The fire alarms didn’t sound. The residents only survived because a neighbor called 911 as flames shot from the chimney of Building 14. Ground floor residents didn’t know they were inside a burning building until first responders banged on their doors. They grabbed whatever they could in the seconds that remained before fleeing into the snow in pajamas and sneakers.
Building 14 is—or was—a 3-story apartment block running along the wooded edge of The Park on Brodie Lane in southwest Austin. Brochures for the complex highlight the property’s curved swimming pool, granite counter tops, and indoor fireplaces. Built in 1997 at the beginning of the Central Texas tech boom, complexes like The Park on Brodie Lane have become emblematic of the sprawl along the I-35 corridor.
Over the past 2 decades, the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area’s population has nearly doubled from 1.25 to more than 2.2 million. Flammable, stick-frame residential mega-complexes built by non-union crews at breakneck speed have mushroomed throughout the city, flattening Austin’s quirky cityscape into that same boxy architectural blur one might see anywhere in the United States.
Less visible, however, are the workers who suffer injury and death from these speed-ups due to falls, asphyxiation, and scaffolding collapse. Since 2009, Texas has led the country in workplace fatalities, with most of the deaths occurring in construction and energy production. With few safety regulations enforced, building and servicing these residences is dangerous.
Winter Storm Uri revealed that living inside them can be dangerous too.
On the first night of the storm, after losing power for 8 hours, someone in Building 14 lit one of those fancy fireplaces featured in the brochures. Eyewitnesses say the chimney caught fire. A former assistant manager has alleged the complex’s owners, Lincoln Property Company, a Dallas-based firm with a vast portfolio, never bothered to clean the chimneys. Some residents have speculated that the management forgot to change the batteries on the fire alarms as well.
After the fire, the management team sent the Building 14 survivors a quick email: “it would be in your best interest to secure a new home immediately.” No one was permitted to return. One survivor lost her cat as she fled the fire. Even though her unit had not been affected, residents say the management threatened to have her arrested for trespassing if she returned to rescue her pet. Building 14 residents—now former residents—were left to huddle in their unwinterized cars or brave the city’s unsanded, unplowed roads towards who-knows-where, with no gas stations open and few tow trucks able to handle the ice. Even if they could make it to one of the city’s “warming shelters,” they were only open until sundown.
Little more than a shorthand version of their tragedy made the local news: yet another apartment fire, no lives lost.
It was just 8 degrees on the first day of the storm—12 degrees colder than the all-time low of 20 degrees, set in 1909—and 6.7 inches of snow had fallen, twice the amount of snow accumulated over the previous 35 years combined. Historically, winters here are so mild that many South and Central Texans don’t own coats, even fewer own snow boots, and snow shovels are something you only see on TV.
But climate change, itself a direct outcome of global capitalist production, caused the polar vortex to wobble; the arctic air spread over the southernmost regions of the US, including Texas, where racist policing eats over a third of our cities’ budgets. Austin can afford high-tech surveillance and less-than-lethal bullets to use against protestors, it can afford to keep police officers who murder Black people on the payroll, but we can’t afford to winterize pipes or keep a few snowplows on hand.
In fact, while an Austin Fire Department battalion fire chief gave out his cell phone number in a televised press conference and personally conducted search-and-rescue operations, police departments across the state protected empty buildings. With most of the region huddled under blankets without power or water for over 24 hours, Houston police chief Art Acevedo tweeted that he was “deploying plainclothes police in unmarked vehicles” to guard commercial properties. In the city of Plano, cops arrested and jailed Rodney Reese, a high-school student in a T-shirt trudging home in the snowstorm after his shift at Walmart, for the crime of walking on the edge of the snow-covered road instead of on the snow-covered sidewalk.
Stories like these—callous landlords, young Black people kidnapped by police, whole populations without basic services—are so common they quickly evaporate from public awareness – if they ever manage to make the news cycle in the first place. Texans are reeling: from seniors who suddenly lost their low-income housing in the cities of San Angelo and Lockhart to the Houstonites who, when Winter Storm Uri hit, still had blue tarps thrown over their unrepaired homes from Hurricane Harvey’s damage in 2017.
A month after the storm, volunteers were still delivering pallets of drinking water to 50 separate apartment complexes in Austin. Most of the residents were charged full rent.
How (and Whom) the Market Failed
Winter Storm Uri’s devastation is the result of a long chain of utterly predictable failures: rushed construction, the non-enforcement of already weak safety regulations, just-in-time production, and capitalists’ collective inability to pay attention to any long-term prediction that threatens short-term profits. The state had a week to prepare for the storm and did nothing. For a decade, they knew that a storm like Uri would come, yet they ignored the warnings.
This is not a matter of mere incompetence. Capitalism incentivizes profit, not disaster-preparedness-for-its-own-sake. Capitalist infrastructure is at once haphazardly organized and prone to domino effects; one disruption in the chain affects everything else. The storm hit. The crude oil wellheads froze. Ice blocked natural gas pipes and knocked coal plants offline. The wind turbines didn’t spin—not because wind power doesn’t work in cold temperatures but because Texas energy providers didn’t bother to buy warming kits. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) pulled power from 3 million households in order to keep power flowing to hospitals, fire departments, and police. Across the state, lights flickered then died. Water mains burst. Water filtration plants malfunctioned. Even with the power diverted, hospitals struggled to stay open with neither heat nor running water. Hospital staff were instructed to fish their own feces out of broken toilets. Seriously ill patients were discharged. Children froze to death and burned to death. Patients died trekking through the snow on foot towards dialysis clinics. Those battling COVID at home watched the needles of their oxygen tanks tick towards zero. Statewide, the final death toll from the storm itself was 111. The death toll from the storm’s long-term effects will be far higher.
Yet this is not an example of capitalism in crisis. It’s an example of the system at work. As people froze to death, Comstock’s CEO explained to investors how they “hit the jackpot” by selling natural gas at massive markups: “Frankly, we were able to sell at super premium prices for a material amount of production.” That’s just how it goes. Some capitalists win, other capitalists lose. Devastation, however, is always outsourced to the public.
The Limits of Liberal Explanations
Because their diagnoses assume capitalism must be preserved, commentators and pundits have kept the roots of this crisis buried using an often-contradictory “Texas exceptionalism” to explain away the disaster. The “Texas exceptionalism” thesis contends that incompetent Texas Republicans have created an ideologically separatist, Wild West capitalism responsible for the failures during the storm.
But there is no such thing as a special Texas-type of capitalism. Capitalism is capitalism. Texas exceptionalism is dangerous schadenfreude because it assumes ideology is more impactful than the norms of capitalist production, distribution, and reproduction. There was nothing particularly exceptional about how the capitalist state functioned during this crisis. Texas is not an outlier. It’s a canary in the coal mine. Not only is capitalist production driving climate change, but states are not prepared for the organizational challenges that climate change presents – blue states included.
If we want to understand this crisis so we’re not doomed to relive it, we have to abandon Texas exceptionalism’s main propositions. These include:
ERCOT is incompetent:
It has been argued that ERCOT’s incompetence caused the crisis. However, ERCOT’s function is to ensure profitability, not public health and safety. Since February, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has become a household name. Ostensibly, ERCOT’s job is to oversee the delivery of electricity to consumers and ensure supply meets demand during peak usage. Its decision to implement blackouts left millions without power during the freeze. ERCOT has defended its decisions, arguing the system was moments from months-long collapse (as if ERCOT had no hand in the grid edging so close to collapse). Though ERCOT deserves the harsh criticism it has received, complaints about its alleged incompetence obscures the nature of what ERCOT actually is: a private consortium of energy executives and political appointees whose job is not to monitor the grid’s reliability but to make sure the rules reliably work in favor of large, energy-producing corporations.
Grid failures are, of course, a problem for capitalist energy consumers, as well as residential consumers. But while smaller energy companies went bankrupt, Winter Storm Uri was a windfall for larger firms like Comstock. Natural disasters wipe out some sectors of capital to the benefit of others. While smaller retail energy providers folded or had to declare bankruptcy, energy generators made money hand over fist. In a wider sense, the Financial Times reported on how Bank of America (and Wall Street more generally) gained hundreds of millions in trading revenue due to the failed grid.
ERCOT certainly failed average Texans; however, it did not fail its main constituency, the multinational networks of capitalists who profit from Texas labor and land.
Texas separatism caused the crisis:
Pundits have widely argued that separatist ideology—a spiritual inclination towards secession, if you will– led Texas to create an independent grid vulnerable to shocks and, as a result, when the storm hit, there weren’t enough high-voltage DC transmission lines or variable frequency transformers to connect Texas to nearby grids. This is incorrect.
While it’s true that Texas is on a separate energy grid, this separation is not ideological, but born from the history of Texas’s political economy and the particularity of its natural resources. Yes, Texas Republicans absolutely use the rhetoric of separatism to sway voters; but these appeals to autonomy are just that: rhetoric. If Texas having its own grid is about Texan self-reliance, why did a third of ERCOT’s Board of Directors live outside of Texas? For example, one board member lives in Michigan and served as the chair of Michigan’s Public Service Commission. Another is an economics professor with a joint appointment at University of Maryland and University of Cologne. One is a Canadian who is currently vice-president of compliance for a Canadian energy company. And why are the “Texas” energy companies themselves multinational corporations, sometimes even based in other US states or overseas?
It wouldn’t have happened under Democrats:
Pundits sympathetic to Democrats have characterized the crisis as a result of Republican shenanigans. And Republican shenanigans certainly abound. Republicans seem particularly eager to enlist Texans as martyrs, with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick claiming Texas seniors would gladly die of COVID to avoid mask mandates, former Governor Rick Perry insisting Texans would rather freeze than accept help from the federal government, and current Governor Greg Abbott opening bars and restaurants to 100 percent capacity mid-pandemic with no local opt-out.
But, while it’s true that Republicans oppose accountability and break out in hives at the very mention of public planning, historically, the Democratic Party has behaved no differently when it comes to oil and gas. Twenty-five years ago, Texas’s Railroad Commission, which controls and regulates Texas’s oil and gas industry, was solidly Democratic. In fact, Democratic administrations created many of the protectionist policies that pundits now imagine to be uniquely Republican. Turning Texas blue would change very little, if anything, when it comes to the Texas infrastructure.
Politicians “dropped the ball” on winterization:
Texas politicians did not drop the ball on winterization because politicians don’t winterize industries. After a freeze in 2011 caused generators to fail, the Public Utilities Commission of Texas recommended a winterization process to protect power plants and transmission equipment. They recommended annual reviews to check for cold-weather preparedness, insulation, and workforce development. But a recommendation is no more than acknowledgement of a necessity. The Public Utilities Commission’s recommendation essentially asked individual corporations to spend their own money to protect the public in the event of unusual weather. Why on earth would they do such a thing? There’s no profit to be made in protecting the public, and capitalist entities exist solely to amass profits.
Even if there were political will to require individual corporations to winterize, enforcement would require additional political pressure. Taxpayers would almost certainly bear the burden of winterizing the private sector—it’s unlikely these companies would agree to pay out of their own pockets. Even if regulations and enforcement were agreed upon and the public agreed to pay for the winterization, the individual corporations would have to be monitored to make sure they didn’t cut corners to pocket the public’s money.
What’s more, the realities of just-in-time production would still go unaddressed—storing energy reserves keeps the public protected, but keeping reserves eats into corporate profits. Pipes didn’t burst because elected local yokels dropped the ball. There was never a plan, never even a structural or organizational mechanism, for winterization. Nor is this problem specific to Texas. Just as Texas wasn’t prepared to be buried under snow and ice at temperatures close to zero, energy providers in Alaska, for example, probably aren’t ready for a spate of 120-degree days.
Liberal explanations miss their mark
There are solutions to these problems. We have the know-how to tackle climate change and its effects. Even small steps, like moving from fossil fuels towards renewables and having fully municipally controlled utilities might have vitiated the storm’s effects and made emergency intervention possible in this particular case. But our problems will not be solved with more careful planning or improved technocratic management: working-class suffering is always the logical outcome of capitalist cost-benefit analysis.
There’s no genuine solution compatible with a mode of production based in profit. What do these capitalists do that we can’t? (And, seriously, could any system have failed worse?) Collective survival is only possible insofar as we set our hopes beyond the capitalist horizon.
The Energy Racket in Texas
This might come as a surprise, but electricity provision isn’t organized primarily for the benefit of households. It’s organized for profitability. Because Texas is so resource-rich, energy producers, large businesses, and the state have merged into a conglomerate that serves the interests of corporate profitability. This conglomerate only responds to popular interests when pressured, and it stops addressing problems as soon as the pressure ends. Electricity generation in Texas, as in the rest of the country, has primarily been about the creation of cheap and abundant power for capital and the US military. The delivery of power to households has been the public cover used to justify what amounts to subsidizing energy-consuming corporations to generate profits for energy-producing corporations.
But Texas’s energy grid was not designed to split Texas from the Eastern and Western Grids out of a desire for political separatism. It was, in part, designed to avoid the widespread power outages of the 1960s and 70s, the energy crises of the 1970s and 80s, and later organized to avoid the disastrous effects of California’s energy deregulation at the millennium’s end.
Texas’s recent failure during Winter Storm Uri was a consequence of what had made the Texas grid profitable (and, as a biproduct, sometimes even stable) for a half century. As US energy markets developed in the early 20th century, it was, in fact, the utility companies themselves who sought state-level regulation to avoid the threat of municipal control on one hand and intense competition on the other. Unlike other industries, early 20th century utilities were capital intensive and high risk.
Economies of scale required massive up-front investments. If cities dumped a company for its competitors, or if cities decided to take over the utilities themselves, the individual company’s investment was at risk. So, in exchange for being recognized as legal monopolies, utility companies agreed to the state-level regulation of prices and reliability standards. State regulation after an economic crisis was an opportunity for the utilities, because the monopolies could rely on the state to cover sunk capital and reduce competition. In other words, deregulation hasn’t always been the best way for Texas capitalists to make a buck. Capitalists seek divergent relationships with the state depending on their individual interests, market position, and the general level of infrastructure development.
In fact, Texas’s unique grid is actually a product of federal intervention. Such regulation began with the passage of the Federal Power Act in 1920, which created the Federal Power Commission, a body monitoring hydroelectric power generation and the natural gas and electric industries’ interstate activities. It was assumed that utilities would be a natural monopoly due to economies of scale, so private companies were allowed to function with public oversight. By 1932, the 8 largest utilities in the US controlled 73 percent of the energy market. The Public Utility Holding Company Act was passed in 1935 to break up these monopolies. The Act limited the size of utility companies and required them to serve geographically contiguous and integrated areas.
State-wide electrification through the development of the Texas Interconnected System (TIS) began in the 1940s. The northern and western parts of the state were already generating electricity, but the Gulf Coast region needed electricity to mobilize the military during World War II. Existing utilities were combined with new hydroelectric power generators along the Texas river systems, which provided energy for factories and shipping yards closer to the Gulf. Manufacturing, which increased 4-fold between 1929 and 1945, depended on the ability of the state to provide power. Until the federal government mandated rural electrification with the passage of the Emergency Relief Act in 1935, only 2 to 3 percent of rural Texans had access to electricity – despite rural Texans comprising nearly 40 percent of the population.
While the rest of the country was pursuing cheaper energy by breaking up monopolies, capitalists in Texas devised a protectionist market for their energy producers to avoid losing assets to companies from northern and western states. Texas energy companies opposed the busting up of monopolies and the regulation of interstate trade for 2 different reasons. On the one hand, despite being a large market with a vast reserve of fossil fuels, Texas utility companies were relatively underdeveloped compared to the rest of the US, and they didn’t want to have to compete with more established firms.
On the other hand, Texas was now home to some of the best and most easily tapped petroleum and natural gas reserves; subjecting them to federal regulation wasn’t favorable to local capitalists. However, once the market was fully developed, other capitalists throughout the US and inside Texas were itching to remove these very same protections.
In the 1960s and 1970s, energy prices rose across the US. The Northeast blackout of 1965 was one consequence—over 30 million people lost power. In fact, ERCOT was actually formed in response to a North American Electric Reliability Council federal mandate that sought to prevent another blackout like the one in 1965. Texas’s massive oil and gas reserves helped the state avoid such blackouts, and the relatively high price of Texas oil buoyed the energy sector.
Later, federal regulation of natural gas prices in the interstate markets pushed Texas to diversify into lignite, nuclear, and coal, which gave capitalists in Texas an economic advantage over the rest of the US. Despite its physical separation from the Eastern and Western interconnections, Texas followed the same pattern as the rest of the nation, and its separation allowed it to shift first away from coal to natural gas and then again towards renewable energy, especially wind, faster than the rest of the country.
One of the impacts of deregulation in Texas, though, is that it can no longer rely on high energy prices to maintain its counter-cyclical pattern of economic success. Now Texas is as vulnerable as every other part of the country to global changes, and, of course, economic and climate crises in Texas affect the rest of the world, too.
In other words, capitalists behave differently in Texas not because they’re ideologically distinct, but because Texas’s resource wealth has led them to pursue different strategies. Texas is not some kind of exceptional space for deregulation. In fact, in the 1990s, proponents of deregulation attacked ERCOT as an impediment to unfettered trade. Texas capitalists are neither “deregulators” nor “protectionists.” Capitalists operating in Texas move between strategies of deregulation and protectionism depending on which approach helps the largest energy corporations wrest the most profits out of a given legal framework.
Profitability, not ideology, governed these policy shifts. These policies were pursued by Democrats like Briscoe, White, and Richards with as much gusto as Clements, Bush Jr., Perry, and the rest of the Republicans.
And, of course, deregulation is by no means unique to Texas. For almost half a century now, we’ve seen this on a global scale. Every industry in the US went through a period of massive restructuring to allow new entrants into once tightly controlled markets like telecommunications, airlines, and banking services. Republican and Democratic presidents and their cabinets pursued these policies.
In Texas, that meant a change in policy to allow energy corporations to grow and develop beyond state borders. As these utilities grew, they morphed into some of the largest multinational corporations in the world. And capitalists from outside Texas operate here. Vermont-based Green Mountain Energy is one of the largest retail energy providers in Texas. Houston Light and Power turned into the energy giant Reliant, which is now owned by NRG Energy based in New Jersey. Chariot Energy is owned by the Korean Hanwha Group. The Dalles Electric Lighting Company and the Fort Worth Electric Light and Power Company merged to become TXU Energy, which is now a subsidiary of the “Texas-based” multinational Vistra Energy. Before Vistra took over TXU, it created ONCOR Electric Delivery Company, now one of the largest providers in Texas, even though it’s now a subsidiary of California’s Sempra Energy.
It’s ludicrous to think capitalists in Vermont, California, and Korea, are keen to keep Texas off the Eastern and Western grids out of some sort of pro-Texas chauvinism. There is no Texas-specific solution to any of these problems. Nor is there a way to pretend as if Texas’s problems are not already connected to broader economic processes.
We’re on Our Own
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t assign blame for capitalism’s failures or demand accountability. It’s only to say that shuffling the personnel of capitalism’s management team won’t be enough. The devastation of Winter Storm Uri was not an error. It was the logical outcome of a twisted system. There is no capitalist solution to stopping climate crisis or protecting us from its effects. The pandemic has ravaged the US’s already inadequate health care system; Winter Storm Uri exposed just how rickety its for-profit framework is.
In Texas (but not only in Texas) a commercial and residential construction boom made possible by stick architecture designed to speed up production, cut corners, bust unions, and exploit immigrant workers has left renters extremely vulnerable to both weather events and parasitic landlords. And Uri has revealed how the outrageous fortunes spent on militarized policing have gutted our municipal budgets: no drivable roads, no clean water, no medical services, no snowplows, no sand lots, no back-up generators at assisted-living facilities, no heat in the hospitals.
Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, angered the nation with his tweet storm: “No one owes you [or] your family anything, nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this.” But Boyd was just saying the quiet part out loud. And the quiet part was already perfectly clear.
No one is coming to save us. We’re on our own.
In our time of need, we turned to one another. Mutual aid groups across Texas raised money for hotel rooms (though the hotels raised their rates by 1000 percent); truck owners drove generators through neighborhoods; churches made meals; individuals delivered bottled water; people took stranded strangers into their homes. One man’s life was saved when a neighbor responded to his social media plea for an oxygen tank. So many good people rose to the occasion with creativity and communal concern. There were so many heroes.
But we might want to ask ourselves: why do we always need to be rescued? Why do we need aid in the first place? In mid-March President Biden gave a speech. He said, “Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do. In fact, it may be the most American thing we do.” Sure enough, Joe. But why is there so much darkness to begin with? And why can’t we manage keep the fucking lights on?