VICTIMS OF A NEOLIBERAL MEGA-STORM: Hurricane Katrina Exposes Fatal Flaws of U.S. Individualism

By Finn, Ed | CCPA Monitor, October 2005 | Go to article overview

VICTIMS OF A NEOLIBERAL MEGA-STORM: Hurricane Katrina Exposes Fatal Flaws of U.S. Individualism


Finn, Ed, CCPA Monitor


Most of the media coverage of the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina focused on the desperate plight of the survivors and the chaos and violence that wracked the flood-stricken city of New Orleans. The victims - most of them poor African-Americans-were justifiably enraged by the tardy and sparse relief efforts of the Bush administration. Their shocked disbelief that an American city could so quickly fall into such a state of anarchy was shared by U.S. media pundits and commentators. The disaster exposed a deep unawareness on the part of most Americans of the true nature of the society in which they now live.

The stark reality could be seen in the pictures of state troopers assigned to surround and protect the few mansions and stores that had escaped the hurricane's fury, instead of trying to help the thousands of homeless refugees. This is a society in which property has become more important than people - or at least people who are black and poor. As one soldier curtly told a protester, "Go fend for yourself."

That just about sums up the current American ethos: the belief that each person and family are responsible for their own welfare, that it's your own fault-laziness or lack of ambition-if you become jobless or destitute. This culture of individualism goes hand-in-hand with a distaste for "big" government; with a conviction that the smaller the government, the better; that public programs should be slashed along with the taxes to pay for them.

Unfortunately for small-government enthusiasts, however, minimal public services are not conducive to the kind of massive rescue operation they need when disaster strikes. The "every-man-for-himself" response to a crisis triggers the kind of chaos so starkly displayed in post-hurricane New Orleans. It was the very opposite of the collective and cooperative teamwork that such a catastrophe demands. But collectivism and cooperation have become dirty words in a nation run by the high priests of private enterprise.

As psychologist Carrie Cooper has pointed out, social cohesion in U.S. cities like New Orleans can be maintained by such a reliance on individual hard work and religious faith-but only so long as some semblance of order prevails. In an emergency on the scale of Katrina, "the lack of a safety net of mutual support can strip away the civilized veneer and it becomes a terrible jungle."

I may be guilty of nationalist hubris when I suggest that such a cataclysmic social breakdown would never blight a Canadian city hit by a similar natural disaster. Nor would the aid and rescue effort be so badly mismanaged. We have our home-grown slashers of public services and taxes, too, but thankfully they haven't (yet) stripped us of our sense of social collectivity or the means to protect it.

In the wake of Katrina, we've learned how the Bush administration ignored the requests of emergency preparedness officials for more urgently needed flood control funding. …

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