Disaster Politics

review first appeared in
Socialism and Democracy (July 2010) and is republished with permission. An Editorial Comment follows the review below.
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A Paradise Built in
Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster

by Rebecca Solnit
New York: Viking, 2009.
319 pages, hardcover, $27.95
ISBN 978-0-670-0207-9
Reviewed by Kristian Williams
Disasters, more or less by definition, kill people and
destroy property. But that is not
all they do. They also void
contracts, disrupt schedules, and cause organizations to fail. They interrupt daily
life. They undermine our usual assumptions.

happens then? Do people
panic? Do they become irrational
and helpless? Do they revert to a
kind of animal state, amoral, selfish, short-sighted, and fierce?

Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell examines the
evidence of recent history, looking at public behavior in numerous disasters of
the last hundred years — from the San Francisco earthquake (and then fire) of
1906, to the Halifax explosion of 1917, to the Mexico City earthquake of 1985,
and New York on the morning of September 11, 2001, ending with 2005’s Hurricane
Katrina. She finds, with
astonishing consistency, that when the normal institutions fail people don’t panic, break down, hoard goods,
attack passersby, or otherwise fulfill the Mad
prophecies. Instead, they
prove themselves “resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and
brave” (8). When institutions
fail, people build community.

Chalk hand-lettering, reads "LOOK AFTER ONE ANOTHER"
Coffee shop queue — social distancing
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK

Solnit, writing in the tradition of
anarchist geographer Peter Kropotkin, suggests an evolutionary basis for such
sociability. (Because species
capable of cooperation have an evolutionary advantage, “mutual aid
[develops] as a default operating principle” [313].)  But she also considers the question
from a more spiritual perspective. While never quite religious in doctrine, the rhetoric of
“paradise,” “hell,” and being “our brothers’
keepers” pervades the text, beginning of course with the title.

Whether spiritually or
scientifically construed, the fundamental question is one of human nature. 

“The term itself has fallen out of fashion,”
Solnit admits. “[But] if you concede
that there are many human natures, shaped by culture and circumstance, that
each of us contains multitudes, then the majority of human natures on display
in disaster may not suggest who we are ordinarily or always, but they do
suggest who we could be and tend to be in these circumstances” (49).
She continues, later in the book: 
“Two things matter most about these ephemeral
moments. First, they demonstrate
what is possible or, perhaps more accurately, latent: the resilience and
generosity of those around us and their ability to improvise another kind of
society. Second, they demonstrate
how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism, and
purposefulness” (305-6). 
These desires lie deep within us, though, in
“normal” times it is difficult to adequately express or fulfill

If we are in some ways Hobbesian
creatures — isolated, selfish, and cruel — it is because the capitalist
market both demands and rewards just such characteristics. However, when the normal routine is
interrupted and the institutions of society suddenly disappear, even if through
adversity or real tragedy, the result is still a kind of freedom. The crisis offers a reprieve from the
constraints of our social system. And given the choice, people tend to behave in ways almost calculated to
confound the authoritarian predictions — cooperatively, compassionately, and
with striking courage and intelligence.

Well, most people. Solnit notes that the largest exception
consists of those trying desperately to preserve or return to the status quo ante — “those who
believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking
defensive measures against barbarism” (2). These are, in the usual case, exactly those people who
present themselves as our protectors — the agents of the state. In their efforts to regain control, the
authorities tend to treat the public as the enemy.

In most of the cases Solnit
describes, the state prioritized the protection of property over human life,
shooting looters rather than launching rescue operations. In many cases, police and soldiers
actively interfered with any efforts the survivors employed to aid
themselves. And a great deal of
the time, the authorities behaved not only meanly, but foolishly, making the
humanitarian crisis needlessly worse — withholding vital information, trapping
people in dangerous areas, or (in San Francisco) spreading the fire they were
meant to be fighting. All of these
tendencies, and their terrible consequences, were on display following, for
example, Hurricane Katrina.

Also, in New Orleans, cops and
soldiers were supplemented by racist vigilantes who blocked escape routes and
shot Black men more or less at random.
“Here was the marauding, murdering gang the media had been obsessed
with,” Solnit sardonically notes, “except that it was made up of old
white people, and its public actions went unnoticed” (253).

Solnit explains these anti-social
exceptions with reference to the ideology of the people involved.  Beliefs matter,” she says repeatedly. “You had to believe, first, that
all African American men are criminals and intruders and, second, that people
in a disaster have a pressing interest in acquiring private property, to act as
the vigilantes did” (257).

At the level of the individual —
cop, solider, or armed property owner — such simple, delusional prejudice is
certainly a factor. But at the
level of the state, I think the theory of “elite panic” (a phrase Solnit
borrows from sociologist Kathleen Tierney) gives the authorities too much
credit — or perhaps too little.
It assumes that their intentions are good, but their ideas are
faulty. And it implies that the
state’s attitude toward the citizenry fundamentally changes in the midst of
disaster, that the authorities succumb to distrust and antagonism at precisely
the moment that community members learn to cooperate, to trust and rely on each
other. Misguided, unnecessary,
counter-productive violence results.

But maybe, just as disaster
sometimes reveals the best qualities within human beings, those virtues that
too often lay dormant, it also exposes the worst qualities of our social
systems. Maybe the violence
typical of the elite response is not
a by-product of the disaster, but the normal relationships of power, stripped
of the sheen of legitimacy. When
the usual social framework fails, inequality can only be re-imposed by
force. But, then, wouldn’t this
suggest that violence is always
implicit in these relationships, even when it is not made manifest? If so, then disasters offer, not only a
glimpse of a world without our existing institutions, but also an insight into
the present society that they structure.

And here is another reason why
disasters matter: There are more
catastrophes, both economic and ecological, looming on the horizon. A great many people are going to suffer
— some inevitably, some needlessly — while states fight to preserve their
sovereign rule and corporations callously, cynically, pursue higher

But perhaps we, the rest of us, can
seek out something else instead.
Perhaps, just past the horizon, on the far edge of the storm, we will
find the shores of utopia. Or
perhaps, just as we are always in the midst of disaster — this disaster called
capitalism — we are also always in the process of building paradise.  

Nothing is assured, of course. No paradise is inevitable. But Solnit has assembled a volume of
evidence that utopias are possible, and that they sometimes arise under the
most surprising conditions.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell (both from AK Press).

Photo by Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0), Via Flickr.

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Editorial Comment:
As presented in Kristian Williams’s review, A Paradise Built in Hell describes a conflict between, on the one hand, people’s cooperative tendencies and, on the other, the agents of the state trying to restore the status quo ante. But here as in other contexts, a three way fight approach calls simple two-sided conflict models into question. In the current COVID-19 crisis we’ve seen a series of angry public protests against governors and state governments in the name of defending freedom against authoritarian overreach. But these protesters calling to “Reopen America” aren’t promoting cooperation and community-building — they’re demanding an individualistic right to ignore public health guidelines, regardless of the deadly effect on others.

The Reopen America protesters’ conflict with state governments doesn’t fall out neatly as oppressors versus oppressed or defenders of property versus defenders of human life. The protesters have gotten a lot of backing from right-wing capitalists, and their ranks are heavily filled with those who aim to bolster hierarchies of race, gender, nationality, and religion. But the state governments the protesters are targeting also represent powerful, entrenched interests, and they are key enforcers of the inhumane system that robs many people of access to decent health care and forces many people to work under dangerous and potentially deadly conditions. If the hope and human possibility that Solnit’s book finds in disasters is to be realized, it will be outside of and against both parties to this conflict.

— Matthew N. Lyons

1 thought on “Disaster Politics”

  1. I have not yet read this book, but from the review here, I have the impression that the analysis could be extended to the local councils in Syria as well as well known rebellions against Stalinist rule in Eastern Europe in the Cold War period. Again, when state rulers were forced to withdraw the rebelling population displayed a strong effort to organise collective life.


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