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Neoliberalism, the New Social Darwinism, and New Orleans

Numerous critics have noted the current administration’s lack of effective response to the New Orleans catastrophe and explained it merely in terms of incompetence and callousness. Something more fundamental, deeper than Katrina’s storm surge, is at play here, however.

The administration’s “response,” especially regarding the poor (predominantly people of color) who lacked the wherewithal to get out of the way of Katrina, is the direct result of several decades of the neoliberal scuttling of the social good, the abandonment of the last remnants of a positive interventionist liberal state (the so-called “social safety net”) held up as sacrosanct from the time of the New Deal.

The neoliberal ideology of the “free market” as savior and provider, the belief in the capacity of untrammeled capitalism as “problem solver” and fixative for all — espoused by DLC Democrat and neo- and paleocon Republican alike — indubitably played a major role in what has taken place in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The abandonment of the social good, commonly referred to as “privatization,” not only weakened the levees below Ponchatrain over the course of successive Administrations. It defunded and degraded emergency response infrastructures, and worse, created a habit of neglect that put a rapid rescue effort out of question.

“Neoliberalism” must be understood as a return to the age of classical “laissez faire” liberalism, that last quarter of the 19th century here in the US when “the market” ruled; that age commonly referred to as the “Age of the Robber Barons” when the federal government served no one but the rich and the US Senate was nothing but a “Millionaire’s Club.” (The bourgeois referred to it as the “Gilded Age.” Mark Twain called it “The Great Barbecue”.)

The dominant secular justification for the untrammeled right of the rich to rule in that era came to be known as “Social Darwinism,” propounded initially by the conservative British ideologue Herbert Spencer and his Ivy League admirers, all academic servants of power. Drawing from a skewed misreading of Charles Darwin’s breakthroughs in the understandings of evolution, Spencer and his colleagues concocted the notion of “survival of the fittest” as the primary motor force for the advance of human “civilization” and “progress.” Combined with an older notion of an American mission preordained by a Christian god and pseudo-scientific racist “explanations” of non-white inferiority, this Social Darwinist thread effectively moved into the American mainstream, where it still resides, commonly explained as “natural law.” An important component of the current neoliberal mindset, social Darwinism has had a horrific resurgence, exemplified by both the promise of a Bill Clinton “to end welfare as we know it” and the constant conservative refrain to “get the government off our backs.”

The “laissez faire” age of classical liberalism created mammoth social crises. Void of any social protections, that earlier era of dog-eat-dog aggrandizement for wealth and privilege led to unprecedented upheaval, economic dislocation, and social violence. The situation became so bad that during the height of depression in the 1870s and 1890s, Federal troops had to be mobilized to crush strikes and “insurrection” in America’s major cities. At the beginning of the last century, threats to stability from below ultimately fostered demands from some of the most farsighted liberals for “Age-of-Reform” concessions to preserve the social order. In response to that earlier age of unimpeded abuse and privileged accumulation, the rise of a positive, reform-minded state came in the form of the “Progressive Era,” followed ultimately by the “New Deal” response to the crisis of the 1930s.

At its highest level, the neoliberal offensive of the last several decades worked to roll back the concessions won during the New Deal and after. That incessant “privatization” of all that was once deemed part of the common good and necessary for the general welfare, starting with Carter/Reagan and reaching new heights with Clinton/Bush, set the stage for the catastrophe at New Orleans. A resurgent notion of Social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” so fundamental to right-wing ideology predetermined that the response of the Federal government would be initially all but non-existent, slow in arriving, and heavily militarized when it finally materialized. In the meantime, the long-disparaged “underclass” of New Orleans, the cast-off flotsam and jetsam of unrestrained capital, was left alone to literally sink or swim.


Allen Ruff, historian and long-time Madison political activist, author, staff member at Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative and radio voice on WORT (89.9fm, Madison), is a founding member of US Out Now, the Madison Area Peace Coalition, Jews for Equal Justice, and a member of Solidarity.


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