Fighting Poverty with Passion
For a critical and unique vantage point into the status of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, do not read in isolation articles that praise organizations “eliminating poverty” (see: AmeriCorps VISTA) or that commend the city’s return to life (see: Why New Orleans is Better Now than Ever) or that antagonize government failure as the sole perpetrator of disaster dysfunction (see: NYT’s 10 Years After Katrina). The inundation of this self-congratulatory, neoliberal doctrine holds no nuance and reproduces our sinister bias in which we identify the manifestations of social disparities as equal to their origins. Instead, I implore other individuals working in this free market of social equity, like myself, to focus on the works of critical social scientists and critical interventional professionals. Look no further than the work of Vincanne Adams, among my favorite medical anthropologists, whose book (one of many), Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina (2013), discusses precisely these peculiarities.
Adams’ thesis asserts that in the aftermath of Katrina, recovery efforts formed a “second order disaster,” one that “had its own logic and rationales that were nearly as deadly as those that produced the floods in the first place” (Adams, 2013: 4). She argues that the post-Katrina recovery period draws on and produces an “affect economy” that depends on an unpaid and emotionally and morally driven labor force to do the work. Sound familiar? Adams also affirms that these trends are not unique to New Orleans; rather, this example of Katrina and New Orleans is simply one manifestation of a “shared vulnerability” under neoliberal capital. After all, the eleven-year struggle that New Orleans families have suffered since the storm is not a reflection of how the government has failed its people, but rather that this is a kind of “privately organized, publicly funded bureaucratic failure” and “inefficiencies of profit” that have devastated the city’s road to recovery (7) – or in a reviewer’s words, the “privatization of government services and the subjection of those services to market principles” (Parmett, 2014: 3). While the work borne from benevolent intentions is positively reflective of the human and social body, free labor provided by these individuals function as alibi for the continuation of the privatization of what should be publicly available services. What we do, then, is turn the responsibility of repair in New Orleans to citizens through which myriad for-profit, private entities can garner profit, otherwise known as philanthrocapitalism, in echo of Naomi Klein’s work (see: The Shock Doctrine).
In Adams’ words, “how does a surfeit of emotion generated by the inefficiencies of profit in recovery capitalism become itself drawn back into the economy as a new resource for profit – from being surfeit in the emotional sense to being surplus in the fiscal sense? …It is a condition that produces a kind of chronic trauma but also responds to it. It calls people to action, to try to help one another, and to fill up the gaps left open by a structure that fails to take care of them” (Adams, 2013: 124).
We must remain vigilantly aware of how our systems so critically influence the functional structures of society, and to remember that disaster capitalism is just one example, though enormous, of neoliberal economics – from education to public health to academics to criminal justice.