Social Engineering in New Orleans

The individual in the picture was due to retire from the American House of Representatives next week to join a managed funds association. His name is Richard Baker, and his district is centred on Baton Rouge in Louisiana.

These past few years, American politics have been far more than usually dishonest. They may have of course been working simply to a peak of a Romney-Clinton contest, which would just simply be a festival of lies on the woodstock scale. However, during this particular cycle, Mr Baker had a moment of honesty for which he will probably be remembered.

In 2005, he noted that God, through Katrina, had done what he and his colleagues had been wanting to do for years, and destroyed the working class areas of New Orleans. Mr Baker, a former developer, then sponsored a bill to bail out mortgage companies by paying off working-class mortgages, taking the land in response, and offering it to development corporations to attract different sorts of people into the big easy. It has been called by some 'the Biggest land grab in history'. By that phrase, I presume they mean not as the consequence of war, given that the Mexican Cession and the destruction of Native America weren't too small in themselves.

There's a rather dense but interesting report on the corporate shenanigans in New Orleans, which saw between 400000 and 1 million people displaced (like Bangladesh they can't tell, or perhaps unlike the competent Bangladeshi authorities they don't care) here, at the corporate watch website.

Conservative critics of the Big Easy have often viewed the city as simply a set of quaint areas set round with criminal sludge. Nicole Gelinas, in the article she wrote for the National Review Online available here gets the tone about right. What is interesting for such a segregated city is that the conservatives in Louisiana don't generally use the language of race to say what they mean. They leave that to the Democrats, who are quite shockingly reminiscent of South Africans in their consciousness of racial boundaries. Instead, they talk a fairly naked language of class.

It's very odd to hear Americans referring to class. As a concept, it is 'unamerican'; the fact that there are social strata with cultures that transcend generations and which define individuals regardless of their own efforts that is not based in biology is really quite alien to American public rhetoric. To European ears, hearing candidate after candidate talk on 'the forgotten middle class' is quite jarring. Can bourgeois identity really be so blatant?

What American candidates are heard to mean, however, is that the comfortable lifestyle and salaried position that many aspire or pretend to is to be accessible and proffered to all. In France in the fifties, when Pierre Poujade invented a sort of proto-Thatcherism centred on the shop owners and the put-upon small business people, he called them the forgotten middle class too, but they were very conscious of who was not in their gang, above and below. Most American politicians seem to mean something different; they want a populist gang everyone can belong to.

Except in New Orleans. Even MSNBC--no revolutionary group, even in their own mind--have now woken up to the systematic destruction of the New Orleans working class. Housing rebuilds after the hurricane struck are now focussed on the arrival of highly skilled or high-tech employees, and the permanent displacement of the racially mixed working class. Rents are higher, jobs are fewer and the only worry many seem to have is that local colour and house cleaners will not be available if this goes on.

The federal government is also, by accident or design, accelerating this process. It is offering hand-outs for rent help to those who still want to make a go of being in a rapidly rebuilding but formerly poor area. The Problem is that the working class, which would have been recognisable to a European (or someone from within Britain who remembers the 1970s) don't want charity. Some are refusing to take the aid and would prefer jobs or affordable housing. Those that do are drawn into dispiriting welfare worlds and poverty traps; those that don't have to humiliate themselves in the service industries that are left. Workers with pride are only for the adverts.

In the face of this process, in which the city narrowly avoided a destruction comparable to an atomic explosion but got the removal of its prouder and more truculent workers, New Orleans has discovered social cleansing. More than 300 times the energy capacity of the world's electricity industries hit New Orleans in 2005.

It took the misplaced honesty of Congressman Baker, soon to spend more time with his rapidly diminished hedge funds, to point out that this was precisely what the richer people of Baton Rouge wanted.

Of course, in cities devastated by disaster, such things often happen. After September 1666, when four fifths of London were destroyed, the same sort of people probably not looking unlike Mr baker, did the same sort of thing. St Paul's, in a way, stands as a monument to their ambitions to remake the eastern part of the City of London; the history of the East End as their rebuke.

For all of that, Congressman Baker is off to the Money Changers and away from the Halls of the People.I am sure that he will deploy the expertise he built up at the people's expense to the latest world crisis in banking markets, which of course God presumably had nothing to do with, money changing and the rich not being God's favourite things.


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