When the Market Goes Marching In

Work Reviewed:

Adams, Vincanne:

Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina.

Durham, NC & London: Duke UP, 2013.

Markets of Sorrow, Labor of Faith, Vincanne Adams argues, “is not about Hurricane Katrina” (1). Instead, her study focuses on the aftermath of the storm, on “a second-order disaster that was precipitated by the success of profit-driven solutions to a crisis of need at the turn of the twenty-first century” (1). In eight chapters, Adams allows the individuals whom she interviews to tell a people’s history, highlighting the emotional and physical costs of the capitalist forces that produced this catastrophe, marginalized (and demonized) minorities during the initial rescue efforts, and hence are responsible for “the abysmal relief effort in its immediate aftermath” (20). The practice of government subcontracting, Markets of Sorrow makes clear, led to the systematic failure of now vastly privatized social services to respond to the man-made disaster which hit New Orleans in 2005. Adams’ close study of the aftermath of Katrina grants her insights into the larger forces of market-driven governance and disaster capitalism which are reshaping the United States today. For Adams, the deliberate exploitation of individuals in already precarious situations, which accompanied the recovery process, “offers an extraordinary vantage point from which to watch the long-term reshaping process and to trace the specific institutional contours of our emerging social experiment among people who are in some sense the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ for the rest of us” (19).

But Markets of Sorrow also outlines how, in the wake of this devastation caused by market-forces, an alternative disaster-response system began to evolve. The growing “morbidities, desperation, and a surfeit of affect that could not be contained by the fiscal reasoning used to design the program in relation to profit” (21) were absorbed in the work of community-based, most importantly faith-based, organizations. Yet, and herein lies some of the ultimate persuasiveness of her argument, Adams does not lose sight of the all-pervading market forces in favor of a redemptive ending. Instead, she makes clear that both religious and secular nonprofit organizations themselves “emerged and flourished as part of the neoliberal landscape by design. As a result, they, too, have been brought into the fold of market-driven regimes” (21). Markets of Sorrow closes with a panoramic portrayal of a landscape in which market-forces, in the form of “philanthrocapitalism”, seek to turn into profits the efforts of the nonprofit volunteer sector which had developed in response to the failure of privatized, for-profit disaster recovery.

In her opening chapter, Adams discusses the devastating effects of privatization on public social services that occur when the goals of the market are at odds with the mandates of humanitarian relief.  In a climate where “big government” is seen as the source of countless problems, support for privatization, she argues, has been growing for more than fifty years as many (albeit conservative) movements have claimed that the market and social welfare are not at odds. Markets of Sorrow asserts that the diminution of a strong public sector in favor of privatization shifts the measures of success and prioritizes “corporate financial rewards and fiscal growth” (7) over other measures that are more indicative of the integrity of the social contract. Katrina is presented as a case study to illustrate the ways in which “conditions of market-driven governance are reshaping America” (19) not just in the realm of disaster recovery in New Orleans, but social services as a whole in this country and around the world. In order to illustrate the impact of this particular type of recovery arrangement, Adams uses accounts of Louisiana residents to demonstrate the ways in which subcontracted programs fail to provide adequate relief. Her approach is effective because, with each story, the reader gets a personal, intimate, and detailed account of the various ways in which the programs, intended to provide relief, are failing the survivors of the storm.

Adams contends that the upheaval that ensued after the hurricane was not simply a result of higher powers, but was precipitated by a lack of political or economic will to make the changes to the infrastructure needed to prevent such disasters. Thus, she suggests that “the impact of the storm when it hit New Orleans and the subsequent flooding were both man-made catastrophes” (22). The chaos that ensued immediately after the hurricane, in which individuals were left stranded without water, food, or medicine, illustrates the drastic shift in priorities from providing humanitarian assistance –getting individuals to safety as a primary goal—to protecting the monetary interests of private contractors by not allowing charities to shuttle individuals to safety.

Next, Markets of Sorrow critiques the two primary entities that were in place to help individuals return and rebuild, namely private insurance companies and the federally supported Small Business Loan program. Adams contends that insurance companies refused a large number of pay-outs for dubious reasons, which in turn pushed individuals to go into debt by getting small business loans to rebuild not only their businesses, but also their homes. Through this process, constituents in need were unwillingly converted into consumers. Victims were forced to prove their worthiness to receive aid and “residents were forced not only to take on the burden of debt but also to prove they were qualified to lose even what little they had left” (67). It is notable that Adams chooses to analyze these two forces side-by-side because, in a way, they have a financially symbiotic relationship that ensures the fiscal growth of both entities while simultaneously having adversarial relationships to residents attempting to receive funds to rebuild. Throughout the text, Adams offers scathing critiques of the Road Home Program, which was established by the State of Louisiana to provide aid for victims to rebuild their homes. In addition, for-profit corporations such as ICF, Halliburton, and Blackwater, according to Adams, displayed troubling practices of mismanagement and, worse still, blurred the lines between US imperialism abroad and the treatment of marginalized people at home. These profit-generating programs employed market-based requirements for rebuilding homes which exacerbated “existing inequalities in socioeconomic starting points” (37) by helping to “fuel a racialization of recovery that meant African American communities would be the least likely to return and the last to recover” (37).

In order to fill the very large gaps in services left by these public-corporate alliances, faith-based organizations (predominately churches, but also synagogues and mosques) sprang into action by using their access to large amounts of donations and volunteers, as well as their moral authority, to fill the void. These charities were able to achieve unimpeded success “by going outside channels of both government and the market” because they were not “mandated to follow government policies on how to distribute aid or how to use market indices to account for the output of their services.” (147). Yet, looking back at traditional grass-roots movements, Adams illustrates the hazards of shifting the responsibility of social safety nets to the private sector. Whereas many such “justice–oriented” (157) political activist organizations tied disaster relief to addressing other related social injustices, new types of nonprofit organizations are now turning to the private market to solve problems, rather than putting pressure on governmental institutions. Many of these post-Katrina groups, Adams argues, have “embraced private-sector opportunities for growth, recognition, and fiscal support” (158). The private sector for-profit market, the federal government, and charity organizations are now entering new arrangements to respond to the needs of poor. What results from this unholy union are public-private partnerships which work like corporations, which “[leverage] federal resources to respond to growing levels of poverty and need nationwide by, in some sense, [capitalizing] on the surplus labor that has emerged in and through volunteering” (154). Moreover, the growing interdependency between these various interest groups and the emerging competition between nonprofit organizations force these groups to merge with larger institutions and to take on neoliberal forms of accountability. Here, priorities shift and commitments are moving away from local populations. At its worst, Adams concludes, handing over the needy to the private sector will result in a “scenario that creates further divides between rich and poor, and it creates silos of opportunity in which money continually flows up into fewer (usually corporate) hands while more and more go without” (173).

While Markets of Sorrow does a masterful job of detailing the trials and tribulations faced by recovering homeowners, very little attention is given to the large swaths of renters who were unable to return because they did not own their homes. With renters unable to return because of the spike in the price of rentals, limited housing stock and relatively few places to put their FEMA trailers, many of them were effectively banished from the city. In addition to already constituting a disproportionally small number of the real estate owning class, African American homeowners were the worst off of those attempting to rebuild. African American renters, however, were even less advantaged because the market-based relief structure did not find them to be a profitable constituency. While Adams does touch on this issue, she could have done more to illustrate the effects of the market on the subsequent racial and socio-economic landscape of New Orleans and what that could mean for the future of the city.

Markets of Sorrow presents faith-based organizations as a valuable resource in providing much-needed social services, and highlights the capacity of such organizations to employ faith to help survivors overcome mental and emotional challenges. Adams’ only real critique of this work is that it shifts the burden and expectations from society/government to individuals and turns humanitarian aid into a moral imperative instead of a valid expectation that citizens have of their government.  What the study does not do is critique the almost sinister proselytizing that these organizations engage in.  Adams does mention that some of the groups see volunteering as “the ultimate missionary tool—an opportunity to ‘win souls for Christ” (135), but she does not mention the impact, both mental and financial, of the trade-off that often occurs when one’s access to aid is implicitly attached to one’s perceived acceptance of an ideology—or physical acceptance of a bible.

Much of the existing scholarship surrounding Hurricane Katrina, such as Michael Eric Dyson’s Come Hell or High Water and Brunsma, Overfelt, and Picou’s The Sociology of Katrina, analyzes the effects of the hurricane from a sociological perspective. Above all else, these studies explore the intersection of race and class, which became “publicly visible in the wake of Katrina’s wrath” (Brunsma 17). Other works, like Bullard and Wright’s Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina and Chen, Airriess, Wei, and Leong’s Economic Vulnerability, Discrimination, and Hurricane Katrina highlight the devastating environmental and psychological impact of Katrina. Adams seems to be highly indebted to Naomi Klein, whose pivotal study The Shock Doctrine coins the term “disaster capitalism” and lays the groundwork by outlining the forces that are complicit in creating disaster and profiting from them.

Markets of Sorrow, a broader-reaching text, adds an investigation of the adverse effects of market-forces to this emerging picture. While, as we have outlined, her study does at times privilege certain socio-economic groups over others and while her evaluation of faith-based intervention might leave out some of the more controversial aspects, Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith uses Hurricane Katrina as an example to illustrate the ways in which privatization of disaster relief, and indeed all social services, is “creating a slippery slope for those who would use public resources for private gain at the expense of those who are left to fend for themselves” (9). Adams uses her training as an anthropologist to highlight the ways in which the victims’ relationships to, and interaction with, society have shifted because of economic forces. To this, she adds the focus of a social economist in investigating the ways in which an entire economic system can negatively impact vulnerable communities.

It is from this perspective that Katrina, as Adams asserts, foreshadows an American future. The restructuring of the political landscape evident in the aftermath of the storm, Markets of Sorrow argues, serves as “a catastrophic revelation of vulnerability not just of a few Americans but of an American way of life” (181).


Works Cited

Brunsma, David, David Overfelt, and Steven J. Picou (eds.). The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Bullard, R.D. and  Wright, B. Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, 2009.

Chen, A. C. Keith, V.,  Airriess, C., Wei, L. and Leong, K. J.  “Economic Vulnerability, Discrimination, and Hurricane Katrina: Health Among Black Katrina Survivors in Eastern New Orleans.”  Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association 13.5 (2007): 257-266.

Dyson, M.E. Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2007.


Salimah Hankins

Balthazar Becker