Something in the Water

Casting on the Flint River. Michigan, April 2014.

Even amid the incessant coverage of the Republican and Democratic campaigns for President, the crisis surrounding the water supply in Flint, Michigan has stayed in the news. While the sheer it-should-not-happen-HERE horror is the primary reason, the story’s staying power also attests to the fact that so many people can use it as evidence of what is wrong with the American political landscape.

Because the vast majority of my acquaintances on social media are on the Left, I have seen one commentary after another that blames the crisis on the state’s Republican governor Rick Snyder. He is an easy target. Like his better-known counterpart Scott Walker in the neighboring state of Wisconsin, Snyder has stirred up the wrath of Democratic voters by pushing forward with efforts to eliminate the last vestiges of the twentieth-century Midwestern public sector.

In place of the longstanding compromise between labor and the elected and appointed officials who supervise it — roughly equivalent to Fordism in the private sector — they have vigorously promoted an approach to governance which, like its equivalent in private industry, is committed to downsizing and outsourcing whenever possible. In short, they seem like the latest standard-bearers for a Neo-Liberal agenda that been ascendant since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan promoted it in the late 1970s.

Even now, some four decades later, many leftists still respond to neoliberalism with reflexes that date back to the Progressive Era, over one hundred years ago. Cuts to government programs are automatically classified as bad. And attempts to privatize the services they provide are even worse. It doesn’t matter whether a specific program is poorly run, because any attempt to reduce the size of the public sector is considered ideologically motivated on principle.

While this characterization might seem unfair to the more anarchistically inclined, perusal of the content that leftists pass around on social media suggests that even those of them who are openly critical of the government-can-solve-it-all mindset are still made indignant by attempts to reduce the size and strength of the state. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the fact that politics these days are increasingly dominated by the “blame game,” particularly online. It’s reason for rejoicing when one’s opponents can be tarred by a scandal, even if their culpability is not entirely clear.

That’s why the Left’s response to the crisis in Flint has been so predictable. It also explains why conservatives, recognizing their exposure, are working so hard to redirect attention from the governor’s office to the local level, where a number of the key decision-makers have not been Republicans. If the politicians and bureaucrats in Flint, an impoverished city with a large African-American population, went along with the plan to use the Flint River as a temporary source of water, they argue, then it can’t only be the fault of the Republican Party.

My friends and I would counter that the emergency managers installed to run a number of struggling Michigan cities, including Flint and Detroit, reflect the activist approach that governors like Snyder have taken in their efforts to “take the state out of the state.” And we would be right to do so. But the more I consider the situation in Flint and other depressed communities, the more I wonder whether a partisan critique can ever address the magnitude of the problem.

Yes, the Republicans in the United States and the Tories in Great Britain worked hard to implement a Neo-Liberal agenda. But they had plenty of help from the Democrats and Labour. It could be plausibly argued that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did more to advance the war on traditional “Big Government” than conservatives ever could have. To this day, some of the most influential supporters of privatization, especially those who hail from the high-tech world, identify with the Left on a wide range of issues.

What they all have in common is a presumption that the public sector is more a source of problems than solutions. Even tried-and-true leftists who berate conservatives for waging war on the state are increasingly likely to concede privately that it is unlikely to do more than provide temporary and partial fixes for structural deficiencies that simply can’t be remedied. For all the New Deal rhetoric he employs, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders repeatedly insists that the nation’s President actually can’t do a great deal by her or himself.

When we consider what has happened in Flint, then, we have to decide whether it will ultimately be more productive to reduce it to another example of partisan malfeasance or to instead demand that it be measured against a global trend that exceeds the scope of any one political ideology. After all, much of the planet faces a shortage of clean, safe water already and a lot more of it promises to do so in the years to come. Figuring out how to respond to that crisis, on a scale that is extraordinarily difficult to cope with, will require an approach that focuses on the interrelatedness of places with vastly different political and economic conditions.

The crisis in Flint has alarmed Americans because it appears to be another sign that the nation is reverting to the largely unchecked rapacity of the nineteenth-century Gilded Age, before government intervention was guaranteed. But the fact is that many countries, including the People’s Republic of China and India, have never achieved the environmental security that residents of the United States and Great Britain have long taken for granted. They are literally filled with locations that are more dangerous than Flint. And the situation is often even worse in the less developed nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In a world that has been so thoroughly transformed by Neo-Liberalism, from the triumph of market logic in theoretically socialist and communist nations to the austerity measures imposed by transnational organizations like the IMF, dealing with crises like what happened in Flint or the Zika virus that is currently rampaging through the Americas, will require acting locally and globally at the same time. But it won’t be easy to figure out what sort of “we” could pull this off without being undermined by lingering national conflicts and an international financial situation that is always threatening to dissolve any solidarities that might counterbalance its impact.

This is the first in a series of piece I’ll be publishing here on Neo-Liberalism in the coming months, one that will overlap with work being done by Magadh and other Souciant contributors.

Photograph courtesy of Eric Atkins. Published under a Creative Commons license.