Nine years later, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath are the subject of a sizeable body of social science literature arguing that this disaster was anything but natural. Vincanne Adams’s ethnography, Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith, joins this literature with a much-needed examination of the horrors experienced by ordinary New Orleanians at the hands of a “recovery effort” marred by embezzlement and dispossession on a staggering scale. Adams, a medical anthropologist, explores the devastated post-Katrina landscape with the sensibilities of her subfield, paying special attention to the affective phenomena produced by the hurricane and its aftermath. Though not particularly innovative theoretically, this brief ethnography is eloquent in its empathetic evocation of the spectrum of socially generated and mobilized emotion animating the New Orleanian landscape, ranging from mourning, depression, and anger to hope, faith, and solidarity. The book will be of interest to students of New Orleans and the American South, to those studying the effects of neoliberal policies on lived experience, and to investigators of the growing significance of philanthropy in public life. It is a swift, accessible read, at times moving and upsetting.
The argument traces an approximately chronological arc from criminal neglect to its consequences. In Chapter 2, Adams paints a somber picture of the interactions between government, corporate, and non-profit organizations. Journalists and government officials warned that canals dug to expedite shipping in the region had rendered the New Orleans metropolitan area vulnerable to storm surges (22, see also Giroux 2006:185). The Army Corps of Engineers, Adams charges, shirked its responsibility for maintaining the city’s levee system by subcontracting to companies such as Bechtel, the Shaw Group, and Blackwater, who in turn neglected [End Page 227] their duties in pursuit of more profitable contracts in Iraq (24). In the storm’s immediate aftermath, recounted in Chapter 3, many of these same military contractors were then put in charge of providing stranded New Orleanians with “relief”—newspeak for a regime of racialized, gendered violence often more concerned with protecting private property than preventing hunger and rape (29-30; see also Jones-Deweever 2011). Chapters 4 and 5 detail how “recovery” was then entrusted to the same corporations, who designed baroque bureaucratic procedures in order to give out as little as possible as slowly as possible, and maximize profits (31-36). When faith-based groups and other NGOs, as described in Chapters 6 and 7, stepped in to fill the gap created by government and corporate failure, corporations once more intercalated themselves into lucrative positions as middlemen and leeched off of the money and supplies mobilized by resourceful New Orleanians and their allies (172).
The callous carnival of depravity visited upon New Orleans was not an isolated phenomenon, as Adams (193) recognizes, but a particularly extreme example of what David Harvey (2005) has called “accumulation by dispossession.” Since such accumulation does not create new sources of surplus value, it is necessarily conflictual, turning the economy into a zero-sum game where the rich can only get richer at the expense of everyone else. If previously a rising tide raised all boats—albeit unevenly—now a lucky few soar upward on the storm surge while the rest wallow in the suffocating mud.
In its pursuit of profit unmoored from production, neoliberal capitalism exhibits an exacerbated tendency to produce a “surplus population” of people for whom it has no use as workers (Neilson and Stubbs 2011). This process is often racialized as workers belonging to privileged ethnic groups monopolize the sectors in which steady work is the norm and people of color are relegated to chronic under-employment and carceral control (Wacquant 2001, Wilderson 2003). Poor communities of color inhabiting city centers thus become an obstacle to capital formation and are often forced out by gentrification (Harvey 2012:78). In New Orleans, this process was accelerated through the intentional, selective neglect of these communities at all stages of the Katrina debacle—from levee maintenance before the storm to the volunteer efforts in its wake (37-45).