I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, "disaster capitalism."
Friedman's New Orleans op-ed ended up being his last public policy recommendation; he died less than a year later, on November 16, 2006, at age 94. Privatizing the school system of a mid-size American city may seem like a modest preoccupation for the man hailed as the most influential economist of the past half century, one who counted among his disciples several U.S. presidents, British prime ministers, Russian oligarchs, Polish finance ministers, Third World dictators, Chinese Communist Party secretaries, International Monetary Fund directors and the past three chiefs of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Yet his determination to exploit the crisis in New Orleans to advance a fundamentalist version of capitalism was also an oddly fitting farewell from the boundlessly energetic five-foot-two-inch professor who, in his prime, described himself as "an old-fashioned preacher delivering a Sunday sermon."
For more than three decades, Friedman and his powerful followers had been perfecting this very strategy: waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the "reforms" permanent.
In one of his most influential essays, Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism's core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He observed that "only a crisis -- actual or perceived -- produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the "tyranny of the status quo." He estimated that "a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity." A variation on Machiavelli's advice that "injuries" should be inflicted "all at once," this proved to be one of Friedman's most lasting strategic legacies.
DISASTER APARTHEID: A WORLD OF GREEN ZONES AND RED ZONES
During the second week of September 2005, I was in New Orleans with my husband, Avi, as well as Andrew, with whom I had travelled in Iraq, shooting documentary footage in the still partially flooded city. As the nightly six o'clock curfew descended, we found ourselves driving in circles, unable to find our way. The traffic lights were out, and half the street signs had been blown over or twisted sideways by the storm. Debris and water obstructed passage along many roads, and most of the people trying to navigate the obstacles were, like us, out-of-towners with no idea where they were going.
The accident was a bad one: a T-bone at full speed in the middle of a major intersection. Our car spun out into a traffic light, went through a wrought-iron fence and parked in a porch. The injuries to the people in both cars were thankfully minor, but before I knew it I was being strapped to a stretcher and driven away. Through the haze of concussion, I was aware that wherever the ambulance was going, it wouldn't be good. I had visions of the horrific scene at the makeshift health clinic at the New Orleans airport -- there were so few doctors and nurses that elderly evacuees were being left unattended for hours, slumped in their wheelchairs. I thought about Charity Hospital, New Orleans' primary public emergency room, which we had passed earlier in the day. It flooded during the storm, and its staff had struggled without power to keep patients alive. I pleaded with the paramedics to let me out. I remember telling them that I was fine, really, then I must have passed out.
I came to as we arrived at the most modern and calm hospital I have ever been in. Unlike the clinics crowded with evacuees, at the Ochsner Medical Center -- offering "healthcare with peace of mind" -- doctors, nurses and orderlies far outnumbered the patients. In fact, there seemed to be only a handful of other patients on the immaculate ward. In minutes I was settled into a spacious private room, my cuts and bruises attended to by a small army of medical staff. Three nurses immediately took me in for a neck X-ray; a genteel Southern doctor removed some glass fragments and put in a couple of stitches.
To a veteran of the Canadian public health care system, these were wholly unfamiliar experiences; I usually wait for 40 minutes to see my general practitioner. And this was downtown New Orleans -- ground zero of the largest public health emergency in recent U.S. history. A polite administrator came into my room and explained that "in America we pay for health care. I am so sorry, dear -- it's really terrible. We wish we had your system. Just fill out this form."
Within a couple of hours, I would have been free to go, were it not for the curfew that had locked down the city. "The biggest problem," a private security guard told me in the lobby where we were both biding time, "is all the junkies; they're jonesing and want to get into the pharmacy."
Since the pharmacy was locked tight, a medical intern was kind enough to slip me a few painkillers. I asked him what it had been like at the hospital at the peak of the storm. "I wasn't on duty, thank God," he said. "I live outside the city."
When I asked if he had gone to any of the shelters to help, he seemed taken aback by the question and a little embarrassed. "I hadn't thought of that," he said. I quickly changed the subject to what I hoped was safer ground: the fate of Charity Hospital. It was so underfunded that it was barely functioning before the storm, and people were already speculating that with the water damage it might never reopen. "They'd better reopen it," he said. "We can't treat those people here."
It occurred to me that this affable young doctor, and the spa-like medical care I had just received, were the embodiment of the culture that had made the horrors of Hurricane Katrina possible, the culture that had left New Orleans' poorest residents to drown. As a graduate of a private medical school and then an intern at a private hospital, he had been trained simply not to see New Orleans' uninsured, overwhelmingly African-American residents as potential patients. That was true before the storm, and it continued to be true even when all of New Orleans turned into a giant emergency room: he had sympathy for the evacuees, but that didn't change the fact that he still could not see them as potential patients of his.
When Katrina hit, the sharp divide between the worlds of Ochsner Hospital and Charity Hospital suddenly played out on the world stage. The economically secure drove out of town, checked into hotels and called their insurance companies. The 120,000 people in New Orleans without cars, who depended on the state to organize their evacuation, waited for help that did not arrive, making desperate SOS signs or rafts out of their refrigerator doors. Those images shocked the world because, even if most of us had resigned ourselves to the daily inequalities of who has access to health care and whose schools have decent equipment, there was still a widespread assumption that disasters were supposed to be different. It was taken for granted that the state -- at least in a rich country -- would come to the aid of the people during a cataclysmic event. The images from New Orleans showed that this general belief -- that disasters are a kind of time-out for cutthroat capitalism, when we all pull together and the state switches into higher gear -- had already been abandoned, and with no public debate.
There was a brief window of two or three weeks when it seemed that the drowning of New Orleans would provoke a crisis for the economic logic that had greatly exacerbated the human disaster with its relentless attacks on the public sphere. "The storm exposed the consequences of neoliberalism's lies and mystifications, in a single locale and all at once," wrote the political scientist and New Orleans native Adolph Reed Jr. The facts of this exposure are well known -- from the levees that were never repaired, to the under-funded public transit system that failed, to the fact that the city's idea of disaster preparedness was passing out DVDs telling people that if a hurricane came, they should get out of town.