Articles Issue #17
BY Cedric JohnsonSeptember 4, 2015
BY Cedric JohnsonSeptember 4, 2015
Most political discussions of New Orleans since the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster have relied heavily on notions of the city’s exceptionalism.1 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.2 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.3 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 the defeat of welfare statism in the United States, and especially influential in shaping the market-oriented reconstruction of New Orleans. At the heart of the underclass myth is the view that “Negro poverty is not white poverty” to quote President Lyndon B. Johnson.4 In defending his influential 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then serving as Assistant Secretary of Labor under Johnson, argued that it was “necessary to depict, and in terms that would be felt as well as understood, the internal weakness of the Negro community and the need for immense federal efforts if that community was to go beyond opportunity ‘to equality as a fact and as a result.’”5 Moynihan was writing in the aftermath of the 1966 mid-term elections which saw substantial Republican gains in Congress, and his arguments about the distinctiveness of black poverty reflected the accommodation of social liberalism to cynical electoral strategy, an attempt to appease growing reaction to desegregation and angst over black militancy among white voters. By adopting a focus on the cultural pathology of the black family—i.e. the prevalence of single parent, female headed households—he hoped to enlist the support of the “more conservative and tradition-oriented centers of power in American life whose enthusiasm for class legislation is limited indeed.”6 Moynihan’s Cold War political calculus created an opening for the rise of the New Right, and despite his best intentions, his and other Great Society liberals’ view that black poverty was rooted in culture rather than economic structures impacting the working class more generally has cast a long shadow over how many Americans think about inequality. Under this third notion of exceptionalism, it is not the city of New Orleans that is deemed unique, but rather its poorest black denizens, who are seen as a culturally distinct and deficient when compared to the middle class.
As the Katrina crisis unfolded, early sympathetic portraits of survivors in corporate media eventually shifted to familiar tropes of looters, snipers, and welfare cheats.7 While national and international media broadcasted aerial footage of residents calling for help on rooftops, swollen corpses floating in city streets, and throngs of desperate citizens clamoring for relief at the Superdome, some elites like real estate developer and restaurateur Finis Shellnut and Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker were loud and frank about how they hoped this would all end, with the large scale removal of the poor from the metropolitan region. Baker reportedly exclaimed that the catastrophic flooding and mass exodus of the city’s poorest were acts of divine providence: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”8 Shellnut was even more direct in expressing his revanchist vision: “Our party is about to get going again. The storm destroyed a great deal and there’s plenty of space to build houses and sell them for a lot of money . . . Most importantly, the hurricane drove the poor people and criminals out of the city and we hope they don’t come back.”9 Such open contempt for black, poor New Orleanians was not limited to the local power elite, as politicians and residents in other jurisdictions near and far braced themselves for the wave of evacuees, opening shelters and announcing relief programs with mix of fanfare and suspicion. As the media spectacle of the disaster faded into memory, it became all too common in the years after Katrina for locals in the farming towns and fishing villages of the Acadiana countryside, as well as Baton Rouge, Houston and elsewhere to quickly pin real and perceived spikes in property crime, drug arrests, and homicides on “those New Orleans people.”10
Although they expressed concern for the disaster’s victims and the decades of failed attempts to remedy poverty, wealthy do-gooders, volunteers, and liberal anti-poverty scholars continued to abide the same views of the poor as a species apart, lacking the wherewithal, work ethic, and daily habits allegedly possessed by the professional and managerial strata. Scores of renowned liberal sociologists and historians signed the “Moving to Opportunity in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina” petition authored by Xavier Briggs and William Julius Wilson which served as an opening salvo in the push to demolish the city’s remaining public housing complexes and test the widely held liberal hypothesis that breaking up zones of concentrated poverty and dispersing the poor residentially would enhance their access to social networks, jobs, and bourgeois tutelage.11 Philanthropists followed suit, with some like media mogul Oprah Winfrey and Canadian automotive parts maker, Frank Stronach building settlements for evacuees in suburban Houston and rural Louisiana respectively, where they hoped the poor might escape the crime and decay of inner-city New Orleans.12 Actor Brad Pitt created the Make It Right foundation to rebuild homes for residents in the area of the Lower Ninth Ward north of St. Claude Avenue, one of the last sections of the city to see electrical power and water utilities restored.13 Pitt’s project found widespread notoriety and support because it targeted a community with high levels of homeownership. Unlike the public housing tenants who were banished and demonized in public discourse, Lower Ninth Ward residents provided a respectable symbol of black working-class aspiration within an elite-driven recovery context that privileged the interests of property owners.
Aside from the efforts of C3/ Hands Off Iberville and other public housing advocates in the city, the Left beyond Orleans parish seemed either unable or unwilling to mount opposition to the prevailing poverty dispersal agenda.14 No major national demonstrations or campaigns were waged to save public housing in the city, despite the fact that many academics, journalists and activists advocated the right of return for all displaced New Orleanians and expressed concerns about “ethnic cleansing” of the city. Anti-public housing sentiment could be found at the grass roots as well. More than once during the first few years after Katrina, I can recall trying to engage native New Orleanians—black and white, current residents, and expatriates—about the pending demolition of public housing, only to hear most of them insist, often in hushed tones, “Well, those places really needed to be torn down, brother.” Indeed, the fate of public housing and of the city’s K-12 school system, which underwent wholesale privatization, revealed the limitations of racial justice framing as a way of comprehending the Katrina crisis and the complex politics of reconstruction, and the weaknesses of the contemporary Left which has been largely ineffective in challenging the concrete processes of neoliberalization—i.e. the gutting of the liberal welfare state and the promotion of new modes of regulation better suited to capital flows and profit-making—that have been central to the rebirth of New Orleans over the past decade.15 Both Megan French-Marcelin and John Arena offer critical analyses of the role of underclass discourse in advancing rent-intensifying real estate development, and making the contemporary housing crisis. Here I want to complement their work by examining how the prevalence of conservative ideology regarding the poor has impacted the working lives of New Orleanians.
The first part of this essay briefly revisits the Cold War origins of the underclass myth, the belief that chronic urban poverty is caused by the distinctive, dysfunctional culture of the poor. Despite their benevolent intentions, the arguments offered by Moynihan and his devotees obscured social reality and how class works. Since Moynihan, Left political forces in the Crescent City and throughout the U.S. have had difficulty contesting the culturalist arguments proffered by Cold War liberals, Reagan Republicans, and New Democrats that disconnect the working lives and quotidian interests of the black urban poor from those of other Americans. Over the past decade, underclass myths have circulated widely through Katrina-related literature and art, and public policy debates. Such myth making has shaped widely held perceptions of who deserved assistance and support during the immediate crisis, how reconstruction should be funded and carried out, and whose interests should matter in the “new” New Orleans. In response to liberal anti-racism and underclass ideology, the second half of this essay offers an alternative approach to thinking about inequality that draws on Marx’s notion of the industrial reserve army and illuminates the political uses of unemployment and its economic consequences. Against liberal accounts that emphasize the social damage inflicted by racism and exclusion, I examine how racial animus and labor segmentation worked within the process of proletarianization, the continuous reproduction of a compulsory wage labor force, in the city since the 2005 disaster. Labor arbitrage and deregulation, the commodification of formally public goods and services, and mass layoffs of public employees had the immediate impact of inducing vulnerability for workers while creating favorable labor market conditions for capital during the formative context of recovery and reconstruction, and the longer-run restoration of tourism and real estate-driven economic growth.
The Enduring Power of the Underclass Myth
Although the practice of characterizing the poor as lazy, immoral, and uncivilized is a long-standing feature of industrial culture, the contemporary American notion of the underclass finds its more immediate foundation in Cold War liberalism, with Moynihan’s 1965 report on the black family serving as a cornerstone.16 Moynihan advanced an analysis that would only grow more powerful and influential, as the New Deal coalition fragmented, and as the visions of social justice generated by interwar labor militancy, popular front communism, and even progressive Keynesianism lost their hold on the popular imagination. Moynihan’s thesis evolved within the context of two overlapping social conflicts. The first, the battle to overthrow Jim Crow segregation, was primarily sectional and openly political. The second, black urban poverty and unemployment, was national and had its roots in peacetime industrial demobilization and changes in the forces of production, namely the increasing use of automation and cybernetic command in manufacturing. The culminating saga of civil rights reform provided the impetus for his work, but Moynihan’s 1965 report spoke more directly to the festering problem of relative surplus population in Northern cities. He explained this problem, not through economics however, but through the alleged cultural deficits of black families that he argued were matriarchal and pathological. His thesis and those of his contemporaries like Oscar Lewis and Kenneth Clark were penned out of a sense of anti-racist commitment and sympathy for the poor, a conscious political attempt to marshal state aid to address urban inequality and immiseration.17 Their arguments emphasized alleged cultural pathology as a legacy of racism and called for anti-discrimination policy and targeted services, but as Touré Reed illustrates here, when addressing the plight of urban blacks, Moynihan rejected the kinds of social democratic measures advocated by labor and civil rights progressives.18
Millions of Americans joined the middle class in the decades after the Second World War, benefitting immensely from a combination of labor protections, broadly redistributive measures, and supply-side stimulus, such as the G.I. Bill, FHA mortgages, Defense Department contracting, strong investments in public schools and higher education, and the construction of the Eisenhower interstate highway system, which literally paved the way for suburban residential and commercial development.19 Moynihan and other Cold War liberals held that blacks had been left behind by such progress primarily because of institutional racism (e.g. redlining, the use of restrictive covenants, and other forms of housing and labor market discrimination), which denied access to growing prosperity, jobs, and housing. This focus on ethnic barriers shifted the terms of debate on the Left from the underlying forces of technological unemployment towards the cultural sphere. Although Moynihan’s intentions were altruistic, his work was inevitably taken up by Reagan Republicans as justification for dismantling the welfare state and for turning to aggressive policing and hyper-incarceration to manage social inequality. The Cold War liberal tenets expressed in Moynihan’s 1965 report, that poverty is due primarily to institutional racism and the dysfunctional culture of poverty, have only grown more hegemonic with the end of the Cold War and the era of neoliberalization, which has not only marketized public goods and services, but eroded the faith of many Americans that public interventionism might be used to address the mounting social and ecological problems of our times.
The Katrina crisis revived liberal anti-racist and underclass arguments in ways that either misunderstood or willfully obscured the actual class interests at play and political alignments on the ground in the city, and consequentially, such arguments had the effect of empowering those voices within the black population most closely aligned with the interests of the downtown recovery-growth coalition while silencing those of the displaced, public housing residents, city workers, and the working class more generally.20 A year before the Katrina disaster, actor Bill Cosby offered one of the most unvarnished expressions of underclass ideology during an address to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education- Topeka, Kansas case, which overturned the “separate but equal” precedent undergirding Jim Crow segregation.21 Though his star has fallen more recently in light of allegations that he drugged and raped dozens of women, at the time of the 2004 speech, Cosby was one of America’s most beloved public figures, having risen to national prominence through an eponymous television sitcom about black middle-class family life in Brooklyn during the eighties. The fictional Huxtable family, with its idyllic urban lifestyle, successful professional parents, and obedient, upwardly mobile progeny were the antithesis of the impoverished, female-headed households described by Moynihan, and in the eyes of Reagan Republicans and some black elites, they were the solution to the deteriorating inner-city social environment of joblessness, failing schools, gang warfare, and drug trafficking. In addition to his wildly popular television series, Cosby also penned two best-selling books, Fatherhood and Love and Marriage that further cemented his reputation as America’s favorite father figure and doyen of an affable neoconservative politics. His 2004 speech rehearsed many of the familiar Cosby Show themes of parental responsibility and self-help, but they were delivered with a biting contempt for the urban poor.
The victories of the civil rights era had delivered unprecedented recognition and affluence to the black professional class but against such progress, Cosby charged, “the lower economic people are not holding up their part of the deal.” He then proceeded to lampoon and derogate the alleged behaviors, manners of dress, child naming practices and language of the urban black poor, and at one point he even suggested that rising incarceration rates and acts of police violence were justified given these behaviors.22 While some expressed discomfort with his choice of words and harsh tone, few openly criticized the content of his remarks, and others like then Illinois Senator Barack Obama openly endorsed Cosby’s message.23 In fact, as president, Obama has developed his own trademark brand of underclass myth-making, routinely evoking the shiftless figure of “Cousin Pookie” as comic relief when addressing black audiences and as a vehicle for insisting on fatherhood and personal responsibility as solutions to all manner of problems facing the black urban poor. As further evidence of the popularity of Cosby’s underclass riff, after this initial speech for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he was invited to deliver the same sermon at the national gatherings of the Urban League, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH coalition, and the Congressional Black Caucus, some of the central organizations of post-segregation black political elite. In the fall of 2004, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick summoned Cosby to lead an invitation-only “town hall” meeting to address the city’s soaring homicide rate.24
And even after the Katrina disaster when some liberal activists and public figures were emphasizing institutional racism as the central cause for the death and suffering that ensued, Cosby doubled down on his crusade against the underclass. It is worth noting here that the liberal anti-racist framing of the disaster and Cosby’s underclass myth-making are equally wrong-headed as interpretation and as politics. Both arguments root contemporary inequality in earlier historical processes (slavery and segregation) while devaluing the explanatory power of capitalist political-economy in the present. These two contemporary interpretative strands, both descendant from Moynihan, favor culturalist solutions of a slightly different order. Purveyors of the underclass myth call for the rehabilitation of poor blacks, but for those who abide the institutional racism argument, it is whites who need to be transformed, exorcised of their “deep seated” racism and made conscious of “white privilege.” The scores of academics and activists who saw the Katrina disaster as primarily the consequence of slavery and Jim Crow segregation misrepresented the empirical reality of the catastrophe, the fact that the contraflow evacuation worked for middle-class blacks as effectively as it did for middle-class whites, and for those who died or found themselves stranded in the city as it flooded, it was class (and secondarily, age) that was the common denominator, not race.25 Those who perceived institutional racism as the motive force for the disaster also neglected the culpability of a few decades of black political governorship of the city and their role, both in creating the conditions of concentrated risks that produced the disaster’s uneven effects and in presiding over a neoliberal recovery and reconstruction agenda that has subordinated the interests of workers, renters, and the homeless. In the face of these class dynamics, liberal anti-racists can only proffer “internalized racism” and “classism” as explanations of the political choices of powerful black elites, but such concepts fail to identify in any satisfying way how contemporary investor class interests are shared across ethnic, racial, and other affinity categories.
Both institutional racism and underclass arguments have performed the work of legitimating the emergence of this multiracial, corporate-centered recovery-growth coalition. In asserting that all blacks are universally injured by systemic racial discrimination, the former has guaranteed that black political elites retain a place as brokers in the local governing regime, while the latter has insured that the black working class remains largely excluded from the same process of designing and implementing the city’s reconstruction. During the spring of 2006, at a moment when many New Orleanians remained displaced and unsure if they would ever return to their beloved city, Cosby addressed a crowd of around 2000 outside the Morial Convention Center, and without pause, shifted the focus from local and federal government failure towards the very victims of the disaster, citing pre-Katrina problems of homicide, drugs, and teen pregnancy. Cosby represents one of the harshest expressions of underclass thinking, but the same core sentiment was advanced by others after the Katrina disaster.
Only six months after the Katrina crisis, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, in a New York Times essay titled “A Poverty of Mind,” dismissed the liberal explanations of racial inequality and crime that had circulated widely since the Katrina crisis, and attempted to breathe new life into the culturalist thesis descended from Moynihan. “What has happened,” Patterson explained “is that the economic boom years of the 90’s of the most successful policy initiatives in memory—welfare reform—have made it impossible to ignore the effects of culture.”26 He pointed to the employment opportunities taken by immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean as evidence that racism is no longer an adequate explanation for the dismal state of black urban communities. Instead, he argued that the plight of joblessness and crime confronting young black men was due to “cool-pose culture,” which he described as “hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture.”27 Of course, none of these traits are unique to black male adolescents and could just as easily describe the daily habits and preoccupations of affluent New England boarding school students, or for that matter, blue-collar youth living in busted Carolina mill towns, but Patterson claims that unlike black youth, whites (and apparently black and brown immigrants) know “when it is time to turn off [the rapper] Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book.”28
Patterson is able to respond with such simplistic anecdotes because at this historical moment, the underclass myth has achieved commonsensical power within American discussions of race and poverty. After decades of demonization and scapegoating of the black urban poor in television, film, political campaigns, evening news reports, video games, everyday conversations, and social media memes, and the actual criminalization and mass imprisonment of African Americans through the War on Drugs, the causal relationships between blackness and criminality, and between poverty and immorality, sadly no longer need to be proven in the court of public opinion. With the ideas of Cosby and Patterson coursing through public debate, it is not surprising that few contested New Orleans city councilman Oliver Thomas when he said that the city did not need any more “soap opera watchers” returning to public housing. Such depictions of idleness and dependency slander the many public housing tenants who work for living, often taking on multiple jobs to make ends meet, but such rhetoric has acquired an outsized and dangerous social power in the wake of a few decades worth of neoliberal rollback, stagnant real wages, the disarray and limitations of contemporary left politics, a weakened labor movement, and the cumulative effects of all these changes on many Americans’ sense of political possibility.
Such underclass images of the black poor resonated widely after Katrina, due to the media optics of the crisis itself and to the enlarged market and audience for Katrina-related cinema, literature, and artistic production. Many of these post-Katrina works, like the films Trouble the Water and The Whole Gritty City, draw on culturalist explanations of inequality, even as they attempt to inspire sympathy for the most vulnerable New Orleanians.29 Such films, of course, lack the social meanness of right-wing underclass discourse, but instead offer a socially liberal rendition where the harsh conditions endured by the poor are aestheticized, and their tough life choices are mined for dramatic narrative tension. New Orleans native Lisa D’Amour’s acclaimed Broadway play Airline Highway is indicative of these problems. Her play enters the world of several working-class characters who live in The Hummingbird, an extended-stay motel on the legendary stretch of Crescent City highway. The characters are a hardscrabble bunch. We meet Krista, a homeless stripper, Tanya, a drug addicted prostitute, Terry, an itinerant repairman, Wayne, the property manager, Sissy Na Na, a transgender person who serves as the community’s moral compass, Miss Ruby, a dying burlesque dancer who has been a matriarch to the motherless, and Francis, a roving poet, along with various other unnamed sex workers, Johns, and short-term renters. Their lively banter and storytelling conveys the difficult circumstances of thousands of workers in the underbelly of the New Orleans tourist economy. In a deviation from the black underclass depictions noted above, D’Amour presents us with an interracial lot, which is truer to the demography of the informal sector in many American cities.
D’Amour obviously hopes to inspire compassion for the Hummingbird’s denizens among a middle-class theater-going audience, but what we are left with at the end of the play is yet another ode to the underclass, which does not encourage us to think of our own complicity in a politico-economic system predicated on dispossession and exploitation. The play’s sociological insights do not venture beyond the familiar terrain of cultural relativism and insistence that we respect other individuals’ lifestyle choices. There are moments when D’Amour pokes fun at the bad behavior of tourists and the vapid culture of the middle class. Bait Boy, a former Hummingbird resident who has returned to show off his good fortune, brings along his teenaged stepdaughter, Zoe, who wishes to study the dregs who populate the Hummingbird for a school project on subcultures. Their presence, Bait Boy’s conflicted feelings about the life he left beyond in New Orleans, and Zoe’s naïve assumptions and offensive research questions for the residents, are effective means of juxtaposing the culture of bourgeois strivers with that of the urban servant class, but at times this sharp contrast devolves into caricature.
D’Amour takes us into the lives of these workers, but she presents us with an insular portrait, one that showcases the behaviors of the poor largely disconnected from the class relations that impoverish them. We encounter the effects of oppression, but the motive forces remain safely off-stage and out of view. All of the action unfolds in the Hummingbird’s courtyard and in the characters’ reminiscences. Although the elaborate set replicates the fine details of the aging motel, creating a sense of immersion in their world, this is deceptive. We never encounter any pimps, bosses, enforcers, restaurant managers, bar owners, social service bureaucrats, probation officers, or vice cops. Wayne, the motel’s gregarious manager, provides us with our closest encounter with this intermediary layer of the class structure, but his character may reveal most effectively the soft core of the play’s politics. The social antagonism underlying his class role, that of protecting the interests of the landlord and extracting rent from the tenants, is largely diminished, superseded by his personable character and humility. He’s deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Hummingbird’s residents, and as we later discover, madly in love with Tanya. He seems to be the only person standing in the way of the owner’s plans to sell the parcel and raze the motel to make way for big-box retail development. At one point Wayne recounts his own fall from grace, revealing how he squandered the inheritance of his industrious immigrant forbears. Despite his middle-class origins, Wayne seems to be the victim of his own poor choices like all the other residents of the Hummingbird.
Airline Highway culminates in a raucous “living funeral” for Miss Ruby. When the bedridden matriarch finally appears, she offers her own eulogy and perhaps an elegy for the Hummingbird as well. She lauds the tenants in her dying moments as “the most beautiful group of fuck-ups I have ever seen . . . .” In the end, this is what D’Amour has to offer us, a lesson in liberal tolerance. We should see the dignity and beauty of the poor despite how far they stray from bourgeois norms. The representations of poverty offered by Cosby and Patterson on the one hand, and by D’Amour on the other, constitute two different modalities of underclass thinking. While the former dismiss outright the economic forces shaping contemporary American life and proffer cultural rehabilitation as the remedy, D’Amour attempts to explore the pan-ethnic experience of New Orleans’ servant class. Her efforts are noble but fall short, neither illuminating the source of their collective predicament nor provoking her audience to think critically about the political and moral issues that the Hummingbird’s inhabitants represent.
Working the Reserve Army
Although media coverage of post-Katrina New Orleans frequently celebrated the boom in cosmopolitan sectors like non-profits, education, film-making and medical research, as Aaron Schneider and Saru Jayaraman note, such accounts typically forget that this economic activity is dependent on the low-wage, hyper-exploited, largely black and brown labor force in the city’s construction and service sectors.30 Post-Katrina reconstruction has entailed large-scale mobilization of undocumented migrant laborers alongside a more secure stratum of un-waged volunteers, and the restoration of the city’s tourism-entertainment complex has relied extensively on largely non-unionized, seasonal, and part time workers as well as on informal and criminalized forms of work. At the level of everyday life, underclass mythology shaped the behaviors and decisions of individual workers and their attitudes towards one another, even as it cordoned off possibilities for meaningful solidarity. On a grander scale, when deployed by public officials and through mass media, underclass myths helped to legitimate these broader, intertwined processes of dispossession and expropriation initiated by ruling elites within the city and beyond, which have been central to the recomposition of the city’s labor force on terms that were most advantageous to capital.
As an antidote to conservative and liberal notions of underclass exceptionalism, a revitalized theory of the industrial reserve army might help to reintegrate the urban black poor into left analysis of American class relations. Contemporary focus on the precariat and precariousness has reoriented public debate towards the destructive implications of neoliberalization and global labor arbitrage. Although much of the debate has centered on the liberal, pro-labor writings of Guy Standing, various left intellectuals and activists have evoked this phrasing, alternately as an analytical placeholder, an analogy, and political slogan, rather than as a fully elaborated theoretical concept.31 Some, including this author, have used the term not as a replacement of older class categories, especially the proletariat, but as a means of historical analysis. The resonance of the “precariat,” even if only as a euphemism, stems from how well it demarcates the contemporary conditions of expendability, disempowerment, and social disruption experienced among wider swaths of the population, including the professional classes amid the decimation of public goods, labor rights, and market regulation of twentieth-century social democracy.32 The precariat is evoked in contrast to the unionized mass worker of the vanished Fordist-Keynesian epoch.
Despite the pangs the term has caused for some leftists, its usage in the streets and in movement organs represents an attempt, however limited, to devise and circulate a class language that names common experiences of workers across different social layers and global latitudes. Some critics charge that contemporary focus on the precariat is politically divisive and that the proletariat, whether in manufacturing or service, formal or informal, employed or unemployed, remains the central protagonist of anti-capitalist struggle.33 Others have pointed out that the term suggests novelty where more durable processes of capital accumulation are at work. As Bryan Palmer notes, when the longue durée of class formation under capitalism is taken seriously, the novelty of the precariat vanishes, and precariousness is revealed as a central characteristic of proletarianization historically.34
Karl Marx’s notion of the reserve army remains a potent, albeit underappreciated strand of his thinking that may help us to see how exclusion and exploitation work together under capitalism, rather than counterposing them as independent phenomena. Contrary to those critics who argue that Marxism neglects subject positions, the reserve army—and the demonstrated practice of historical materialism in Marx’s oeuvre—provide us with keen attention to the situated experiences of workers and how difference is mobilized within circuits of capital accumulation. This is especially relevant, given the current impasse within American intellectual and public life, where identitarian sensibility dominates and too often discounts class analysis and anti-capitalist politics. Marx and Friedrich Engels adopted the language of the “industrial army” from the British labor movement of the 1830s, namely the Chartists and Fourier Associationists, and deployed this terminology to address the social and economic role of what would later be termed the “unemployed” within the process of accumulation.35 The reserve army is comprised of different strata—the floating reserve, those who are temporarily unemployed; a latent portion comprising those not actively looking for a job but who may be pulled into the workforce to meet capital’s shifting valorization requirements; the stagnant segment, those whose employment is “extremely irregular” or who may never find work; and finally at the very bottom of the relative surplus population, the sphere of pauperism, “the hospital of active labour-army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army.”36 These different strata of the reserve are used by capital at various turns as a weapon against those who are actively working. In moments of labor unrest, the reserve provides a source of strikebreakers or hired guns. During periods of relative stability, their presence as competitors and as dependents (socially and domestically) on wage laborers and their public immiseration compel some more secure workers to accept intolerable conditions and low wages, for fear of unemployment.
This notion of the reserve army may be even more germane to our own times than Marx’s own, given the core contradiction he identifies regarding the general reduction in variable capital, i.e. living labor, that accompanies increasing development and efficiency of the forces of production, the problem of technological unemployment that spurred Moynihan’s and his contemporaries’ respective analyses of black urban life.37 Rather than treating unemployment as standing outside of the normal functioning of the industrial economy, a view borne out of the social-democratic normalization of work in the twentieth century, some theorists have insisted recently, returning to Marx’s insights, that unemployment is a fundamental dimension of capital accumulation.38 Although he contends that the reserve army suffers from a certain “conceptual exhaustion,” Michael Denning’s arguments regarding wageless life as a precondition of capital accumulation are in some ways consonant with Marx’s arguments regarding class relations between the unemployed, active workers, and capital. “Unemployment precedes employment and the informal economy precedes the formal, both historically and conceptually,” Denning declares. “We must insist that ‘proletarian’ is not a synonym for ‘wage labourer’ but for dispossession, expropriation and radical dependence on the market.”39 With these insights in mind, let us briefly revisit the evolution of post-Katrina New Orleans, in a manner that does not treat the plight of the black poor as exceptional, but as symptomatic of the more widely felt, interconnected processes of dispossession and pauperization unleashed by the ruling class after the 2005 Katrina crisis and the decade-long recovery that has transpired since.
After the Katrina disaster, those who wanted to rid the city of “concentrated poverty” got their wish, and yet those who needed vast quantities of low-wage labor to rebuild the city and resurrect its tourist economy got what they wanted as well. Though these developments seem paradoxical, they are in fact complementary, and taken together, the neoliberal measures advanced by local and national elites had the effect of inducing insecurity and, in turn, creating labor market conditions favorable to employers. Mass public sector layoffs, the deregulation of labor markets, the demolition of public housing and creation of a property owner-centered plan for reconstruction, and school closures and charterization, all made a populace which was already socially disrupted by the flooding even more desperate, and weakened the possibility of a popular alternative to the recovery designs crafted by the city’s governing elite.
Little more than a month after Katrina made landfall, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin proceeded to lay off some 3000 “nonessential” public workers. Pink slips were issued primarily to employees in the departments of finance, housing, technology, recreation, parks, and economic development, among others. Nagin’s actions were intended as a show of good faith to Congressional Republicans that he would manage the city in a fiscally conservative manner, but the move was counter-intuitive. Why would he rid the city of its black middle class, largely born out of public sector integration, and make both the recovery process and his own reelection more difficult? Another blow to public sector employees came with the de facto dismantling of the public school system and creation of a charter-only recovery school district. Thousands of unionized public school faculty, many of them African American women, were replaced with less experienced, mostly white, short-term teachers through the non-profit organization Teach for America. The social and economic impacts of these public sector layoffs were manifold. In the most immediate sense, this job loss severed the livelihoods of thousands of middle class residents, and created a tougher road to their return and, by extension, to the economic recovery of the depopulated city. Politically, these layoffs undermined a base of progressive political power, the public employees unions, especially the United Teachers Union of New Orleans, which had ramifications for how the city’s reconstruction would take place as well as for the shape and direction of state-level elections and the tone of public debates. It is no wonder that a neoliberal reformer like Bobby Jindal would ride so forcefully into the governor’s mansion in the aftermath of the Katrina crisis, after the most progressive bases of Democratic Party politics in the city and the state were so effectively occluded.
At the national level, George W. Bush’s presidential administration initiated a round of measures that systematically weakened labor protections, insuring strong profit margins for White-House-friendly firms such as Bechtel, Halliburton, the Shaw Group, and others that received lucrative, noncompetitive contracts, and also creating a race to the bottom in terms of wage floors and working conditions in the region. Bush immediately waived those provisions of the New-Deal-era Davis-Bacon Act that required federal contractors to pay a prevailing wage and to provide proof of citizenship for employees, following the precedent of his father, George H. W. Bush, Sr. who took the same deregulatory action after the 1992 Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki.40 The Department of Labor suspended federal wage restrictions for sixty days, as well as Executive Order 11246 that required federal contractors to file affirmative action plans.41 The federal government also temporarily suspended Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards throughout much of the Gulf Coast with the exception of Orleans Parish. With these labor protections suspended, the most vulnerable low-wage laborers were lured to the city, and while the Davis-Bacon provisions, OSHA standards, and other protections noted here were eventually restored, a pro-capital context of deregulation and hyperexploitation was already set in place.42 Such measures enabled the mobilization of a global reserve drawn primarily from Mexico and Central America, but also from as far away as Brazil and India, with the total number of migrants to the region during the immediate years after the disaster estimated to be at least 30,000.43
Without strong enough pro-labor organizations on the ground that might connect the incoming itinerant workers with natives, all manner of race baiting and xenophobia ensued. Nagin stoked nativist fears of job competition when he asked how he might ensure the city is not “overrun with Mexican workers.” Such anti-immigrant fervor drove a wedge between locals and newcomers, isolating an already vulnerable population and diminishing their means for political recourse and support. The documented abuses of migrant laborers during the early years of construction include incidences of gross underpaying and nonpayment, inadequate or nonexistent safety equipment, hazardous working conditions, squalid living accommodations, and the use of coercion and violence. The average workday was 10-12 hours, with some workers reportedly working 15-hour days. Sociologist Nicole Trujillo-Pagan details how popular stereotypes of Latinos as hard workers made them highly sought after by recruiters, and how their invisibility within the immediate disaster-recovery context and constant surveillance and harassment by Border enforcement and local police constrained their capacity to articulate widely felt injustices. Noting the broader problem this created for working New Orleanians, she concludes that Latino workers’ “dual location of being a ‘model minority’ and an ‘illegal alien’ meant that both blacks’ place and Latinos’ right to work within New Orleans were jeopardized.”45 Added to this conflict between newcomers and natives, the presence of legions of volunteer laborers was an under-acknowledged factor contributing to the precarity of migrant workers in the cleanup and reconstruction of the city.
In the first five years after Katrina, over one million volunteers cycled through the New Orleans metropolitan area, and contributed to recovery and reconstruction through debris removal, mucking, gutting, drywalling, painting, and landscaping.46 In her ethnographic examination of the privatized recovery in post-Katrina New Orleans, Vincanne Adams concludes that “the acts of witnessing and the affective surplus” produced during moments of catastrophe “have become themselves part of an economy in which affect circulates as a source of market opportunity for profit . . . . The affect economy we live within today makes use of affective responses to suffering in ways that fuel structural relations of inequality, providing armies of free labor to do the work of recovery while simultaneously producing opportunities for new corporate capitalization on disasters.”47 There are too many problems with voluntaristic approaches to disaster relief and reconstruction to address here, but the particular impacts of unpaid labor on wage laborers are germane.
Although volunteers were typically praised in periodic news coverage commemorating the disaster and marking the city’s progress, the negative consequences of volunteer labor on the prospects of wage-laborers in the construction industry have received scant attention. The presence of a seemingly bottomless reservoir of unwaged labor undoubtedly had the effect of devaluing migrant wage labor in qualitative and relative terms. Why would homeowners want to employ wage laborers if exuberant students and devout church members could complete the same work for free? Donated labor was both low-cost monetarily and free of the relations that might trouble the conscience of homeowners and the ascendant, triumphal narratives of recovery. In turn, volunteer laborers relished the homeowners’ expressions of gratitude and tales of pluck and resiliency. For both homeowner and volunteer, this relationship holds great, mutually affective rewards, more desirous than the often publicized conditions of hyperexploitation and vulnerability associated with Latino male construction labor. The use of volunteer labor also bore negative consequences for working-class renters, since most NGO- and church-oriented recovery targeted single-family homes, reinforcing the bias towards homeowners reflected in the state of Louisiana’s Road Home program and other property-centered initiatives.
Housing conditions for low-wage workers in the region have worsened in the decade since Katrina. In fact, the city was named the “worst city for renters” in a 2010 CNN/ Money magazine report, and on average, the city’s renters spend 41 percent of their monthly income on housing.48 Casting doubt on the poverty dispersal strategy’s effectiveness, another recent report prepared by the New Orleans-based research organization The Data Center found that the razing of public housing and more expansive use of Section 8 vouchers has resulted in new forms of residential apartheid in the city. The study cites the loss of over 50 percent of rental units as part of the problem, but also and perhaps more ominously, pervasive landlord discrimination against voucher users, with some 82 percent of landlords either refusing to accept Section 8 vouchers outright or placing unreasonable requirements on voucher users.49 Like mass layoffs, the increased commodification of housing in a city like New Orleans produced immediate hardship and desperation that forced many workers to accept whatever they could get in terms of jobs and housing.
The hotels, bars, and restaurants that anchor the French Quarter and Central Business District have benefitted from these processes of enclosure and dispossession, but the greatest potential for workplace organizing and building a more just city may reside in the very heart of the tourism-entertainment complex. Even before Hurricane Katrina, one in every seven residents was employed in some aspect of the tourism industry. As the city has been remade since the 2005 disaster, that economy has expanded and now accounts for 13.7% of the local workforce and some 34,200 jobs.50 New Orleans’s tourism industry and its rapidly growing film and television industry—earning the city’s latest moniker, “Hollywood South”—now comprise a tourism-entertainment complex that valorizes the city’s creole heritage, indigenous culinary and cultural practices, and quaint architecture. Visitors spend upwards of $5 billion per year in the city, and generate over $300 million in tax revenues.51 Between 2002 and 2013, this combined cultural sector experienced 13.3% job growth.52
While the resurgence of the tourist economy has meant the return of good times for millions of visitors, and for the restaurateurs, hoteliers, and stakeholders of various multinationals with profitable investments in the city’s tourist zone, the experiences of workers within this economy has long been defined by low wages, few benefits, and insecurity. The restaurant industry makes up more than half of the jobs in the city’s tourism industry, but on average, restaurant workers made only $16,870.79 in 2008.53 Since 2007, the poverty rate in Orleans Parish has increased from 21% to 29% and in the New Orleans metropolitan area from 15% to 19%.54 More disturbing, child poverty in Orleans parish has increased from 32% in 2007 to 41% in 2012, and from 21% to 28% in the metropolitan area during that same period.55 Workers in the tourism sector achieved a significant victory in late September 2014 with the unionization of Harrah’s casino. The total number of union members in New Orleans’s tourism industry doubled overnight after UNITE HERE and Teamsters Local 270 won a card-check election among 900 hotel and restaurant workers.56 This union victory will hopefully serve as the foundation for more thoroughgoing organizing within the tourism sector, but if it is to create a more just New Orleans, that work must entail building cross-sectoral solidarity and a working class politics that engages those at the bottom of this tourist economy in the informal sector, a realm of partially proletarianized and often criminalized labor.
Within the New Orleans tourist economy, some work straddles the formal, regulated service industry and the informal sector, an intermediary zone of labor that is illegal but socially legitimated within the context of the post-industrial economy. Would the contemporary economies of New Orleans, Miami, or Las Vegas sustain themselves for long without a teeming army of sex workers, drug traffickers and dealers, pirates, hawkers, and buskers who all contribute in manifold ways to the mystique and experience of the tourist city? In the nineteenth century, these same workers might have been deemed the lumpenproletariat, but more socially permissive cultural attitudes and shifting labor market conditions render that term obsolete, as these forms of historically criminalized work have now become central to the reproduction of the contemporary urban identity. Pornographic film stars have surpassed some Hollywood actors in notoriety, and the pole dancing techniques of strippers are now taught in the suburban community center. Moreover, the illicit drug culture, even in the United States, is entering a post-Prohibition era with the normalization and decriminalization of marijuana. Workers in this urban economy, as a result, flow back and forth between formal and informal service sectors as dictated by market conditions and idiosyncratic personal needs and decisions. New Orleans’s niche within the broader national and global economy of tourism is largely predicated on its exceptionality as a zone of libidinal freedom and escape from the strictures of middle-class workaday existence, making the role of the informal and illicit economy more prominent in the reproduction of the city’s imagery and the consumer expectations of visitors. Finally, far from being the “bribed tool of reactionary intrigue” that Marx once denounced, some workers in the informal sector constitute progressive social forces in many places, and are organizing themselves as a class, in the form of unions like Syndicat du Travail Sexual (STRASS) in France, and through advocacy organizations such as the Sex Workers Outreach Project in New Orleans.
During every annual commemoration of the Katrina disaster, politicians and civic boosters trumpet the city’s recovery, and point to the expanding tourism-entertainment complex as evidence of renaissance. As I have briefly sketched out here, dispossession and social misery have, however, been central to the city’s physical reconstruction and the reconstitution of the tourist-entertainment complex’s low-wage, contingent workforce. The privatized recovery-growth coalition has benefitted economically and politically from the prevailing view that poverty is a consequence of cultural deficits rather than economic forces. On one hand, through mass layoffs in the public sector, deregulation of construction labor markets, public housing demolition, and rent-intensifying real estate development, the city’s propertied interests have produced displacement and precarity among the city’s working poor. On the other hand, the pervasive deployment of underclass rhetoric by members of the ruling elite, intellectuals, and other actors beyond the city limits has shifted the blame for worsening social conditions from these structural forces back onto the poor themselves. Some politicians as well have relied on blame labeling of undocumented immigrants, ex-offenders, the homeless, public housing tenants, and activists to divide the city’s working population against itself and encourage commitment to the current reconstruction and economic development trajectory. The poor and dispossessed are not a species apart. Rather, such thinking services the interests of liberal technocrats, NGO entrepreneurs, neoliberal politicians and commercial interests all too well. It is time that we finally dismantle Moynihan‘s culturalist framework of inequality at long last. Without critical left analyses that lay bare the contradictions shaping the working lives of millions of Americans, as well as viable political organizations that connect people across different social layers and builds solidarity around common experiences of precarity, the underclass myth will continue to work against any attempt to create concrete forms of social justice in New Orleans and beyond.