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

For the United States, Hurricane Katrina was one of the two defining catastrophes of the first decade of the second millennium.  It had the same degree of impact on the political fortunes of President George W. Bush and the Republican Party as the attacks of September 11, 2001 (although in the opposite direction).  More importantly by far, it yielded death and destruction on the same order of magnitude, although in painful slow motion that only exacerbated the victims’ suffering.  In short, it was by both political and humane measures, among the most consequential events of the past ten years.  As such, it should reveal a great deal about our politics and culture.  The authors of The Neoliberal Deluge, under the editorial guidance of Cedric Johnson, offer an explanation that locates the cause of the catastrophe squarely in neoliberal ideology and policy.  It is a compelling, and intuitively plausible premise.

Unfortunately, the book falls short of its promise.  Many edited volumes suffer from uneven quality among the various contributions, and this is no exception.  To its detriment, this particular collection has its strengths in the wrong places.  The best material lives in its more narrowly focused chapters, examining the damage done by the neoliberal state’s failure (or refusal) to guarantee or affirmatively to promote safe labor conditions, equal protection for women, and quality educational choices for all who seek it for their children.  It falters, however, in its attempts to establish connections to a theoretical framework.  This consigns the stronger elements of the book to floating about, convincing by themselves but together amounting to little more than a sampling of entirely valid but disconnected complaints against neoliberalism.

The collection’s central claim is that Hurricane Katrina was more a man-made catastrophe than a natural disaster.  Johnson writes in the introduction that the book’s authors “share the basic view that human agency and public choices were more to blame for the death, destruction, and suffering experienced along the Gulf Coast.  Forces of nature were instrumental, but policy choices made by local and national publics were more decisive.”  (pg. xx)

By the editor’s own standard, the success of the volume depends on how well the essays demonstrate a causal link between decisions made under open deliberation and suffering that could have been avoided under a different set of choices.  Moreover, these decisions should fall squarely under the rubric of neoliberal ideology.  This seems at the outset an entirely achievable goal.  The tragedy played out exactly as a critic of neoliberalism would predict.  The federal government had neglected to maintain the levees (a classic public good), which consequently failed and led to massive flooding.  Those people with the means to self-evacuate managed by and large to escape harm, others did not.  A set of political commitments premised on the notion that government does not work proved itself by its own incompetence, and congratulated itself at every step.  In short, the authors’ stated premise is completely plausible and entirely within reach.

In seeking to establish a causal link between public choices and the systemic failure that turned a survivable storm into a devastating flood, the authors resort in large part to a kind of intellectual outsourcing.  In Chapter One, “From Tipping Point to Meta-Crisis,” Chris Russill and Chad Lavin “argue that an insufficient notion of crisis organized the managerial strategies of key Bush officials” (pg. 4).  They cite Eric Klinenberg’s “social autopsy” of a deadly 1995 heat wave in Chicago as a more appropriate model of crisis.  According to Russill and Lavin, Klinenberg shows how political and economic structures left many elderly poor residents without air conditioning or access to medical care, leading to a great many preventable deaths.  He further shows how the neoliberal media discourse masks these underlying causes.  Russill and Lavin only reproduce this latter part of the social autopsy with respect to New Orleans.  They prove the cover-up, but not the crime.  The bulk of the important work is done offstage, in Klinenberg’s analysis.

All too often, the authors cite major figures of critical theory without sufficiently connecting the empirics of the case to the underlying analytic foundation.  These citations often resemble ritual invocations of scholarly saints rather than sound bases of analysis.  In Chapter 2, “We Are Seeing People We Didn’t Know Exist,” in an otherwise compelling argument about the impact of ostensible “colorblindness” on the distribution of vulnerability, Eric Ishiwata loads up his theory with references to Michel Foucault and Jacque Rancière that add little to the argument except the borrowed weight of previous scholarship.  To a lesser extent, Paul A. Passavant does something similar in Chapter 4, “Mega-Events, the Superdome, and the Return of the Repressed in New Orleans.”  He borrows from his own previous work as well as Giorgio Agamben’s in ways that seem appropriate and relevant, but he never adequately traces the practices that create the “consumer-criminal double” (pg. 88) or the “ever more frequent states of exception or states of emergency” (pg. 90) to choices that might have been decided differently in this case.

In short, while Passavan’t analysis yields compelling interpretive leverage, it does not reveal a strong form of agency on the part of officials responsible for the response to Katrina.  In describing the Superdome’s transformation from a location of consumption to incarceration, his evidence consists mainly of witness statements and newspaper headlines describing the stadium as “worse than a prison” (pg. 114).  He leaves unanswered the basic questions of agency.  Who designated the site as an emergency shelter?  What requirements does such a designation trigger with respect to providing food, sanitation, and medical care?  Were such requirements insufficient by design, or did the authorities simply bungle the execution?  This important work remains offstage, and core conclusions remain vaguely implied rather than proven.

The major exception to this form of outsourcing is Chapter 8, “Laboratorization and the ‘Green’ Rebuilding of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward,” by Barbara L. Allen.  She carefully and convincingly shows how the redevelopment of the Holy Cross neighborhood closely conforms to Bruno Latour’s “laboratory studies” model.  In her words, this reveals “the influence of local conditions and contingencies in the knowledge production process” (pg. 230).  Even in applied sciences, knowledge must be context-aware, conforming somewhat to the language of the community, and in turn the community must be conditioned to accept the scientist’s notion of progress.  Allen’s essay demonstrates clearly how this process has worked with respect to “sustainable, green” rebuilding projects in the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood.

Still, the tendency within this collection is to let certain major theories speak for themselves, without clearly connecting them to the case.  On the other hand, the volume’s major theoretical antagonists are treated very differently.  While critical theorists are allowed to speak for themselves (and in some cases, to speak for the authors), Jane Jacobs and Thomas Schelling are only permitted to speak through actor Brad Pitt and FEMA director Michael Brown (via pop-journalist and management guru Malcolm Gladwell).  This yields some exceedingly odd results.  It is implied in Chapter 7, “Charming Accommodations” (written by the editor) that Jacobs, an avid proponent of high density mixed commercial-residential zoning, would have approved of a sparsely populated neighborhood of stand-alone single-family houses.  Schelling is equally mistreated by Russill and Lavin, who write, “[i]t is difficult not to see the uptake of Schelling’s arguments [regarding tipping points] as consistent with the general strategy of benign neglect” (pg. 10).  This directly contradicts the conventional reading of Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior, in which he argues that, in the absence of corrective institutions, free markets often produce socially and individually undesirable aggregate outcomes.

This lack of any intellectual generosity, or even some small degree of self-skepticism, is a critical problem with the editorial thrust of the book.  Johnson, with no hint of irony, calls for “a mature understanding of the American political process” in the same paragraph that he dismissively calls the current President’s supporters “Obamanistas” (pg. ix).  Rather than balance the pros and cons of competing paradigms, Johnson promotes a non-disprovable logic.  He writes about the Magnaville project discussed in Chapter 3 (by Johnson and Geoffrey Whitehall):

[a]lthough this charitable project addressed the immediate needs
of some evacuees, its most enduring accomplishment was to advance
a privatized approach to relief and reconstruction and legitimate the
view that philanthropic work and individual agency can resolve the
deep inequalities produced by global capital (pg. xxxvii)

Even by doing good, the neoliberal program sins.  By this logic, one might wonder whether every bit of suffering that it produces is really a blessing, in that it discredits the neoliberal paradigm that, despite this volume’s failure to prove the case, really does seem to have caused or radically amplified the suffering surrounding the storm.


Chad Levinson is a doctoral student in Political Science at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the intersection between U.S. Politics and International Relations.

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1 comment

1 Paul Harris { 03.21.12 at 1:05 pm }

Great analysis. I wonder how many are aware as well that they shut down the New Orleans Airport, Amtrak, and Greyhound PRIOR to the evacuation, stranding many more of us who could not get out.

Paul Harris
Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”