In October 2005, returning from my first trip to New Orleans since the week before the storm, I wound up in conversation with a 40-something white doctor who lives in Jackson, Mississippi. As a native Floridian, she had a sense of the damage that a Category 4 or 5 storm could produce even as far inland as Jackson; so, when Katrina was upgraded on the weekend before landfall, she headed for the city’s main storm shelter to volunteer. She was shocked when she arrived to find that no other doctors had volunteered. She expressed surprise and dismay that “people just didn’t step up.” When I suggested that’s one reason we need a strong central government, to mobilize responses to such crises, she immediately and animatedly dissented that she doesn’t believe in “big government.” When I asked who, then, was to have “stepped up,” her response was vague–individual doctors, unspecified voluntary groups. She had no conception that there are some things only large public institutions can do in a centrally organized way. When we changed the topic to maintain civility, I learned that she was going to visit her son, a University of Pennsylvania student. On hearing that’s where I teach, she related with glee that the previous semester her progeny had taken a course on Tupac Shakur: “Only at Penn, right?” That’s one facet of the neoliberal mindset; it can be broadening and culturally enriching to spend $40,000 a year for a child to learn about a dead rapper, but a counterproductive use of resources to fund government and public services.
This brings to mind Margaret Thatcher’s infamous quip, that there is “no such thing [as society]…there are individual men and women and there are families.” In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey quotes Thatcher’s succinct statement of the neoliberal ideological program: “Economics are the method, but the object is to change the soul.” The goal of this change is acceptance, as the unquestioned natural order of things, that private is always better than public, and that the main functions of government are to enhance opportunities for the investor class and suppress wages for everyone else. Hurricane Katrina and reactions to it throw into relief how successful that program has been.
The neoliberal worldview, which the late Daniel Singer, among others, memorialized as TINA–There Is No Alternative to market logic–has become the default position of common sense. Its smug moral standard is drawn from an idealized world in which equivalent individuals make choices in line with an abstract market rationality. Its viciousness seeped through even during the phase of mass-mediated compassion for the human suffering in New Orleans. The litany of victim-blaming questions frequently enough arose: Why didn’t they evacuate? Why would they choose to live below sea level? Why should we be expected to pay for their choices? Those questions no doubt had a racial edge regarding New Orleans, but it is useful to recall that Joseph Allbaugh, Michael Brown’s predecessor as FEMA director, denigrated FEMA as a huge “entitlement program” when he took over and promptly stonewalled rural white, heavily Republican Missourians with the same kind of accusatory language during the severe flooding of the Mississippi River in 2001. A critique that focuses just on race misses how the deeper structures of neoliberal practice and ideology underlie the travesty in New Orleans, as well as in the other devastated areas of the Gulf Coast. (Adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish, nearly 90 percent white, working class and reliably Republican, was virtually wiped off the face of the earth. Most of the parish’s housing was destroyed. No hospitals or public libraries have reopened, and only 20 percent of its schools are operating.)
The “chocolate city” quip for which Mayor Ray Nagin became notorious nationally was an instance of his scuffling to reassure angry black New Orleanians that he did not endorse the widely touted models of a smaller, whiter city that seemed to follow from his administration’s utterances and practices. And it is revealing of the depth and persistence of many whites’ racial double standards that the Mayor’s affirmation of the goal of retaining a black majority provoked a national and local firestorm of denunciation as narrow and racist, but the many calls for remaking New Orleans as a white-majority city, to which he was ultimately responding, generated no such reaction. But as it turned out, even though the most politically articulate and militant demands stressed the rights of renters [see Chris Kromm, page 22], Nagin’s main policy concession to the protest against the rebuilding proposals was to extend greater latitude to “homeowners.” Thus, in what was supposed to be a victory for popular interests against developers, renters were left out of the equation entirely and established as non-stakeholders. The irony is that blacks were disproportionately renters, and renters were disproportionately black. And roughly 90 percent of rental units destroyed were low-income affordable. Many, no doubt a preponderance, of black homeowners are not affluent, and securing greater civic voice for homeowners democratized the process, if only by slowing down the development juggernaut a bit. Nevertheless, the concession at the same time inscribed property ownership as the condition for entry into the arena of interest groups with effective civic voice.