What’s Water?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace, Whats’ Water?

We love the myth of the individual crusader. And we love it even more when the crusaders convinces us, or his/her arguments are presented as if, there is no one else but the individual. National Geographic stories are very explicitly neoliberal in this regard: there is no government, there are no policies, there is no corporation, no labor, no collectivity and hence, there is no accountability for political and corporate power and interests. The selling of the myth that only individuals exist, and the re-painting of the social and economic collapse of a city as something that has nothing to do with policy choices (of government, of corporations and the two in collusion) is ideological. All this is washed away by feel good stories of resilience because demanding accountability from your elected officials, and struggling for social and economic support goes against our current neoliberal fantasy world of individuals as personal value agents alone.


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The shift in the idea of citizens as holders of rights and the concern of the public office has been replaced by citizen as value bearing. Wendy Brown has recently published a fantastic book called Undoing The Demos: Neoliberalism\s Stealth Revolution that does something that should have been done years ago: it studies the eviscerating impact of neoliberalism on ideas of citizenship and responsibilities of government. From the blurb:

Neoliberal rationality — ubiquitous today in statecraft and the workplace, in jurisprudence, education, and culture — remakes everything and everyone in the image of homo oeconomicus. What happens when this rationality transposes the constituent elements of democracy into an economic register? In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown explains how democracy itself is imperilled. The demos disintegrates into bits of human capital; concerns with justice bow to the mandates of growth rates, credit ratings, and investment climates; liberty submits to the imperative of human capital appreciation; equality dissolves into market competition; and popular sovereignty grows incoherent. Liberal democratic practices may not survive these transformations. Radical democratic dreams may not either.


From New Orleans to Baltimore, state and federal political leaders have abandoned cities to corporations, and corporations have abandoned them to the markets. The promise of the new economy was a lie. And where tax payers should have held power to account, and worked with government to reinvest in their communities in times of trouble, they instead were cheated out of their place in our imagination as rights bearing citizens and the very reason for elected government. But in stories like these at National Geographic, it is near impossible to get a sense of the failures, incompetence, corruption and sheer sophistry of government and corporate power that left millions struggling to survive. Now we are to believe that real-estate speculators and other profiteers (including the tech. venture capitalists) will save Detroit. The same hope of the private, the same refusal to demand the public responsibility i.e taxation hikes to the elite who have benefitted from the collapse and become richer yet!

The economist David Harvey has written about Baltimore and that cities constant hope that private initiatives will save it from collective political cowardice. See his work The Enigma of Capital. It hasn’t.


Today Detroit continues its neoliberal fantasy for so long as the people do not collect together, and demand the government do something. The individual as self-reliant, self-perpetuating, value laden object is very inticing and something deliberately constructed over the last 30 odd years. The erasure of governments role in he destruction of a city, and its critical role in its rejuvenation, is never raised. The latter because it would require prosecution of corruption, public accountability of the powerful, transparency of the budget and a logical requirement of a more just and equitable individual and corporate taxation policy.

But that just isn’t a good story.

We pretend that the messes we find ourselves in are only ever our fault. The idea that the poor are poor because they are lazy, or that the rich are rich because they are hard working, are the outer ideological edges of this fantasy. Pull up your pants and get back to work, is a myth that has survived all of Steinbeck’s wrath. The government destroys and takes away from the public, enriches and coddles the wealthy and corporate, decimates that financial base of communities, schools and public services, and then looks on wondering why it all went to hell. But we can never demand a reversal. We cannot hold power to account. And we cannot place communities above corporations.

I will point out also that such ‘feel empowered’ stories erase the reality of structural injustices across the class and race divide. The neoliberal policies of Detroit ‘renewal’ only cater to a certain class and interest and disadvantage the civic majority who already face the burden of decades of neglect if not outright racial prejudice driven under-investment. For a discussion of the history and corporate/private capitalist priorities. see this thesis;


New Orleans went through this. The state and federal governments abandoned the citizenry on the basis of race-class or class-race depending on how you want to see this world.

These individuals need help. It is a myth that they will ‘turn the city around’. A city, particularly a modern metropolis, isn’t just a few tech start-ups, some replanted gardens or a real-estate speculator with wet dreams of big profits. A metropolis is a far more than that and it will take the power of accountable elected officials, a strong commitment to raise public funds and invest in communities, schools, infrastructure, and incentives to bring back business and that too of a long-term nature. This will come from policies and from risks taken at a political level. It will come from imaginative political commitment to the totality of the city with its many classes, and its wide economic realities. All this has to be acknowledged. Our lessons are no longer in the 1990s America, but in the 1990s Latin America. If democracy has any hope, it isn’t by speaking of individuals, but by speaking of collective priorities and needs. And a return to the idea of the priority of the public over the private/individual alone.

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