Most political discussions of New Orleans since the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster have relied heavily on notions of the city’s exceptionalism. Right-wing pundits pointed to the city’s reputation for corruption and its citizens’ alleged complacency and poor planning decisions (e.g., “Why would they build below sea-level?”) as central causes for the disaster, rather than the austerity or hubris of the Bush White House. This image of New Orleans as a political backwater or banana republic was used by some Congressional Republicans to discourage further federal investment in rebuilding the city. Liberal activists and city boosters, in turn, reached for notions of cultural particularity to stake their claims for the city’s reconstruction, arguing that the Crescent City’s unique colonial heritage, architecture, and sundry contributions to American music and foodways were all precious national resources. The trope of native cultural authenticity ultimately served to unite right of return advocates who insisted that New Orleans would not be the same without its black working class neighborhoods, and the various commercial interests that comprise the tourism-entertainment complex, around a recovery agenda that has still reproduced inequality and segregation. This essay explores and rejects another prevalent notion of exceptionalism, the underclass myth that has been central to…
Once the door had been opened onto the phenomena of the chronically unemployed, it appeared there was no closing it. Which is to say, even though the intervening period—at least between 1945 and 1979—was characterized by something wildly different than rank unemployment, nothing about this fact altered the vision of revolutionary progress centered on the figure of the precariat. It would be fairer to say exactly the opposite. The “affluent society,” as Kenneth Galbraith described it in 1958, was the source of endless lament on the Left (the Right’s attitude toward the growing equality in wealth is another, but related, story).
The central problem with which we are confronted today, in other words, may be less the conflict between labor and capital, and more, as Margaret Thatcher put it, the antagonism between a privileged “underclass” with its “dependency culture” and an “active” proletariat whose taxes pay for a system of “entitlements” and “handouts.”
Unemployment is both a problem and a solution. It’s a problem for the unemployed, who want work, a solution for employers who not only want workers but also want the cheapest ones they can get.