Nature really kicks the door down once in a while and lets us know how humans have made a mess of things. A few years ago, Hurricane Mitch laid waste much of Guatemala and neighboring countries. The hills crumbled and topsoil sluiced into the sea. There were politics, class politics, in that sluicing, same way there's politics in most "natural" disasters. The United States had crushed land reform in Guatemala in the 1950s, with the CIA overseeing a coup against Arbenz and launching decades of savage repression. The peasants had to surrender the good flat land to the United Fruit Co. and scratch small holdings for subsistence into ever steeper hillsides, which in consequence got more and more eroded. Then came Mitch, and the hillsides and the small plots were washed away.

Hurricane Katrina . the aftermath is payback time for decades of stupidity, greed, pillage and racism. My thought is that the tempo toward catastrophe really picked up in the Reagan era. That's when the notion of this society being in some deep sense a collective effort, pointed toward universal human betterment -- the core of the old Enlightenment -- went onto the trash heap.

Once you stop believing in universal betterment, you stop investing in social defenses, like health care or flood control. You build your shining condo on the hill, put a fence round it and cancel the local bus service so the poor can't get at you. What was the final answer to the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alab.? Cancel the busses!

So collective effort goes out the window, and soon the society forgets how collective effort works. Tens of thousands of poor people standing on roofs in the Delta, and they haven't the slightest idea how to get them off. The ones they have brought to dry land they dump on the highway, where they stand as the Army trucks roll by.

There are all sorts of bargains the rich and the powerful in any society make with the poor. But one way or another -- through bread, circuses, the dole, the promise that Anyone Can Make It -- there's the offer of a deal: Don't make trouble; we'll take care of you. Empires collapse when the offer -- the "marginal rate of return" -- becomes empty: We won't take care of you. Or, we can't take care of you. We don't need you, and we're not frightened of you.

We're at that point here. Malthus, a Christian, proposed locating the surplus poor next to unhealthy marshes, in the hope they would get sick and die. How much of a difference is there between that and the "emergency preparedness" and evacuation procedures before, during and after Katrina? How did Washington perceive New Orleans and most of the Gulf coast? Basically as a vast huddle of the mostly poor and the mostly black. So, year after year, they denied funds to shore up levees that all experts agree are bound to give way in more than a Force Three storm. They hollowed out every state economy so that in the end, Mississippi's tax base was its cut of the gambling take, from floating casinos, because the Christians said the Devil's Work couldn't take place on dry land.

Mainstream politics in America has ceased to deliver the goods in anything but the meanest terms. The bigger the hog, the bigger the bucket of slops. There's no worthwhile opposition at the established level. Generally I think people are looking at the scenes along the Gulf coast and in the Delta with horror, at the realization of what our society has come to.

I hope we see the omens of larger resistance in the antiwar movement. No doubt about it, the people are turning against the war. The Bush crowd are truly on low ground, and the political levees are starting to crumble. They feel it in Congress.

Already there are private meetings, both sides of the aisle, evolving new positions on the war, exit strategies and so forth. Waiting in the wings are impeachment inquiries, hearings on Bush's low-balling of the casualties, the lack of body armor. Once Bush's base starts to crumble, these matters will move center stage.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.