here nor there—really—to the mass of the working class. What is vital to the ruling class is that this enforced—and generally unpaid —respite from the daily grind does not last too long. When airports and railways are again operating, the well-heeled can take a well-needed vacation in sunnier climes. The rest of us stay put, trapped by financial circumstances even though no longer trapped by snow. Even the Federal troops will resume their daily grind of military duty, whatever, in their usual quarters when the Boston emergency is over.
Which brings us to the whole question of armed forces, why they exist, and whether or not a brand new, world socialist, society would need them. We have written, in the past, and will no doubt write more in the future, of the need for military in a world of competing nations and hostile economic classes. At this time, we shall touch upon this other duty that armies are frequently assigned—rescue and cleanup operations in areas of natural disasters. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons and deluges of rain or snow can well be expected to occur in a socialist world—such disasters are a-political. A well-trained and well-equipped force will always have to be available to handle such emergencies.
But note well: guns and other lethal weapons serve no purpose in humanitarian operations. Discouragement of and protection against looting, the so-called ugliest crime? (ugliest because it strikes at the vitals of capitalist rights). In Boston it didn’t take long before arrests became commonplace, seemingly concentrated in black, ghetto areas. Whv did the looters not satisfy themselves with merely taking merchandise, avoiding wanton destruction of property, as one TV newsman asked? It might well be that the vandalism among these black workers was a reaction against “whitey”. To militant blacks, even black businessmen can be thought of as a part of the white “Establishment”.
In any event, ethnic and “racial” hatreds could not exist in a sanely-organized world where the economic basis for such hatreds would be absent. Nor is looting conceivable in a society based upon common ownership and free right of access by all mankind to all of its needs. Is such a society impossible to achieve? Only if it proves to be impossible to organise a majority of the working class for such an immediate goal. Notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, socialists insist it is possible and shun all other political activity. This, is the (socialist) message from snowbound Boston, Mass.