Steven Lukes is professor of sociology at New York University. He has published a number of books, including a new, expanded edition of Power: A Radical View, Individualism, and a critical-historical study of Emile Durkheim.
The following was presented as the Vilhelm Aubert Memorial Lecture at the Institutt for Samfunnsforskning in Oslo, Norway, September 22, 2005.
In his interesting and adventurous book The Hidden Society Vilhelm Aubert wrote that
Societies define, through their powerful agencies, certain structures and activities as central, proper and visible, while others are defined as peripheral, deviant and private.
The law, his main field of interest and writing, is the archetype of the former, but he was clearly fascinated by the latter—by ‘improper or undesirable’ activities of the deviant, by sleep, the ‘night-side’ of society, by ‘love as a sociological problem’, by the role of chance and the seemingly meaningless and absurd, by total institutions hidden from view, for instance on ships, and by the sociology of secrecy, as exemplified in underground organizations. In this lecture I also want to explore what is, but in a different way, hidden: that is, I want to talk about what is hidden from view in normal times but which an abnormal event, such as a sudden disaster, can reveal. In a sense, the revelation tells us nothing new, nothing that we did not already know. No normally intelligent and sensitive tourist visiting New Orleans, for example, can have failed to notice, alongside its exotic and historic allure, that it was an impoverished southern town exhibiting in concentrated form the interlocking and worsening inequalities of race and class that run through contemporary American society. What I want to talk about today is what can no longer be hidden from view after the disaster that has befallen that town and its surroundings.
From time to time disastrous events interrupt the normal course of history and throw into sharp relief questions that are normally the province of specialists and experts, transforming them into public issues, into urgent matters of public concern and discussion. At such times not only public intellectuals, pundits and journalists but innumerable ordinary citizens confront and debate questions that normally preoccupy only those who devote their energies, skills and careers to posing them and developing ways of answering them. Disasters can lift veils. Questions are asked that previously went unformulated and the answers can shed floods of light on what nearly everyone previously failed to attend to and took for granted. During wars everyone acquires views about friends and enemies and about geopolitics, military strategy, the grounds and duties of patriotism, the pros and cons of pacifism and the ethics of killing. ‘Abnormal times’, for instance revolutions, can, as Gramsci observed, bring to consciousness alternative conceptions of the world. Disasters can generate what Durkheim called ‘moments of effervescence’, ‘periods of creation and renewal’, when ‘men are brought into more intimate relations with one another, when meetings and assemblies are more frequent, relationships more solid and the exchange of ideas more active’. Such civic moments can be moments of intense contestation. They can be transformative or confirmatory: they can generate new ways of thinking and acting or else they can reinforce and consolidate prevailing orthodoxies and structures of power.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, it is said, shocked the Western world more than any event since the fall of Rome. In ten minutes the quake destroyed churches, palaces and simple homes, precious treasures and works of art, and it killed at least fifteen thousand people. The earthquake was quickly followed first by terrible fires and then by tidal waves tearing ships from their anchors and drowning hundreds. Priests and theologians vied with one another in announcing what it was that had led God to wreak such havoc. One professor of philosophy in Prussia saw it as God’s warning of the impending end of the world, heralded by massive conflagration. Since Portugal was a Jesuit hotbed, Jansenists claimed that God wanted to crush the Inquisition, while Jesuits argued that it was God’s reaction to the Inquisition’s having grown too lax and they duly followed it with an auto-da-fe. One Jesuit, a miracle-working Italian named Malagrida, proclaimed that
It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God.
Popular reactions ranged from sermons to eyewitness sketches to poetry. Among Enlightenment philosophers it posed the issue of natural versus supernatural explanation. It is said to have brought a six-year-old Goethe to doubt and consciousness. Kant wrote that the earthquake showed that humans cannot understand God’s purposes. Rousseau and Voltaire agreed its causes were natural and argued about its meaning, Rousseau blaming the victims for living in cities, Voltaire blaming the God of Deism for his inhumanity. Susan Neiman in her book Evil in Modern Thought sees these debates as marking an unsettling moment in the Western world’s reflections upon evil.
Like the Lisbon earthquake, the Louisiana hurricane is generating a widespread and wide-ranging debate among intellectuals, politicians and ordinary people, on television, in the press, on the internet and in workplaces, throughout the United States and across the world. The eighteenth-century debate was theological and philosophical: the theologians argued about God’s motives, the Enlightenment philosophers about how to reconcile a Providential and increasingly transparent natural order with a natural disaster. The present debate, by contrast, is sociological and political, in which the central questions are questions such as these. To what extent could this disaster have been averted—by whom, when and how? What could have been done, in the absence of advance planning, once disaster was on the way? Once it struck, how are we to explain the lack of a coordinated and effective response across Federal, state, county and local city authorities? Where does responsibility lie? What were and what should be the priorities in the response—the securing of ‘order’ or responding to urgent needs? Why was the response so much less effective than that to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 or to the Mississippi flood of 1927 (or, come to that, I might add, to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755) or than that of the Netherlands to the breaching of its dikes? To what extent were and are prevailing political ideologies and agendas at work, and specifically neo-liberal prejudices against centralized public administration, in inhibiting an adequate and effective response? Why did the poor and black bear the brunt of the disaster? And, most simply, to what extent has racism been at work? And who should be protecting people from hurricanes?
So far, at any rate, and perhaps surprisingly, the supernatural has been largely absent from the debate in the United States. The Turkish earthquake in 1999, which killed eighty thousand, generated a mass of fundamentalist Islamic claims about God’s punishment for the Turks’ secular government and similar reactions occurred in the wake of the even larger Indian earthquake two years later and after the Tsunami this year. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Christian fundamentalists likewise declared it to be divine punishment. Two days after 9/11, Jerry Falwell, one of the most famous right-wing Christian evangelists, took to the airwaves to proclaim that God had allowed the United States to be attacked because ‘the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians’ had tried to transform America into a secular society. And now, sure enough, after the hurricane, a group calling itself Columbia Christians for Life claims that a satellite image of Hurricane Katrina as it hit the Gulf Coast had a most familiar look. ‘The image of the hurricane...with its eye already ashore at 12:32 p.m. Monday, August 29, looks like a fetus (unborn human baby) facing to the left (west) in the womb, in the early weeks of gestation (approx. 6 weeks)’, the group’s e-mail message says. ‘Even the orange color of the image is reminiscent of a commonly used pro-life picture of early prenatal development.’ ‘Louisiana has 10 child-murder-by-abortion centers’, the groups says, and ‘five are in New Orleans.’ But why would God single out Louisiana? Other states have many more abortion clinics, and Louisiana and the other states hit hardest by Katrina all voted for the pro-life president of the United States. Columbian Christians for Life have the answer. God has already punished California with earthquakes, forest fires and mudslides; New York with 9/11; and Florida with a series of hurricanes.Yet, so far anyway, the supernatural has not otherwise been much invoked. One obvious reason why fundamentalist explanations have been muted is that the disaster struck their own heartland. God’s punishing New York and Washington makes good sense; divine retribution on Louisiana, especially on its poor and black, is that much harder to explain.
What I want to do in this lecture is to ask what sociological and political lessons are being drawn from this disaster in the debate that is currently in full flow and, more particularly, what lessons can be drawn from that debate about how we think about power. And I shall suggest that the debate can itself be seen as a contest for power. The participants are seeking to gain acceptance for alternative framings or interpretations of what occurred, framings that have large-scale political consequences.
The question of how aspects of the events are to be described is already part of the debate. Take ‘looting’. An interviewer on television questioned someone at the height of the crisis, coming from a store in the dark with something in his arms. ‘Why are you looting?’, the interviewer asked. The reply was striking. ‘Can you see anyone to pay?’ The concept of looting presupposes a context of assertable property rights. Moreover, what counted as ‘looting’ was not colour-blind. On Yahoo News two photos were published. In one a man wades through chest-deep waters with a large black bag filled with items from a grocery store. In another, two people wade through equally high waters, carrying bread and soda. What drew attention to these two photos was their captions. In the first, the young man, who is black, is described as having ‘looted’ the items. In the second, the pair, who are white or light-skinned, are described as ‘finding’ the items. The photos sparked a flurry of blog entries, emails and calls contending that the captions were unfair to blacks. Another matter in contention was the description of the displaced victims as ‘refugees’—an appellation they could be seen fiercely rejecting on television, insisting that they are ‘American citizens’. They insist that the correct term for themselves is ‘evacuees’.
A wider and, perhaps, more interesting question is how to characterize the disaster itself. Was it a ‘natural disaster’? Or was it—or to what extent was it—the consequence of human failures, of specifiable actions and inactions, and thus a social, indeed political disaster? The levees of New Orleans, for example, were constructed to withstand a quickly receding Category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane when it hit Louisiana, and such a flood-causing hurricane was bound to happen eventually, with a probability that was widely known to be increasing, because the wetlands and barrier islands are disappearing and very possibly because of global warming. (The probable breaching of the levees was indeed predicted in an official report published in 2001.) The disaster was, in significant part, the result of an explicit risk assessment, compounded by the recent slashing of funding for raising the levees, the meaning of which is plain: that protection from hurricanes was seen as a public good only up to Category 3. Beyond that the message to the citizens of New Orleans was: ‘You are on your own’. And is the disaster properly to be called an ‘emergency’? Emergencies are, for those whose job it is to deal with them, entirely normal. Like ‘normal accidents’, they are exceptional but expected and predictable. This hurricane, though predictable and indeed predicted, was not a normal emergency and, as we know, it far exceeded the capacity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Leave aside the by now well-known deficiencies of that Agency and the facts that, as the Washington Post observed, five of its eight top officials were Bush loyalists and political operatives who ‘came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters’ and that this previously highly effective agency had been swallowed up by the Department of Homeland Security, which was engaged in perpetual reorganization and preoccupied with fighting terrorism rather than coping with natural disasters. The point I am here making is that Katrina was no normal emergency, but rather a catastrophe. An appropriate response to catastrophe is that those in various positions of authority, from top to bottom, need to bypass the normal bureaucratic mechanisms for dealing with emergencies. That in so many cases they failed to do so requires explanation. As Time magazine summed it up, ‘Leaders were afraid to actually lead, reluctant to cost businesses money, break jurisdictional rules or spawn lawsuits.’ Many have asked to what extent racism is part of the explanation—not overt, active racism (though that was in evidence too: a white river-taxi operator who rescued only white people from hard-hit St. Bernard Parish told Newsweek ‘A nigger is a nigger is a nigger’), but the racism of ‘racial stigma’ and routine self-reinforcing stereotypes.
What questions about power are posed by Katrina and its aftermath, including in the latter the continuing debate over its interpretation? Let me begin with the notion of powerlessness. At its most general we can say that power is the capacity to bring about outcomes, and that, when speaking of human agents as powerful or powerless, when we don’t specify powerful or powerless in respect of what, we mean that the powerful are those capable of bringing about significant outcomes and, in particular, outcomes which maintain or further their central interests and that the powerless are those who are incapable of doing this. To be powerless is to be unable to maintain and further your central interests. In normal times, there is leeway for dispute about what people’s central interests are, and so we can disagree about how powerless people really are. Take the extreme case of landless peasants or Indian untouchables. You could say that, despite their low status and social exclusion, they are not, after all, powerless. They are able to bring up their children and feed their families, engage in religious ritual, live virtuous lives, and so on. Slaves too, you may say, can live well by their own lights. If you say this, then it might be because you hold that you find out what people’s interests are by observing what they say and do. Look and see what slaves, peasants and untouchables attach value to in their lives and you will see where there central interests lie and you will probably find that they have the power to maintain and further these.
This might seem a naïve and superficial approach and so you might say that observing what those of lowly status say and do is a poor way of ascertaining their central interests. You should discover what their grievances are, their often suppressed desires and aspirations, which may not be evident in their everyday behaviour and in public. They really have an interest, you might say, in freedom or in a higher caste status. Look deeper into their lives, someone may suggest, and you will see that these are what they really want. But suppose you do look more deeply and you find slaves, peasants and untouchables who to all appearances accept their lot in life, either because they are resigned to it, or because they can conceive of no alternative or even because they embrace it as right and just. At this point Professor James Scott will come along and declare that the appearances are deceptive: that the observer is looking in the wrong place and in the wrong way. In their secret lives, in the inner rooms of their dwellings they nurture resistance and even rebellion, and, if that is not even true, they feel these things and express them in code in their songs, folktales and body language, whose ‘hidden transcripts’ need to be decoded to discover where their interests really lie. They resist and rebel in their hearts and minds, but they keep their powder dry. He cites the earthy Ethiopian proverb that when the great lord passes by, the wise peasant bows low and silently farts.
But what if Professor Scott is wrong? Maybe people sometimes do accept their lowly lot in life and even embrace it. This thought leads some to start speaking of people’s failing to see their ‘true’ or ‘real’ or ‘objective’ interests. If you speak this way, you will say that people can be fooled and misled (and indeed fool and mislead themselves) as to where their real interests lie and you will then certainly be accused of arrogance and paternalism. How can anyone presume to pronounce upon what is the interests of others? Is not each man, as Jeremy Bentham said, the best judge of his own interests? My point here is not to go further into these arguments about how to identify interests and thus powerlessness. It is simply to point out that Hurricane Katrina has reminded us of an indisputable and elemental sense of ‘objective’ interests and thus of a sense in which people can be powerless because they are incapable of maintaining and pursuing them.
In New Orleans, some 100,000 people lacked their own means of transportation. Many possessed a clutch of consumer goods but lacked bank accounts. In the light of what occurred, these elementary facts illustrate the simple truth that one indisputable way in which one can be powerless is to lack the means of escape when the normal functioning of the institutional context of one’s life breaks down. Institutions form the framework of our lives in more than one way. Most obviously, we all depend on them—shops, schools, the police, medical, transportation, communication and banking systems and so on indefinitely—to guarantee the supply of virtually all of our wants and needs. As Hobbes clearly saw, if they were all to break down globally, we would all become equal and equally powerless in a war of all against all. But when, as in Louisiana, they break down totally but locally, a divide appears between those who have access to means of escape and survival and those who, until help arrives, have not. Their dependence on the normal functioning of their institutional environment is total and they are the truly powerless.
But we also depend on institutions in a more interesting way. Institutions not only guarantee the satisfaction of our interests; they constitute them. For, by virtue of the human institution of language, institutions consist of regulative and constitutive rules, and the latter make possible actions and relationships that could not occur without the rules that define them as the actions and relationships that they are. You can only play chess or vote, and you can only castle in chess or vote Republican, by virtue of the rules which define what it is to play chess or vote. So, for instance, money is only money by virtue of the general acceptance of the rules that make it so; similarly the police are only police by virtue of general acceptance of their roles, defining their authority in terms of a range of rights and obligations. My point is that in the immediate aftermath of the flood in New Orleans, we caught a glimpse of a kind of powerlessness on which we do not normally reflect: the sudden unavailability of social objects, actions and relationships. If there is no-one to pay and the waters are rising, you can’t buy and you can’t even loot. The authority of a policeman, even his being a policeman can begin to lose meaning in the chaos of the Superdome. What began to appear for a brief period until social institutions began to re-acquire their grip was what Giorgio Agamben has called ‘bare life’—the powerlessness to live social lives fit for human beings.
There are, of course, other, more straightforward ways of being powerless. You can be faced with a challenge that far exceeds your capacities and resources. Such was the case of the city government of New Orleans and the state government of Louisiana. As Oliver Thomas, the New Orleans City Council president observed, ‘Everybody’s trying to look at it like the city of New Orleans messed up. But you mean to tell me that in the richest nation in the world, people really expected a little town with less that 500,000 people to handle a disaster like that? That’s ludicrous to even think that.’ And Andrew Kopplin, Governor Blanco’s chief of staff took a similar position: ‘This was a bigger national disaster than any state could handle by itself, let alone a small state and a relatively poor one.’ And a further way of being powerless is through organizational weakness and managerial incompetence. This was, all now admit, the case of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which put bureaucratic obstacles in the way of supplying desperate needs, training firefighters for days in community relations and sexual harassment in Atlanta before sending them to the devastated area, stopping trucks carrying thousands of bottles of water because they lacked ‘tasker numbers’, refusing to allow the state of Arkansas to send buses and planes to evacuate people displaced by the flooding, and so on.
Let me now turn to what it is to have power, or be powerful. Human agents, whether individuals or collectivities, have power or are powerful within structural limits, which enable and constrain their power. The natural way to distinguish between power and structure is to say that we attribute power to agents when it is in their power to act or not to act. They have two-way powers: they have power when it is in their power to act otherwise. If they are so structurally constrained or determined that they are unable to act otherwise than they do, then they are powerless to do so, and so they are powerless, not powerful. They simply enact or transmit the dictates of the structures that uniquely constrain them. But determining when this is so and when it is not is not a straightforward matter of fact but of judgment (the judgment of both actors and observers) and so highly contentious. So who, during the Louisiana Hurricane and its aftermath had power? This has been a topic of intense debate.
According to the New York Times, those in authority at the Federal level were preoccupied with the constitutional constraints within which they took themselves to be placed.
As New Orleans descended into near anarchy, the White House considered sending active-duty troops to impose order. The Pentagon was not keen to have combat troops take on a domestic lawkeeping role. ‘The way it’s arranged under our Constitution’, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted in a news briefing, ‘state and local officials are the first responders.’
Pentagon, White House and Justice officials debated for two days whether the president should seize control of the relief mission from Governor Blanco. But they worried about the political fallout of stepping on the state’s authority, according to the officials involved in the discussions. They ultimately rejected the idea and instead decided to try to speed the arrival of National Guard forces, including many trained as military police.
Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland security, explained that decision in an interview… ‘Could we have physically moved combat forces into an American city, without the governor’s consent, for purposes of using those forces—untrained at that point in law enforcement—for law enforcement duties? Yes.’
But, he asked, ‘Would you have wanted that on your conscience?’
For some of those on the ground, those discussions in Washington seemed remote. Before the city calmed down six days after the storm, both Mayor Nagin [of New Orleans] and Colonel Ebbert [the city’s emergency operations director] lashed out. Governor Blanco almost mocked the words of assurance federal officials had offered. ‘It was like “they are coming, they are coming, they are coming, they are coming”’, she said in an interview. ‘It was all in route. Everything was in motion.’
Of course, factual questions are in part at issue here. It is true that the request for Federal help was, as the New York Times put it, ‘ill-defined’. On Monday, before the waters breached the levees, submerging the city, Governor Blanco told the president, ‘I need everything you’ve got. I am going to need all the help you can send me.’ But, as Colonel Ebbert observed, ‘When you go to war, you don’t have time to ask for each round of ammunition that you need.’ On the other hand, it seems that at a meeting with the President on Friday aboard Air Force One, the Governor was reluctant to give up her authority, but ‘Bush didn’t press’. According to Mr. Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, ‘There was a significant amount of discussions between the parties and likely some confusion about what was requested and what was needed.’ It is clear that these discussions and thus Federal action was significantly constrained by the preoccupation with constitutional proprieties (and also by the possible costs of failing to observe them). So where did power lie?
It is clear that the answer to this question is inextricably tied to judgments about what was in the power of key agents in this dramatic story, and that those judgments are in part moral and political. Would you have wanted, Paul McHale asks, to have the deployment of combat troops, without the governor’s consent, on your conscience? It would appear, from what I have just cited, that the governor did consent already on Monday, but, even if she had not, or if, as is most likely, it was unclear to the various parties whether she had or not, the question is a real one in the contemporary Federal U.S. context. So what prevented decisive and timely executive Federal action was a combination of beliefs in the actors’ minds: belief in the legal impropriety by the military of domestic (as opposed to international) intervention in the affairs of States, combined with a general ideological predisposition against centralized public administration (a belief that has also been operative in the Adminsitration’s approach to the rebuilding of Iraq). It would appear that these beliefs were held strongly enough to withstand the sense that what was occuring was not just a normal emergency but that a catastrophe was unfolding involving the submerging of an entire city and the displacement and deaths of probably thousands of its citizens. It is noteworthy that not everyone in authority was so restrained. For instance, Sheriff Warren C. Evans of Wayne County, Michigan ignored his governor’s public plea to wait for formal requests and sent food, water and medical supplies and a team to engage in search and rescue missions to the New Orleans French Quarter, commenting that ‘I could look at CNN and see people dying, and I couldn’t in good conscience wait for a coordinated response.’
Notice that if, in all good conscience, you share the inhibiting beliefs, with whatever degree of conviction, you will to that degree be inclined to say that the president and his officials were structurally constrained and thus lacked the power to have intervened to avert the disaster. Moreover your attitudes to the facts of race and poverty will also have a bearing on that apparently factual judgment. In an article in Newsweek Jonathan Alter writes:
The president has made a point of hiring more high-ranking African-Americans than any of his predecessors. But his identification with blacks is a long way from, say, LBJ’s intoning, as he did in 1965, ‘Their cause must be our cause too…And we shall overcome.’ Bush rarely meets with the poor or their representatives. His mother made headlines when she visited the Houston Astrodome and said: ‘So many of the people in the arenas here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. So this is working very well for them’—as if sharing space with 10,000 strangers was a step up.
Not surprisingly, this leads me to the question of the relation between the notions of power and responsibility. What is the link here? I believe it lies in the answer to the question: What do we need the concept of power for? What role does it play? Why do we want to know where power lies, who has more and who has less? One answer (not the only one) is that in attributing and locating power, we assign responsibility to agents, individual and collective, for significant, often lamentable outcomes, actual or potential. Now, there are different kinds of responsibility—most obviously legal, moral and political. Taking power to be a capacity, which may or may not be exercised, its relation to the assignment of legal responsibility is rather clearcut, though it has some complexity. Laws define my legal powers but obviously I have power that goes beyond these. Of course, as a law-abiding citizen, I am expected responsibly to obey the law. If, in exercising my power, I break a law, I am, other things being equal, responsible. Of course ‘exercising’ suggests intentional action and positive intervention in the course of events. I can also be held legally responsible for failing to act in certain situations, as in cases of negligence (as, for instance, in a car accident). I can even be held responsible for not knowing what I should or even, as when drug companies or automobile manufacturers fail to do adequate tests, for not finding out what I should. Power as capacity is also relevant to legal responsibility in a negative way. First, it can be shown that I could not have committed a crime—that it was not in my power to commit it (because, say, I was a hundred miles away). This is the role of an alibi: my defence is to show that I lacked the power to commit the crime. But, secondly, I can also defend myself against the charge of not preventing some lamentable event by claiming that I lacked the power to do so. As Lord Salisbury remarked, ‘Those who have the absolute power of preventing lamentable events and, knowing what is taking place, refuse to exercise that power, are responsible for what happens.’ In other words, I can deny responsibility by demonstrating lack of power.
Similar points can be made about the assignment of moral responsibility. Both praise and blame attach to agents assumed to be responsible for their actions. I am morally responsible and blameworthy when I act or culpably fail to act in ways that violate a moral principle or the dictates of conscience, and indeed in some cases it can be morally responsible to break the law. If I can show that the bad act was not within my power I am exonerated; and if I can show that it was not within my power to prevent some disaster, then I am not morally responsible.
Political responsibility raises further issues. In drawing his famous distinction between an ethic of responsibility and an ethic of ultimate ends, Max Weber characterized the former as requiring that ‘one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s actions’. Like Machiavelli he confronted the thought that the Prince may need to know how not to be good: he may need, under the pressure of political necessity, to violate moral principles and the dictates of conscience And, it is clear, he may also need to override or bypass formal legal rules. His responsibility—and that of the ‘men of power’, as C. Wright Mills called them—was a matter of accountability for foreseeable consequences. But Mills focused not only on what the men of power do but also on what they fail to do. He argued that we attribute power to those in strategic positions who are able to initiate changes that are in the interests of broad segments of society, but do not. Mills claimed it to be ‘now sociologically realistic, morally fair and politically imperative to make demands upon the men of power and to hold them responsible for specific courses of events.’
In the light of Wright Mills’s thought, we can see that one central question in the public debate over the Lousiana Hurricane is this: as the waters rose, didn’t those in strategic positions have an overwhelming responsibility, that was both moral and political, to bypass formal legal rules? Exactly one week ago President Bush acknowledged his and, by implication, his adminstration’s responsibility for what had occurred in a televised speech to the nation from New Orleans. He said:
Four years after the frightening experience of September 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as President am responsible for the problem, and for the solution.
What is still not clear is what this acknowledgment was an acknowledgement of. He certainly did not give (in Weber’s phrase) ‘an account of the foreseeable results of his actions’, including his and his officials’ inaction, in the critical days of the hurricane and its immediate aftermath, and it is not clear that he will. The responsibility acknowledged ignores the past. It is exclusively forward-looking and promises to be severely limited in scope. It is true that he said that he was prepared to undertake ‘one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen’. It is also true that, in the face of the stark obviousness of the fact that those left homeless and endangered by Katrina were mostly poor and black, he also acknowledged that poverty ‘has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cuts off generations from the opportunity of America’. But the responsibility acknowledged for the reconstruction and for these far wider issues of poverty and inequality looks certain to have obvious sharp limits (though fiscally conservative Republicans are clearly alarmed that, given the scale of the problem and the political pressures on the Administration to respond to it, these may be breached). There will be no tax increases for Gulf relief, and the plan to cut taxes, including abolishing the esate tax, benefiting only the very rich, will, it appears, go ahead (alongside a war and a huge reconstruction effort) and so there will be further cuts in programs such as Medicaid, which supplies health care for the poor. And the manner of reconstruction will exemplify the Administration’s deeply ingrained neo-liberal distrust of Federal agencies and central planning, and its ideological commitments to fostering individual self-reliance and local political responsibilities (in two southern states, Louisiana and Mississippi, notorious for their corruption). Already it is planned to favour tax breaks for businesses and school vouchers. The law enforcing the locally prevailing wage has been suspended, as have environmental regulations, and presidential adviser and guru Karl Rove is in charge. Churches and charities will be the favoured means of channelling aid. One telling fact is that the Army Corps of Engineers’ top man in the reclamation effort was formerly one of the Corps’ top men overseeing contracts in Iraq.
The public debate over the hurricane and its aftermath ranges over these questions of responsibility. In respect of responsibility for the faltering response to the disaster, the strategy of the administration and its supporters has been to seek to shift attention from the past to the future. So they counter criticism by denouncing what they call ‘the blame game’ (while encouraging the blaming of Democrats and state and local officials). The White House is resisting the setting up of a full-scale inquiry like the 9/11 commission (which it also resisted at the time) and it has portrayed the Democrats as politicking in opposing a bipartisan panel proposed by Republican congressional leaders. Time reports Ken Mehlman, the Republican party’s chairman, as saying that viewers at home will think it ‘kind of ghoulish, the extent to which you’ve got political leaders saying not “Let’s help the people in need” but making snide comments about vacations.’ (The reference is to the president cutting short his long vacation at his ranch.) And some Democrats, notably Joseph Lieberman, have joined in the practice of denigrating the very idea of identifying past responsibilities, suggesting that the problems were not failures of power but of structure, not faults of leadership but of ‘the system’, for which everyone and no-one is responsible: that the disaster was, as the cover of Time puts it, a ‘system failure’.
As for future responsibilities and the questions of how far and how deep governmental responsibilities reach and of which governments are responsible, the public debate is only now beginning. Already lines are being drawn, with fiscal conservatives sounding alarm bells. Thus Senator Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, has said: ‘I don’t believe that everything that should happen in Louisiana should be paid for by the rest of the country. I believe there are certain responsibilities that are due the people of Louisiana.’ Others, as I have said, are looking for spending cuts. On the other hand, Senator Harry Reid, leader of the Democrats, has said that he believes that providing rapid and extensive help overrode the need to cut spending elsewhere. ‘I think we have to understand’, he said, ‘that we have a devastation that has to be taken care of.’
What is clear is that this public debate is no Habermasian argument in an ideal speech situation, in which the force of the better argument can be expected to prevail. It is a power struggle of competing rhetorics over how the Louisiana hurricane is to be framed and interpreted. In this lecture I have discussed the ways in which topics that are normally the preserve of political theorists and sociologists have, more or less explicitly, entered public discourse: the nature of powerlessness, the relations between power and interests, between power, or agency, and structure and between power and responsibility. But there is a final topic which these specialists have much debated of late, on which I would like to conclude: namely the relation between states of normality and states of exception. Carl Schmitt is famous for having suggested that attending to the latter can reveal profound and often unwelcome truths about the former.
It has been almost a commonplace of the public debate over the hurricane that the deluging of New Orleans has revealed for all to see the extent and causes of poverty in America—and, moreover, vividly to see the reality of it. Despite increasing economic growth, last year saw an increase in poverty in America. 37 million of its 300 million people live below the poverty line ($14,680 for a family of three): its poverty rate is by far the highest in the industrialized world and it has been largely absent from public view. It is an invisible presence, largely absent from television screens, newspapers and magazines. Jonathan Alter comments in Newsweek: ‘For the moment, at least, Americans are ready to fix their restless gaze on enduring problems of poverty, race and class that have escaped their attention.’ As John Berger wrote in the British paper, The Guardian, 'With her terrible gesture she (Katrina) wiped the opaque screens clean for a little while.’ But what will the consequences of this revelation be? Will the restless gaze restlessly move on? Is there any chance that this moment of collective effervescence could be what Durkheim called a ‘period of creation and renewal’? Are there any signs that political figures or intellectuals, or even sociologists, whose turf this public debate has invaded, can seize on the president’s forced acknowledgment that providing housing, health care and jobs after a disaster are a public responsibility? If that is true in a state of exception, why is it not true in the normal state? Is that normal state itself not what Senator Reid calls ‘a devastation that has to be taken care of’? Will the Louisiana Hurricane end up being seen as an emergency, as a catastrophe or as a metaphor for the distribution of power and powerlessness in the contemporary United States?