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Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Government and society

Opining on the one year anniversary of the still ongoing Hurricane Katrina disaster, the editors at The Nation lay it out very clearly:
"What happened in New Orleans is the culmination of twenty-five years of disparagement of any idea of public responsibility," Adolph Reed Jr. writes in Unnatural Disaster, a collection of Nation reports and essays from the first year of the still-unfolding Gulf Coast disaster. For nearly three decades, American voters have endorsed the neoliberal gospel first preached during the Reagan years--voting for the ideas that the best responses to public problems come from the private domain, that tax collection amounts to thievery and that a fully functioning government is an unnecessary and prohibitively expensive frill meant to impoverish working people. Many of the social protections gradually assembled during the twentieth century have been systematically dismantled, defunded and discredited, with results every bit as predictable, and every bit as tragic, as the collapse of the levees. As both Reed and Gary Younge reveal in this issue, what the Gulf Coast disaster has laid bare is not just the shame of racial and economic inequities in the world's richest nation but a wider breach of the social contract that once bound us to one another, however loosely and imperfectly.

It is all too convenient for progressive-minded Americans and Democratic politicians to Bush-ify this historic national failure--to see Katrina, in Younge's words, mainly as "a signifier for an Administration that was heartless and clueless." But the storm also exposed the continuing failure of progressives and Democrats to fight for an alternative vision in which government responds to the needs and hopes of people, not the demands of monied interests.
In his long and worthwhile article describing how the response to the Katrina disaster exemplifies the theme above, Reed concludes thusly:
As time goes on, fewer and fewer Americans will recall that government can do anything but make war and suppress dissent. Unless current patterns change, the struggle for New Orleans's future may be a more extreme, condensed version of the future of many, many more people as the bipartisan neoliberal consensus reduces government to a tool of corporations and the investor class alone.
It must be noted, however, as Reed and The Nation do not, that the "social protections gradually assembled during the twentieth century" were no gift from those same corporations and the investor class (a.k.a. the "ruling class"), but hard-won gains through decades of bloody struggle by the working class, and that the "concessions" made by the likes of the sainted Franklin Delano Roosevelt were granted not out of some recognition of that "social contract that...bound us to one another," but precisely to stave off the very real possibility of more radical social change. Ever it is thus.

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