May 18, 2013
Hurricane Sandy in the Age of Disposability and Neoliberal Terror
Posted on Dec 5, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
The fundamental lesson of Hurricane Sandy is not to be found in the lack of disaster preparedness on the part of many cities, the race and class divisions at work in urban areas, the crisis of global warming or in the ways in which the rich and powerful used the destruction produced by superstorm Sandy to call for neoliberal reforms, though these demand our considered attention. Rather, it is in the coming dystopia, fashioned by natural disasters as much as political catastrophes, which reveals the spiraling violence of what can be called a neoliberal spectacle of humiliation and misery waged against those populations now viewed as expendable and disposable.
Within this regime of neoliberal violence, the politics of disposability is shored up by the assumption that some lives and social relationships are not worthy of a meaningful social existence, empathy and social protections. Lacking social protections, such populations increasingly are addressed within the growing reach of the punishing state, as a source of entertainment, or are relegated to what Etienne Balibar calls the “death zones of humanity,” where they are rendered superfluous and subject to a mode of “production for elimination.” In a culture defined by excessive inequality, suffering and cruelty, the protective covering of the state, along with the public values and the formative culture necessary for a democracy is corrupted. And the disposable are not merely those populations caught in extreme poverty. Increasingly, they are individuals and groups now ravaged by bad mortgages, poor credit and huge debt. They are the growing army of the unemployed forced to abandon their houses, credit cards and ability to consume - a liability that pushes them to the margins of a market society. These are the groups whose homes will not be covered by insurance, who have no place to live, no resources to fall back on, no way to imagine that the problems they will be facing are not just personal, but deeply structural, built into a system that views the social contract and the welfare state as a lethal disease.
A callous indifference to the plight of the poor was made clear in the remarks of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his derogatory reference to the 47 percent of adult Americans who don’t pay income taxes for one reason or another as “people who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” In a post-election comment, Romney reproduced this logic when telling a group of his financial backers that Obama won the election because he gave policy gifts to specific interest groups, “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.” In this instance, Romney simply affirmed Newt Gingrich’s more overtly racist claim that President Obama was a “food stamp president ... who was comfortable sending a lot of people checks for doing nothing.” Right-wing pundits such as Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and Sean Hannity, offered up additional examples of the discourse of disposability and culture of cruelty by claiming that 47 percent “want things” and are welfare moochers and “wards of the state.” In this economic Darwinist measure of value, those marginalized by race and class, who might detract from, rather than enlarge another’s wealth are not only demonized, but are also viewed as problematic in that they become burdens to be disposed of, rather a valuable and treasured human resource in which to invest. But the discourse of disposability is not limited to right-wing politicians, pundits, conservative media apparatuses or a Republican Party that is now in the hands of extremists; it is also built into the vocabulary of liberal governmental policy.
This culture of cruelty and disposability was particularly visible as Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially was willing to divert scarce resources for storm relief such as food, power generators, police and fire personnel and public services to the New York Marathon rather than to the hardest hit victims of the killer hurricane, especially those residents in Staten Island. In the face of a public anger, Bloomberg eventually cancelled the event but not before he had made obvious the message that, as Chris Hedges points out, those who are poor and voiceless are expendable, “a drain on efficiency and progress. They are viewed as refuse. And as refuse ... have no voice and no freedom .... This is a world where only corporate power and profit are sacred. It is a world of barbarism.” The ideology of hardness and cruelty unleashed by neoliberal policy formulations was further highlighted as a number of right-wing policy advocates who argued in various mainstream news sources that the destruction wreaked by Sandy provided an excellent opportunity for privatizing the Natural Flood Insurance Program and eliminating labor protections and other regulations that hampered the superrich from using the disaster to rake in big profits. In one brazen, if not ruthless, suggestion written by right-wing economist Russell S. Sobel in a New York Times online forum, he argued that in the most devastated areas caused by Hurricane Sandy, “FEMA should create ‘free trade zones - in which all normal regulations, licensing and taxes [are] suspended.’ This corporate free-for-all would, apparently, ‘better provide the goods and services victims need.’” This was somewhat at odds with an earlier suggestion by Mitt Romney that FEMA should actually be abolished in order to allow the private sector to take over disaster control.
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