The political philosophy of a man-made disaster: A review of THE NEOLIBERAL DELUGE

The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans
Cedric Johnson (ed.)
University of Minnesota Press

Reviewed by Andy Cook

New Orleanians understand what is meant by the assertion that Hurricane Katrina was a man-made disaster. Sure, a hurricane is a force of nature, but the extent of its damage wouldn’t have been as great if the canal walls were stronger, the evacuation wasn’t bungled, and the MRGO didn’t exist. At first glance, all of these factors seem unfortunate, but largely unrelated. If one can draw any connection between the problems that led to Katrina being such a nightmare, it might simply be a worldview that values profit and expediency over a collective responsibility for the common good. This is where The Neoliberal Deluge begins.

The Neoliberal Deluge is not a book for everyone. It’s something like a more academic, more New Orleans-centric version of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which is not exactly a page turner. After reading a random paragraph from Deluge over dinner, an artist friend of mine dropped the book on the table and sighed “I can’t believe you do this to yourself.” That is to say, Deluge is a dense read. Added to the fact that the collection of essays—ranging from political theory to media criticism to race studies—focuses on the problems of New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery, and you have a book that the average reader probably won’t take to the beach. If, however, you have a keen interest in the socio-political examination of our fair city’s recovery process, Deluge should be on your list.

I’ll state at the outset that while studies of the New Orleans recovery process do interest me, I’m not a scholar of political science. As evidence of this, my first step upon picking up this book was to look up the definition of “neoliberal.” This is what I found on Wikipedia:

Neoliberalism is a contemporary political movement advocating economic liberalizations, free trade and open markets. Neoliberalism supports the privatization of nationalized industries, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society. The term neoliberal today is often used as a general condemnation of economic liberalization policies and advocates.

Kind of what I figured, but nice to have it spelled out. Essentially, the state of affairs in the world today.

In this book, Johnson and his team of contributors attempt to illustrate how neoliberal policies both set the stage for the scale of Katrina’s devastation and shaped almost every aspect of the recovery process. As you may guess, their conclusions are quite damning.

That Katrina was mostly a man-made disaster, and that post-Katrina New Orleans is a very different place than it was before the storm, should not surprise anyone who’s paying attention. But the explanations of why have ranged widely over the last several years. Many point fingers at systemic racism, an indifferent government, and/or coastal degradation at the hands of the oil industry. Johnson et al. address these issues, but place them all under the umbrella of the neoliberal agenda. They argue that that nearly every failure in the Katrina story can be traced to the government’s abdication of responsibility for the common good into the hands of the private sector.

Johnson comes out swinging in his introduction, targeting the Bush administration for its decision to cut $641 billion from the Army Corps of Engineers budget in 2001, hobbling Louisiana Flood Control efforts in the following years. His point is not to blame Bush specifically, but to illustrate an example of how neoliberal downsizing of government limits our ability to act preventatively when it comes to disasters. In the following chapters, the contributing writers critically employ this lens on myriad aspects of the recovery process, breaking their subjects into four categories:  Governance, Urbanity, Planning, and Inequality.

In the Governance portion, contributors Chris Russell and Chad Lavin zero in on pop-sociologist Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of the “tipping point” and how it has been effectively used by the neoliberal establishment as a sort of “get out of jail free” card. They cite former FEMA director Michael Brown’s use of the concept in his September 2005 congressional testimony, in which he explained what went wrong during the disaster response. In his testimony, Brown lists a number of extenuating circumstances surrounding the response, claiming, ala Gladwell’s metaphor, that the circumstances brought about tipping point, and afterward the whole thing went topsy-turvy, out of his control. Brown concludes, therefore, that FEMA was helpless to do anything about it. After all, who can argue with a tipping point?  I read the book and thought it was a great idea!

Of course, the trouble with Brown’s argument is that FEMA’s job is to prepare for those tipping points and limit their fallout. According to Russell and Lavin, the neoliberal philosophy encouraged FEMA (and other governmental organizations like it) to set that point extremely low. By hollowing out its resources and limiting its scope of responsibilities, FEMA purposely shifted the purview of disaster response away from itself and into the hands of private organizations and charities. Enter Brad Pitt.

In the Planning portion of the book, Johnson himself takes a look at the Make It Right Foundation’s rebuilding efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward. After taking a moment to acknowledge the legitimately good work MIR has accomplished in the Lower Ninth (they have, after all, built some pretty cool houses for people to live in), he goes on to lament the essentially suburban nature of the neighborhood’s design (single family units, lots of grass, ample parking). This may at first come across as New Urbanist snobbery, if not for the context in which he places it: an era of “de-concentrating poverty.”

The last decade has seen countless public housing projects demolished in cities all across America. The proponents of these demolitions (typically developers and city officials) use the term “de-concentrating poverty” as a rationale for why this must happen. If we don’t let the poor people live so close together, they won’t behave so badly, is the idea.  Johnson and a handful of other Deluge contributors argue that this rationale skirts the real issues of poverty (job loss, failing public education, addiction) in favor of a quick fix. But this rationale is, of course, popular with neoliberals, as it suggests that poverty can be “solved” by private developers instead of a government willing to invest in jobs and education.

Now Johnson’s MIR critique becomes clearer. When New Orleans lost nearly all of its public housing after Katrina (addressed further in another chapter of Deluge), many New Orleanians got the message that they were not welcome back. In the Lower Ninth rebuild, MIR had the opportunity to create a functional, dense, and diverse neighborhood that could have welcomed many, many more people back home. Instead, by deferring to an out-dated notion of ‘the American dream’ and a dubious notion of poverty de-concentration, they created a thinly populated and amenity-deficient architectural fantasyland.

Other chapters in Deluge cover issues like school choice in the Recovery School District, the Superdome as a tool in the prison-industrial complex, and what neoliberals really mean when they claim to be “colorblind.” With the exception of one chapter that deals with Sri Lanka, the book stays devotedly local (though I noticed that none of its contributors actually live in New Orleans). It sacrifices depth in any particular subject for breadth in order to depict the reach of neoliberalism’s insidious tentacles. For this reason, experts, particularly local ones, may find holes in the specifics of the writers’ assertions. Hopefully this won’t distract from the broader goal of the book: to use New Orleans’ recovery as a case study for the impact of the neoliberal philosophy on a beleaguered American city.