Doomsday Prep for the Superrich and the Privatization of Public Crisis Response
Two days ago Terry Gross had journalist Evan Osnos on Fresh Air discussing a new phenomenon of super rich people in the tech industry making plans for the failure of the government, of the food supply, of the electrical grid, of our world as we know it. Osnos has an article in the current issue of The New Yorker on the same topic. He tells the story of a guy who decided to get laser surgery so that he wouldn’t be dependent on contacts or glasses when “we have trouble,” because the supply lines might dry up. That same guy bought some motorcycles, guns and ammo and a bunch of food so that he could get out of town and have some supplies when things go bad.
In case you thought that crisis would drive those people most fortunate to advocate for collective change to the order of things, this story is Exhibit A against that possibility. Those who might have some influence have decided to protect themselves rather than advocate to change the conditions that could lead us to that point. The way they talk about it shows that they know the threat comes from a divided world between poor and rich, they even see the threat as the poor rather than the system that creates divided interests. Instead of working to change that divided world, they double down on self-protection.
I know the term “neoliberalism” has fallen out of favor, but it speaks specifically to the new classical liberalism that views liberty as economic lack of regulation where all blame and thus responsibility for whatever situation is devolved downward into the individual. So while the economic order is producing a myriad of crises, not the order, but the individuals who suffer from it are left responsible for dealing with it by themselves. The loss of full-time positions leaves people without health insurance but still responsible for the debt their illness leaves them with. Similarly, instead of coming together as a community to change the situation where the end of the world is a realistic thing people should be concerned with, those who are able plan to withstand the crisis and everyone else becomes disposable. Given the rise of white supremacists, of the real threats of climate change without organized efforts to limit it, of the ending of corporate regulations, of wealth disparity, the possibility of a crisis is nonnegligible.
Instead of planning for what to do when the crisis comes as the superrich have been doing, buying luxury fallout shelters, an approach that would achieve freedom and justice for all would be to work to prevent the crisis. Planning for the aftermath is being done privately, and even governmental solutions seem like efforts to encourage more privatization. Consider that our current Vice President when he was in the House of Representatives was on the Republican Study Committee for dealing with Hurricane Katrina and rising gas prices. The strategies that came out of the committee were, as Naomi Klein argues, straight out of disaster capitalism plans: privatize, deregulate, imprison. This Administration will not be interested in responding to these crises in a way that serves the common good. And yet, preventing these crises from coming cannot be solved through private means, but require full scale efforts of governments to stop carbon emissions, to address wealth disparity, to cover healthcare for everyone.
An anti-nuclear weapon development slogan of the 80s was, “You cannot simultaneously prepare for war and plan for peace.” I think Albert Einstein originally said that. The same could be said for the coming crises. We’d be better off planning to prevent them happening than planning to respond, not only because the second will inevitably be a much more privatized project than the first, one which will divide us rather than draw us together in common cause.
Photograph from Reuters: August 29, 2005: The Treme area of New Orleans lies under several feet of water after Hurricane Katrina hit
Well said. We need philosopher kings instead of self serving billionaires in charge. I nominate you. My husband Patrick worked on site in Mississippi and Louisiana after Katrina. Privatization doesn’t work.
You write, “In case you thought that crisis would drive those people most fortunate to advocate for collective change to the order of things, this story is Exhibit A against that possibility.” Thanks for pointing this out. I’ve had it with the libertarian/conservative claim that private charity will make up for the withdrawal of public resources for ensuring the well-being of those at the bottom (and increasingly in the middle) of the income spectrum. It seems to go hand-in-hand with the canard that wealth, especially in a democratic capitalist society like that of the U.S., tends to be evidence of individual virtue.