- Neoliberalism in New Orleans
“This book is not about Katrina. It is about Americans who have managed to survive a second-order disaster … about the effects of privatizing our most public social services, and about the failure of these services to respond to Americans in need because they are tied to market forces guided by profit” (1). So begins Vincanne Adams’s study of neoliberal policies enacted in the wake of Katrina, policies put into play by the U.S. government’s market-driven response to social welfare programs in general and to disaster recovery in particular. But it is the very particular recovery from Katrina that consumes Adams in this book. She amasses abundant materials that show the inter-workings of government contracts, banking practices, recovery and rescue programs, faith-based initiatives, and charity-for-profit in Katrina’s wake, and she surrounds this data with narratives gained through extensive interviews with citizens of New Orleans who became ensnared in the distinctly entrepreneurial recovery of their city. In some sense, the rebuilding of parts of New Orleans has breathed new life into the city, making for an impressive glossy portrait of its post-Katrina fate. But what Adams sketches out here is not a pretty picture, and it is a picture that shows the fault lines on which profit-driven disaster recovery is likely to proceed anywhere in our increasingly disaster-prone times.
The “markets of sorrow” that made booty of human suffering in this particular disaster all stem from market-driven governance policies and their quick implementation in the post-Katrina recovery. These include government dispensation of money and contracts, typically via FEMA and Homeland Security operations, to the likes of Blackwater, Halliburton, and Bechtel for initial rescue and temporary housing (notably the infamous and toxic FEMA Trailers); government subcontracting of the huge federally-funded state-run initiative known as the Road Home Program to the private-sector corporation ICF International; and implementation of the Small Business Administration loan program which forced victims not only to pay for their own long-term recovery, but to pay interest on that self-sustaining venture. In a careful and precise analysis of the workings of these markets, Adams shows how they failed, again and again, to help the people most in need to come even close to rebuilding their homes or renting affordable housing, while they proved remarkably successful as profit-making ventures for the corporations and agencies that used public money for generating private profit. The SBA program alone produced what Adams calls “disaster-induced debt” of the same kind that keeps poor nations perpetually in debt to richer ones, bringing global neoliberal capitalism home to a devastated American city.
But there is more. These “markets of sorrow” were variously supported by what Adams calls “labors of faith”—notably the volunteer labor of faith-based groups who descended on the city by the hundreds of thousands, whose good works replaced direct government-funded rebuilding assistance and transformed New Orleans into a veritable missionary outpost. In addition, the more general operations of numerous charity initiatives unfolded through the market’s penetration of humanitarian assistance. This vast “charity economy” continues to extend from the labor of house-gutting and rebuilding by volunteers to the entrepreneurial initiatives of both government and corporations that basically conscript volunteers and the poor into the service of private-sector firms managed by what Adams identifies as “intermediary” organizations—such as the HandsOn Network and Points of Light Institute. Charity is not so much given, but administered—relying on free-market strategies, and blurring any effective distinction between “for profit” and “nonprofit” initiatives. In the case of disasters like Katrina, a particular kind of emotional response that should rightly fuel volunteer action and philanthropic contributions gets channeled through an “affect economy” in which a surplus of emotion serves market agendas. ICF, which made a mess of the Road Home Program, resurfaces as a major investor in faith-based programs, offering its services (for pay) to help such groups organize themselves according to successful...