Undone by Neoliberalism

Undone by Neoliberalism

Before the storm, neoliberalism shaped the social and economic inequities of New Orleans; after Hurricane Katrina, it worsened them by making government the tool of corporations and investors.


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.

Treating property ownership as the sine qua non for policy consideration didn’t raise any eyebrows locally or nationally, except among the ranks of those who were left out. Neither the black Mayor nor the majority-black City Council has shown initiative in taking into account, much less defending, the interests of poor New Orleanians. The city’s evacuation plans notoriously failed to anticipate adequately poor people’s circumstances and needs. Landlords began evicting tenants without a hint of due process as soon as water receded and rumors spread of possibilities for extracting exorbitant rents from construction workers. The state officially prohibited evictions before October 25, but that prohibition was academic for the tens of thousands of people dispersed in shelters around the region and nation. And even that minimal right was flagrantly ignored with impunity. New Orleans City Council president Oliver Thomas complained in February that government programs and agencies had “pampered” poor people and proclaimed that they should not be encouraged to return. As he put it, “We don’t need soap opera watchers right now.” At least one other black councilmember expressed support of his view, as did the New Orleans Housing Authority receiver.

This all attests to the triumph of neoliberalism as both ideology and policy regime, and that triumph is seamlessly compatible with the discourse of racial politics. Black property owners, after all, are stakeholders as well as whites. Demonizing government to cut public spending and regulation, plundering the public treasury through privatization and rationalizing both through the myth of magical market efficiency all underlie what happened to New Orleans. The storm exposed the consequences of neoliberalism’s lies and mystifications, in a single locale and all at once. The levees on the 17th Street and London Avenue canals, it turns out, failed because they were inadequately constructed. In the words of the Independent Levee Investigation Team, “safety was exchanged for efficiency and reduced costs.” This was largely the result of federal underfunding, partly the result of the Army Corps of Engineers’ skimping, partly state and local officials’ temporizing and lack of government oversight or, in neoliberal parlance, cutting government red tape. The breach of the Industrial Canal, and much of the flooding of St. Bernard Parish, resulted from storm surge that pushed up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a boondoggle channel dug four decades ago as corporate welfare that was obsolete almost from its opening.

It’s certainly understandable that Mayor Nagin found himself overwhelmed and that he occasionally lost composure in the first days of a sui generis disaster, and the negative comparisons of him to New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s handling of 9/11 are absurd, if not racist twaddle. I took the subway with no problem to my office, not much more than a mile up Fifth Avenue from the World Trade Center, and then walked to my apartment in Alphabet City, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on 9/12. Nearly all New Orleans’s infrastructure was destroyed, overwhelmed or inaccessible after the levees failed; not even most of Manhattan below 14th Street was in that condition after the World Trade Center collapse. Nagin’s finest moments were his no-nonsense denunciations of the Bush Administration’s dereliction and his passionate demands for federal assistance.

Nevertheless, at every point the Mayor has been hamstrung and undone by his commitment to a neoliberal approach to government. Less than two months before Katrina, the Nagin administration determined that it couldn’t afford to provide transportation to evacuate. So the city produced DVDs to distribute in poor neighborhoods, alerting residents that they would be on their own in the event of a major storm. Since then, Nagin and other local officials have governed unwaveringly in line with neoliberal presumptions, even as doing so may have stifled repopulation and reconstruction. First, while the city was still submerged, Nagin fired some 3,000 municipal employees, many, if not most, of whom had lost their homes or been displaced. Later, the Orleans Parish School Board laid off 7,500 teachers and other employees. No serious consideration was given to the possibility that maintaining a public workforce could help people return sooner by giving them income, providing services and augmenting the cleanup and reconstruction efforts.

A year after the storm, municipal services remain barely existent. Fewer than half the schools in Orleans Parish are open. Most of those are operating as charter schools, as privatizers have seized the moment. Just about half of the bus routes and fewer than a third of the buses in New Orleans are in service. My family and countless others attest to the hassle of trying to deal with the irrationality of privatized utilities companies. Still, both Mayor and Council can imagine only scenarios in which the “private sector” will be stimulated to come to the rescue and lead a renaissance. This means they can imagine only policies aimed at boosting investor confidence–cutting spending precisely when they should be increasing it–or drawing on corporate “expertise.”

And this isn’t just a New Orleans thing. St. Bernard Parish, practically without revenue, has outsourced much of its police service, bringing in DynCorp, a private military-services firm–what used to be called mercenaries. It’s difficult to understand how paying them at least three to four times more (some estimates run as high as $950 per man, per day) than the local deputies with whom they’ll be grouped will save money. In the days after the storm Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco hired Blackwater USA, another such firm, to provide “security” in New Orleans, during the period when subsequently disproven rumors of chaos and widespread violence titillated the nation and fueled the right’s pornographic racism. The state even outsourced identification of bodies after the hurricane, in some cases, apparently, to firms with histories of fraud and misfeasance.

It’s at the federal level, where the responsibility should be heaviest in times of such great disaster, that the practical realization of neoliberal vision is most striking. The Bush Administration’s refusal, in the face of overwhelming evidence of the danger, to fund the New Orleans levee project is well-known and criminal. Michael Brown’s incompetence and lack of engagement at FEMA became breathtakingly clear to the public shortly after Katrina’s landfall. His e-mail records show just how cynical his appointment was. As Katrina steamed through the Gulf, he hesitated to declare a disaster area in its Florida wake, expressing concern that some might file fraudulent claims. Presumably for the same reason he temporized until the storm had come ashore on the Gulf Coast. On August 29, hours after the storm hit Louisiana, he issued a press statement urging us all to contribute to a list of sixteen recommended private charities to support relief efforts. That was a strange enough abdication of his responsibility as director of the federal agency charged with managing emergencies, but the Red Cross was one of just two secular agencies on the list. On the 31st, responding to a memo alerting him to critical conditions at the Superdome and Convention Center, he wrote, “Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?” A few hours later he replied to a frustrated staffer in the field, “I’m working on an organization chart and staffing plan now.” During those days he found time to respond to e-mails from random citizens either praising or criticizing his efforts and forward them, along with self-pitying comments, to his staff.

Brown was in over his head. But the larger point is that he and his bosses–Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and President Bush–have so little regard for government that they couldn’t conceive of the agency’s functions, even to go through the motions. They could connect only to do public relations damage control, punish enemies and outsource plunder to cronies. When the chief executive officers of the parishes hardest hit by Katrina and then Rita participated in a discussion on local public television in late October 2005, each of them was trenchantly critical of FEMA’s shoddy performance (and the Red Cross’s, by the way). They also complained bitterly about Halliburton and the other private contractors hired to do cleanup. The main charge was that the firms refused to coordinate with others and demanded additional pay for every action. Such is the practical truth of “market efficiency.”

There are groups and individuals struggling mightily to provide services and advocate for the interests of poor and displaced New Orleanians, renters and others likely to be simply cast aside by the market imperative. But they lack resources to be effective in the current political environment. On the national scale neither the labor movement (in either institutional variety), nor women’s, civil rights or environmentalist groups, nor, least of all, the Democratic Party seems prepared to advance and fight for a clear alternative vision.

As time goes on, fewer and fewer Americans will recall that government can do anything but make war and suppress dissent. Unless current patterns change, the struggle for New Orleans’s future may be a more extreme, condensed version of the future of many, many more people as the bipartisan neoliberal consensus reduces government to a tool of corporations and the investor class alone.

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