How will the Left rebuild New Orleans?
What’s unique about the post-Katrina reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, especially New Orleans, is that it’s much more of a political struggle than a technical or civic effort. The lines of battle aren’t neatly drawn, but to sketch out a set of competing agendas one could say that there is a conservative and a progressive approach to bringing the city and region back to life, back to something respectable, something where people can live beyond the day to day worries that now consume so many.
Much has been written about the political Right’s agenda in rebuilding New Orleans (I’ve written quite a bit about it on this blog. Jay Arena has a concise piece on the neoliberal agenda for the city) so let’s not linger there.
What about the Left? What kind of more participatory and egalitarian reconstruction could there be? For those of us who want something other than a society based on individualism, competition, and profit, what’s possible? And how will we achieve it?
In the weeks after the storm one model emerged. It’s called Common Ground. Common Ground is a mutual aid organization. Its guiding ideas are somewhat anarchistic. The group’s motto is “solidarity, not charity.” The rallying cry that it sent out to folks around the world was, ‘the government will not help the people of New Orleans, so the people must help the people themselves.’
After traveling to the city in December of 2005 I worked with Common Ground gutting houses, shuttling people and supplies, and cleaning debris. When I returned to California I was asked by a friend at a forum on the recovery efforts about government assistance. Her point was this: solidarity is wonderful, help from civil society is necessary and helpful, but without a massive governmental effort to fix what it helped to break, can there even be a true recovery? Don’t we need a modern version of Reconstruction, and don’t we need to go all the way with it?
I agreed with her wholeheartedly. I still think this is true. Practically speaking, there is nothing short of federal legislation and action that can restore the region to its pre-Katrina status (not that we should aim this low). Collective efforts like Common Ground (or the work of ACORN, Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity, to name the tip of the NGO iceberg) have brought something to the post-Katrina recovery that would otherwise have been missing. They’ve helped shape the course of history by empowering the people of the Gulf Coast to make choices and take chances on rebuilding their communities. Without the work of these groups government inaction would have crippled many hundreds of thousands of families.
New Orleanian and housing rights activists Mike Howells recently wrote a sharp critique of the mutual aid model of Leftist activism in New Orleans. According to Howells, the massive non-governmental effort is actually playing into the hands of the neoliberal agenda to privatize numerous functions of government, to scale back the welfare state, dismantle public services like schooling, and more:
“Dovetailing the actual downsizing of local public services is a relentless propaganda campaign by the corporate media and government agents that depict private relief efforts almost exclusively in glowing terms. News broadcasts by local television stations invariably carry a story that praises the relief efforts of this or that non-governmental organization. Newspaper articles applauding private relief groups for their efforts locally are a staple of the Times-Picayune. At the local political level the Mayor and the City Council incessantly heap praise upon the good works of charities and community groups involved in the Katrina rebuilding effort. At the national level conservative think tanks closely linked to the White House, most notably the Heritage Foundation, drum up position papers maintaining that the rebuilding of New Orleans is an endeavor best led by the private sector. The propaganda apparatuses of national foundations can also be counted on to cheerlead the contributions of non-governmental organizations to the Katrina crisis. Collectively the cheerleading now underway for the humanitarian assistance of civil society groups to Katrina survivors gives the impression that help is not simply on the way but actually here. But the reality is that even with the incredible outpouring of generosity from private citizens and civil society groups since the storm humanitarian services for the people of the city are woefully inadequate. New Orleans is a city in ruins and New Orleanians are a people in despair. The good works of non-governmental organizations are not the answer to the crisis even though ruling class propagandists want the people to believe they are.”
While I don’t quite see the efforts of non-governmental organizations playing the smooth role of legitimizing the government’s withdrawal from its obligations that Howells points out, I do believe he is touching on an important dilemma for the Left. It’s important for the Left to recognize what it ultimately cannot do. It cannot be responsible for the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. It can only the political force that compels the state and major corporations to cease their gutting of the region, and to turn full circle, to reinvest in the people and places most devastated.
Mutual aid in spite of the government is a beautiful and essential thing, especially in times like these. There is no reason to expect the Bush administration, Governor Blanco, Mayor Nagin, or the Congress to help. The political climate lingers too far to the right. This is what makes Common Ground’s work so important. But it must be paired with the long term nitty-gritty of moving the struggle from one of mutual aid to one that changes the grounds of political action. We need to prepare for the long haul. We must build a movement capable of forcing the federal, state, and local governments not only to stop their assaults on social welfare, but to provide the resources and structures that people need to rebuild their lives. We want a restoration of the pre-Katrina scene, and we want to move beyond, to expand general welfare, to provide healthcare, transport, quality education, low-cost housing, honorable police and city government, job opportunities for all, living wages, and much more.
The movement in New Orleans still lingers on as primarily a mutual aid effort to provide those things the government is not. If we didn’t collectivly provide these things for our brothers and sisters it’s true that the people of the Gulf Coast would starve, their homes would crumble and be seized, and they would be forced to wander off quietly into the night of America. At this point in time the government really does not seem to care. But as this first year commemoration passes it’s time for the Left to think about moving from this battle to survive to an offensive political strategy aimed at forcing the state to once again provide for the people.
On a related note, I saw Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” at its debut in the New Orleans Arena last week with 7,000 other folks. Excellent film. It looks to me like Spike is attempting to build bipartisan and multi-racial support for a genuine reconstruction effort. His film is critical the weak government response, and especially the lackadaisical attitude of the Bush administration. He also correctly portrays the savior of the people as the people themselves. However, he doesn’t conclude that because the people pulled themselves from the floodwaters that they will also rebuild their communities alone or with the support of some yet to appear web of civil society and mutual aid. It will take a federal commitment – billions of dollars – dealt out in a just and intelligent manner to restore social and environmental health. Seems to me like Spike is aiming right at this.
“When the Levees Broke” should be required viewing for all Americans. Not because it’s the definitive statement on Katrina, but simply because it’s probably the only thing capable of restarting the conversation we were supposed to have after the floods. Rember that one? That national conversation about poverty and race? That conversation about a government’s obligation to its people? The conversation that almost got started when we all looked into our televisions and saw those faces staring back at us from the sinking city of New Orleans.
Yeah, that one.